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This Politician Fights for Farmers Every Day

Maggie Borden

October 12, 2017

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It should come as no surprise that Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) has long been an advocate of improving our nation’s food system—when she’s not in Washington fulfilling her duty as a member of the House’s Agricultural Committee, she runs an organic farm, inn, and restaurant in her home state of Maine. Pingree is one of this year’s esteemed group of JBF Leadership Award recipients, and will be honored at the ceremony at Hearst Tower on October 23. We sat down with the pioneering policymaker to discuss the upcoming Farm Bill, fighting food waste, and more.

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JBF: To start off, how does running a farm influence your views on agricultural policy?

Chellie Pingree: I feel very fortunate that I get to be involved in all the processes of running a farm, from trying to make money, to dealing with regulations. I know how to grow plants and raise animals, and those practical experiences inform the days when I have to sit on the other side and make policy. So I feel like I can tackle issues in a way that not everyone can if they’re dealing with agriculture in the abstract, or just relying on what other people say.

JBF: The public is obsessed with clean food and knowing where their food comes from. Do you think that the current cultural fascination has shaped how American farmers are approaching their businesses? Do you think it’s indicative of a real shift, or is it just a fad that will pass?

CP: I would say it’s a massive shift, honestly. I’ve been interested in organic farming for a long time. I studied it in college, and I’ve had an organic farm on-and-off since the 1970s. There’s been an enormous change in the public’s interest in organic and locally grown food. Back in the early 1970s, it was kind of like a hippie Birkenstock back-to-the land thing, and was mostly marginalized. Even when I was a state legislator in the 1990s and trying to argue the points then, people really didn’t know what you were talking about when you spoke about G.M.O.s, or irradiated food, or bovine growth hormone.

Now the customers who come to my farm stand or to the restaurant are so well informed and interested in what’s in the food that they eat. They ask sophisticated questions. They even know a lot about farming techniques, and genetically engineered food, and they have a much higher standard—and, perhaps more importantly, they’re willing to pay for it. People do understand that it’s worth paying a little more if you can buy organic food, or get it directly from the farmer, and this is across all income levels. It’s not just an elitist thing.

JBF: What are your top priorities for the next Farm Bill?

CP: We’re trying to put a lot of money into organic research. The USDA spends less than one percent of its total research dollar on organic-related topics, and organic currently represents about 13 percent of the market. A lot of farmers would like to get into organic growing, but they don’t know that much about current techniques. Also, you just can’t say to a farmer, “just go be organic,” like they did in the 1800s. We’ve learned a lot about agriculture and we should be developing the best possible techniques for organic growing, and it’s just not the best-funded research that’s going on right now. And that’s counter-to-consumer demand, and deprives farmers of the information that they want.

We have lots of other priorities in the farm market: things to make it easier for young people to get the capital to start or expand farms, as well as value-added producer grants which help those who want to add hoop houses to extend their seasons, or develop a small dairy and need to pay for the cost of commercializing a space. There are a lot of ways you can support small, medium, and organic farmers. So much of the Farm Bill’s resources and policies have been focused on mega farms and corporate farms in the Midwest and Southern California. Those kinds of farms have been the industry trend since the 1950s—get big or get out. Now we’re seeing a real change in farmers wanting to be smaller, more manageable, and serve what the consumer is interested in.

JBF: You were part of a group that introduced the Food Recovery Act in Congress this past July. The bill tackles food waste from so many different angles, including the issue of standardizing date labels on food, which you’ve fought for before. Why did you feel like focusing on sell-by and best-by date labels was a good place to start reducing food waste?

CP: We’ve been working on this for the last couple of years, and one of the things we came to realize is that we had to write a comprehensive bill. We had to cover every way that you could change the process: how the consumer deals with food waste, how restaurants deal with it, municipal composting, and more.

One of the biggest problems is that there’s very little definitive date labeling. It’s just an arbitrary measure by the manufacturer, and you can’t always tell if the date listed is the day that the food will make you sick, or is the day where it just starts to taste a little more stale.

That’s why we thought it would be useful to draw up very clear standards. That way, if a product says “best by,” and you want to eat it a month later, it just means it may not taste as good as it did a month ago, but it’s not going to hurt you. And then another label that really lets you know at what point you need to throw the food away from a safety perspective.

JBF: Why did you feel it was important to include new requirements on the application and use of anaerobic digesters on farms—what is the current landscape of usage in the U.S., and how would you like that to change?

CP: More than anything else, we want to encourage the use of anaerobic digesters and composting. We see them both as very valuable, whether it’s for a municipal system or a farm. Maine has a successful model where a large dairy farm that had a significant amount of manure to deal with was able to get a federal grant to build an anaerobic digester. They compost their manure but they also take in a tremendous amount of food waste from restaurants and grocery stores, and they combine that in the digester.

They’re producing electricity for the farm, so that’s obviously a plus, and the end product is also a valuable fertilizer. So it just seems like a real win-win for a farm, and particularly those at the larger scale. 

Composting is also extremely beneficial and we’ve been very supportive of the expanded use of it. The federal government puts a lot of money into waste treatment facilities, be it sewage or solid municipal waste. There’s absolutely no benefit to the landfill having large amounts of organic matter. It doesn’t compost in there, it just adds to the fill, and produces methane gas, which is more toxic than some of the gases we’re already worrying about. Our goal is to reduce the amount of food waste, but we know a lot of it is going to end up in the waste stream, so we have to deal with that. It’s just so much better if a community provides their citizens with a compost bucket. Then you throw your kitchen garbage in there, and the community picks it up once a week like the rest of your waste.

There are a lot of commercial companies getting into this. In Portland, Maine, we have two different private companies that you can get the bucket from and have them pick up your waste. There are cities like San Francisco that are making it a practice, and there are some places where they are saying that in the future there will be no organic waste allowed in the landfills, which is going to force people to deal with it differently, and certainly cut the cost for the municipality or the state.

JBF: Aside from restaurant donation, how does the Food Recovery Act seek to increase the amount of food that is rescued from the trash and given to those in need?

CP: There are components of the legislation that make sure that it’s very clear what the liability laws are and give some protection to grocery stores, restaurants, and other entities that have a fair amount of food that goes to waste, but get worried at times.

Good Samaritan protections need to be very clear so that supermarkets don’t say “well our lawyer said we’d be safer if we just threw it away rather than giving it to the food bank.” We also need to reach directly to consumers. Individuals throw away a lot of food, and this is a good area to have a public service campaign. Educating the public is so crucial, because a lot of people just don’t know. Food is abundant in this country, and a lot of people buy too much and don’t really think about the fact that one, there’s a significant number of people that are going hungry, so you want to make sure any excess gets to the right place, and two, that you have the opportunity to affect what goes into the landfill. 

We’ve changed our habits before—think about recycling cans and bottles. That’s become commonplace because we believe it’s a better way to treat the waste stream. We should have the same ethic around food. 

JBF: More and more chefs are becoming engaged with advocacy and policy. What does this mean to you as a lawmaker? Is there anything you’d like chefs to do more when they come to D.C.?

CP: One of the things I learned when I came to Congress and started to think about how to raise awareness and pass good food policy was that chefs were a very respected and credible source of information for members on both sides of the aisle. Everybody loves restaurants. They love to hear from the chef from their home district, or chefs they’ve heard of in Washington, or New York, and so the chef’s role in helping us make good food policy had been invaluable, and every time we have a day where an organization brings chefs to the Hill, they always get meetings with members of Congress, which isn’t easy to do. And they can talk comfortably with both sides of the aisle, because a lot of these topics are bipartisan, but they’re not on every member’s radar screen.

Good food policy is something that everybody cares about. Everybody eats. So I just can’t say enough about the importance of having chefs who are knowledgeable. They deal with food every day, but they also hear what the consumer is asking for. People want integrity in their food, and so I often think that chefs and farmers have the best ability to change the course of our food policy in this country. The consumers and the public are ready for it, but Congress often lags behind.

So we really need all the help we can get. There are statistics that show that there are more lobbyists and more money spent in the food and farming debate than there are in the defense industry. So that gives you the scale of what we’re up against. Chefs can’t spend enough time helping out here.

Read more about Congresswoman Pingree here. 

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Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.