Few states pay closer attention to food than California. We are the cradle of the Central Valley and almond milk lattes, the home of of Full Belly Farms and Alice Waters and Ikeda markets, the state that introduced America to soda taxes and tomatoes to die for and cage-free hens.
California food policy advocates last year helped win overtime for farmworkers and discounts for food-stamp recipients at farmers markets, incentives to build healthy soil and tax breaks for farmers who contribute to food banks. California values have shown at the federal level, too, in nutritional improvements in school lunches and first lady Michelle Obama’s successful “Let’s Move” anti-obesity campaign.
The incoming occupant of the White House, however, is an overweight junk food aficionado who, during the campaign, tweeted so many photos of himself with Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s fries and taco bowls that the running joke was that the short list for his Cabinet was led by Colonel Sanders, the Hamburglar and the Taco Bell Chihuahua.
That makes our voice more key than ever, because the signals President-elect Donald Trump has sent on food policy so far don’t bode well for public health.
According to an organizational chart obtained by Politico, for instance, Trump’s Department of Agriculture transition is being led by agricultural lobbyist Michael Torrey, whose clients include the soda industry, Little Caesars pizza and the snack industry’s trade association.
Also reportedly part of the team is Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Sid Miller, who made headlines during the campaign for a tweet calling Hillary Clinton the c-word and then blamed hackers. Six months after taking his state office in 2015, Miller reversed an 11-year ban on fried food and sales of sugary soft drinks in Texas public schools.
Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing griculture Department spending, has told reporters to look for “some major changes in the school lunch program”, whose standards were altered by the Obama administration to help curb childhood obesity, which has been linked to diabetes.
In September, Trump’s campaign also briefly issued, and then deleted from its website, a fact sheet saying food safety regulations were “overkill” and promising to eliminate the “food police” at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which tightened regulations after a series of large-scale food contamination scandals, including a nationwide 2009 salmonella outbreak, which was linked to a Georgia- and Virginia-based peanut processing business and which sickened more than 700 people and killed nine.
In California, which feeds the nation – and leads on food-related issues from public health to environmental protection – Trump’s choices should be viewed as a rallying point and an opportunity for grass-roots organization. The food conversation here has brought farmers, environmentalists, businesses, health advocates and parents together in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades ago.
Ideally, Trump’s cabinet would include a smart California voice, such as former state Secretary of Food and Agriculture A.G. Kawamura. But either way, political ideology must not be permitted to trump basic access to clean air, pesticide-free water, safe meat and produce and decent school lunches. Let this food-centric holiday week serve as a reminder that it’s time to start paying attention. California has a lot to lose.