Ruth Riechl and the Corruption of the Farm Bill

One of the reasons I love New York City (and there are many) is there’s always something to do. This little peninsula is rife with endless possibilities and she lets me engage or disengage at will. For a city of nearly nine million, New York’s uniqueness is her neighborhoods. They allow me to escape to magical places. I can walk away from the madness of rush hour traffic on Fifth Avenue straight into Central Park and the world just quietly slips away. If I’m jonesing for an energy booster,  I can dive right into Times Square. No Starbucks, you’re not needed, but thank you just the same.

Another NYC specialty is the Sunday New York Times and as usual, I head straight for the “Opinion” pages first. Tom Friedman’s opinion piece from yesterday, “Down With Everything,”  details the balance between two important economic engines: the private sector and the public sector. Friedman posits partisanship is “paralyz(ing) our whole system” of government. He ends his column on a familiar note: “Our deformed political system–with a Congress that’s become a forum for legalized bribery–is now truly holding us back.” I’ve been harking on and on about this on MSNBC for over a year now and I’m still baffled why the American people simply aren’t engaged in and outraged by the legalized system of political corruption that runs our government.

My weird, southern brain “got to thinking,” as my grandmother used to say, about our “bought” government and oddly I made a connection between this corruption and something I heard Ruth Reichl mention recently. Reichl, who was the Editor of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, was introduced to me as summer beach reading on the Outer Banks of North Carolina almost a decade ago by my friend Mary Beth Albright . Reading Tender at the Bone that August made me fall in love with Reichl’s delivery of the written word not to mention her love of food. Very few writers have the ability to make me hang on every word, turning page after page, yet feeling so bittersweet when I get to the end. Simply put, I selfishly don’t want Reichl’s books to end!

A close friend gave me tickets to see Ms. Reichl and Mark Bittman of the Times give a “foodie” presentation at the 92nd Street Y, another one of those NYC venues where every night of the week presents an opportunity to learn something I didn’t know before. Both Reichl and Bittman entertained a packed auditorium with various nuggets of food wisdom but it was toward the end of that magical evening that Reichl made an interesting comment about the current “Farm Bill” winding its way through Congress that shook me much like her novels. She alluded to the plain but ignored reality that America’s large agribusiness conglomerates buy and sell their way into subsidy after subsidy, usually to the detriment of the American consumer. It goes without saying I’ve followed the Farm Bill for nearly 20 years but Ms. Reichl? 

After the Reichl/Bittman dialogue, I hopped on the Six train and headed back downtown. This may sound heretical, but there’s a peacefulness to the New York City subway, a place to gather your thoughts and do some very good people watching. So while I stood on the train trying to pull this all together I couldn’t quite wrap myself around how to write about what Ms. Reichl said. Reading Mr. Friedman’s piece in yesterday’s Times, that lightbulb in my head went off.

Most Americans don’t have a clue what’s in the Farm Bill. Did you know the “Food Stamps” program is authorized and funded in the Farm Bill to the tune of nearly $60 billion a year? This program, especially in harsh economic times, feeds nearly 46 million Americans. While this may enrage some taxpayers, I have to wonder then why we sit silently by as we directly subsidize the domestic sugar industry to the tune of $2.4 billion a year without nary a harsh word but decry Food Stamps as a “handout?” Crop insurance costs us $8 billion a year and benefits only a handfull of wealthy farming conglomerates. What a dichotomy: decry food subsidies for the less fortunate but praise a “safety net” for farmers who don’t even plant their fields? I mean, welfare is welfare right? Perhaps if those farmers actually planted their fields with something worth eating, fewer Americans would have to rely on imported food paid for by Food Stamps? I know it’s a stretch but I’m just trying to get my hands around why we subsidize large farming conglomerates for NOT planting while we have a record number of Americans starving and living below the poverty level. I haven’t even touched on the issue of “Pink Slime” and while I could keep going, I think you get the point. The half a trillion dollar (over five years) proposed Farm Bill funds other important and worthy programs including international food aid, farm conservation programs, and healthy forestry programs that will cut down on devastating forest fires.

But here’s the rub: every single one of those programs has a team of lobbyists who walk the halls of Congress to protect their prized piece of government largesse. They’re not the problem frankly. It’s the money, the legalized bribery of politicians to be in favor of this largesse, that’s corrupting our system of government. Both Friedman and Reichl are dead right. Political money is paralyzing everything from the Farm Bill to the Wall Street bailouts. What should be an easy, regional, bipartisan exercise in legislating, this year’s Farm Bill may fall victim to partisan sniping and stands a good chance of not passing before the November elections. Wall Street’s bailout legislation was needed and timely but find me an American that likes that piece of legislation that brought us back from the brink of economic destruction.

I spent many a wondrous night as a child at my grandmother’s farm in rural South Carolina. It’s there I learned when to plant flat pole beans, when to pick them, and how to cook them. In that quiet little hamlet, I listened to that evening symphony of dueling frogs and cicadas, lit brightly by fireflies and a galaxy of stars that would make those lights of Times Square bow down from embarrassment. I think back on waking up at 5:30am on a sweltering summer day in any given August, walking with my grandmother into her garden and thinking “this is what we will eat for supper tonight.” Today, a majority of what people eat is grown on farms bigger than some cities and we don’t have a clue how it got to our tables. Today, every meal a child eats in his or her school comes straight from a large can and has the nutritional value of paper. It’s no wonder they call tendons and ligaments Pink Slime but we let our kids eat it everyday? Really?
I don’t think it’s odd that I can walk into my small garden down in the mountains of Virginia and have as much peace of mind as sitting in the middle of Central Park. Both places give me great peace and solace. What’s sad for me (and for you) is that most folks just aren’t engaged, they just don’t care. Americans aren’t outraged. We need more voices like Ms. Reichl’s and Mrs. Albright’s. We need mothers and fathers to become outraged by what our children are eating. Hell, what we’re eating! And most importantly, we have to speak up because if we don’t, we only have ourselves to blame for the fact that some large company bought Pink Slime’s way into our homes.
Posted on by jimmy in Congress, Food Politics 7 Comments