Last week, we all had the chance to submit a question to President Obama for a YouTube World View interview following the State of the Union address. Questions could be posted online, and people voted for their favorites. The most popular questions would be chosen, and the president would be asked to respond.
I posted a question. I asked President Obama why it is cheaper to feed our kids Froot Loops than it is to feed them fruit, and what he was doing to reverse it. I had been disappointed that he failed to talk at all about America’s broken food and farming system during his State of the Union, and I hoped my question would give him an opportunity to address it.
When it comes to really changing the rules that make food and farming so damaging, the president and his administration aren’t going to lead.
With 142,649 questions posted, it was going to be a long shot. Then, I got a text message: 1,279 people voted for my question and it was selected. People wanted to hear our leader talk about what needs to be changed when it comes to food and farming in our country. We had the president’s ear. I felt like I had won the lottery! That is, until I had a chance to listen to his answer.
President Obama didn’t use the opportunity to answer our concerns, nor did he speak to our hopes. He didn’t talk about how he was going to make it easier to access fruit than Froot Loops. He didn’t talk about how he was going to reduce federal support for the crops that are most damaging to our health and environment, and he didn’t talk about what he was going to do to increase support for a sustainable food system. The president didn’t talk about taking on the massive consolidation in agribusiness that makes it cheaper and easier to get unhealthy processed food than it is to buy whole ingredients. Though he touched on it, he didn’t talk about addressing food insecurity in any meaningful way and he didn’t talk about the power of citizens as shoppers … or as voters.
Instead, he talked about Walmart.
In response to my question, he told us that Walmart had just announced with the First Lady that it would be changing its labeling system, and highlighting healthier products, and that if Walmart got into it, then the price of healthy food would drop. Now, some reading this may think Walmart’s increasing labeling and selling local, organic food would be a good thing, and others may see them as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I am not going to get into that argument here, though I hope to in the future.
What I was most struck by is that the president is not leading on this issue. He is punting. It is as though, for some reason, when it comes to food, the president has decided to outsource major initiatives, policy, and strategy to heavily consolidated corporations.
Early on in his presidency, when pushed on our issues—farm subsidy reform, a shift to local food systems, school lunch, etc.—the president said, in essence, “I agree with you. But I need you to make me do it.” For me, this was a rallying cry. We needed to get organized if we were going to see real change happen. And we did. The campaign to reform school lunch policy showed the power of every day people pushing for the policies they deserve. At the same time, the First Lady planted a garden, the USDA announced Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, and Let’s Move! was launched. It almost began to look like the administration would do it without our making them. But the president’s answer to my question shows otherwise.
They’ll help in some ways. Inspire chefs to volunteer at public schools? Cool. Support big food corporations as they make announcements that seem to be going in the right direction? Absolutely. Invite press into the White House garden in hopes of inspiring citizens to plant their own? Okay. But when it comes to really changing the rules that make food and farming so damaging, the president and his administration aren’t going to lead. That disappoints me. But it also inspires me.
Because that puts the responsibility back on you and back on me.
Without you and me, working together to transform the way we grow and share food in this country, change isn’t going to happen. 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.
Ultimately, making food and farming good, clean, and fair—making it easier to buy fruit than Froot Loops—is going to take each of us driving for change as individuals, as community members, and as citizens. After my virtual encounter with our commander in chief, one thing is clear: when it comes to changing food and farming in this country, the people who voted for my question are going to be more important than the person who answered it.
Josh Viertel is the president of Slow Food USA
This article was originally published in The Atlantic Food Channel