Monday morning at 7 I’m out doing my farm chores – milking the goat, feeding the chickens, ducks and turkeys, in barn boots and pajama pants. On Tuesday I’m in a basement room, cleaned up and in business attire at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., with about 40 other people interested in promoting access to healthy foods for low-income people. We’re talking about financing strategies, the best ways to understand where the need is greatest, the need for supermarkets in some areas and farmers’ markets in others.
Traveling to D.C. makes me feel disconnected. I spent the weekend preserving the last of my fall vegetables – making sauerkraut and kim chee and stowing beets in the cellar – and making goat cheese and sourdough bread. Now I’m in a windowless room shuffling papers and a PowerPoint presentation, having arrived, as Wendell Berry puts it, “By a sustained explosion through the air/Burning the world in fact to rise much higher/Than we should go.” [*]
But the discussion is rich, and really, the connection is clear. CEI is part of a growing movement that views the links between the food we eat, where it is produced and by whom, and human and economic health, as inextricable. We’re lucky that, in this time of shrinking resources, the federal government has set aside some resources to strengthen these connections. I’m lucky to live in Maine, where many people are connected to their food. My friends and neighbors grow vegetables, meat, milk and eggs, or purchase them from farm stands and local Community Supported Agriculture programs. We can and preserve and pickle.
Not everyone is so fortunate, though – certainly in more urban states and in big cities, but even in Maine. According to the US Department of Agriculture, Maine ranks 9th in the nation in “food insecurity” – a measure of how certain residents are of their ability to afford their next meal. We have the highest per-capita use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better-known as food stamps) in the country. Not everyone has the land, skills or time to plant their own food, and folks with little disposable income may not be able to afford a CSA share or fresh local vegetables from a farmer’s market. The sad truth is that, calorie for calorie, sugar-laden processed food and fast-food French fries are much cheaper than the healthier stuff.
CEI is part of a larger effort to redress the food balance. With a recent award from the Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund, CEI will be able to invest in small and medium-sized healthy food retail businesses, including groceries, general stores, farmers markets, CSAs and other farm retail businesses. A smaller portion of the award can be used to finance non-retail food businesses that help to connect farms with retail and institutional markets, or help to make healthy, local food affordable to people with low incomes.
Financing, of course, is only a small part of the picture. We need education for consumers and federal and state policies that provide incentives for healthy eating and local production of fresh, healthy foods. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree has proposed some of these policies in a recent bill, and CEI will be working to support them. We’re committed to staying in this conversation and in this space. For me, it’s even worth leaving the farm once in awhile to be a small part of this movement.
[*] from A Speech to the Garden Club of America, poem published in The New Yorker; September 29, 2009.