Remember the economic case for healthy food

The Washington Post ran a feature in Wednesday’s edition about Iowan Dave Murphy, who founded Food Democracy Now in November. The whole piece is worth reading, but I particularly liked this passage about what Murphy is bringing to the sustainable food movement:

Perception gets you in the door in Washington. But it’s policy that keeps you in the room. The laws that govern food policy, such as the nearly $300 billion Farm Bill and the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act that funds the school lunch program, are notoriously complex and political. “As a movement, we have not had nearly enough sophistication on policy,” [author Michael] Pollan said. “We’ve been outgunned by people who understand the Farm Bill.”

Equally important, Murphy says, is to recast the debate about good food from a moral battle to an economic one. Take the school lunch program, which Congress will review this year. Food activists have long argued that more fruits and vegetables from local producers should be included to help improve childhood nutrition. But Murphy says the better way to sell the idea to legislators is as a new economic engine to sustain small farmers and rural America as a whole. Talk about nutrition and you get a legislator’s attention, he said. “But you get his vote when you talk about economic development.”

Murphy is realistic that change won’t come quickly. He knows he is battling huge, entrenched corporations with better connections and more resources at their disposal. To succeed, he must unite grassroots organizations and persuade an array of other interests — health insurers, senior citizens and teacher lobbies, all of which have a stake in healthful eating — to join the fight. “If you want to change the ballgame, you have to address the policies that are responsible for the system we have in place,” Murphy said. “If you change policy, the market will change.”

Economic development isn’t what sparked my interest in eating locally-produced food raised without hormones, antibiotics or toxic chemicals, but it’s definitely the key to bringing policy-makers on board.

I learned that lesson from Woodbury County rural economic development director Rob Marqusee, who talked his county supervisors into approving amazingly good policies to promote local foods and organic farming. Marqusee runs the Woodbury Organics website, a superb resource on what I call the cold-blooded capitalist case for local foods.

On a related note, look what sustainable food producers have done for the economy of Hardwick, Vermont, an industrial town that fell on hard times during the 20th century. (Hat tip to La Vida Locavore diarist JayinPortland.)

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