On Tuesday President Obama will be making a campaign stop in Marshalltown, Iowa, which happens to be my hometown. I suspect Mr. Obama will be getting all campaigny on things like economic growth, healthcare, education and probably the looming deficit—important topics, to be sure. But the thing is, Marshalltown (and the surrounding county) is a pretty tidy microcosm of our nation’s food system woes.
So, Mr. President, looking through my hometown lens, here are some talking points to help you with your visit:
Like much of the U.S., the area has an obesity problem. Over 28 percent of the adults are obese, and 22 percent of low-income preschool kids are too. Obesity, as we all know, leads to health issues, including diabetes. Eight percent of Marshall county residents have diabetes.
There’s hidden hunger too. According to Feeding America, almost 13 percent of the county’s residents are considered food insecure. That’s nearly 5,000 people, in the middle of some of the richest, blackest soil on the planet, who sometimes don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
That’s a pretty sobering image, and I hope, Mr. Obama, you will address it when you visit, particularly in light of the SNAP benefit cuts now being considered by lawmakers as part of the 2012 Farm Bill.
Maybe it’s my soft spot for Marshalltown, but that part of Iowa is extraordinarily pretty country. Rolling gentle hills, blue-blue sky and green as far as the eye can see. Except that nearly all of that scenery is planted fence-to-fence with genetically modified corn and soybeans. Many in the organic community have been disappointed with the your administration’s GMO-friendly stance. The bubble has burst on GMO-promises of higher yields and solid weed control. Instead, we now have an explosion in superweeds and resistant pests. Farmers now need to increase their use of herbicides and pesticides. That’s bad news for the water supply of some communities, and it’s certainly bad news for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, as those chemicals eventually make their way into our oceans.
According to Reuters, “U.S. fuel companies are required to ensure that 9 percent of their gasoline pools are made up of ethanol this year, which means converting some 40 percent of the corn crop into the biofuel.” But many are calling for a suspension of the mandate to avoid a worrisome global food crisis. While there isn’t an ethanol plant right in Marshalltown, there’s one in nearby Nevada, and many more spread out across the state.
In the midst of a drought, record corn prices and looming world hunger, I hope you will talk about using corn for fuel, and whether you'll suspend the ethanol mandate any time soon.
We know jobs are important to you. But I don’t think there will be a photo op at one of Marshalltown’s biggest employers, the JBS Swift & Company meatpacking plant. They process a lot of the hogs that are grown in the CAFOs nearby. (We’ll get to that in a minute.) The plant is also one that made national news back in 2006, when federal officials raided it just before Christmas in an effort to crackdown on illegal immigrants. Not exactly the way Marshalltown would have liked to have made headlines, unfortunately.
CAFOS, POLLUTION & ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE:
CAFOs, which stand for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, have their own set of problems. Almost 20 million hogs were raised this way in Iowa last year. Most, if not all, of the pigs processed at Swift’s come from CAFOs, where they spent their lives unable to lie down or turn around to scratch an itch. Producers who grow animals this way use a steady stream of antibiotics to keep the animals from getting sick and to speed their growth. But increasing evidence shows this isn’t a good plan. It’s not just the water and air pollution these facilities create, but it’s also their role in a growing antibiotic resistance problem. But we’re pretty sure that’s probably not a feel-good topic you're going to address.
THE GOOD NEWS:
I wanted to include a lot of good news with this post, but finding it proved harder than I thought.
For instance, Marshalltown has doubled the number of farmers markets. (Okay, the number went from one to two, but still!) There’s an organic farm out at the community college on the south side of town too. It was started by Dr. Linda Barnes, a biology professor. You named her a Champion of Change, which included a meeting with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the White House. Sadly, Dr. Barnes is leaving her position at the college to pursue other goals, partly out of frustration that change is a very hard thing to make happen in the middle of Big Ag country. The organic farm will remain, at least for now.
Maybe you'll notice my friend Larry Cleverley’s organic farm on your way to Marshalltown from the Des Moines Airport. Larry grows eight acres of vegetables—everything from potatoes to sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, lettuces, beans of all kinds, garlic and much more. Technically, Larry lives in Mingo, but that’s close enough that I’m claiming him. Larry’s farm is an oasis of diversity in a sea of monocrops. Hat-tip to him.
Will you address any food topics in his talk in Marshalltown tomorrow? That remains to be seen, but we hope you’ll take the opportunity to do so, because much of the things we cover here at TakePart, and talk about on a national level, aren’t issues that happen somewhere else. They’re playing out here in real-time, every single day.
What food issues would you like the candidates to debate on the campaign trail? Let us know in the comments below.
More on the 2012 Elections: