Food safety, nutrition, and the preservation of local farms were on the table at the Quail Hill Farm on Sunday morning, along with local berries, zucchini bread, and coffee, during a meet and greet with United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
The Democrat faces the Republican Wendy Long, a New York City attorney, as well as Colia Clark, a civil rights activist, on the Green Party line, and Christopher Edes on the Libertarian line.
But there was little talk of the campaign at Quail Hill on Sunday, the second time in the past two years that Ms. Gillibrand has visited the community farm. The venue was appropriate, as Ms. Gillibrand serves on the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, the first New York senator to do so in 40 years.
She said Sunday that she has worked to improve agricultural policies that are “not written for small farms, organic industries, or beekeepers.” With nobody on the committee to advocate for smaller farms in the past, “we were left out,” she said. “The way we do it here is very different than large industrial farms in California.”
Upgrading agricultural policy to incorporate small farms will protect them from disasters, Ms. Gillibrand said, adding that in the past, there was no protection when a storm wiped out a farm. “We wrote an insurance policy that will help fruit and vegetable growers,” she said.
“We did a lot of work on dairy as well,” the senator told the crowd. New York State is the third-largest producer of dairy, but “We don’t have 5,000-cow dairies,” she said. “We’ve lost hundreds of dairy farms,” she said, and warned that the result is consolidation, which often leads to outsourcing.
“I think it’s a national security issue. . . . I don’t want to buy my milk in China,” she said, adding that the same “requirements for safety and standards do not exist in other nations.”
Local farms are essential to protecting America’s food supply “in the event of a natural or other disaster,” she said, explaining that “we can’t have all of our production only on the West Coast or Midwest.” The food movement, which is one of her focuses, is the “most important advocacy addition to these debates,” she said.
Agriculture policy is moving away from direct-commodity subsidies that are given to soy, corn, and rice producers to an insurance-based plan that will be more fair in the long term, she explained. “It is still not where it needs to be, but it’s a beginning.”
The community must “insist on more labeling,” and the U.S. must “have the conversation about G.M.O.s,” or genetically modified organisms, she said to loud applause. “A federal mandate is necessary . . . the right to know what is in our food, I think the market can handle that.” People like transparency, she said, they need to understand that “it is their right to know, and demand that right.”
Questions and conversations among the community will change how we feed our country, Ms. Gillibrand said, which led to another topic that she said needs more discussion: “What are they feeding my kid in a school lunch program?” With the president and members of Slow Food East End in attendance, as well as others involved in local school gardens, the audience strongly agreed.
With $100 billion spent per year on obesity-related illnesses that are fundamentally related to how we eat, she said, it is important to change how the country feeds itself. A shift toward whole foods, fruits, vegetables, lean beef, and a healthier lifestyle is required, and knowledge is the power that will effect change when addressing health care concerns, she said. Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease costs us, she said, and proper nutrition and agriculture, on the other hand, will make a huge difference on the economy and people’s well-being.
Asked about Mayor Bloomberg’s recent restriction on the size of sugary drinks, Ms. Gillibrand said, “I appreciate that he is an ally for healthy living,” but “the most powerful tool is knowledge . . . information is more powerful than restriction.” She said that a lot of young parents don’t know about nutrition, and many don’t have access to whole foods at affordable prices. On the positive side, food stamp recipients can now use their allocations at farm stands and farmers markets.
Ms. Gillibrand also talked Sunday about her desire to engage more women in politics. Only 17 percent of those serving in Congress are women, a small number compared to other countries. Women offer a different perspective to problem solving, she said, and the combination of male and female experience make for a better outcome. Ms. Gillibrand was appointed in January 2009 to replace former Senator Hillary Clinton and won a special election to fill out the remainder of Mrs. Clinton’s term in 2010.
Her grandmother was a secretary in the New York State Legislature when women had “very little to say about decisions being made,” and “she wanted to change that,” Ms. Gillibrand said. “My grandmother loved politics.” She formed a club, created grassroots organizing campaigns to elect candidates, and taught her granddaughter that “women’s voices matter, and grassroots activism matters.”
Ms. Gillibrand’s work with women on the Republican side helped enable the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, she said as example. “Women are good at consensus building . . . moving things forward,” she said, with “less focus on ego.”
She said she has launched a call to action, “off the sidelines,” asking women to vote, advocate for issues they care about, hold elected leaders accountable, and where appropriate, run for office.
Her opponent Ms. Long acknowledges that call on her campaign Web site, saying “Kirsten Gillibrand has said she wants to see more women in politics. ‘Let’s give her what she is asking for.’ ”
“We have to make sure our voices are heard,” Ms. Gillibrand told the women in attendance Sunday. “If there were 51 percent women in Congress, we wouldn’t be talking about contraception or the definition of rape,” she said. “The absence of women is hurting us.”
Asked about her thoughts on the presidential campaign, Ms. Gillibrand said she wonders “what America might look like under a Romney presidency.” She said she fears that what she calls a “Ryan budget” referring to Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, would “gut all the protection we have” in the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
Sunday’s gathering was organized by Brian Halweil, Hilary Leff, Bonnie and Stephen Munshin, Leigh Merinoff, and Scott Chaskey, the manager of Quail Hill. Eventually the discussion turned back to food safety. “We have to be the opposition to industrial farming,” Ms. Gillibrand said, urging people to care about small farms and organic food. “Of course Monsanto is heard on these issues, our voices need to be as well-known, loud, and compelling . . . it’s what our country was founded on.”
To keep the food safety conversation going, Senator Gillibrand encouraged the crowd to write letters to editors, blog, and to spread the word about the critical food issues into the public school curriculum, to opinion makers, a lot of whom she said spend their summers on the South Fork. “The more that’s out there,” she said, “the more effective I can be.”