Johns Hopkins
by Christine Grillo

The Center for a Livable Future and the Department of Environmental Health Sciences Grand Rounds bring you the 15th Annual Edward & Nancy Dodge Lecture

Please click here for Ricardo Salvador’s biography.

Creating a genuine food movement that galvanizes the nation is an audacious goal, but reform is the most American thing we can do.

That was the message delivered last week by Ricardo Salvador as part of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s 15th Dodge Lecture at the Bloomberg School. Salvador, PhD, the director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, gave a talk titled “The Food Movement, Public Health and Wellbeing,” in which he outlined the miseries inflicted upon humans by the current U.S. food system, and possible paths toward improvement.

“There’s a deep truth about the food system that we all need to accept,” said Salvador. “The food system is skewed, and some ethnicities are more seriously impacted than others.” Referring to U.S. military campaigns that appropriated land from First Nations peoples, he gave a brief history of how the current food system is built on the theft of other people’s lands. “If you want to find poor, hungry, immiserated people, you can find them in reservations,” he said.

Slave labor has been a key building block of our food system, he went on to say, and still is. Migrant farm workers are today’s modern slave: they have unsafe working conditions, no access to medical care, no retirement programs, no leverage with which to bargain for rights, and they are the least politically powerful sector of the U.S. population. And without migrant farm workers, our entire food system collapses. “Our food system comes to a complete halt without labor,” he said.

“It’s not incidental who’s hungry,” he said. “People in the food chain, people in the field, the people who pick, process, deliver, and clean up after us—those are the hungry.”

All of our national headlines are in some way related to the food system, he said. Some headlines are directly about food, while others are about climate change, wage inequality, chronic disease, or immigration. All of these headlines relate to the food system. “The cost of our food system to this nation is enormous,” he said.

Salvador outlined how our farm policies, despite their original good intentions, have over time created a network of subsidies for farm agribusinesses. The effect of this subsidy system is that the simplest, most healthful foods are the most expensive. In other words, fruits and vegetables, which are the least marketed, least packaged, and least processed foods far outprice the highly processed, packaged, and marketed food products created from subsidized commodities such as corn. He pointed out that, in fact, 61 percent of our subsidies go toward corn and other grains, while less than one percent—.45 percent—of subsidies support fruits and vegetables, referred to in farm bills as “specialty crops.”

“Because of our food policies and legislation,” said Salvador, “our food system is not a result of a market operating on its own.” There is an uncomfortable and harmful interaction between banking and the food system, he said, and because corporate power is now greater than government power, we need an additional power that “balances the rapaciousness of the market.”

The way out of this oppressive, unjust system, Salvador said, is to find ways to support “good food” that meets the following four criteria: good food is healthy, affordable, green (not damaging to environment or ecology), and fair (decent wages and rights for food chain workers).

Echoing what he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed one month ago with Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and Olivier de Schutter, Salvador called for a coherent national food policy, a call for the government to do less, but better. “This is not an appeal to set up a central unit,” he said. “This is an appeal for coordination.”

The secret of change, he said, is that instead of fighting the old, we build the new. “The crisis of our times is whether democracy is an authentic idea that will survive,” he said. He closed the talk by characterizing Americans as a people who are never satisfied, for whom reform is inherent to their nature. A genuine food movement, he said, “offers the possibility for all of us to fulfill the American Project.”

The Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture is supported through the R. Edward Dodge, Jr. and Nancy L. Dodge Family Foundation Endowment, established through the generosity of Dr. Edward Dodge, MPH ’67, and his late wife Nancy to provide core funding for the Center for a Livable Future.

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