Green Space: What is the FRESH act and why does it matter?

Even if they live in a totally urban environment, the average person is beginning to pay a whole lot of attention to where his or her food is coming from. Many are even taking a closer look at the annual farm bill. And asking lots of questions.

The basic scoop is that each year, Congress and the Senate have a showdown about the farm bill. Agricultural interests are usually the only people watchdogging the issue. But things have changed. Suddenly, the bill is attracting attention from all over the nation and, with attention comes criticism.

Michael Pollan, who wrote the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, described the problem like this in the great op-ed he wrote in this past Sunday's New York Times:

Americans have begun to ask why the farm bill is subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils at a time when rates of diabetes and obesity among children are soaring, or why the farm bill is underwriting factory farming (with subsidized grain) when feedlot wastes are polluting the countryside and, all too often, the meat supply. For the first time, the public health community has raised its voice in support of overturning farm policies that subsidize precisely the wrong kind of calories (added fat and added sugar), helping to make Twinkies cheaper than carrots and Coca-Cola competitive with water. Also for the first time, the international development community has weighed in on the debate, arguing that subsidized American exports are hobbling cotton farmers in Nigeria and corn farmers in Mexico.

Even with truth on their side, reformers don't expect change any time this year. An amendment called the FRESH act, sponsored by Senators Lugar (R-IN) and Lautenberg (D-NJ) proposes an increase in the amount of money designated for conservation, which is generally seen as good for smaller Midwestern farmers. It also offers increased support to actual food-growers and funding for growers transitioning to organic; creates incentives for fruits and vegetables used in school lunches and funds EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) machines at farmers' market across the nation.

A huge sticking point is that the current farm bill subsidizes crops even when they are netting record-high returns -- like corn these days. This is why the entire structure needs to be torn down and pulled apart, something that seems increasingly difficult to accomplish in such a fractured political system.

But why should you care? Michigan is second in the nation in terms of crop diversity. Agriculture is a $37 billion-per-year industry and is the state's second largest revenue- generating endeavor. As the post-manufacturing days of this state unfold, it seems clear that a healthy and progressive agricultural industry is essential.

To learn more about the FRESH act, which is being debated this week, check out Environmental Defense or Farm Sanctuary. Both organizations provides link to contact Senators Levin and Stabenow on the issue if you are so inclined.

Read more about locally grown food in the metromode feature "Home Grown" and about urban gardening, which really brings food close to its final destination, in "From Plot to Plate."

Writer: Kelli B. Kavanaugh
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