Introduction: Taking Root
Food Issues Book Club, Food Justice Introduction

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Food Justice, Introduction:
Taking Root


After Hurricane Katrina, a small group of students calling their group Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools and themselves Rethinkers organized to have a voice in the reformation of the New Orleans school system.  After addressing basic needs like doors on bathroom stalls, they rallied around the issue of school food: "the food tasted terrible and the cafeteria conditions were pathetic.  Long lines and short lunch periods made it nearly impossible for students to wash their hands, eat, and digest the food."  The group was successful in bringing the issue of food to the attention to the school administrators, and their work manifested in tangible change.  This is just one example of grassroots action around food justice.
"Food justice, like environmental justice, is a powerful idea.  It resonates with many groups and can be invoked to expand the support base for bringing about community change and a different kind of food system.  It has the potential to link different kinds of advocates, including those concerned with health, the environment, food quality, globalization, workers' rights and working conditions, access to fresh and affordable food, and more sustainable land use."
The food justice movement remains in its infancy, slowly gaining recognition and understanding int he mainstream world.  Its definition, to many, remains unclear.  "For the purposes of this book, in which food justice represents the substance as well as the governing metaphor of the discussion, we identify food justice in two ways.  First, and most simply, we characterize food justice as ensuring that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown and produced, transported and distributed, and accessed and eaten are shared fairly.  Second, by elaborating what food justice means and how it is realized in various settings, we hope to identify a language and a set of meanings, told through stories as well as analysis, that illuminate how food injustices are experienced and how they can be challenged and overcome."

"We seek to advance knowledge about the justice dimensions of what, where, and how we eat while also describing opportunities for moving toward a more just, healthy, democratic, and community-based food system.  These opportunities, and the New Orleans Rethinkers assert, are available everywhere.  The point now is to make them happen.


I've used far more quotes in this post than I usually do because the introduction to this book is written in a very personal way, and I think the authors' own words are more revealing than my summations of them could ever be.  I admit that I immediately fell in love with Food Justice when, right off the bat, it spoke of the Rethinkers in New Orleans.  This book is several years old now, and the Rethinkers have moved on from school food - though they are still doing excellent work.  Dozens of groups have sprung up around the city since Katrina to address food justice, but the Rethinkers were among the first.  Though New Orleans doesn't get much more mention, I am excited to delve into this work.


Food Issues Book Club: November!
Also Happy World Vegan Day!

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Hello everyone!  Today is World Vegan Day, the kickoff for World Vegan Month.  How fitting, then, that this month I'll be writing about food justice.  No really - the book is called Food Justice, and was written by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi.  I cannot wait to dive into this one!  I hope that it will prove to be a broad but informative look at this extraordinarily important movement.

So, are you gonna read along?  Please give me a shout if you do!  And feel free to chime in either way in the comments.

Happy reading!  Happy World Vegan Month!  Happy Food Justice Learning!


Happy Food Day 2015!

Happy Food Day!  As you may know, every October 24th is National Food Day.  In past years I've taken a passive approach to this day.  This year, I decided to volunteer for Nola Fresh Food Day, a coordinating event that connected volunteers to over a dozen sites around the city.  I worked to help prepare an urban garden, newly obtained by SPROUT NOLA, for fall planting.  I then went to visit the brand new farm stand operated by Sankofa Community Development Corporation in the Lower Ninth Ward, expanding fresh food options in that part of the city.  Here are the pictures, embarrassing sweat stains and all!


The Politics of Food Supply - Concluding Thoughts
Food Issues Book Club

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Politics of Food Supply, Concluding Thoughts.

I honestly cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who wants to have a thorough understanding of the history of U.S. food policy.  That said, it's an academic work and not an easy read.  But how could any exploration of such a complex subject be simple?

Potential readers should note that each chapter is written almost as a persuasive essay, taking numerous pages to refute the predominant thinking of a given nuance.  For some readers (ahem, me) this is frustrating.  But its ultimate effect is that when he gets to his real point, it's all the more clear.

In summary: want to know about subsidies and food surpluses?  Read this book.


The 1996 FAIR Act
Food Issues Book Club, The Politics of Food Supply Chapter 7

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Politics of Food Supply, Chapter 7:
The 1996 FAIR Act - Changing U.S. Agricultural Policy


The Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform (FAIR) Act of 1996, also known as the "freedom to farm" act, essentially ended governmental efforts at supply management.  It did so by eliminating acreage restrictions entirely. It also moved away from price supports in favor of income supports.  In addition to shifts in political power and a strong market, this profound change in U.S. agricultural policy was made possible by the changing needs of different agricultural segments during the 1990s.

Divisions among segments were clear on the issue of acreage restrictions.  The Corn Belt championed their removal - unsurprising, given the growing market provided by the livestock industry.  "The livestock segment aligned with the corn segment on the issue of {acreage} flexibility.  For instance, the National Cattlemen's Association expressed opposition to production controls.  The livestock segment favored greater flexibility because it would allow farmers already producing corn or other feed grains to produce more, and it would allow producers of other commodities to switch to various feed grains.  This would increase the supply of feed grains and reduce the price of the primary input for livestock producers."

The influence of the coalition between the corn segment and the livestock industry should not be overlooked.  "The importance of livestock production increased dramatically during the twentieth century, as both the qualitative characteristics and the size of the livestock sector changed."  As more grain farmers found livestock producers their main customers, the livestock sector itself became an influential body in matters of policy.  Given that individual consumption of meat rose from 102 to 153 pounds per capita, during a time of quick population growth, it is easy to see how quickly the industry was growing.  Its obtaining greater power was a natural result.

Don't worry - Kid President promised me it's vegan.
Apart from the domestic market for feed grain for livestock, exports for the corn segment were becoming bigger and more attractive.  "[N]ew opportunities for exporting corn, soybeans, and other feed grains during the 1990s strengthened the opposition of the corn segment to production controls."  Large, recently-opened markets included Mexico, with which trade had been liberalized via the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.  Corn sales from the U.S. to Mexico increased as much as four fold, fueling Mexico's growing livestock trade.  Nations forming out of the former Soviet Union were also ripening as new trade customers.  These recent boons meant that in 1996, the corn segment was even more ready to be unrestricted in its potential growth.

Wheat and cotton producers, on the other hand, remained strongly in favor of governmental production control, "but the Corn Belt federations were more influential in the policy proposals of the national Farm Bureau," which still held great sway in Washington.  "The FAIR act eliminated production controls cleanly, without any compromise, buyout, or phasing out."  The needs of wheat and cotton, for the first time in decades, were overshadowed.

Segment divisions were less clear, and FAIR's impact less extraordinary, on the matter of price supports.  Farmers were concerned more with maintaining income than with keeping price supports per se.  What little pushback there was came from the wheat segment.  As such, there was little opposition to a switch toward income supports, particularly in light of the removal of acreage restrictions.

It was important for the government that price supports changed when production controls were removed.
 "[E]liminating production controls significantly increased the danger that the cost of price supports would rise.  As farmers expanded production after the elimination of production controls, market prices would likely fall.  This would lead to greater subsidies through deficiency payments, thereby increasing the budget costs of the farm program.  Decoupling subsidy payments offered a way of eliminating production controls without breaking the budget.  This connection gave further incentive to segments opposed to production controls, in particular the corn segment, to abandon price supports for income supports."
Importantly, "[b]y replacing price supports with fixed payments decoupled from market prices, farmers would actually receive greater subsidies from the government."

The one facet of agricultural supports that remained largely unchanged by FAIR was export subsidies.  This despite the fact that the Export Enhancement Program (EEP) was opposed by part of the corn segment as well as the livestock industry - though both supported other export support programs.  "Providing other nations with subsidized grain that might be used as feed presented the possibility of putting the U.S. livestock industry at a disadvantage by raising the cost of U.S. meat, which does not use subsidized feed."  (?!?!?)  Support from the Farm Bureau and the American Soybean Association was enough to drown out the opposition from other portions of the corn segment, and the policy had strong support from the wheat and cotton segments.  As a result, FAIR not only continued the EEP but even increased its funding.


That the livestock (read: meat) industry has been largely influential in shaping U.S. food policy is old news.  The statement that U.S. mead "does not use subsidized meat," however, threw me for a loop.  Having examined the paragraph at great length, I think maybe it's just awkward phrasing?  The paragraph is discussing livestock's opposition to the EEP, which provides subsidies specifically for commodities being sold for export.  Products sold nationally are subsidized in their production, thus keeping market price down, but the market price itself is not directly subsidized... something like that?  There are oh so many semantics games to be played around food policy.


Agriculture and the Changing World Economy
Food Issues Book Club, The Politics of Food Supply Chapter 6

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Politics of Food Supply, Chapter 6:
Agriculture and the Changing World Economy - the U.S. Food Regime, 1945-1990


After years of grain surpluses through the 1950s and 1960s, the US and the rest of the world were taken aback by famine and imminent starvation around the globe in the 1970s.  The U.S. and other developed nations had been providing international food aid throughout the time of surplus.  "With such increasing production in and agricultural assistance from the United States and other industrialized nations, why did the world face a food crisis in the 1970s?"  There were two main attributes to this food shortage: a reduction in grain supply due to growing conditions issues, and a sudden population growth.  While policymakers assumed that increasing the food supply was all that was necessary to alleviate the shortage, the problem turned out to be far more complex.

International power plays manipulated the flow of food aid in the 1960s.  For example, in the late 1960s the U.S. withheld food aid to India - on which it had grown dependent - over political disputes.  "Food aid was used in similar ways to exert influence in a number of other countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Egypt, Iran, South Korea, Vietnam, and even the Soviet Union," some of the very countries that then experienced famine in the 1970s.  "Additionally, the United States scaled back its food aid programs during this food crisis.  Consequently, international food aid was often unreliable, even dire at times."

No gas, no food.
Another factor was the so-called "green revolution" - a shift in agricultural production toward mechanization for increased production - which of course relied heavily on petroleum, both to run the machinery and in the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  While this technology increased yields, "the green revolution made nations more vulnerable to economic shifts such as the sharp increase in oil prices in the early 1970s."  The oil crisis and the food crisis were thus intrinsically linked.

While growing conditions, population growth, food aid, and oil prices all contributed to the food crisis, the situation was even more complex than the interactions of these factors.  To understand the food crisis, we must understand the international "food regime."  A food regime is shaped by "the extent of state regulation and direction of agricultural trade flow" within, to, and from the hegemon, the country leading the food regime at a given time.  When lesser entities depend on a flow of basic commodities from the hegemon, or when the hegemon begins to consume mass quantities of a lesser nation's products, dependence is created, economies and labor are rearranged, and food security is undermined.

As the hegemon of the early 20th Century, for instance, Great Brittan's food regime relied on heavy imports and free trade.  The U.S.'s acquisition of the hegemon position in the 1940s flipped this regime on its head, with the U.S. relying on strongly regulated agriculture and heavy exports of basic commodities.  "Supply management was the foundation of the U.S. food regime based on national protection and agricultural trade flowing to the periphery."  International food aid was one avenue through which the U.S. exported commodities - and is its favored method of dumping agricultural suplus.

A British family receives US food aid after WWII.
While the Marshall Plan of 1948 provided a recovering Europe with food as well as machinery and fertilizer to help rebuild its agriculture, PL 480 of 1954 sent only food to "peripheral" developing nations "with little effort to build up agriculture." Helping these countries provide themselves with food was not a goal.  "With European agricultural markets essentially closed off by the mid-1950s, the United States turned to Europe's former colonies to dispose of its agricultural surpluses - most notably, wheat."  (Incidentally, this increased consumption of wheat in these countries to rise exponentially.) 

Why, after decades of efforts to manage supply, was there so much agricultural surplus to dump?  Because U.S. efforts at controlling supply tended to not only be ineffective, but in fact have the opposite effect.  By restricting acreage but subsidizing based on volume of commodity produced, policies encouraged farmers not to create less of a commodity, but to increase production of that commodity per acre.  Agricultural technology turned its energies, then, toward that aim.  "After the Second World War, a technological revolution in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, as well as the spread of mechanization, allowed farmers to significantly increase their productivity (that is, production per acre)."

Technology allowed production per acre of most commodities to double between 1945 and 1970.  In this way, supply management policies actually created greater supply.  Importantly, "demand for these commodities did not keep up with the growing supply."  Wheat and cotton particularly suffered market instability due to surplus in the 1950s.  Corn had fewer issues as it was absorbed by the growing livestock industry and its development of concentrated animal feeding operations.  Increasing meat consumption worldwide continued to prevent too much corn surplus for the next several decades.  And yet there was still surplus corn, and it went to food aid.

This growing surplus of commodities was the primary driver behind PL 480, which sought to create international commodity markets via food aid.  Increased exports, including those for food aid, reduced government costs s by increasing market price (and thus reducing subsidy payouts), and by reducing the costs of surplus commodity storage (because there was less to store).  "Thus, the policy rested on the contours of the food regime.  ...  PL 480 firmly established the flow of agricultural goods from the core to the periphery."

The problem, simplified.
To return to the chapter's initial question: how did food crisis arise during a time of widespread agricultural surplus? The short answer is that international food aid - fueled by the U.S.'s commodity surpluses, which were, ironically, created by our attempts at reducing commodity quantities - actually caused the crisis.  It did so by disrupting local agricultural economies and creating dependence on aid that was unsteady.

"PL 480 did not emphasize building up agriculture in other nations, but instead centered almost entirely on supplying cheap agricultural imports.  The consequence was essentially to destroy much local agriculture in the periphery because local producers could not complete with subsidized imports.  ...  When the Soviet Union purchased record amounts on U.S. grain between 1972 and 1974, grain became less abundant and prices rose dramatically.  The result was a financial squeeze that put many food-importing countries on the brink of starvation."


This is a long chapter, and it takes its sweet time getting around to the point of what caused the food crisis of the 1970s.  When it gets there, it only spends half a paragraph on the topic.  Frustrating.

The bottom line is this: U.S. food aid reduces food stability and can even cause famine.  It is not a genuine humanitarian effort, but one sprung from the self-serving need to keep market prices high.  Sure, that's good for "farmers," as long as we understand that "farmers" are the people who own the land, not the people who work it.  U.S. food aid is undertaken in ways that at best fail to account for the impact on the economies of aided countries, and at worst intentionally disrupt those economies to expand our own international markets.  We are not the good guys.  We never have been.


The Decline of the South
Food Issues Book Club, The Politics of Food Supply Chapter 5

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Politics of Food Supply, Chapter 5:
The Decline of the South - Changing Power within U.S. Agriculture

Editor's note: the photographs accompanying the summary were taken at Whitney Plantation (by me) in the summer of 2015.  The Whitney Plantation is the only plantation in the South that operates as a slavery museum (rather than a wedding hotspot).  Originally planted with indigo, sugar, and rice, cotton is still grown on the adjacent property.  After slavery, the plantation was used extensively for sharecropping.  The plantation was built by the Haydel family.  (Yes, that Haydel family.)


As discussed in the previous chapter, the decades between 1945 and 1975 saw dramatic changes in U.S. agricultural policy, accompanied by societal and political shifts in power.
"Southern planters tended to favor supply management policy, but their ability to protect this policy depended on their dominance over southern politics and national policies.  The southern rural class structure, that is, the plantation system, allowed planters to dominate the South's political economy, which then gave them disproportionate influence over national policies.  As this class structure changed during the 1950s and 1960s, however, the southern planters fell from their politically dominant position.  After exerting great influence in Congress, the Democratic Party, and national politics from about 1932 to 1960, planters began to lose political power as the Republican Party gained influence in the South and blacks gained influence in the Democratic Party.  This fall from power had important consequences for agricultural policy because the southern planters were among the most ardent supporters of supply management policy."
Statues of children in the Antioch Church
After slavery was deemed unconstitutional in 1865, Africans and their descendants who had been forcibly brought to the states needed to find a way to make a living.  Likewise, southern planters had to figure out a new way to keep their plantations running, now that they could no longer force people to do the work for no pay.  Part of the solution reached was tenant farming and sharecropping.  "Tenant farmers in the South rented portions of land and supplied the "cultivating power (usually mules) and implements and customarily [paid] two-thirds of the seed and fertilizer costs."  With sharecropping, in contrast, the landowner "[supplied] everything used in production (including housing) except labor and [furnished] half the cost of seed and fertilizer."  Sharecropping looked very much like slavery, the main difference being payment in the form of a share of the crop.  Some tenants were cash tenants, who did not share their crop with the landowner, but these were far less common than sharecroppers or share tenants."

Though this system was clearly better than chattel slavery, it still afforded planters inappropriate levels of power over the laborers.  Tenants unable to pay rent wound up with "crop liens" owed to planters.  Planters could also expel tenants whenever they saw fit.  'The crop-lien system and the informality of contracts often put 'absolute control of relationships in the hands of the landlord.'"

Slave quarters for two families.
Whereas other crop harvests were mechanized in the early 1900s, cotton - the primary cash crop of the South - remained largely hand-harvested until the 1960s.  In 1960, 51% of the southern cotton crop was harvested by hand.  "As late as 1962, most southern states relied heavily on laborers to pick cotton by hand.  Control over a sufficiently large supply of labor was therefore crucial, and this need to secure labor propelled the class structure."  The affording of rights to black people interfered with such control.

The AAA of 1933 was created, at least in part, to provide financial support to southern planters.  Ironically, the Act and planters' reaction to it wound up changing the underlying class structure of the South, and undermining planters' business methods.  "Supply management policy weakened the plantation system by supplying federal subsidies that encouraged planters to replace tenants with hired workers and to mechanize."  This was in large part due to planters' unwillingness to share subsidy payments with tenants and sharecroppers, despite AAA's requirements that they do so.  Cotton "planters kept almost 90 percent of AAA payments in the early New Deal.  Planters had no obligation to share subsidy payments with hired hands.  The planters' greed, then, was ultimately their undoing.

"Though supply management policy helped to initiate the demise of the plantation system, the New Deal left the system of racial oppression and political exclusion in the South largely untouched."  As planters moved away from tenant and sharecropping labor and toward wage labor, southern blacks were pushed off of farms and moved from rural to urban areas.  The "Great Migration" to northern cities enabled blacks to gain a voice in voting - from which they were still shut out in the South through various forms of illegal but socially accepted obstruction and intimidation.  "And although northern cities were not havens of racial equality and democracy, they nonetheless provided blacks with more social and political rights and presented a much smaller threat of violence than that which blacks faced in the rural South."  Even in the South, creating urban communities allowed blacks to become more socially powerful and begin to fight back against racial oppression.

A holding pen for slaves on sale.
"The civil rights movement challenged the political elements of the plantation system that the AAA did not."  The Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi, organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CRE) and focused on black voter registration in the South, increased the voting power and therefore political power of the black community.  The resulting Voting Rights Act of 1965 solidified this shift.  Presidential candidates from both parties suddenly became concerned with courting the black vote, and at least paying lip service to civil rights issues.

"In the 1950s, whites' massive resistance to racial integration enveloped the South.  This resistance was led by the planters and disrupted economic activity and developments, thereby conflicting with the interests of industry."  The civil disobedience actions of the civil rights movement met with violent and disruptive responses from whites.  Those responses (rather than the demonstrations themselves), frequently led or egged on by planters and their cronies, disrupted business and industry and fueled new resentments - and allyships.

Much strife ensued around the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, and the enforced desegregation of public schools that followed.  Schools that chose to shut down rather than desegregate caused economic disinvestment, leading to difficulty in opening new plants.  These disruptions put planters further at odds with the rising southern industrial class.  Blacks aligned with industry, presenting a more united opposition to planters and their way of life.

"[T]he civil rights movement played a hidden though important role in the retrenchment of supply management.  Supply management policy undermined the economic dimensions of the plantation system.  One important effect was to allow blacks to leave the rural South, which helped to create an environment conducive to the rise of the civil rights movement.  This movement for racial equality then challenged the lingering political dimensions of the plantation system as well as the political power of southern planters.  Southern politics became more inclusive, and the Democratic Party began to support civil rights more fully.  All this reduced the power of southern planters over national policies, including agricultural policy.  Thus, the transformation of the southern class structure was the underlying factor that allowed the retrenchment of supply management policy."

Talk about mind blown.  This chapter does an excellent job of drawing lines between agricultural policy and the civil rights movement, something I have literally never thought about before.  I am sure that historians disagree on the degree of influence of various factors in the rise of the civil rights movement, but the evidence here is compelling that agricultural policy at least played a role.

I am frustrated a bit by the tone of this chapter.  In certain passages Winders seems to fully acknowledge the utter wrongness of slavery and the decades of oppression that followed its abolition.  But he also takes a very passive tone about black people being "allowed" to leave rural lands and find their way to urban settings, and how great that ultimately was for the black community.  Let's be clear.  Black people were not "allowed" to leave farms any more than they were "allowed" to seek work as agricultural labor in the states.  They were forced in, and they were forced out again, compelled by white greed in both directions.  That they were able to rise up out the deep-seated and profound structural racism of the Jim Crow South to fight for their rights is a testament only to their own strength and courage.  They were done no favors.

A light bulb went off for me in the discussion of the movement of blacks into more urban areas between 1930 and 1960.  White flight!  I have tried to understand the process of white flight here in New Orleans; its scars are all over the city.  My own father's family moved away from the Irish Channel and to Kenner after the first black person, a tailor, purchased a house on their block.  (Mind you my family was not well-to-do - they were poor Irish and my dad was a foster kid, one of many.  And even for them, living on a block with a black homeowner was more than they could bear.)  It dawned on me in reading this chapter that in all my thinking about where the white people went and why, I hadn't thought about where the black people were coming from.  Certainly some were coming from neighborhoods with a higher concentration of black residents.  To this day, New Orleans has neighborhoods that are nearly 100 percent black.  But perhaps some were also coming, literally, from the cotton fields.  Or maybe the line was not quite that direct.  Perhaps someday I will find the time and skill to dig up the research that undoubtedly exists about the movement of black people, post-emancipation, in southern Louisiana.

Finally, I would be remiss to mention the forced desegregation of schools in the South without mentioning Ruby Bridges.  On November 14, 1960, Ruby became the first black person to attend a public school in New Orleans.  1960.  Ruby was just a baby when she was put into the desegregation spotlight, and had to be guarded by court marshals because of threats upon her baby life.  She was too young to really know what was happening.  Whether because of or despite that early experience, she grew into an incredible woman who is quite active in the New Orleans social justice community.  Incidentally, before moving to New Orleans, Ruby's family were sharecroppers in Mississippi.

An "uncredited DOJ Photographer" shot this iconic photograph.


Shifting Agricultural Coalitions
Food Issues Book Club, The Politics of Food Supply Chapter 4

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Politics of Food Supply, Chapter 4:
Shifting Agricultural Coalitions - Sliding Back toward the Free Market, 1945-1975


The slow retrenchment of federal agricultural supports for the 30 years post-WWII was driven by "dynamics within agriculture," but politics also played a role.  Republicans took the White House in 1952 for the first time in 20 years, and policies shifted slowly back toward deregulation.  "With Republicans in control of the executive branch, the USDA, and the House and Senate agricultural committees, a dramatic policy shift might have seemed imminent."  Opposition from both parties, though, slowed change.  Congress, it seemed, could not reach a consensus on the direction of agricultural policy, nor could presidential administrations.

Several waves of change occurred in the decades after WWII:
 "The period from 1945 to 1975 can be divided into three shorter periods, each marked by an important change in agricultural policy.  First, price supports were reduced and made flexible between 1945 and 1954.  Second, production controls were weakened between 1954 and 1964.  Third, both price supports and production controls were significantly changed in the early 1970s."
PL 480 created the Office of Food for Peace.
During WWII, price supports had been raised to 90% parity.  Though legislative intention was that supports would revert to 52-75% parity two years after the war, extensions in 1948, 1949, and 1952 kept parity at 90% until 1954.  Small reductions at last came in the 1954 Farm Bill under Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Benson, which reduced supports to 75-90% parity.  In the same year, the Agriculture Trade Development and Assistance Act, also known as Public Law 480 or PL 480, was passed.  The act "aimed to create new markets for U.S. agricultural commodities in the periphery of the world economy through the use of international food aid."

By the late 1940s, the corn segment of the farm bloc had begun opposing acreage restrictions.  Additionally, the Farm Bureau began calling for flexible price supports that would change with market prices.  "In its official policy statement, the Farm Bureau stated, 'we do not consider it the responsibility of the Government to generate profitable prices to any group.'"  Such flexibility was opposed by wheat and cotton segments, which continued to champion price supports and supply management.  The cotton-wheat coalition prevailed until 1954.

The corn sector fought production controls across the board, not just for itself, due to both a desire to keep livestock feed prices low, and because it feared competition from other feed crops.  Cotton producers, for instance, were turning to growing soybeans on the land from which it was restricted from growing cotton.  Soybeans are a feed crop that could compete with corn.  Without limits on cotton production, such alternate production would be unnecessary for cotton growers.  It must be noted that the Corn Belt was also home to 64-70% of U.S. hog production.  As is the case today, corn was grown primarily for livestock, not human, consumption.  Use as hog feed combined with increasing meat consumption prevented for corn the surpluses that wheat and cotton were experiencing.  "Coupled with the emerging livestock complex, which rested on intensive and industrial production methods, this increasing consumption of animals made supply management policy less necessary for feed grains, especially corn."

Corn production in the U.S.

Hog production in the U.S.  Notice any correlation?
In contrast, wheat continued to support production controls as its global demand lessened.  The cotton segment, which frequently grew corn on acreage disallowed for cotton growth by production restrictions, naturally desired high fixed corn price supports.  "The cotton segment's embeddedness within the Democratic Party and Congress virtually ensured the protection of its interests whenever this party held Congress or the White House."  The shift in 1954 to a Republican White House and Congress allowed the corn segment to become the more influential interest, and policies began to change to align to the benefit of corn.  However, strong representation of the wheat and cotton segments in the House and Senate agricultural committees prevented the shift toward free-market policies from happening too quickly.  "With southern planters so influential in Congress and the wheat segment splitting the Republican Party, the cotton-wheat coalition exerted substantial influence over agricultural policy."

Wheat and cotton segments' support of production controls, however, waned after 1954, ultimately resulting in further retrenchment by the mid-1960s.  Wheat interests moved away from rigid and toward flexible production controls as a result of PL 480, which had created a market for wheat surpluses by increasing export opportunities.  "Food aid secured markets for U.S. wheat by changing diets and agricultural production in periphery nations.  With exports expanding, U.S. wheat growers could increase production rather than trying to control it."  Likewise, the cotton segment's interests shifted when it moved away from cotton and toward soybeans.  By the time of the 1964 Cotton-Wheat Act, corn, wheat, and cotton were once again aligned in policy preference - this time in wanting to move away from the support and control policies each previously promoted.

The next significant policy change came in 1973 with the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act (ACPA), which "removed parity from price supports and dropped acreage reduction requirements."  The bill received strong support from all agricultural regions.  Some segments - particularly corn, which had experienced an explosion in export rates - opposed the bill because it did not completely eliminate supports and restrictions (which had become voluntary).  But this opposition was not strong or ubiquitous enough to prevent the bill's passage.  Wheat supported the bill due to its still-increasing exports.  Cotton remained in favor of price supports but opposed strict controls as synthetic fibers became cheaper and more prevalent than cotton, cotton imports increased, and soybean sales continued to grow, but ultimately supported the bill.

Two primary factors made the passage of the ACPA in 1973 possible:
"First, the world economic context reduced the need for production controls or price supports, at least in the short term.  Exports of cotton, wheat, corn, and soybeans flourished [as a result of PL 480].  Second, the cotton-wheat coalition suffered from a decrease in power.  Southern planters had become large commercial farmers, losing their hold over regional politics and the Democratic Party.  This made it much less likely that the cotton segment, even in an alliance with wheat, could get the farm program of their choice as they had in the past."
Ironically, the supply management policies so long supported by southern Democrats ultimately undermined their political power.


That corn producers gained prominence in determining the direction of U.S. agricultural policy in the 1960s, and have not yet let go, is evident in our supermarkets.  Corn's superiority strikingly clear in this setting.  One aisle offers all fresh produce and dairy products, another half an aisle offers meats, and one more presents wheat in its various forms.  And in the ten to fifteen aisles in between, corn reigns supreme.  Even those products not made of corn contain it in some form.  Staters who eat processed foods eat a lot of corn.  Even the meats offered are arguably corn products, given that most livestock animals are fed corn-based diets.  Meat, then, could really be said to be processed corn.


Corn. (And, yes, a lil rice and wheat.  But there's corn in there, pretty much always.)
King Corn, if you haven't seen it yet, is worth watching.

I am keen to learn more about PL 480 and its use of food aid to bolster U.S. exports.  It should be noted that U.S. food aid, so frequently touted as a great humanitarian effort, was embarked upon not out of some expression of generosity and caring but to support the profitability of U.S. crops.  While I too would love to believe that we, as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, provide food and other aid to "developing" countries out of the goodness of our hearts, this has simply never been the case.


Winning Supply Management
Food Issues Book Club, The Politics of Food Supply Chapter 3 (Part 2)

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Politics of Food Supply, Chapter 3 (Part 2):
Winning Supply Management - A New Deal for Agriculture, 1933-1945

Summary (continued from previous post):

Despite requirements for planters (land owners) to share AAA price support payments with tenants and sharecroppers - the people actually growing food - many planters refused to do so.  Divisions arose within the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (the administrative arm of the AAA)  as to whether "rural reform" should be a goal.  In particular, Oscar Johnston and Cully Cobb, respectively the Finance Division and Cotton Section heads, "had significant ties to southern planters.  The primary focus of these conservative agrarians was raising farm prices through production controls; rural reform was largely absent from the agenda."  {In other words, the white landowners and their pals had no interest in creating equity for poor and black farmworkers.}

Maps are really interesting y'all...
A group of "urban liberals" within the Administration, headed by the Undersecretary of Agriculture and the Administration's general counsel, argued for tenants and sharecroppers, pushing for payment sharing and even land redistribution so that the workers could access subsidies and become self-sustaining.  Outside the Administration, the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union (STFU) was formed by socialist organizers.  "[T]heir efforts were met with violence and intimidation.  Administration members' "contacts in the South told them that [STFU] were Communists trying to start uprisings among black tenants and croppers."  Though the urban liberals made a valiant attempt to support sharecroppers and tenants, they quickly lost their jobs in the administration for it.

"Despite the liberal purge, legislation in 1938 required landowners to share AAA payments with tenants and sharecroppers.  Following this legislation, however, planters frequently expelled tenants from their land and hired croppers and tenants as wage laborers, who had no legal claim to federal farm subsidies.  In this way, the planters won the battle over the distribution of AAA payments.  Here again, supply management policy, centered on price supports and production controls, solidified its position as the core of the U.S. agricultural policy.  Ironically, as Chapter 5 explains, this policy ultimately undermined the very system that planters and conservative agrarians fought to protect: the southern plantation system."

In 1941, the AAA was amended to include 14 additional crops, and increased support levels for the basic commodities.  These were raised again in 1942.  Cotton supports were further raised in 1945, by which time supports were being provided by a whopping 166 commodities (up from the original six).  Interestingly, these increases occurred while "wartime demand solved the problems that farmers had faced during the previous two decades."  Concurrently, all efforts toward "rural reform" - the support of poor small farms, sharecroppers, and tenants - dissolved.


Until now, I had no idea of the level of structural racism that has been built into U.S. agricultural policy.  Given the history of U.S. agriculture (read: slavery), this cannot be a surprise.  Structural racism was present in many policies of that time, as is indicated by a bit of an offhand comment Winders makes early in the chapter: "[T]he Social Security Act of 1935 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1937 both explicitly excluded agricultural workers.  As a result, most southern blacks were effectively excluded from these federal policies."

A Louisiana sharecropper, 1939
After Africans and their descendants were emancipated from slavery, many turned to sharecropping and tenant farming - a way to put already obtained skills to use to support themselves.  Sharecropping was nearly always a life of poverty and debt.  While many sharecroppers were white, nearly all black people in the South worked in agriculture as they were not permitted to work in other industries.  Winders notes that "neither tenant farmers nor sharecroppers had much access to voting," and that "planters tended to dominate the local committees administering the AAA, while tenants were largely excluded from representation."  The subtext here is that while nearly all planters were white and wealthy, sharecroppers and tenants were all poor and many were black.

The "urban liberals" within the AAA Administration literally lost their jobs when they tried to take action on behalf of the poor and black.  Black people were first legally and then illegally prevented from voting, meaning that they could have no influence on their representatives in Local, State, or Federal Government.  Blacks were also not allowed into meetings of white men.  The legacy of this outright denial - at the hands of the government and of powerful whites - of the right to work and be paid for work is still clearly visible in the abject poverty of so many communities of color in the South today.


Winning Supply Management
Food Issues Book Club, The Politics of Food Supply Chapter 3 (Part 1)

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Politics of Food Supply, Chapter 3 (Part 1):
Winning Supply Management - A New Deal for Agriculture, 1933-1945


"In the depth of the depression, a time of dire need and despair, the Federal Government began to pursue a seemingly irrational policy: restricting the production and availability of many essential goods, including food."  Just a few months after his election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) into law as part of his "New Deal."  The act was drafted by members of the new administration's Department of Agriculture with assistance from agrarian economist Mordecai Ezekiel, based on previous legislative efforts, and influenced by farm organizations and policy experts.  It was also necessarily designed to be acceptable to the southern Democrats that then held powerful positions in Congress.

Among other provisions, the Act provided price supports for certain commodities and also restricted acreage.  The Community Credit Corporation (CCC) was created by the Act to administer its prescribed prices supports.  When market prices were above accepted levels, farmers could market their crops.  When market prices fell below the target price, though, farmers forfeited their crops to the CCC for the established support level price, limiting supply and exerting pressure on the market.  Farmers were thus paid a reasonable price for their crops whether sold on the open market or forfeited, and the government obtained surplus crops to do with as it wished.

The price supports were based on "parity" with a brief, five-year period of agricultural success:
"Price support levels were meant to raise agricultural prices, and hence farm income, relative to other consumer and industrial prices.  Therefore, price supports were based on "parity," which aimed to give agricultural commodities "the same purchasing power in terms of goods and services farmers buy that the commodities had" in the period 1909 to 1914, when agricultural prices reached historic heights relative to other prices.  Price supports, then, gave agricultural prices parity with industrial prices, based on the ratio of prices between 1909 and 1914."
In addition to these price supports, "AAA required farmers to adhere to acreage allotments, which were determined by growers' historical production of basic commodities."  Farmers who did not adhere to acreage limitations could not receive price supports, even when farms remained small.  Those farmers who nevertheless chose to ignore acreage restrictions could be limited by the USDA in how much of a crop they could put on the market.  "Whether through restrictions on acreage or marketing, production controls under the AAA sought to eliminate surpluses and their degenerative effect on agricultural prices and farm income."  In this way and others, larger operations were advantaged by the Act.

Commodities initially covered by the AAA were corn, wheat, cotton, rice, tobacco, and peanuts.  Both price supports and control efforts for these crops were funded by a tax on agricultural processors.  This tax, unsurprisingly, was highly controversial.

Other provisions of the AAA involved the destruction of commodities.  One of the Act's first iterations came in the form of the Pig Purchase Program, wherein the government purchased and slaughtered approximately 6 million hogs to raise the price of pork and other pig products.  Farmers were also paid to reduce hog production.  The slaughtered pigs were used as fertilizer, hog feed, and food for the poor.  The government was not alarmed that much of the fertilizer went to waste, "because the central goal of the programs was to remove pigs from the market - not to provide relief for people left poor and hungry in the economic collapse."  Similar overproduction-destruction tactics were used for crops and cotton; to ensure an increase in pork prices, production of feed crops was also reduced.

The 1933 AAA did decrease production, which resulted in increased agricultural good prices and thus farm income.  Nevertheless, the Act faced opposition from some farmers, some government administrators, and most strongly from the processing corporations footing the bill via taxes.  Some farmer organizations opposed price supports based on parity: National Farmer's Union president John Simpson argued that such prices were too low, amounting to less than half the cost of production.  Some also argued that "agricultural production should not be reduced until all Americans had adequate diets."

The Farmers Independence Council, a voice for meatpackers, "claimed to be protecting the liberty and independence of farmers from government control" in its opposition to AAA's government oversight provisions.  Other farm organizations recognized that the costs of taxes on processors were ultimately paid by farmers in the form of increased processing fees.  The FDR administration used distasteful tactics to discredit these organizations.

Those who stood to lose money as a direct result of the AAA - the newly taxed processors - opposed the act most vehemently.  They did so through the courts.  "Various processors sued the government claiming that this tax was an undue burden and was therefore unconstitutional."  By the time the Supreme Court heard U.S. v. Butler, over 1700 cases had been filed.  The decision in Butler in 1936 ultimately ruled the AAA unconstitutional, because it levied a tax that benefited one group rather than the nation as a whole, and because federally enforced acreage restrictions infringed upon States' rights.  Thus, "supply management policy was lost, at least briefly, under pressure from agribusiness processors."

In response, congress quickly passed the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act.  The Act "paid farmers to reduce their production of soil-depleting crops, which tended to be defined so as to overlap with the commodities that were overproduced."  Funds came from the general fund of the treasury, and the controls were couched as "in the interest of general welfare."  The AAA was re-issued in 1938, this time drawing from treasury general funds.


Two initial thoughts:
  1. Is it super weird that prices were based on those of a five year period?  Like, really?
  2. Tobacco was covered?  Tobacco has literally no real purpose.  It's like sugar or coffee: people reaaaaaaly like it, but if they never ever had it again in their lives they'd suffer no ill effects and would in fact probably be better off.  This speaks, I think, to how highly we value our vices - or perhaps to the strength of the tobacco industry.
Then there's this doozy:  Six million pigs.  SIX MILLION PIGS.  Six.  Million.  Pigs.  I'm really not sure when I'm going to get over that.  Yet again, we have a stunning example that money is more important to both the U.S. Government and especially to the food industry than hungry people are.  Perhaps we should remind the GMO champions of that...

Let us take a moment now to dissect the following sentence: "The slaughtered pigs were used as fertilizer, hog feed, and food for the poor."
  • Slaughtered pigs used as fertilizer?  This is not now, nor has it ever been, a common practice.  Rotting meat does not make good fertilizer.  It's not surprising, then, that there was little demand for it and it went to waste.  I shudder to think of those storage units.
  • Slaughtered pigs as hog feed?  This is, sadly, a common practice in the industrial meat industry.  Until very recently, actually, when the wider world gained a better concept of what prions are because of "mad cow disease," forcing farm animals to be cannibals was an everyday occurrence.  Farm animals are fed to farm animals to this day - it is only required that they must not eat their own species.
  • Slaughtered pigs as food for the poor?  Clearly this is not ideal.  Ethically and factually, pigs do not need to die for people to be fed.  HOWEVER.  If the government had decided that these pigs would die regardless of how their bodies would be used afterward, which evidence indicates is the case, the absolute least they could do would have bee to use those deaths to help people struggling through the country's worst economic crisis to date.  Clearly, though, the government was concerned only with the welfare of people who happened to own large businesses.  Sound familiar?
It is also quite unsurprising that, rather than cut into profits, processors both passed tax costs on to farmers and also pushed back on paying the tax to the point of litigation.  Of note, one of the loudest voices among the grumbling meatpackers was Oscar Meyer, then "president of one of the largest meat processors."  Yes, that one.

Given my legal background, I exhibit no surprise that this Act was taken down by a SCOTUS decision.  The dissent to that decision is quite interesting, stating in its conclusion:
A tortured construction of the Constitution is not to be justified by recourse to extreme examples of reckless congressional spending which might occur if courts could not prevent -- expenditures which, even if they could be thought to effect any national purpose, would be possible only by action of a legislature lost to all sense of public responsibility. Such suppositions are addressed to the mind accustomed to believe that it is the business of courts to sit in judgment on the wisdom of legislative action. Courts are not the only agency of government that must be assumed to have capacity to govern. Congress and the courts both unhappily may falter or be mistaken in the performance of their constitutional duty. But interpretation of our great charter of government which proceeds on any assumption that the responsibility for the preservation of our institutions is the exclusive concern of any one of the three branches of government, or that it alone can save them from destruction is far more likely, in the long run, "to obliterate the constituent members" of "an indestructible union of indestructible states" than the frank recognition that language, even of a constitution, may mean what it says: that the power to tax and spend includes the power to relieve a nationwide economic maladjustment by conditional gifts of money.
You tell 'em, Justice Stone.