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Food, Freedom and Authority: Notes from a Lecture Given by Mark Winne, written by Ellen LaPenna

Mark Winne has been a community food activist and writer for over 40 years. On February 7th, he gave a talk at the UNM School of Architecture and Planning where he introduced his new book, Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin' Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture. That evening, he provided a lot of information on the state of affairs in the U.S. and offered some encouraging ideas to address the universal struggle between human freedom and authority in its relationship to food.

Mark began his lecture by asking how many of us were serious gardeners, bought food at our local farmers' market or belonged to a CSA program (Community Supported Agriculture). He told us that nationally, only 10% of our food supply comes from these sources. Last year Americans spent $1 billion at famers' markets, $5-7 billion on local food and $25 billion on organic food. This seemed impressive until he revealed that we spend $170 billion on fast food. Thirty-three percent of kids in the U.S. eat fast food every day and, on average, Americans spend only 15 minutes a day on food preparation.

Addressing food safety and factory farming, Mark brought up last summer's salmonella egg recall that sickened more than 1500 people. Most of our eggs (97 out of 100) come from factory farms that house approximately 600,000 chickens. Only 2 of 100 eggs are "free-range" and only 1of 100 is produced from true free-range chickens that have access to soil and sunlight. He went on to mention that 70% of the antibiotics we use today are given to farm animals for non-therapeutic use. Fortunately, the Obama administration may oppose this widespread prophylactic use, which leads to antibiotic-resistant disease.

He also addressed the ever-expanding use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). GMOs now comprise 90% of our soy, 60% of our cotton and 55% of our corn crops. Putting it plainly, Mark told us, "As a nation we don't have food democracy." We have very little control over the quality, cost or location of our food production.

As an example of where the power lies, Mark was recently at a New Mexico Legislature Committee on Labor and Health and found that none of the government officials in attendance actually paid their way to the meeting. Monsanto and other agricultural chemical companies (along with some other organizations) paid for attendees' flights and posh hotels.

An important policy issue on the table in our state is that New Mexico and several other states don't require employers to provide Workers' Compensation (insurance) for farm employees, even though agriculture is one of our most hazardous industries. One farm owner explained to Mark that when a worker is injured, he later offers to pay half the hospital bill, knowing the remaining portion will be written off, forcing tax payers to bear the remaining costs.Farmers claim that the high cost of providing Worker's Comp would drive them out of business. To learn more, visit the NM Center on Law and Poverty website.

Mark also addressed national health issues stating that obesity in the U.S. runs approximately $300 billion in health care costs. Currently, one in eight kindergartners and one in five third-graders are obese and studies show that obesity tends to continue into adulthood. But in some places, government officials are fighting for better nutrition and the public is taking action. An example of this is when San Francisco's board of supervisors banned Happy Meal toys, which McDonald's fought. The city decided such toys were an unfair incentive contributing to poor nutrition. In South Central L.A. no additional fast food restaurants are currently allowed to take up residence. And New York proposes to disallow food stamps for the purchase of sodas, which accounts for 10% of expenditures.

Then there's the issue of hunger. Who is going to feed a hungry world? As the world population grows it's unlikely producers will be able to feed people as effectively as they do today. Mark summarized the message from big agriculture: If you want us to feed you, you need to let us be unregulated. Still, 40 million people in the U.S. don't have food security and 12 out of 33 counties in New Mexico are in food deserts -- places where nutritious food is not available.

We are often persuaded that technology will solve our problems but Mark has a different solution. Interestingly, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, AmartyaSen, found that democratic nations do not have famines, even if they are poor. Authoritarian regimes are associated with famines. In China in the early '˜60s, a famine quietly took the lives of close to 30 million people. He stressed that the answer isn't more technology but more democracy.

Mark expressed the need for new models and additional educational opportunities. He talked of an African American in Cleveland who grew up looking at empty parking lots. As an adult he found a way to change the landscape and serve the community by planting urban gardens. Education is needed on all levels from kindergartens to nursing homes. He spoke of The Sustainable Food Center in Austin and their Happy Kitchen, which teaches classes on cooking and nutrition. At the Happy Kitchen, he met women who were finding inner strength by learning to feed themselves and their children healthy food. Many of the women looked to their faith in God to help them "seek the will to use the knowledge." He saw the women, especially those who repeated the course, with bolstered confidence, sharing and learning from each other.

As another example, Mark mentioned the New York City Council's food policy objectives called Food Works, as a potential template for local change. When someone asked for other ideas, he suggested these goals, some of which could be crafted into bills or resolutions:

  • Support community access to land for gardening
  • Teach food education
  • Develop a food policy council
  • Promote local food in schools
  • Invest in the development of rural food stores (to reduce food deserts)
  • Regulate GMOs
  • Find solutions to food vulnerability

He encouraged the audience to find out what policy makers think about food policy, hunger, food vulnerability and related issues. Go to listening sessions; talk with Senators and Representatives about a food platform. Let them know you care. Politicians generally receive very little input from citizens. He asserted that when 50-60 people show up to a legislative session, it makes a difference, and added that democracy is about showing up.

In conclusion, Mark shared his motto, "Get your hands in the dirt, get your vegetables on the chopping block and get your voices in City Hall."

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