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Pingree: Use Farm Bill to Help Local Food Economies

When I moved to Maine as a teenager in 1971, big business (and big subsidies) were just beginning to define American agriculture. Instead of the small, diverse farms that fed our communities for generations, our food system was shifting to mass production, chemical engineering, huge companies and empty calories.

Where has it gotten us 40 years later? Obesity and health problems plague our children. Bacterial outbreaks in mass-produced food have created national scares. Our use of foreign oil to produce and transport our food increases. And the family farms that formed the backbone of our communities are becoming few and far between.

I believe that the solutions to many of these problems lie in the revival of local agriculture and bringing back the local and regional food systems that were once the foundation of our agricultural economy.

Along with colleagues in the House and Senate, this week I introduced a package of reforms to the farm bill that will expand opportunities for local and regional farmers and make it easier for consumers to have access to healthy foods. The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act will promote healthy, local food and a healthy local economy.

When I moved to Maine to run an organic farm on the island of North Haven in the 1970s, local foods and sustainable farming were anything but mainstream. Now the majority of consumers want to know where their food comes from. Families are deciding they’d rather get food from a local farm because it’s healthier, better tasting, a good value and comes from someone they know.

It’s time for our food policy to catch up with the American people and to get rid of practices that have proved unhealthy for our children, environment and communities.

Over the past few decades, the farm bill has mostly been written to benefit agri-businesses and giant production farms. But the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act would refocus Department of Agriculture programs and put consumers and small local farmers first.

The legislation is a comprehensive reform package that includes dozens of common-sense proposals that would:

• Make it easier for low-income families to use food stamp benefits at farmers markets.

• Make it easier for schools to use more of their federal funding to buy fresh, local foods.

• Support improvements in agricultural infrastructure — such as local slaughterhouses and food distribution networks.

• Create a new crop insurance program tailored to the needs of diversified or organic farmers who grow a wide variety of crops and can’t easily access traditional crop insurance.

Think about the benefits that would come from a more enlightened food policy: Children and families will be healthier, leading to lower health care costs; energy costs associated with transporting food thousands of miles will be reduced and local economies will be better supported, meaning more jobs.

There is no question that the desire for local foods is growing. When I visit schools that have built greenhouses and introduced fresh vegetables to their students, I’m thrilled to see how excited the students are at the prospect of eating food they helped grow. And whenever the subject comes up when I’m talking to a group — whether it’s bankers or real estate agents or teachers — it’s clear Americans want better access to safe, healthy food.

I’m committed to fighting for changes in the way we set food policy in this country. We’ve waited a long time for these much-needed reforms, but it will have been worth the wait if we can make the changes we need.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) is a member of the Agriculture Committee.

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