Feeding Our Common Home

    On January 18th, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, along with Miriam’s Kitchen and Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., announced EPA’s new Food Steward’s Pledge, an initiative engaging religious groups of all faiths to help combat our nation’s food waste. This pledge is a part of the agency’s larger Food Recovery plan to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030.
“We can make leaps and bounds in this process if we tackle this problem more systemically and bring a broader number of stakeholders to the table,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy tells [NPR]. By engaging religious communities, she says, “we are tapping into incredibly motivated and dedicated people.”
Food waste connects to the core values of many faith communities, particularly helping the poor and feeding the hungry, McCarthy notes.
As [NPR] reported, more than 1,200 calories per American per day are wasted, according to U.S. government figures. Loss occurs on the farm, at the retail level and in homes. We consumers often toss out foods because they’ve passed their sell-by date — but are still just fine to eat — or because we buy more than we can eat before it goes bad.”
     This issue of food waste is really complex, as it is just as much about psychology and behavior as it is about environmental degradation and uneven access. The majority of food discarded is considered inedible on the grounds that it is past expiration date or isn’t pleasing in aesthetic. Additionally, as consumers, we tend to purchase more than we can actually eat, leading to trashed leftovers, spoiled produce, and other wasted food that could have served another’s plate. All the food products that are trashed, the majority go right into landfills and while they decompose they release methane, accounting for a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions.
     In an attempt to produce sufficient supply for this excessive demand, which again is fueled by our conceptions of what is “good” and what we “need”, farmers are incentives to grow mass quantities of crops, some of which never make it to market. It’s not only that markets want certain quantities, but they also want food products that look beautiful on their shelves (a certain “grade”, in industry speak). There’s also the issue of who is accessing those shelves – is it a certain cohort of a certain socioeconomic status? A certain ethnicity? A certain belief system? The barriers are plenty, just as the food – the issue is how do we take down those barriers to increase efficiency, expand access, and imbue a sense of intentionality and a posture of gratitude in the way we grow, purchase, share, and consume our food.
     This is, I think, why the EPA has explicitly set out in collaboration with the faith community. It is not just the characteristics of being motivated and dedicated – it’s the perspective. At the core of many faith traditions is the belief that God blessed us with the gift of the earth, not for us to control but for us to steward – the notion of creation care. We see beauty and potential in a seed; connection and handwork in the harvest; loving effort in cooking; and thanksgiving and praise in sitting around a table with our neighbors – brothers and sisters from all walks of life. In our modern food system, though, we also see disaccord, devastation, and injustice in the fact that the seats at the table are unevenly accessed, and that the food on those plates is not only indicative of the bounty God has blessed us with, but the enormous waste that has not reached the plates of others as a result of a culture of excess and convenience.
     Just as the issue of food waste is complex, so are the answers. Thus, systems thinking – looking at the ways individual stakeholders come together and interact within a wider network, enables a greater perspective to be taken – one that sees more value in the collective than the individual. By engaging government entities, faith groups, outreach and aid organizations, businesses, farms, consumers, and the many others involved in our food system – which, by the way, is everyone, we enable the solutions that arise from these collaborations to be better informed, and, hopefully, more effective.
     During the ReGenerate Fellowship, a Wake Forest Divinity program on religious leadership and ecological vocation, global climate science reporter Justin Catanoso spoke to us about his work exploring the reception of Laudato Si in Peru, and the negotiations at Paris COP 21. After sharing stories of why this work of environmental activism is so vital especially now, as he saw during trips with tropical biologists to the southern Amazon, he stressed, “this is the faith community’s time.” Pope Francis’ encyclical has brought world wide attention to the interconnections of science, politics, environment, and religion. Thus, the perspectives of the world are opening up to the sobering truth that we really must work together – all of us at the table.
     This explicit partnership between the EPA and faith community gives me much hope that we can work together to truly feed the hungry and lift up the poor.

White House Defends SNAP, But Who Will Define and Defend “Poverty”?

SNAP benefits are redeemable at most farmers markets, providing opportunities for access to fresh and wholesome foods.
     The White House’s Council of Economic Advisors recently released a report detailing an effective program that aims to feed the hungry while remediating the factors that contribute to and reinforce poverty. This program, though still limited, expands on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal government program more commonly known as ‘food stamps’.
A little history on SNAP
     SNAP, originally known as the Food Stamp Program, was introduced by the Food Stamp Act of 1964 and was introduced gradually at the county level. In 1974 it became a national program that has since improved food security and reduced poverty for millions of Americans. In 2008 it was renamed SNAP, and in fiscal year 2015 it has served an estimated average of 45.8 million individuals per month.
  • Benefits are federally funded
  • Eligibility rules and benefits are determined at the federal level even though the program itself is administered at state and local levels
  • SNAP is the largest most universal nutrition program that is broadly available to most low-income households
  • Eligibility being based on income and assets
  • Eligible households generally must have a gross monthly income between 130 percent of the official poverty guideline for their family size and income that fall below the poverty line
  • SNAP’s framework helps to maintain a minimum level of food consumption for low-income households
     From my experience with friends, family, and through my work in food systems, I’ve found SNAP to be a diversely taboo issue. Though used out of need – that need being both practical and economical to varying degrees of urgency, some are embarrassed to admit their use, others are proud of their ability to maximize utility of these resources, and others treat it as nothing more than a normal part of the order of their days. Conversely, those who do not use SNAP have expressed to me concerns about over use, abuse of the system, questions of its efficacy, and also plead that it is not enough – that more needs to be done to feed and support others.
     Our nation’s economic system and sociocultural climate engender this diversity of perspectives and feelings, but federally funded programs are a key means of support given the history upon which our current system has been built upon and the state of need in our country today.
     “Today 46.5 million Americans get SNAP benefits — on average about $125 a month per person to buy food from authorized retailers. The CEA report finds SNAP is best at doing what it’s intended to do: keep people from going hungry. But it also reduces poverty overall. According to the authors, in 2014 the program kept close to 5 million people out of poverty, 2 million of them kids.
     Children whose parents are in the program start to reap benefits before birth, the report notes. Access to SNAP increased birth weight and reduced neonatal mortality; later in life it was linked to a reduced incidence of obesity and diabetes, a higher IQ, better education and higher income. For adults, the program can free up money for preventive medical care. One study found participants have more medical checkups compared with low-income people who didn’t receive benefits.”
     Data and statistics aside, the importance of this program is clear – when we are fed and nourished, we are happier, healthier, and more productive as citizens and, more importantly, as human beings. Though the CEA’s report defends the program, it also highlights the limitations of the current program.
“The benefits don’t last through the month. When they run out, studies show, hospitalizations for hypoglycemia spike while kids’ test scores drop off” 
     If that doesn’t demonstrate a clear correlation to food and health, health and productivity, as well as productivity and opportunity, I don’t know what does. Hunger and poverty go hand-in-hand. This report, which demonstrates this fact, comes at a time when Congress has set out budget proposals that will cut the $73 billion program by 20% next year for an overhaul change of the program. This call to reform comes from the big price tag associated with the program, notwithstanding the fact that food insecurity rates and SNAP participation have not decreased to pre-recession rates.
“The pattern that we have seen over the past couple of years of losing the strong bipartisan support for both the efficacy of this program and the general principle that we shouldn’t be letting American families go hungry is troubling” – Luke Tate, a senior policy adviser on the White House Domestic Policy Council
     In 2014, more than half of all SNAP benefits went to households with incomes at or below half of the poverty line. Though this demonstrates aid being distributed to need, it does not account for households working to improve their economic means – those who are able to earn above the poverty line by working multiple jobs and/or long hours. SNAP participants increasingly consist of working families whose incomes fall short of the cut line making the program’s consistent and dependable access to food is no longer an option.
     This is interesting to me because SNAP is meant to alleviate both hunger and poverty, but when “poverty” is defined at the federal level and though this “level” may have been surpassed, that does not at all mean that hunger has been alleviated. Of course, there are other economic and employment factors at work, as well as cash assistance and other opportunities, but its seems to me that we need an overhaul change of what we conceive of as “poverty” in our country and a reevaluation of what we think of as being “too high” a price for providing food access to the “poor”.

A Run Down: UN Climate Change Conference (COP 21)

Community garden at the Intervale Center in Burlington, VT

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It is also one of the busiest. As the year comes to a close, projects are wrapping up, assignments are due, the cheer is spread, and the Advent season begins. In the midst of the season’s “busy”, there is an incredibly important gathering occurring in Paris. More than 750 global leaders of all disciplines and fields hailing from all over the world are gathering together for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21). There are also hundreds of thousands around the world standing up in solidarity for our shared future – for our shared earth. The conference discussions have spotlighted several premiere issues in the fight against climate change, underscoring global agricultural production as a severe and pervasive issue that we can no longer push aside.

“The [USDA] has released a new report assessing the impacts of climate change on global food security and the U.S. food system. It takes a detailed look at how—between now and the end of this century—the changing climate will affect farming and food distribution around the world. These impacts will touch virtually everything we eat, from grains to fresh produce, fish, meat and dairy products.”
– In Paris, the USDA puts Food and Climate Change Center Stage (Civil Eats)
With agriculture of all levels – from local to global, affecting our waters, air, land, and other natural resource inputs, as well as the very fabric of societies and the way we interact – and by extension the very basic qualities of our life (a meal can be the difference between life and death), it’s crazy that we have come to the point that our means of sustenance is a very real and increasing danger to our means of wholesale existence.
Though much of the language (including my own) about this global issue is along militant and alarmist lines, given tat the more serious affects of climate change will be realized in the long term, climate change still presents a very serious cause for present worry.
The range of effect, from The New York Times:
Short Term
  • Over the coming 25 or 30 years, scientists say that climate is likely to resemble that of today
  • We will experience a gradual warming (already happening)
  • Rainfall will be heavier in many parts of the world, but the periods between rains will likely grow hotter and therefore drier
  • The number of hurricanes and typhoons may actually fall, but the ones that do occur will draw energy from a hotter ocean surface (aka more intense on average than those in the past)
  • Coastal flooding will grow more frequent and damaging
Long Term (if emissions continue unchecked) scientists fear climate effects will be so sever that they might:
  • Destabilize governments
  • Produce waves of refugees (already happening)
  • Precipitate the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals in Earth’s history
  • Melt the polar ice caps, causing seas to rise high enough to flood most of the world’s coastal cities

Though these effects could take hundreds or thousands of years to occur, experts cannot and have not ruled out abrupt changes, such as a collapse of agriculture, that would throw society into a global state of chaos much sooner than the long term predictions.
So, what does that mean for the state of our agricultural production? It means both it and we need to change our practices and behaviors, and we need to do so now.
Michael Pollan recently wrote on this matter in an article aptly titled It’s #TimetoChoose Climate-Friendly Food.
“If we are serious about changing the climate, we need to get serious about changing agriculture.”
Pollen implores, “Either we can continue to feed ourselves using millions of gallons of fossil fuels to make synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to support the unsustainable monocultures that undergird the present food system, or we can turn towards modern organic and regenerative agriculture. The good news is that, thanks to the innovations pioneered by our most creative farmers, we already know how to do the right thing.” He rightly points out that the way we are growing and eating is aggressively degrading our environment, and that we can either continue with the madness or change to regenerative sustainable practices that the new movement of farmers is developing and successfully practicing.
Thankfully, these matters are all on the table at COP21. With Europe leading the fight against climate change, it is diligently working to persuade the biggest emitters to get on board and make the UN Climate Change Conference a global success.
EU emissions reduction targets for COP 21, from European Commission:
  • Limit global warming to a global average increase of 2°C
  • Get a commitment to reduce Greenhouse gases by at least 60% by 2050 compared to 2010
  • Decarbonization of the world economy by the end of the century
In addition to the excitement, hopefulness, and alarming nature of climate change, there are many doubting whether these negotiations will be enough. In my opinion, they are not enough. They are a very large and very critical piece of the solution – because there is no one answer. It will take global leaders, industry executives, national policy heads, and action on state and local levels, down to the individual to make a change for the better. The beautiful thing about all this, is that it’s already happening – the change has begun. Now, we just have to keep going – allowing our shared earth its due justice through our due diligence.
Prayers for the world.

Video: Age of the Farmer

“You don’t have that much control over what you are passionate about.”

– Alyssa Belter of Plenty Wild Farms

“In the summer of 2015, Eva Verbeeck asked me to join her on a trip throughout the Pacific Northwest to produce a short film on young farmers, that would accompany her photo story for a variety of publications. Having spent much time WWOOFing on organic farms, I knew the importance of providing a voice for this underrepresented population. So we loaded our iPods with old bluegrass music and set off in a 1990 Nissan truck, heading from Portland to British Columbia. We offered our labor in exchange for room and board at the farms that we made it to.

This film is an attempt to express some of the thoughts and feelings of the young farmers that we stayed with. Hopefully a little bit of justice was done for all the young farmers out there.” – Spencer MacDonald

One of the most beautiful, sensory depictions of the philosophy, connection, and value of the agrarian life. If you can spare a few minutes, watch this. You’ll be nothing short of inspired.

USDA Affirms Committment to New & Beginning Farmers

Last week, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden announced a USDA commitment to prioritize $5.6 billion over the next two years within already operative USDA programs and services to service new and beginning farmers and ranchers. To compliment these efforts the USDA launched the New Farmer website, a new tailored web tool for connecting farm entrepreneurs with programs and resources to assist with the start-up process. These resources span support and resources connected to not only new farmers, but also women, youth, and veterans in agriculture.

The National Young Farmer Coalition excitedly (and rightfully so) elaborates on the following features of the New Farmer online toolkit (from their website):

  1. “Four Steps to Start Farming
    USDA first conceived of the New Farmers website as a place to pull together information about all the programs and resources they offer for new farmers. Originally, they met this goal by offering a laundry list of everything USDA offers. On the new website, information is organized and much easier to find. They identify four steps to start farming, then they group information and resources in relation to each step.
  2. The Discovery Tool
    There’s a new tool on the website to help users find resources specific to their farm. With the Discovery Tool, you can select the type of farm you want to run, how you intend to market your goods, and other specifics. The tool then matches this description against programs that might be relevant to you. USDA offers a lot of different programs to assist farmers, and we’re excited that this tool will help new farmers wade through them all.
  3. A Focus on Farms in Transition
    Land access is a critical challenge for young farmers. We are excited to see a section of the website that focuses specifically on resources for transitioning farms. Some of these resources, like the Conservation Reserve Program’s Transition Incentives Program (CRP TIP), reward landowners who transition their farms directly to beginning farmers.
  4. Women in Ag
    Comprising nearly a third of all farmers, women are critical to agriculture. Unfortunately, their role and leadership has not always been recognized. USDA is trying to change this with the new Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network. You can find more resources and join the network on the New Farmers website.
    Did you know that USDA has a partnership with NASA? It’s true! USDA is helping NASA grow food in space, and NASA is conducting research relevant to back-on-Earth agricultural production. The new website dedicates a page to this partnership, and—paired with other pages dedicated to innovation in agriculture—it is clear that USDA is making the case that ag is a relevant and fascinating career choice. I’m sold.”

Though ever preoccupied with underlying assumptions and implications, I too am excited for this federal commitment for its obvious provisions, but also, and especially, its associated effects. This commitment and the New Farmer toolkit bring attention to a side of farming that is often pushed aside for romanticized and idealized depictions – think small sustainable farms incubating simple yet fulfilling lifestyles that are beautifully portrayed through Instagram and other social media. And the converse – large commercial farming operations denigrating the environment and causing social schisms by capitalizing on bucolic imagery through skewed marketing. Between the poles of agrarianism and industrialization exists the plain, honest, and practical fact that a farm is a business. And it’s the best kind of business. Not in terms of profit, acclaim, honor, or standing, but in terms of the scope of its reach.

“A farm includes the passion of the farmer’s heart, the interest of the farm’s customers, the biological activity in the soil, the pleasantness of the air about the farm — it’s everything touching, emanating from, and supplying that piece of landscape.”

Joel Salatin

Geo (left) giving the run down on his farm business at Hurricane Flats, South Royalton VT

I visited Hurricane Flats Organic Farm a few weeks ago for my food and ag law class. Owner and farmer Geo Hongiford explained his savvy navigation of EPA conservation easement provisions for soil erosion management; balancing wholesale and direct-to-consumer supply; juggling seasonal workers; providing incentives for a productive season; and a host of other considerations any successful business must take into account. “A farm is a business, just like any other. I have to make sure I’m doing what’s smart not only for the physical farm, but also for the books. We’ve managed to do pretty well with what we have.”

If a person can pursue a passion for Creation through stewardship and hard work to feed themselves and their community, while also breaking even at the end of the quarter – what a blessing! This federal commitment to support and train farm entrepreneurs who want to be successful while also creating businesses that are socially, environmentally, and fiscally lucrative is compelling and gives me much hope for the future of community-scale and local food systems.

USDA Call for Community Food Project Grant Applications

Last week the USDA posted a call for applications to its Community Food Project (CFP) Competitive Grants Program. If you are thinking of starting a community food project, such as a community garden, food pantry, nutrition and food education program, or other community-focused projects addressing needs of access, security, awareness, and support of local agriculture, there is funding available.
The CFP funds three types of grants: (1) Community Food Projects (CFP), (2) Planning Projects (PP) and (3) Training and Technical Assistance (T & TA) Projects. The program’s primary goals are to:

  • Meet the food needs of low-income individuals through food distribution, community outreach to assist in participation in Federally assisted nutrition programs, or improving access to food as part of a comprehensive service
  • Increase the self-reliance of communities in providing for the food needs of the communities
  • Promote comprehensive responses to local food access, farm, and nutrition issues
  • Meet specific state, local or neighborhood food and agricultural needs including needs relating to: Equipment necessary for the efficient operation of a project
  • Planning for long-term solutions
  • Support the creation of innovative marketing activities that mutually benefit agricultural producers and low-income consumers

Applications are due by Monday November 20th, 2015. For assistance in crafting a proposal specific to the CFP, the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project has put together this comprehensive grant writing guide.

Grant funding is one of the most significant ways the USDA supports local food systems, connecting the federal to the local, and these resources should be pursued by all those inspired to serve their local food communities. By utilizing and showing interest in these federally funded resources, it shows the legislature and the agency that these funding allocations are vital to food systems needs and should be kept for future use. Every dollar is a vote, and every vote can be put towards critical fiscal support for important work in our local communities going forward.

National Dietary Guidelines to Exclude Sustainability Goals

From NPR:

“When it comes to eating well, should we consider the health of both our bodies and the planet?

Earlier this year, as we reported, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded that a diet rich in plant-based foods promotes good health — and is also more environmentally sustainable. And, for the first time, the panel recommended that food system sustainability be incorporated into the federal government’s dietary advice.

But, it turns out, the idea of marrying sustainability guidance with nutrition advice proved to be very controversial. And now, President Obama’s two Cabinet secretaries who will oversee the writing of the guidelines say they will not include the goal of sustainability.”

On Tuesday October 6th, Secretary Vilsack posted on the USDA’s blog about the 2015 Dietary Guidelines which has spurred national controversy over its exclusion of environmental sustainability from the guidelines’ goals.

Secretary Vilsack wrote –

“There has been some discussion this year about whether we would include the goal of sustainability as a factor in developing dietary guidelines. (Sustainability in this context means evaluating the environmental impact of a food source. Some of the things we eat, for example, require more resources to raise than others.) Issues of the environment and sustainability are critically important and they are addressed in a number of initiatives within the Administration. USDA, for instance, invests billions of dollars each year across all 50 states in sustainable food production, sustainable and renewable energy, sustainable water systems, preserving and protecting our natural resources and lands, and research into sustainable practices. And we are committed to continuing this investment.

In terms of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), we will remain within the scope of our mandate in the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act (NNMRRA), which is to provide “nutritional and dietary information and guidelines”… “based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.”  The final 2015 Guidelines are still being drafted, but because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.”

He stresses the importance of making educated decisions about our food based on the best “scientific and medical knowledge”, but this lack of accountability for environmentally sustainable food consumption, production, and education about these matters supports the enormous systemic gaps of our food system.

Though the USDA spends hundreds of millions each year on grants, programming, research, and sustainable agricultural endeavors, these do not have as critical a daily and direct impact as the DGAs on each U.S. citizen’s dietary needs and resulting choices. With something that has an incredible scope of influence and power, it is very concerning that environmental sustainability is consciously being left out of consideration.

When I first read of this news, I wondered how those in power could choose to make such a decision and also how that decision came to be. Are their perspectives so far removed from the land and its intrinsic value? Or, do they think that these matters are being taken care of adequately through other provisions?

The most plausible reasoning, I think, is the weight of those hundreds of millions of government dollars  spent on environmental efforts and sustainable agriculture – but, there is still much more to the picture that brings into question the role of industry and political power. I have always been one to assume the best, but when this news follows Congress announcing the defunding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), one of the U.S.’ premier conservation programs for the past 50 years, I wonder – who will take the initiative to protect our shared world? Our environment?

In reflecting on these perturbing matters, I find hope in words from a prayer shared last Sunday on the Feast of St. Francis:

Most high, omnipotent, good Lord: Grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfect joy

For more on the DGAs, check out the USDA Advisory Committee Report 2015.