Q & A with food and agriculture policy veteran Kathy Ozer

(Note: I originally posted this on DC Food for All)

Anyone who thinks living in D.C. precludes any chance to influence national food policy should meet Kathy Ozer. Since 1987, this Adams Morgan resident has been representing farmers and fighting to fix what she calls a “broken” national food system. She currently serves as the executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition on Capitol Hill. Last month, she keynoted the Future Harvest conference, the annual gathering of the Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. This year’s gathering also included a special presentation by Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan on the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.

As a long-time resident of D.C., Ozer also strongly supports local initiatives to make healthy food accessible to low-income consumers in the District, and bringing fresh, nutritious food to the city’s school cafeterias. I recently spoke to Ozer about what she does, and how anyone—with or without a vote in Congress—can help put the pieces together.

How did you get involved in farmers’ rights?

I came to the coalition from the perspective of how important it was to have different voices represented on Capitol Hill, but I definitely did not grow up on a farm. I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. In the 1970s and the 80s, my family was supportive of the Bethesda Food Co-op. So since then, I’ve always had a real interest in food access issues and where food fit into some of the broader sets of issues that we all confront.

What does your organization do, and how does it tie into local food issues?

One of the things that the Family Farm Coalition has done since it started is to connect groups around the country to organize and mobilize on a policy level. These are very important to the day-to-day lives of farmers and of consumers, as people who, hopefully, directly eat more of the food that is being produced.

Tell us about your keynote at the Future Harvest conference.

It was kind of a snapshot about why it’s important to be involved in policy. Many people at the conference seemed pretty interested in what they should do themselves at an immediate level. [I said that] one of those things is to participate in the USDA’s upcoming workshops on antitrust enforcement issues; also to answer action alerts and different messages when there are key issues coming up in congress, and not to be complacent just because there are people in these positions now who support these issues. They need the pressure from all of us.

I also spoke about some of the implementation issues of the Farm Bill. One has to do with ensuring that all the farm programs are able to be used by all farmers regardless of their race or their sex or what geographic area they may live in. So we need to make sure that something called the Diversity Initiative that we all fought for in the 2008 Farm Bill gets implemented as fairly as possible.

What pending legislation should food security activists be watching?

I think the most immediate opening is the whole rewriting of the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. Our coalition is a part of the Community Food Security Coalition [CFSC], and in that role we’ve been pushing really hard for a program called Farm to Cafeteria, which would provide federal funds through grants to enable schools to better set up either the physical infrastructure or actual distribution networks to be better sourcing from local farmers. In [the Farm Bill of] 2004, we got this Farm to Cafeteria legislation into law, but it didn’t have funding attached to it. So one of the biggest requests is for there to be mandatory funding.

Also, there is a part of the TRADE Act that puts forward what a fair trade policy would be instead of the free trade and open markets we’ve had. It’s got a really strong agriculture, food security, and food safety piece to it. So our coalition, along with other groups have been pushing hard for that change in trade approach.

Many of our readers live in Washington, D.C. without a vote in Congress. How can we influence these discussions?

For national legislation, if people have moved here from other places and have family back in other parts of the country, engage them in the political process with their representatives.

Also, there are members of Congress who, even if we’re not directly voting for them, are either on the senate subcommittee on appropriations for D.C., on the House subcommittee that has oversight for D.C. operations, or are making policy decisions that directly affect D.C. They need to hear from us too.

I think the most immediate role is weighing in on legislation like the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act and farm to school initiatives. The Community Food Security Coalition will be developing action alerts on these issues, and there are members of congress from the Washington area who can play a really important role in that. The recent launch by First Lady Michelle Obama on tackling childhood obesity and the new task force is a very important initiative. As a group that represents family farmers we want to be sure that the farmers who are growing our food and milking cows on a daily basis have access to the credit they need to plant their crops. President Obama’s State of the Union announcement of channeling $30 billion to the community banks is a hopeful sign this winter.

I think what we can do right now as voters is to make sure as many members of Congress as possible have sponsored the TRADE Act.

You can also go to those USDA/Department of Justice workshops and take other opportunities to urge the government to take actions on behalf of consumers and in the public interest—not just agribusiness and other corporate interests—when they’re developing farm policy. With the Supreme Court decision about the role of corporations in the issue of campaign finance, I think that issue becomes an even bigger concern.

On the local level, there’s a proposal on the D.C. City Council for a farm to school program here. I think the importance of having some models here that could be replicated, and learning from other models, is critically important.

How about other actions in our everyday lives?

Whether you’re thinking about a restaurant or hiring a local caterer or going to a conference center or holding a meeting, ask where the food that’s being served is from, and try to make sure that it’s fair and reflects the priorities we’re all pushing for. The same applies to schools and hospitals or other institutions, or your place of worship, to make sure that they’re using fair trade coffee, to make sure that they’re more involved in making connections between fair policies on the ground and fair policies for us as consumers.

And certainly some of us have varying degrees of access, but shopping at local farmers markets, figuring out how you can find markets over the winter [hint: look here], and if some of the farmers are doing online sales, and making that extra effort to get out there and be supportive of the people who are raising that food.

On top of the bright spots in upcoming legislation, are there other hopeful signs for farmers and low-income consumers?

On January 22, the Department of Justice filed a law suit against two companies that were trying to buy each other that would reduce the competition in the school lunch program with the purchases of milk for a couple of states. While that may not directly influence us in D.C., it affects many of the same companies that have an impact in D.C.

One of the incredible things that was able to be done at the Future Harvest Conference was that all of the food was sourced from farmers in the region. And the chefs there at that conference center cooked it and it was great food. With the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign, we have the potential for conference centers like this—particularly those that are owned and managed by the U.S. government—to serve that kind of food. This applies to schools and other institutions as well.

At the conference, people in the audience asked about media. I said I was happy about [the films] “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh.” The public understanding of these issues is something we should capitalize on and use to get the word out on what needs to be changed in the food system. The movie “Fresh” will be coming out nationally in movie theatres this spring and that’s another opportunity for more outreach to these issues.

Overall, what will fix the “broken” food system?

The fix is not just to redirect who gets the subsidy payments. Our position is that we shouldn’t be subsidizing any kind of food with taxpayer money. We should be creating programs and having the government involved so that farmers themselves are getting a fair price and have real competition in the market. And consumers shouldn’t be dependent on subsidies, either. If we had better access to good paying jobs and a health care system that worked, there would be less demand for stamps and food assistance programs.

What this really gets to, in our view, is a need for the government to get involved, but that involvement isn’t just writing checks. It is enforcing existing laws, developing new laws for enforcement, working in antitrust, and creating grain reserves so we don’t have an instability in the system like we do now.

I think at the heart of all of these issues is how to make sure that consumers of all incomes and all economic statuses have access to healthy food at an affordable price and at the same time have people who are selling that food at the farm level be able to cover the cost of production and be able to survive.

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