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‘Food movement’ leaders form policy watchdog group

By JERRY HAGSTROM

The Environmental Working Group and 11 other organizations that consider themselves part of the “food movement” today announced a new organization called Food Policy Action, and released a scorecard on every senator and House member based on 32 floor votes — 18 in the Senate, 14 in the House — that Congress has taken over the past two years.

The National Food Policy Scorecard, a phrase the group has trademarked, gave members of Congress ratings between 100 and zero and declared 11 senators and 39 House members to be “food champions” and some others as “food policy failures.”

All champions were Democrats except for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who caucuses with the Democrats, and all the members who got zeroes were Republicans.

Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook and EWG Vice President Scott Faber said that the effort was not partisan because some Republicans ranked rather well even if they were not at the top, and many Democrats ranked poorly. (For details, see story below.)

Tom Colicchio<br />Tom Colicchio<br />

Tom Colicchio
Tom Colicchio, a restaurant owner and star of the “Top Chef” TV show, said the scorecard is not about politics but about values — “if you value where you food comes from, whether you think organic farming is important, if you value whether or not people go hungry in this country.”

Colicchio said the movement is about how voters can get members of Congress “to change and spend my money the way I want them to spend my money. Will they spend my money according to the values I have?”

Cook said he and the other group leaders formed the organization after they began asking a year ago “why the food movement does not yet have political clout,” and realized “there are not a lot of political institutions in the food movement.”

To date, the term “food movement” has included just about anyone who questioned industrial agriculture, from vegans to city dwellers who want to raise animals in their backyards.

Ken Cook

Ken Cook
Asked whether the founders of Food Policy Action were declaring themselves an institution that can speak for the food movement, Cook said that there are a lot of differences among the founding members on individual issues. He also noted that no farm group had been asked to join the new group because it would be hard to find “common ground” with them. (For a list of founding groups, see below.)

Food Policy Action’s immediate priority is to inform voters about the standing of each member before the November 6 election, but long term the group hopes to influence members’ voting behavior by informing them that certain votes may be scored, the same way that other groups do.

Whether the group will form a political action committee that would make donations to campaigns is “a great question,” said Cook, who chaired the news conference today. Cook noted that the League of Conservation Voters, whose work seems to be the model for Food Policy Action, has a PAC.

The Food Policy Action website says, “Our mission is to highlight the importance of food policy and to promote policies that support healthy diets, reduce hunger at home and abroad, improve food access and affordability, uphold the rights and dignity of food and farm workers, increase transparency, improve public health, reduce the risk of food-borne illness, support local and regional food systems, treat farm animals humanely and reduce the environmental impact of farming and food production.”

That translates into giving a “thumbs up” to members for voting to limit farm subsidies, repeal the ethanol tax credit, stop the Environmental Protection Agency from legalizing E15 ethanol, require labeling of genetically modified foods, require conservation compliance, offer crop insurance for organic crops, encourage pulse crops in school meals and to spend more on rural development programs that encourage local food systems.

The scorecard also gave a “thumbs down” for voting to reduce funding for domestic and international food assistance programs, weaken EPA pesticide regulation and cut conservation spending to fund disaster assistance.

Food Policy Action is organized as a 501(c)4 organization, Cook said, with an initial $50,000 in funding coming from EWG. The new group is already soliciting donations and “will be able to leave the nest pretty quickly,” Cook said.

“In the interim while raising the funds, EWG staff will do the basic maintenance to figure out which votes should be part of the score card,” he said. “Very soon Food Policy Action will have a staff, its own office, will stand on its own two feet.”

Asked whether Food Policy Action would be willing to take donations from food companies or other groups that oppose corn-based ethanol because they believe it raises feed and food costs, Cook said no anti-ethanol group has offered to make a donation, but “what we accept will be up to the board.”