Obama’s Public Works & The New Secretary of Agriculture: Your Voice Matters!

As everyone not living under a rock knows, President-elect Obama has pledged a massive public works program to reinvigorate both US economy and national infrastructure. I am mostly all for this initiative, though my inner childhood libertarian still wonders where all the money will come from. There are some good suggestions out there for funding though, so we’ll save such a ponderances for another blog post.

For now, I’d like to look at the kinds of projects deemed ‘public’ and worthy of such sweeping systemic updating. We all know that roads, bridges, and schools are vitally important. And we’ve heard the administration’s support for the creation of ‘green jobs.’ It’s the latter I’d like to expound upon, suggesting two areas of public works support that ought to receive a lot of attention and funds.


When I first traveled to Europe in 2003, I was struck by how many of my new friends, grown adults, did not have drivers licenses. Then I was struck by how many restaurants and businesses were not connected by roads and parking, but rather, massive walking spaces. The atmosphere in these vehicle-free zones was intoxicating; I had never experienced a Commons space without cars and traffic. One of the inadvertent consequences of our first public works program in the U.S. was the creation of the Interstate Highway System, both a blessing and a curse. On the curse side, it further nationalized our food systems (more on that in a sec), and it made business dependent on proximity to highway exits. In the 21st century, we’re now looking at the relative value of this differently, recognizing what Bill McKibben calls a deep economy with ‘multiple bottom-lines.’

Enter the Greenway. When last in Atlanta, Jasmin and I had dinner with Jannan Thomas, director of DOOR Atlanta, and her husband Jay. We learned about something I should’ve known about our once-and-future city, but didn’t: The BeltLine project. The idea is simple: Take 22 miles of old, unused railroad track connecting Atlanta’s oldest cities (some now affluent, some in serious disintegration) and turn this derelict space into greenspace for joggers, walkers, and bikers. Further, develop park space and sustainable business along this space, and maybe, some nice public transportation – something the Southeast has never, ever had. The BeltLine project already has some steam and it looks like they’ll be doing it…over the next 25 years. Now I’m all for the long view; long-term projects used to be the norm and not the exception (Cathedrals used to take centuries to complete!). All the same, I think that a project of this urgent importance shouldn’t have to wait decades to complete when for-profit builders can erect a massive new condominium complex in 8 months.

Whadaya say, Obama administration? Would the BeltLine project (and others like it) merit some of our Public Works apportionment?

Local Food Infrastructure

Department of AgricultureEqually critical as where we can walk is what we eat. For health reasons, of course, but also ecological reasons. Did you know that most of our food is fertilized by petroleum and that, combined with transporting it all over the country (and world), food is the second-largest guzzler of gas behind cars? And accessibility reasons: Why is it that in the poorest sections of towns across America, the only ‘food’ available is truly awful pre-packaged faux food from gas stations and ‘convenience’ stores? Well it’s partially because of how corn and soybeam subsidies were developed during the Nixon administration, laws that are allowing mega-corporations like Monsanto to patent food itself…but I’m getting ahead of myself. : )  If this is a whole new world to you, you’re not alone. While I’ve never really mentioned it in print, for several years now I’ve been working on a book on the intersection of God, meal-sharing, and mystical spirituality. While in the process of finishing this book, I came across – only in this past year – a trio of truly mind-blowing books: The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved by Sandor Katz; The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan; and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. (Two of these are widely available at libraries and all three of them can be purchased quite affordably, under $35 total; get yourself a paradigm-altering Christmas present!) My education was further deepened by attending a Bread for the World Hunger Justice Leaders training this past July in Washington DC and joining Slow Food USA, recommended by my friend (and Foresight@Regent program director) Jay Gary.

What have I been learning? A ton. A distillation: At present, our food system is broken and in need of healing in order to offer healthy, affordable, and ecologically-sustainable nourishment for all people. Further, food done right can build community and help people grow in compassion, ethics, and spirituality.

The aforementioned Pollan penned – just prior the election – An Open Letter to the Next Farmer-in-Chief. An excellent distillation of the needed food renaissance. His opening:

It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food. Food policy is not something American presidents have had to give much thought to, at least since the Nixon administration — the last time high food prices presented a serious political peril. Since then, federal policies to promote maximum production of the commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat and rice) from which most of our supermarket foods are derived have succeeded impressively in keeping prices low and food more or less off the national political agenda. But with a suddenness that has taken us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close. What this means is that you, like so many other leaders through history, will find yourself confronting the fact — so easy to overlook these past few years — that the health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention.

I repeat: Pollan’s Open Letter is well-worth reading in its entirety. So go for it. I’ll wait for you.

Back? Okay. There’s some good news: Local food initiatives are springing up like new growth all across North America; famers’ markets are the fastest-growing segement of eating options out there these days. But there are ways government can help, just like they’ve presently favoring Big Agribusiness that’s responsible for a lot of this mess. A shift in sensibilities could reverse the damage, and bring food back home. It’s already happening in Canada: Nova Scotia’s government has just pledged a quite-affordable amount to support development of “local food” systems. In their own words:

The province will provide $2.3 million over three years to fund “strategic infrastructure” and development initiatives that “enhance industry competitiveness, market access and direct marketing methods.”

“This funding will develop the roots between rural and urban food systems, and support marketing initiatives,” Agriculture Minister Brooke Taylor said in a release Friday.

The province said its investment “will make it easier and more convenient to buy local foods” and will “complement” its current food marketing programs, Select Nova Scotia and Taste of Nova Scotia.

Fortunately for all of us, there’s a really huge actionable step right on our horizon in the U.S. Here’s an email I recieved today from Slow Food Triangle:

In these final days before President Elect Obama makes his selection for Secretary of Agriculture, we urge you to spread the word to your members about a petition they can sign to express their support for dynamic and sustainable choices for the post.

The petition lists six suggestions, including Gus Schumacher, Former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Slow Food leader Neil Hamilton, the Director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University.

You can find the petition here.

Even if the new administration doesn’t pick one of the listed candidates, signing the petition sends a strong message that we want a good, clean and fair food system and that we expect our new administration to make choices that support that vision. More information is available here and here.

We stand at a crossroads, and our next decisions matter a great deal. There are a few things we can do, right now, to make the world a safer, nourished, more abundant place: it’s going to happen through agribusiness reform.

For my friends on the left, realize this: Agriculture is a key ecological and humanitarian matter. Agriculture done right helps the earth in her innate, life-giving rhythms; it conserves and even produces energy. Intelligent agriculture policy feeds hungry people so no one will have to go without.

Friends on the right, some things to consider: Just as much as Homeland Security, this cabinet-level position will help determine our future strength as a nation and our vulnerability to terrorist attack. Smaller, localized food systems are grassroots capitalism and small business at their best. They create jobs and bring important jobs back to America. They restore the farmer to a place of respect in our society.

For my Christian friends, let’s consider: Jesus lived and died by way of his food habits. (And was resurrected as an eikon of Living Food & Drink) The way he chose to eat, and with whom he chose to eat opened up new vistas of the Kingdom of God on earth. And it was large part of what got him executed by the powers-that-be. I personally feel Jesus’ spirit stirring in this day and age to look at how food and food systems need to be approached in the 21st century. And while I feel churches should never wait for government initiatives to make a difference locally, I think we’re at a golden moment to speak truth to power – power that, it seems, is open to hearing from us.

I’m Asking You to Please Do Three Things:

Call to action time!

  • One, read Michael Pollan’s Open Letter. It’s really, really long – no matter, do it now. Interrupt your regularly-scheduled web surfing and focus for the next few minutes. Your attention span is precious and the information in this letter is vital. It’s that important. You’ll be glad you did.
  • Two, sign this petition.
  • Finally, if you don’t mind, forward this post to others you think would care about these matters – email, Digg, Stumble, Facebook message and re-post on your own blog, that’s fine by me. Thanks for caring!

9 Responses to Obama’s Public Works & The New Secretary of Agriculture: Your Voice Matters!

  1. Cathryn December 11, 2008 at 6:31 pm #

    that was flat out Brilliant… and yes, not just thought provoking, but ACTION provoking. (nuff talk on some things)
    This Thanksgiving we hosted 10 people, and besides for the splurge on some Ardbeg single malt (which was quite needed after looking at my food bill) —- i really was stunned at how much things COST. I’ve hosted before, quite often, and have various couch surfers for extended periods of time…. but i guess it’s not until you have to buy a large quantity at one time, do you actually sense the weight of it all. I’m a bit infuriated with one factor in this inflation – we were told… part of the reason that food costs are up is because of the high price of gas in transporting things, which at almost 4 bucks a gallon i can see… but now the price of gas has come down… ummm – so shouldn’t that mean some of the cost of food should come down. Hmmmmmmmm- funny how quickly things go up with gas prices, but when gas prices go down- ummm well.. i’m still looking for what you would think would be an extension of that in the market place. (ok, that’s my own lil rant and the tip of the iceberg of my frustration.) In any event… appreciated your thoughts and that you took the time to blog it out! Hope it spreads like wildfire in the blog world… and take “feed my sheep” a bit further in the discussions and lead to Actions!
    Bless you bro!

  2. 1ozmom December 11, 2008 at 7:06 pm #

    Brilliant! My Dh’s broker told him to invest in Mosanto and I almost divorced him. We had to negotiate that one carefully. 🙂 I signed the petitions. We are hopefully purchasing a small farm, and reading Mr. Pollan’s letter in the Times Mag was eye opening. Matter of fact I saved it. My vision for the farm is to bring the town together and form a community. I’m also praying on asking a local land owner (who loves to give back to the area and who has greenacred his family estate) if I can start a community farm on it. Now he makes wine and sells trees and angus, but there are acres more. Anyhoo, your post today hit my heart and I appreciate it.

  3. Heather December 11, 2008 at 8:35 pm #

    Wooo hooo! Can’t wait for the clips to start rolling in 😉

  4. John Sherrod December 12, 2008 at 4:00 am #

    You should always listen to your inner childhood libertarian!

  5. Ted December 13, 2008 at 5:33 pm #

    Fantastic. Your summary appeals to various demographics are especially a nice touch. As one of your friends on the left (and one of your Christian friends), I appreciate the balance. This is an issue that transcends political and religious categories; we all live here, and we all eat.

    I’ll definitely add the book suggestions to my burgeoning semester break reading list, and I have some contributions of my own for those interested:

    David Korten’s From Empire to Earth Community is a great read on a more systemic level, and Evan Eisenberg’s The Ecology of Eden includes one of the best assessments of the ecological effects of conventional (petroleum-based) farming I’ve read.

    Eisenberg also, along the way, offers an intriguing reading of some familiar Ancient Near Eastern mythology as well as reports of sustainable projects and realistic strategies for the future, many along the lines of the “cleverly designed polycultures” Pollan lauds.

    And anyone who hasn’t done so owes to themselves to read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael — Quinn is extreme, leaning towards anarcho-primitivism, but his work is very accessible and features a telepathic gorilla. How cool is that?

    Finally, Pollan’s suggestions are delightful, and I really hope somebody in the Obama administration takes a few of them to heart. But this was my favorite:

    “On the premise that eating well is a critically important life skill, we need to teach all primary-school students the basics of growing and cooking food and then enjoying it at shared meals.”

  6. Ted December 13, 2008 at 8:16 pm #

    Don’t you just hate hanging HTML tags?

  7. alison Clarke December 15, 2008 at 4:50 pm #

    I signed a petition previously with the 6 names suggested as Sec. of Agriculture. I also added and will here that though all are acceptable, Mark Ritchie and Fred Kirschenmann are my top choices for their breadth of experience with food system and policy issues. Mark, currently Sec. of State of Minn. has the best background and depth of understanding of world trade issues…NAFTA, GATT, DOHA round etc. Before Congress was really aware of “globalization” he and family traveled and spent a long time “tracking GATT” in Europe. Since has been a key international panelist on globalization issues, been to all of the major international treaty meetings such as the DOHA, and put out educational papers from his long held position of President of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy on issues such as agricultural “dumping” etc. When in Amsterdam, Mark saw a book on models of renewing the countryside, came back and initiated books in several states showing grass roots models , “Renewing the Countryside”. Way back Mark was also a chicken farmer. I met him in 1975 when he was a panelist in a Corporate Responsibility Conference. His current position of SEc. of STate has just broadened his vast experience.

  8. lucas December 19, 2008 at 5:06 pm #

    hey mike,

    i found you previously through emerging networking, but didn’t realize how big you were into the slow/local food movement. i have found that this issue cuts across a lot of the traditional divides between liberal/conservative etc.

    i started a blog specifically on the convergence of food politics and faith called What Would Jesus Eat?. I graduate from seminary today and my family is moving to the World Hunger Farm in May 09 to learn sustainable agriculture for a year.

    anyway… i love to meet other people making these connections so… nice to meet you…again.

  9. Jonathan Stegall December 29, 2008 at 8:14 pm #

    This is indeed an amazing post that has continued to run through my mind for the last few weeks. For those interested, if you go to the new administration’s website at http://change.gov, they are currently open for questions. I’d love to see some questions about these issues getting some high votes, as I believe the ones that get the highest votes will get attention from the administration.

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