As tens of thousands of people recently strolled among booths of the US’ largest organic and natural foods shows in Anaheim, California, munching on fair-trade chocolate and sipping organic wine, a few dozen pioneers of the industry sneaked off to an out-of-the-way conference room.
Although unit sales of organic food have leveled off and even declined against a year earlier, the mood among those crowded into the conference room was upbeat as they awaited a private screening of a documentary called Food, Inc. — a withering critique of agribusiness and industrially produced food.
They also gathered to relish their changing political fortunes, courtesy of the Obama administration.
“This has never been just about business,” said Gary Hirshberg, chief executive of Stonyfield Farm, the maker of organic yogurt. “We are here to change the world. We dreamt for decades of having this moment.”
After being largely ignored for years by Washington, advocates of organic and locally grown food have found a receptive ear in the White House, which has vowed to encourage a more nutritious and sustainable food supply.
The most vocal booster so far has been first lady Michelle Obama, who has emphasized the need for fresh, unprocessed, locally grown food and, last week, started work on a White House vegetable garden. More surprising, perhaps, are the pronouncements out of the Department of Agriculture, an agency with long and close ties to agribusiness.
Last month, Tom Vilsack, the new secretary of agriculture, took a jackhammer to a patch of pavement outside his headquarters to create his own organic “people’s garden.” Two weeks later, the Obama administration named Kathleen Merrigan, an assistant professor at Tufts University and a longtime champion of sustainable agriculture and healthy food, as Vilsack’s top deputy.
Hirshberg and other sustainable-food activists are hoping that such actions are precursors to major changes in the way the federal government oversees the nation’s food supply and farms, changes that could significantly bolster demand for fresh, local and organic products. Already, they have offered plenty of ambitious ideas.
For instance, celebrity chef Alice Waters recommends that the federal government triple its budget for school lunches to provide youngsters with healthier food. And author Michael Pollan has called on President Obama to pursue a “reform of the entire food system” by focusing on a Pollan priority: diversified, regional food networks.
Still, some activists worry that their dreams of a less-processed US diet may soon collide with the realities of Washington and the financial gloom over much of the country. Even the George W. Bush administration, reviled by many food activists, came to Washington intent on reforming farm subsidies, only to be slapped down by Congress.
Pollan, who contributes to The New York Times Magazine, likens sustainable-food activists to the environmental movement in the 1970s. Though encouraged by the Obama administration’s positions, he worries that food activists may lack political savvy.
“The movement is not ready for prime time,” he said. “It’s not like we have an infrastructure with legislation ready to go.”
Even so, many activists say they are packing their bags and heading to Washington. They are bringing along a copy of Food, Inc., which includes attacks on the corn lobby and Monsanto, and intend to provide a private screening for Vilsack and Merrigan.