Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill

In Review

by Daniel Imhoff. 136 pages, paperback. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2007.

“What’s for dinner?” It’s an everyday question, and one that usually carries a straightforward response – enchiladas, say, or pasta, or chicken. But the complete answer is much more complicated, for it involves the policies set by lawmakers in Washington. While we may like to think that decisions about what we eat are our own private choices, those decisions are profoundly influenced by an often-obscure piece of legislationcalled the Farm Bill.

scan of the book cover

Every five to seven years, Congress passes the Farm Bill. This legislation is essentially a $90 billion per year blueprint for how we feed and clothe ourselves. The Farm Bill helps determine which foods will be inexpensive and which will be costly; how much pesticides will be used on our crops; what will end up in our children’s school lunches; and how much land will be set aside for conservation.

Congress last passed the Farm Bill in 2002, which means that this year federal lawmakers either must re-authorize the existing bill, or make changes and pass a new one. This has set off a frenzy of political maneuvering, as agribusiness lobbyists get set to defend the status quo, and food security organizations and family farmers scramble to ignite a grassroots movement for change.

With the Farm Bill battle already well underway, the arrival of Food Fight is a well-timed release. Agricultural activist Daniel Imhoff’s latest publication is a valuable resource for anyone curious about how the Farm Bill works and eager to learn what citizens can do to improve it.

Food Fight is not, to be sure, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, best-selling author’s Michael Pollan’s highbrow and heartfelt examination of the best and worst in our modern food system. Imhoff’s book is, for starters, much slimmer – about a third as long. And whereas Pollan likes to maintain a certain ironic detachment, often stepping outside himself to view with bemusement his journeys, Imhoff is straight earnestness. Food Fight is like a grassroots campaigner’s brochure expanded into a book – and that’s a compliment.

Because not everyone has the time to consume The Omnivore’s Dilemma or the energy to reread the writings of Wendell Berry or Francis Moore Lappé, a book like Food Fight is a must. Its 18 short chapters make for bite-sized sections you can digest on the bus ride home from the grocery store. Dozens of charts, graphs, and tables make referencing facts and figures easy. A jazzy layout of photos and sidebars allows you to flip through the book until something catches your attention.

Food Fight is, essentially, an activist’s primer – a short, to-the-point explanation of all that is wrong with our current food system. If, like me, you happen to have family members who make their living from conventional, large-scale, GMO farming, then this is the book you need to be able to hold your own at the next dinner table debate.

Though just 136 pages, Food Fight manages to hit on a range of pressing subjects. Want to better understand the nation’s obesity epidemic? Look no further than the farm subsidies, which, by prioritizing soy and corn – and giving exactly zero dollars to fruit and vegetable growers – help make junk food the cheapest calories in the supermarket. Curious about the debates over ethanol? Check out the section on biofuels, which explains that even if we converted every acre in the country to ethanol production – leaving ourselves without space for food – we still wouldn’t be able to meet our fuel needs.

In past years, the Farm Bill has largely been left up to agricultural state legislators, especially those in the nation’s corn and soy belt. Representatives from urban centers have stood on the sidelines. But the Farm Bill doesn’t just involve farmers; it affects everyone who eats. So a better label for this sweeping legislation would be the Food Bill, a name that shows we all have a stake in the matter.

If you agree, and if you want to get involved in the campaign for more fair and environmentally thoughtful food and agriculture legislation, this fine little book is an excellent place to start.

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