It's Time for Food Reformers to Step Down From Their Pedestals

Being right all the time feels good. But by itself, it isn't an effective way to fix our broken food system, which is in need of immediate reform.


Is it always right to be right?

I found myself wondering about that yesterday as I listened in at the James Beard Foundation conference: How Money and Media Influence The Way America Eats. Over the last decade, food reformers have carved out a place for themselves on the high moral ground. They champion healthy eating, land conservation, and better conditions for workers. And they've been cast as the high -- and unforgiving -- priests of the dinner table. (Trust me. I know. My own mother often pauses before she tells me what she's cooking for fear she'll be judged.)

Being right feels good. (Well, most of the time. Sorry, Mom.) But by itself, it isn't an effective way to reform the food system. To make real change, reformers need to stop preaching and start forming smart political alliances to get the job done.

The point was driven home in a session called "Money, Scale and the Food System," in which an economist, a food-finance expert, and a lobbyist all agreed on one thing: Reform will require new regulations.

It might be the oft-discussed soda tax. Or it might be strict rules for financial markets, which speculate on and often drive up the prices of commodities such as corn and soy. Or it might be something as simple as campaign-finance reform: According to Ken Cook, the lobbyist on the panel and president of the Environmental Working Group, Big Food spent $58 million lobbying Congress last year. Agribusiness spends $100 million a year. And the financial lobbyists, many of whom bet on commodities? They spent $1.3 billion to fight a single piece of legislation, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street and Consumer Protection Act, which aimed to overhaul the U.S. financial industry after the 2008 economic meltdown.

How much did the food-reform movement spend collectively lobbying Congress? I don't know, but the campaign-finance watchdog, Center for Responsive Politics, doesn't even bother to count.

"The food movement is where the environmental movement was 40 years ago," Cook says. "We need to be challenged. We need to be asked if we're playing the right game."

So far, the answer has been, sadly, no. Case in point: In 2010, a group of retired military officers concluded that too many young Americans -- 27 percent between the ages of 18 and 24 -- were simply too fat to fight. They called on Congress to pass the then-pending child nutrition bill to improve the quality of school meals.

The news was tweeted and blogged about. But that was about it. Food reformers, who tend to be doves, didn't call greasy tater tots and pizza a "threat to national security" or make it the centerpiece of their campaign. This, despite the fact that even political novices know that the military usually gets what it wants. Half a century ago, it was the military's need for healthy soldiers that prompted Congress to create the school lunch program in the first place.

The result of this strategy? Food reformers did get the bill passed but with only modest increases to funding. Congress found the extra money to pay for it by raiding the food stamp program, which now serves 45 million people, including many poor children. (And now Congress is threatening to make more raids on food assistance.)

There is some evidence that food reformers are slowly wising up about the world of politics. The Environmental Working Group is hoping next year to launch a food-score system that would give voters a clear picture of how their members of Congress voted on issues such as food stamps, school lunch reform, and agricultural subsidies. Ariane Lotti, the policy director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation, told me that while she used to talk to members of Congress about the "multiple environmental, economic, and social benefits that organic systems provide to society," her message today is: Organic creates jobs.

These are steps forward. But to effect real and enduring change, food reformers need to form alliances with more experienced and more powerful political lobbies. That means talking less about food and more about the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and shifty food commodities traders. (Mmmmm... derivatives.) Unless, of course, they'd rather be right than win.

Image: Paul Child/James Beard Foundation.