Jamie Oliver's TED Award Presentation

The British chef and food educator Jamie Oliver, perhaps best known for his BBC show The Naked Chef won the annual TED Award for his work on fighting obesity in Huntington, West Virginia. He minces onions but not his words. The TED Prize is awarded annually to an exceptional individual who receives $100,000 and, much more important, "One Wish to Change the World." Here's his TED wish:

"I wish for your help to create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.”

The Plan:

Set up an organization to create a popular movement that will inspire people to change the way they eat. The movement will do this by establishing a network of community kitchens; launching a travelling food theater that will teach kids practical food and cooking skills in an entertaining way and provide basic training for parents and professionals; and bringing millions of people together through an online community to drive the fight against obesity. The grassroots movement must also challenge corporate America to support meaningful programs that will change the culture of junk food.

You can sign a petition and join Jamie's Food Revolution.

One addendum that I'd make to Jamie's talk is the need to address the agricultural subsidies we make in our Farm Bill. Just ten percent of America's largest and richest farms collect almost three-fourths of federal farm subsidies. Crop subsidies are increasingly concentrated among the biggest producers, and many economists believe they speed the consolidation of farming by giving the largest farms added financial leverage to buy out their neighbors. Furthermore the subsides mostly go to a handful of crops, mainly corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, sugar and cotton. Fruit and vegetable farmers largely do not receive any Federal subsidies. Therein is part of the problem, we are subsidizing the wrong foods.

The other problem is the political power of the farm lobby and the over-representation of rural farm states in the Senate. Earlier this week, the Obama Administration's proposals to cut subsidies for wealthy farmers were met with indifference on Capital Hill.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he'd oppose significant changes to the current Farm Bill. To Peterson, most criticism of subsidies is based more on ideology — whether it be small-farms-are-better or free trade — than sound policy considerations.

"We're not smart enough to decide how big a farm should be, even on the ag committee," Peterson said. "And that's really not our job. Our job is to make sure we have an affordable, abundant food supply in this country."

Others, though, said as federal deficits soar above $1 trillion a year, it's time to take another look.

"Farm subsidies are America's largest corporate welfare program," said Brian Riedl, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Critics argue subsidies to wealthy farmers aren't justified, especially when crop prices are relatively high and farmers' incomes tend to be higher than the national average. And they ask why federal money flows primarily to growers of five crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice — while livestock, poultry and produce farmers get by without subsidy checks.

Peterson said he plans to hold hearings on the 2012 Farm Bill starting as early as next month, but he downplayed the likelihood of radical changes to subsidy policy.

Like most subsidy backers, Peterson said food production requires farms of all sizes, and that farmers need a safety net to protect their investments against unpredictable markets and weather.

Congress hasn't tried to significantly wean farmers off subsidies since the ill-fated Freedom to Farm bill of 1996. After commodity prices fell and caused a crisis, Congress returned to a more traditional approach with the 2002 Farm Bill, which also provided the framework for the 2008 legislation.

The 2008 bill prohibited all subsidies to anyone whose non-farm adjusted gross income exceeds $500,000. They also ended a major "direct payments" program for anyone with more than $750,000 in adjusted gross income from farming.

And the Agriculture Department recently said it will work with the Internal Revenue Service to stop payments to people who exceed the income limits after learning 2,702 millionaires received farm payments from 2003 to 2006 and were probably ineligible.

But critics say the 2008 bill largely maintained the status quo. Steve Ellis, spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, called the lower income limits a "Swiss cheese cap," easy to avoid with accounting changes.

The 2009 crop is the first subject to the new rules, and data aren't available on whether the changes have significantly altered who gets subsidies.

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope broadened to include the vast spectrum of human knowledge and ideas.

Tags: Jamie Oliver, Obesity, US Healthcare, US Agriculture (all tags)

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