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US Food Movement Seeks Election-Year Vault to Political Force

By Charles Abbott on October 26, 2012
© Chicago Tribune

The U.S. food movement, which groups a kaleidoscope of causes from inner-city gardens to hunger prevention and no-biotech crops, plans to link the farmers market to the ballot box as it challenges large-scale agriculture this year.

It is the first attempt to turn a largely unorganized social movement into a political force.

The most important initiative for the movement is a November 6 referendum in California to require labels on genetically engineered food sold in grocery stores. Under a new umbrella group, Food Policy Action, the movement issued its first voter scorecard for congressional races this week.

"We're coming to it about 40 years after the environmental movement did," said activist Ken Cook, one of the dozen founders of Food Policy Action. "There aren't a lot of politically oriented organizations in the food movement. This is the first one."

Organizers include Dave Murphy, a leader in the California referendum, chairman Gary Hirshberg of organic food maker Stonyfield Farm, and two anti-hunger leaders, Ray Offenheiser of Oxfam America and David Beckman of Bread for the World, both veterans of food policy debates. Hirshberg is part of a campaign to label U.S. biotech foods.


Author Michael Pollan, a chronicler of the food movement, said the group's scorecard showed the growth in the food movement.

"All in all, I think this marks the beginning of something important," Pollan said on Thursday.

Earlier this month, Pollan wrote in an essay that the November 6 general election will test whether the food movement is an organized political force.

Food and agriculture writer Tom Philpott of Mother Jones magazine said the movement is diverse, but seeks healthier food, better pay for workers, less pollution and "non-corporate-owned food networks."

"I think adding a political pressure wing represents an important asset for the food movement and is potentially part of the food movement's maturation into a more potent political force," said Philpott.

Food Policy Action is starting on a financial shoestring with none of the accoutrements, such as a political action committee, of large advocacy groups.

Its scorecard, similar to one the League of Conservation Voters has put out for years, graded senators and representatives on 32 votes involving funding for food safety and public nutrition, cutting farm subsidies and limiting ethanol. Democrats tended to score higher than Republicans.

Fifty lawmakers, mostly from the East and West coasts, got perfect scores of 100, including Sen Barbara Boxer of California and Rep Charles Rangel of New York City.


Lawmakers from the Farm Belt rated poorly on the "food policy scorecard," reflecting sharp disagreements between mainstream farmers, who produce the bulk of U.S. food and fiber, and the food movement, which glories in small, local producers as the source of tasty, healthy and high-quality food.

House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas got a 36 and his Senate counterpart, Debbie Stabenow, a 61, barely above average. Pat Roberts, the Republican leader on the Senate Agriculture Committee, graded at 17.

"We do welcome them (Food Policy Action) to the agriculture community," said Dale Moore, an executive at the 6 million-member American Farm Bureau Federation.

Moore said he hoped the scorecard would take into account the economic welfare of farmers, adding: "That's not always readily apparent."

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