December 5, 2011
This November, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future joined with fellow members of the Healthy Farms, Healthy People coalition steering committee to officially launch the Healthy Farms, Healthy People coalition—“a broad-based collaboration of organizations committed to achieving a healthier nation in tandem with a strong farm economy through policy reform at the local, state and national level.”
The Coalition will work on short-term targeted policy efforts, as well as long-term goals centered on policy change and information-sharing across sectors. The Coalition brings together stakeholders from the health, agricultural, anti-hunger, environmental and economic development communities, whose diverse expertise is necessary to make such reforms to the food system a reality.
Why is the Coalition needed? As David Wallinga of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy indicated in a November webinar co-sponsored by the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition and HealthyFoodAction, policy has not caught up with what people want. Public opinion increasingly favors a healthier, more sustainable food system—as evidenced by the rising demand for locally and regionally produced food and the growing concern over the safety of many modern industrial agricultural practices –but policymakers often fail to respond to it. They do look for issues with broad support, however, and will therefore find many of the Coalition’s priorities—such as connecting beginning farmers to more markets where they can sell their products—easy to champion, regardless of political affiliation. The best way to get policymaker support is to provide them with a coherent plan for how to transform our food system into one that has more positive health and economic impacts.
Creating such a plan will rely on the experience and expertise of groups representing the many aspects of our food system, including health professionals and food workers of all stripes. It is crucial to bring these pieces together to effect positive change, bridging the rural and urban divide and operating on the local, regional and national levels. As membership grows and the Coalition’s work continues, priorities will reflect the shared interests of the organizations it represents. Early areas of shared interest include improving opportunities for local and regional food producers, supporting food and farm worker rights, and working within the Farm Bill to identify and support policies that align with the Coalition’s overall vision. Recently, the Coalition took action by organizing a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack that called for the provision of wireless electronic benefit transfer (EBT) technology, free of charge, to farmers’ markets and other fresh food vendors. This would allow SNAP benefits to be accepted at all farmers’ markets across the country, thus creating a financial benefit for farmers while improving access to more nutritious foods for food stamp participants. (For more information, read here.)
The Coalition hosted three major events in 2011: a Farm Bill Retreat in January, the Farm and Food Policy Summit for a Strong America in May, and a luncheon in November that served as its official launch. These events contributed to the formal development of the Coalition, and aimed to grow and strengthen relationships among participating organizations and individuals. In addition, Healthy Farms, Healthy People will host webinars on relevant topics, the first of which ran on Nov. 16 and discussed the true relationship between farm subsidies and obesity— a relationship far more tenuous than previously assumed, underscoring the complexity of the issues the Coalition will be addressing. Impressively, it had an audience of about 200. The Coalition’s website also hosts a blog and other resources to help its members, and other interested parties, maintain a current knowledge and understanding of the policies relevant to its goals.
Opportunities to create change exist. Seizing those opportunities will require mobilizing food-focused groups as a unified front with a coherent, compelling message. As Healthy Farms, Healthy People gains momentum, we will see this effort take shape and help lead the discussion on how to create a food system that encourages health, equity, and economic prosperity for farmers and communities alike.