Who Will Fix Food? Obama? Walmart? You?

A few weeks ago, when President Obama gave his State of the Union Address, food issue analysts and activists livetweeted the event, hungry for a few crumbs by which to make out the President's thoughts on the state of food policy. The crumbs were few and far between and nearly impossible to interpret, like his promise to make it easier for farmers to grow more food (though in hindsight, this may have been a hint that the USDA was about to go on a GMO-approving binge -- this being the third in as many weeks by my count -- even though studies like this one from the Union of Concerned Scientists show that genetic modification is not a silver bullet to greater yields). The biggest edible takeaway, of course, was the smoked salmon joke that Grist's Tom Philpott pointed out, seemed to underscore Obama's laissez-faire attitude.

The following Thursday, Obama took to YouTube and to the delight of foodies around the country, took a pointed question about food from Slow Food USA president, Josh Viertel. In response, the President pointed to the First Lady's Let"s Move campaign (which has since celebrated its first anniversary), specifically, to the campaign's recently announced partnership with Walmart, which has been the subject of much controversy in both mainstream and online media.

Rockstar food advocate Anna Lappe hit one out of the park with her scathingly skeptical post on Civil Eats, and for the record, this is the neighborhood where this blogger comes down, too. Of course, it is important to remember that even the tiniest step from a behemoth like Walmart has more (at least, tangible) impact than major steps taken by even thousands of everyday folks like you and me. But for my money, there are bigger obstacles to a healthier nation than a dearth of healthful food at big box stores, or a dearth of big box stores in urban food deserts (part of Walmart's plan is to enter urban areas where access to healthful food is poor - activists in many of these areas have fought long and hard to prevent the chain from coming in) and if I may point out the obvious, to fight a problem as big as Americans' expanding waistlines and alarming rates of preventable diseases like diabetes, we need a sea change, with help from all sides, including government, corporations, as well as from citizens.

It turns out that Viertel wasn't buying it either, and said so quite bluntly in the article he just published in The Atlantic, "Froot Loops vs. Real Fruit: For Real Change, Don't Look to Obama." At the end of the piece, he suggests that we, as citizens, will have to look to ourselves, and each other, for real change.

We have a role to play. We've got to choose food that reflects our values. But further, we have hands-on work to do building projects in our communities that make them more like they should be -- from gardens in public schools to farmers markets in low-income communities. And we've got to stand together to push for federal policy that serves eaters and farmers before it serves corporations.

Food & Water Watch's Wenonah Hauter went one further early this week, on Huffington Post with "Food Policy We Can't Believe In," where she touches on all the current food and agriculture issues: genetically engineered salmon, alfalfa and more; Chinese chicken imports; food safety; offshore fish farms; the administration's failure to implement rules from the last Farm Bill that would help level the playing field for smaller-scale producers and yes, Walmart.

Is the first-term Obama administration "dissing" his base and following the money? What are people dissatisfied with this failure to do?

The answer: Eaters must become more political. We can't just vote with our forks.

Awhile back, I asked Dr. Wallinga, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, what he thought about the Walmart deal:

We didn't rely on WalMart to get lead out of gasoline. Nor did we wait for WalMart to take on Big Tobacco. If we want to raise kids in communities with healthier food, we can't rely on WalMart to bring that about. We need better public policies.

Wallinga, who recently wrote a smart post on this subject for IATP, is promoting a Charter for a Healthy Farm Bill (PDF) at Healthy Food Action. A number of high-profile medical professionals, including NYU nutritionist Dr. Marion Nestle, Johns Hopkins' Dr. Robert Lawrence, Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Phillip R. Ree (former US Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services), have signed on to the Charter, which is holistic in nature and includes sections on transparency, fairness and environmental sustainability. In fact, better food policies would not only stand to shrink waistlines and diabetes rates, they would help rebuild local economies, create jobs and better the health of our environment.

Everyday citizens can stand in support of the Charter, too, and I hope they do. During the run up to the last iteration of the Farm Bill (if not before), while industry lobbyists were busy greasing the palms of every politician they could get in front of, good food advocates called for renaming the legislation the Food Bill. Because, as fewer and fewer of us are tied to the land, average citizens don't always see a connection between themselves and policies ostensibly geared toward those who still do raise crops and animals. But we all eat, so the Farm Bill affects all of us. And those of us who still have jobs pay taxes, so we should care about how our tax dollars influence our food systems, too. Because the State of the Food Union is not so strong. But it could be, with a little help from friends on the inside.

Originally published at Ecocentric.