Local food summit's missing ingredient: Congress

Publish Date: 
Saturday, 16 June 2012

Friday morning, at the third annual Multnomah County Food Summit, 300 people got things started by chanting together, "Food justice!" 

It was what you might call a Portland moment. 

Right now is what you might call the Portland food moment. The place that has shown the country how to make the most of both food stamps and food carts should have a few more courses to set out. 

"This is a county that really cares about food, and not just in the ways The New York Times notices," declared County Chairman Jeff Cogen in his opening remarks to the summit. "Food justice is at the heart of the values of Multnomah County." 

Talking about food around here takes you into a lot of areas. There are the restaurants that appear in The New York Times (and Bon Appétit and Food & Wine and The Oregonian's Diner restaurant guide, out this week). People who once came to Portland for a dutiful study of urban planning now come here to eat. 

As of last week, when the county sold property at the west end of the Morrison Bridge to Melvin Mark and the James Beard Public Market Foundation, you can talk about the future arrival of a spectacular market of edibles, combining all the kitchen skills and lushness of the Oregon territory. 

The local fertility extends to 1,000 new community gardens planned by the Portland Parks Bureau, down-and-dirty drives against both hunger and the delusion that pizza is a vegetable. You can also talk about the monthly total of 36,000 county residents who line up for emergency food boxes, and the strategy to outfit all 65 SUN schools, bolstering classes with enrichment programs, with food pantries. 

It's all the same table, just with different seating. It's a multimenu drive for people here to eat better, extending from donated bags of fresh produce to supplement boxes of mac 'n' cheese to local chefs growing their own herbs outside their kitchen windows. It's a massive Multnomah effort, with as many components as there are regional microbrews. 

Of course, there's always someone slow to the table. In this case, it's the multiyear federal farm bill, authorizing most of the national nutrition programs, legislation that like most other congressional efforts is now immobilized between the Senate and the House. 

"The House bill takes $33 billion out of nutrition, and I'm not willing to let that happen," says Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., who as the Northwest's only member of the House Agriculture Committee has a close-up view of the process. He's also seen Oregon's free and reduced-price school lunch numbers swell up, along with food stamp and summer food program use. 

"You don't want to balance the budget on the backs of little kids. That ain't smart." 

Schrader's colleague from the district to the north, Earl Blumenauer, has been arguing for years for a farm bill that would focus more on strengthening nutrition programs and less on subsidies for large growers of a handful of crops. That kind of farm bill, he told the food summit Friday, could give some more financial assistance to farmers markets -- helping farmers by definition -- and spend some more on improving school lunches and breakfasts, helping schools raise the nutrition level and buy more ingredients from both local growers. 

"It's a scandal," Blumenauer declared, "what we don't do." 

After all, "It is the nutrition (parts of the bill) that carry the farm bill, because without the support of the people who care about the nutrition (parts), the farm bill would collapse." 

In other words, we could use a farm bill that connects to Multnomah County's farmers markets, community gardens and food pantries as much as to large peanut growers. 

Maybe congressmen should have their own food summit. They wouldn't have to chant, "Food justice!" 

That might be a little too Portland for them. 

In Portland and Multnomah County, we now have an opportunity to make the most of both our moment and our menu. 

The challenge is to get both Congress and justice into the same recipe. 

David Sarasohn, associate editor, can be reached at 503-221-8523 or dsarasohn@oregonian.com. See other writing at oregonlive.com/sarasohn/