Tom Philpott delivers a nice reality check on the Obama campaign's almost wholly disappointing approach to food policy. Despite the momentary flash of promise when Obama mentioned Michael Pollan's work in an interview, his subsequent appointments and statements haven't demonstrated an evident commitment to understanding farm policy as a question of food rather than a question of food producer interests. Indeed, Obama's agricultural adviser, Marshall Matz, is a partner at a law and lobbying firm that represents agricultural interests against federal regulators. And he also served as co-chair of Obama's rural outreach committee, which neatly places him on the wrong side of another problem in farm policy: The tendency to understand it as an issue that's mainly of interest to rural Americans who produce food rather than urban or suburban residents who eat food. That's two for two.
But these are not ideological fights. It's not the product of a disagreement between food advocates and Obama. Farm policy is classic case of interest group politics. It's a low priority issue. There's little media attention or non-profit oversight. A small group -- in this case, producers of food -- is directly affected and loudly vocal. They dominate the issue and bend the outcomes to their benefit. The broader community of folks who eat food -- all of us, more or less -- don't clearly see the connection between policy and plate and so pay little attention to federal action. Our interests are largely lost because there's little in the way of political reward for serving the silent. Expecting Obama to change that because he read a magazine article is a sucker's bet. Obama's picks are traditional because he's a rational politician, and he's subject to the same incentives all politicians are subject to. The answer isn't in better, or more enlightened, politicians. It's in changing the surrounding political incentives. People who want farm policy to become food policy need to find ways to become louder.
On a related note, there's a new blog -- Obama Foodorama -- following all things at the intersection of Barack and food. And when I say all things, I mean everything from ag policy to Obama's visit to Ben's Chili Bowl (one of DC's most overrated institutions, incidentally). Check it out.