There is a conversation going on about our food. Gathered around the table are people interested in agriculture and public health working toward a similar aim: keeping our nation healthy through access to fresh, healthy food.
Healthy Farms, Healthy People: A Farm & Food Policy Summit for a Strong America, a two-day meeting held this spring, brought together a diverse set of stakeholders interested in the food we eat and how it’s grown. What emerged was a better sense of the shared intersection of challenges—and opportunities—facing the future of agriculture and public health. The event represented a big step in bringing together agricultural and public health interests, and it serves as an introduction to an important discussion about growing the healthy food we need.
Our nation’s farm and ranch and public health interests fit together quite well. The recent summit demonstrated a marked shift away from discussions that are more akin to a “crop rotation” of policies and programs to ones that reflect a “companion planting” of shared objectives. With consumers increasingly demanding fresh, healthy food as they look to the benefits of a healthy diet, the interest on both the individual and the institutional levels presents an opportunity for agriculture to stimulate supply.
The benefits of connecting public health interests in healthier diets with agricultural production are very real and easy to see. The demand for healthy food opens markets for agricultural products and potential support for objectives that keep farmers farming. Wrapped within this demand to provide for healthier food is the need for adequate access. As Former California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura explains, this will require a look at farm and food policies through the lens of the 21st century.
Less clear but no less important is the role that public health demands may play in helping stimulate and support local and regional food systems. In one example, hospitals across Michigan have begun adopting healthier eating environments for their patients through the Healthy Food Hospitals campaign. Included in the program is a resolution for hospitals that voluntarily join the campaign to purchase at least 20 percent of their food from Michigan producers. Efforts to improve school lunches have also sprung up across the nation, a focus that was recently underscored by the unveiling of MyPlate, the USDA’s newest guide to balanced eating.
To grow the healthy food that we need now and into the future, the seeds we have sown to bring agriculture and public health closer together must sprout soon. The bringing together of agriculture and public health in these budding conversations about the farm bill are important now but will also help direct policies and programs in the future. When, more than 30 years ago, environmental groups began joining the discussion surrounding the farm bill, they could not have anticipated the dedication of funding for conservation that now resides in the farm bill, allowing farmers to implement new stewardship practices and to safeguard our environment. Like public health, the environmental movement represents a diverse mix of groups that rally behind the same cause, which collectively could have tremendous impact on farm and food policy moving forward.
The convening of agriculture and public health groups is a relationship that is building momentum as we launch into the 2012 Farm Bill. Having opportunities like the summit that allow the producers of our food to talk openly with public health not only creates opportunities to work together, but also strengthens a relationship that will be vital to the farm bill debate.
About the author: Dennis Nuxoll is Managing Director, Federal Policy for American Farmland Trust.