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The Foodie Caucus: In Texas, Politicians Push Good Eats for All

February 20, 2014
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The Foodie Caucus: In Texas, Politicians Push Good Eats for All
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In a state where one-party domination by Republicans would seem to preclude the need for legislative alliance, a fledgling, bipartisan Farm-to-Table caucus finds urban liberals and rural conservatives agreeing in delicious ways.

The old saw “politics makes strange bedfellows” doesn’t seem to hold much weight anymore in Washington, a city where a pillow fight would be a welcome change from the trench warfare that has settled in.

Take the national farm bill, once a vehicle for bringing together those strange bedfellows — urban liberals and rural conservatives — to make farmers happy and to feed the urban needy. Earlier this month, legislators finally passed the nearly $1 trillion bill, but not before arguing rancorously, for four years, over crop subsidies and cuts to the federal food-stamp program.

Meanwhile, in Texas, where one-party domination by Republicans would seem to preclude the need for legislative alliances, there’s a promising act of cooperation: the Farm-to-Table caucus, a “first in the nation” (according to its founders) bipartisan caucus that focuses on promoting the local production of healthy food and helping consumers gain access to it.

Call it the foodie caucus, it was co-founded by State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, a Democrat from Austin whose district includes working-class neighborhoods, a couple of urban farms and some of the city’s hippest new restaurants, and State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican who hails from the rural town of Brenham, east of Austin, home to the much-loved Blue Bell ice creamery. The joint effort has been spreading the word to both policymakers and to the public about the goodness of sustainable, locally grown foods — produced by family farms, ranches and fisheries, along with urban farms — and reducing the regulatory obstacles that hinder their sale.

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“For many, food means freedom, and we must make sure we lower the barriers to that freedom,” says Rodriguez.

In 2013, for example, the House passed a bill introduced by State Rep. David Simpson, a Republican caucus member, to allow sampling at farmers’ markets. Previously, health regulations prohibited consumers from, say, tasting a local grower’s carrots before buying. Regulations also prevented makers of “cottage products” — homemade baked and canned goods like candies, pickles, herbs, vinegars and the like — from selling their wares, but another caucus-sponsored bill did away with that hurdle. Not all the Farm-to-Table legislative efforts have met with success, however: An effort to reduce restrictions on the sale of raw milk products failed. Additionally, Rodriguez was unable to move along a bill for property tax breaks for urban farmers — unlike larger commercial farms, smaller operations don’t receive agricultural tax relief — but he says he will pick up the issue again in 2015.

“The Farm-to-Table caucus is representative of an underlying dynamic that food issues really do cut across partisan barriers,” says Judith McGeary, founder of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, an advocacy group in Cameron, Texas, for independent ranchers, farmers and homesteaders. “One of the great things about the food movement — and you see it on the ground if you walk into, say, a sustainable ag conference in Texas or anywhere in the country — is the people come from the full political spectrum.”

The caucus began in 2011 — the Texas Legislature meets in odd-numbered years — and was formalized in 2013. It now has 18 Democratic members and 10 Republicans. All members share a passion for the cause, but they come from different perspectives, McGeary says. For some, the concern is health and environmental issues; others are focused on child obesity, food security or hunger; and still others have a passion for “old-fashioned family values,” she says.

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The collaborative spirit hasn’t reached every corner of Texas politics. The legislative process is still adversarial, and some of the caucus’ measures draw opposition from powerful groups and regulators who are concerned about health issues and loss of tax revenue, McGeary says. But what has clearly worked is the bridge-building between rural and urban legislators: In 2012, the Texas House of Representatives’ Urban Affairs Committee had a meeting with the Agriculture and Livestock Committee, where members discussed the needs of urban farmers. “For the first time, rural issues are getting the attention they deserve” from urban legislators, says McGeary, noting that his city counterparts are becoming aware of these issues through food-savvy constituents who are concerned about where their food comes from and how sustainable it is.

Increasingly, in fact, the “food movement” is turning traditionally rural matters into urban ones. Ask Dr. Linda Willis, director of the county office of the Texas Agrilife Extension Service, in Houston. Funded at the state and federal level, the extension service has historically served rural communities, offering farmers and their families professional advice and opportunities, but in recent years Dr. Willis has been busy developing programs to promote agriculture and food access among city-dwellers, many of whom are poor and living in so-called food deserts, areas where access to grocery stores or other sources of healthy food is limited or nonexistent.

Dr. Willis’ office works with more than 400 master gardeners, who volunteer to show families and community groups how to garden and harvest fresh foods. They’ve also helped create gardens in 60 area schools. The extension service also runs a master wellness program, training volunteers how to maintain healthy lifestyles so that they, in turn, can teach others in the community to do the same — a strategy that Dr. Willis hopes will stem the rising tide of diet- and lifestyle-related illness and disability.

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“One of the areas we can build a lot of consensus around is — whether you live in a food desert or not, whether you represent a food desert or not — the cost of health care is eventually going to impact all of us,” says Dr. Willis, who works closely with community leaders and urban lawmakers.

That’s a reality that motivates Farm-to-Table caucus member State Rep. Borris Miles, a Democrat who grew up in an area of southeast Houston that he describes as a food desert. In 2011, Miles co-sponsored a bill with a Republican, State Sen. Craig Estes from Wichita Falls in north Texas, to establish the Urban Loan Microenterprise Support Program, which helps fund fruit and vegetable growers in cities with more than 500,000 residents.

Miles summed up the caucus’ work this way in August 2013, at the first annual Houston Urban Food Production Conference: “In the direction in which this country is going, we have to be more self-sustaining, especially when it comes to health and resources of our own, this is going to be the start of something big across this country. When things get tough and times get hard, we just go right back to the basics of what got us here. And if farming the earth got us where we are, then we need to go right back to it. I’m excited about that.”

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Correction: February 21, 2014
An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of the founder of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. She is Judith McGeary, not McGreary.

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