school food

We don’t know if the menu at the Berrien Elementary School in South Georgia would go over with the foodies in Berkeley, California, but it looks good to us.
Photo: Judy Baxter

In the late 1990s, some Amarillo, Texas, cattlemen sued talk-show host Oprah Winfrey for libeling beef. She had loose lips about “mad cow” disease and the cattle guys in the Texas Panhandle didn’t like it much — nor did they appreciate her beef-loathing attitude — so they sued.

Oprah came to Amarillo to testify and promptly won over the town. It turned out that more people tuned in Oprah in the afternoon than made their living off of beef. “Oprah is the one who really represents the little people,” said one Texan. (Well, there were a few who wore “The only mad cow in Texas is Oprah” T-shirts.) The judge threw out half the suit and the jurors sided with Oprah on the other half.

The fight in Amarillo was a foreshadowing – that food had become a way to make a political statement by those who never set foot on a farm. And so one of the more interesting aspects of this year’s farm bill debate has been the intense lobbying and activism about farm policy by foodies living in the Bay Area of California.

(The PBS program NOW will air a program tonight, Friday, on the advantages of locally grown food, titled Growing Local, Eating Local . Check your local paper or the web for times.)

The San Francisco Chronicle has had good coverage of the farm bill this year precisely because food is politics in the Bay Area. Carol Ness, a food writer, noted this week an “unprecedented wave of Bay Area activism aimed at forcing substantial change” in the farm bill. The school cafeteria people at the Berkeley Unified School District were involved in trying to shape the farm bill. So were various food writer, such as Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

The Bay Area foodies were pushing for a bill that provided more money for better foods. The Berkeley protestors teamed up with California’s fruit and vegetable growers to seek more money for specialty crops. After all, 91 percent of California’s farmers don’t receive subsidies because specialty crops haven’t been included in prior farm bills.

The unlikely coalition has had success. The bill contains up to $2 billion for fruit and vegetable growers. Ness reports:

“School lunches will get more money under a fruit and vegetable snack program that’s been expanded to $1 billion. That sounds like a lot, said (Ann Cooper of the Berkeley school lunch program), but spread over 30 million school lunches served in the United States, 180 days a year, ‘it means I could give each child four-fifths of an apple a day more.’”

Neither California senator (Barbara Boxer, Diane Feinstein) has been a strong advocate for reform. (As of the end of the week, neither had revealed where she stood on the bill.) The fruit and vegetable growers wanted more, but they appear to be satisfied with getting at least some attention in this year’s legislation.

The new farm bill warriors are disappointed. Speaking of Boxer, Feinstein and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Pollan said, “I don’t understand why they have so far failed to support serious reform for the (subsidies), which could be of enormous benefit to California farmers and more importantly to California eaters.”

“We could double the number of kids with diabetes by the time of the next farm bill,” Berkeley’s Cooper said. “If middle America started making this an issue in the presidential campaign, we could make some progress.”

And then she added, “It might take Oprah getting involved.”

Oh, my goodness!

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