[imgcontainer] [img:hangout.gif] [source]USDA[/source] In mid-July the USDA held a “hangout” on Google+ to talk about the role of women in local food systems. But a shallow medium creates shallow solutions. [/imgcontainer]

Recently, the Department of Agriculture and the White House sponsored a Google+ “hangout” to highlight the role of women in strengthening local and regional food systems. Being a sociable guy, I thought it might be fun to “hang out” with the people in the government. 

I was looking forward to video chatting with people all across the country about pressing rural issues. 

The cyber event came and went in less than an hour. There were technical problems with the “hangout” — a home phone going off in the background and the tech foul-ups of some of the participants. I could get over those, if only the substance of the conversation wasn’t so hollow. 

Topics ranged from urban farming (because when I think of what the USDA does for farmers, I picture the golden, fertile hills of downtown Baltimore) to how the “kiddos are going to be eating wonderful seedless watermelon.” Don’t get me wrong, seedless watermelon is far superior to seeded (for reasons I won’t go into here), but with a massive drought, a Farm Bill stuck in Congress with no end in sight, and a monopolization of food sources by a few large companies, I have to believe there are more pressing concerns. 

It seemed that half the time during the hangout, USDA was trying to push some sort of “Compass” web program, saying “We’ve built it, now you need to come.” I was obviously wrong in my assumptions, but I thought we would be discussing substantive policy, not interactive websites. 

I got excited, actually, at one point, when people started talking about linking individual famers and schools to provide healthier school lunches. Of course, most of USDA’s money goes to production agriculture, not exactly the people who will fix Wednesday’s Mystery Meat. 

The talk turned to organic foods — yeah again — but the discussion was about how Walmart was stocking these foods. Unless I’m mistaken, this is the same Walmart that is becoming a monopoly seller in many markets — and demands that suppliers sell to them at “everyday low prices.” And that doesn’t even touch on how tragically mislabeled organic foods usually are. 

As for the drought, well, that was shoved aside as quick as it was brought up. 

The rest of the “hangout” seemed like one big pep rally. Presenter after presenter came to the fore and gushed about buildings, or programs, or whatever it was they did with USDA money. Listening to this made me imagine rural America was an infinitely bountiful and magical place where kindly old men feed unicorns pitchfork after pitchfork of hay before catching a ride downtown on their pumpkin carriage to buy some magic beans. 

From the hangout, I would have no idea of the reality faced by millions of Americans when rural development funding is chopped out of the Farm Bill (as it has so far in the House), crops are dying in dried-out fields, and overdue infrastructure investments are not being made. This fairy-tale of rural idylls is especially worrisome, given that so many Americans know so little about the area outside the suburbs. The “hangout” did not address properly, if at all, the issues that truly matter to rural Americans.  

I guess what bothers me is that the hangout was so disingenuous. I have a whole lot more respect for anyone who owns up to flaws or issues they face. Maybe it’s just the philosophy major in me, but I think the truth makes people better equipped to deal with major concerns. 

But when I log on to Google+ to hear success story after success story while the Kentucky mountain air outside is flirting with triple digits and I can’t even drink from the tap because of the heavy metals in the ancient water system, I can’t help but think the government is, to some extent, leading people on.

This online activism has been called “clicktivism” — activism that begins and ends with a finger on the mouse. http://www.clicktivism.org/ If I had to make a Facebook group for it, I’d call it “Join if you support rural America, but actually have no idea what’s going on ‘out there’”.  

The government is using social media, which is inherently shallow, to espouse a shallow message: “Oh, everything’s good in rural, we just need to get some more seedless watermelon for the kiddos.”

I’m not against success stories. They’re great. But I’m unhappy, and very suspicious, when the government does not trust me with reality. That’s disrespectful. 

I can deal with data. I can deal with substance. I can deal with pertinent, actionable information. But I don’t want something I can only log on to or ‘like’ or ‘upvote’. 

Because, as Founding Father (Founding Farmer?) Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” If the hangout was an example of government keeping people well informed, can we trust it to make enlightened policy?

Jefferson Sinclair is an intern at the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, KY, and a student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 

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