President-elect Barack Obama and the new Congress can't afford to turn their attention to reforming the food system.
We've got two wars to fight, the Middle East conflict is raging again, the financial system is in chaos, and layoffs are mounting. And don't forget the likelihood of trillion-dollar annual budget deficits for years to come. Food, it's clear, is just too banal when matched up against those challenges.
That's the conventional wisdom, anyway.
Even some veteran food-reform advocates accept the "food-must-wait" logic. "I think it's somewhere between naïve and fairy tale to think [Obama's] No. 1 focus is going to be on food," Ann Cooper recently told The New York Times. Cooper is the "renegade lunch lady" who's made a mission of turning public-school cafeterias into places where people actually cook nutritious food. When someone as bold as she preaches patience, it's time to sit up and take note.
But while food can't be the nation's No. 1 priority, we can no longer afford to keep it on the back burner, either. As Michael Pollan made clear in his widely read open letter to the next president last fall, our food system contributes mightily to problems that have been bedeviling our society for decades and show no sign of letting up: dependence on greenhouse gas-spewing petroleum, violent entanglements in the regions where that resource is concentrated, and a flailing, unjust health care system.
Pollan deftly defined the food system as a prime leverage point. Reform it, he argued, and you create opportunities to really treat these on-the-verge-of-metastasizing maladies. Ignore it, he warned, and we lurch ever closer to climate and public-health catastrophes.
Spice Up the Stimulus Package
So the conventional wisdom is wrong; food-system reform can't wait. But how do we elevate it on the national agenda when the political class is focused on other things? I have an idea that wouldn't require a radically new program or a major expenditure of political capital.
Obama has already argued that a comprehensive "stimulus package" -- a mammoth government expenditure, fiscal deficit be damned -- is necessary to revive the economy as it stumbles into the worst recession in at least a generation. The president-elect reckons that the package -- a combination of new spending and tax cuts -- will cost between $775 million and $1.2 trillion.
This represents a stunningly large claim on the nation's resources. The new administration and Congress are obligated to spend it in ways that don't just create immediate jobs, but that also generate positive ripple effects for decades to come. At this point, the great bulk of expenditures seems destined to flow toward repairing the nation's creaking road-and-bridge infrastructure.