This article first appeared in a Salon feature reviewing President Obama's first 100 days in office.
That there is anything to report about food and farming in the first 100 days is striking in itself, considering how many pressing issues Obama has on his plate. But the president and, perhaps even more, the first lady have said and done some very encouraging things in this area, though there has been one notable misstep.
Tom Vilsack has sounded a welcome new note at the Department of Agriculture, where he has appointed a proven reformer -- Kathleen Merrigan -- as his deputy, and emphasized his commitment to sustainability, local food systems (including urban agriculture); putting nutrition at the heart of the department's nutrition programs (not as obvious as it might sound), and enlisting farmers in the fight against climate change. He has been meeting with the kinds of activists and farmers who in past administrations stood on the steps of the USDA holding protest signs.
The misstep was a half-hearted effort to trim crop subsidies, by limiting direct payments to farmers grossing more than $500,000 a year and redirecting those funds to childhood nutrition programs. This was framed as a contest between "rich farmers" and "hungry children." If so, the hungry children promptly lost. The unfortunate framing united all farmers against reform, especially since even some of the smallest commodity farmers gross a half million a year -- this is capital-intensive agriculture after all. The plan was quietly dropped after the old guard on the House and Senate agriculture committees dismissed it as a non-starter. Obama will have to develop much smarter proposals to reform subsidies, ones that divide the farm bloc rather than unify it.
Perhaps the most encouraging action so far has come from the East Wing, where Michelle Obama has been speaking out about the importance of real, fresh food, home cooking and gardening. By planting an organic garden on the White House lawn, she launched a thousand victory gardens (vegetables seed is suddenly in short supply), gave conniptions to the pesticide industry (which wrote urging her to use some of their "crop protection products" whether she needed them or not), and at a stroke raised the profile and prestige of real food in America.