Our food production system is unsustainable, but those who advocate for healthier agriculture and diets often find themselves dismissed as elitists. While I think this is often an unfair criticism , it’s clear that it hampers advocates’ effectiveness. So, I was delighted to read in the Washington Post this morning about a good-food advocate from an Iowan farming family. Jane Black writes:

Dave Murphy is the founder of a food advocacy group. But he wants you to know, “in no uncertain terms,” that he is not a foodie. Foodies are people who obsess about the perfect apple tart. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But for Murphy, the fight for good food isn’t about pleasure or aesthetics; it’s about justice and survival.

Three years ago, he left a good job in Washington to return home to Iowa, where a Minnesota corporation was threatening to build a nearly 5,000-head hog farm near his sister’s home. “This is not something abstract,” he said. “This is about people I know. People I went to high school with. When you speak to people from Berkeley or Manhattan, people on the coasts, it’s a really different ballgame.”

Public health advocates have been sound the alarm about CAFOs for years, because such huge livestock operations generally entail air pollution, animal-waste problems, and antibiotic overuse. Raising livestock more responsibly would require a different economic model, and while it might be better for agricultural communities in the long run, it would probably spell economic upheaval for them in the short term. More-responsible livestock operations would likely raise the price of meat, too, which would make it hard for low-income families to afford to maintain their current level of meat consumption. Reducing meat consumption would probably benefit these families’ health in the long run, but, once again, it would require an adjustment – and adjusting to a healthier diet is particularly hard for those whose neighborhoods have more fast-food restaurants than grocery stores.

So, when we well-off coastal types speak out against CAFOs, we can be accused of being out of touch with those who’d feel the brunt of the impact of stricter CAFO regulation. When Iowa farmers say they don’t want the environmental impacts of a 5,000-hog operation in their community, they have a lot more credibility. Black reports that Murphy’s Iowa-based activism has gotten results:

The first campaign by Murphy’s nonprofit group, Food Democracy Now, was a petition calling for more sustainable food policies and suggesting six progressive candidates for secretary of agriculture last November. After the secretary was appointed, he added a list of 12 candidates for key deputy and undersecretary positions. To date, two of the so-called sustainable dozen have received key appointments. Kathleen Merrigan, a professor at Tufts University who helped develop national organic standards, was appointed deputy secretary. Doug O’Brien, an assistant director at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, will be Merrigan’s chief of staff.

Murphy’s petition got some high-profile signatories, like Alice Waters and Wendell Berry, who fall closer to the “foodie” end of the spectrum. Foodies are often sneered at for celebrating the taste of organic, locally raised foods even though a large percentage of our population can’t afford them – but rhapsodizing about apple tarts doesn’t preclude advocating that healthier food be more affordable and widely available. Recently, Waters proposed reforming the national school-lunch program, which is currently heavy on processed and high-fat foods; she wants the federal government to increase funding so that schools can buy and prepare healthier meals featuring organic foods.

Although I don’t think that healthy-food advocates who happen to be financially well off coastal residents should be barred from participating in debates about food policy, I do think we benefit from being part of a coalition that includes people who have firsthand experience with the negative effects of our dysfunctional food system. I hope more activists like Dave Murphy will emerge and promote reforms that will help food consumers and farm communities alike.