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The People's Summit: Bernie Sanders, Divest Your Plate!

I'm thrilled to be going to the People's Summit in Chicago next week. Today, the organizers gave us a chance to submit a question to Senator Bernie Sanders, who will be the keynote speaker on Saturday. Here's what I wrote:

Dear Senator Sanders, our diet feeds climate change, high health care costs, and personal misery. According to the United Nations, animal agriculture is the largest source of greenhouse gases. Few Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables to ward off preventable cases of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and early death. What steps would you take to change our agricultural subsidies, public food purchases, and nutrition education to move Americans toward a more plant-based diet?

This question seems more important than ever now that the United States has shamefully pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords. If our government won't work with the rest of the world to avert environmental disaster, then it's up to us. We can make a real difference by voting with our forks.

Divest Your Plate: Local, Organic, Plants, Fair Labor, Less Waste

My Dream Answer

Here's an answer that would have me dancing in the aisle at the People's Summit. Bernie, please feel free to use it. Everyone else, please share.

Yes, animal agriculture has a huuuuuge impact on our quality of life and the health of our planet. I come from the dairy state of Vermont and know that grazing can make good use of land that is unsuitable for farming*. But crowding animals into sheds and feeding them corn, fish meal, and even feathers is uncalled for. The brutal conditions in slaughterhouses (warning: image) also contribute to high rates of suicide and domestic abuse among the people who work there. We need to stop hog farmers from spraying hog excrement in ways that contaminate the air and homes of their neighbors, often people of color. We must stop wasting about 1/3 of the food we produce, particularly energy-intense meat and cheese.

In short, we need to divest our plates. Here's how:

  1. Shift our agricultural subsidies from growing animals to growing locally adapted, organic plants. We need to build a robust food system with a rich network of local farms that grow locally adapted varieties in a sustainable way. We need to make it affordable for young families to start farming and help small and mid-sized farms succeed. Farm workers need better conditions and better pay. That includes guest workers, who sometimes work in conditions approaching slavery. Imagine how many people who are now out of work could benefit from good jobs growing our food.
  2. Shift government food purchases towards plant-based meals. We don't need to ban meat or dairy, but we can easily reduce the amount we use. Research shows that making healthy food more convenient leads to -- surprise! -- more people eating more healthy food. So let's put the vegetables in front of the meat on the buffet line. Put bananas instead of candy bars at the cash register. Avoid dairy, which is hard to digest for many people who do not come from Northern European stock. At an event like the People's Summit, serve people hummus wraps unless they ask for the turkey sandwich, not other way around. Let's show kids how delicious plant-based meals are in schools. Families receiving public food subsidies should have easy access to vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. And they should get incentives to buy local produce, an approach that has already proven successful in many communities. Government food service should observe Meatless Mondays and make plant-based choices available at every meal. This includes cafeterias on campuses, military bases, and the Senate Dining Room. We will all benefit from a healthier and more alert populace.
  3. Teach and demonstrate healthy eating, based the advice of scientists, not lobbyists. To do this, we need to restructure the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The USDA's top priority is keeping farmers and ranchers in business. It's also supposed to "harness the Nation's agricultural abundance to end hunger and improve health in the United States." Guess what? This means the USDA tells us to eat more of the most profitable food to drive up farm income, even in the face of our current obesity epidemic! It means that millions of our tax dollars go to help fast food companies like Domino's Pizza and Taco Bell sell more cheese. On the other hand, the FDA's top priority is protecting the public health. They are the ones who should develop our dietary guidelines. The guideline process, which happens every five years, must be run by nutritionists, not lobbyists. And finally, we need to serve up nutritional education along with healthy meals every chance we get, from pre-school to colleges and from military bases to retirement homes.

No matter what Bernie says and no matter what our government does, we get a chance at every meal to slow climate change. Let's use our power to work for a better world.

* Please remember, I'm channeling Bernie here. Personally, I'd rather decrease the population than rely on animal agriculture to feed the maximum possible number of humans.

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