It was seven years ago this July that Barack Obama brought his presidential campaign to the Van Fossen Farm in Adel, Iowa. There, standing between corn and soybean fields, he held forth on agricultural issues. Obama didn’t have a lot in common with Iowa farmers. In his Chicago neighborhood, he conceded, “the main livestock is squirrels.” But that didn’t stop him from trying to feel the farmers’ pain in the way he knew how. Remarking on falling crop prices, Obama asked, “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula? I mean, they’re charging a lot of money for this stuff.”
Arugula-gate, as it inevitably came to be called, was immediately deemed a gaffe—a sign that Obama was an out-of-touch elitist. (The New York Times noted that there wasn’t a Whole Foods in all of Iowa.) And throughout the rest of the campaign, the candidate’s taste in food would often be used as a class-signifying cudgel against him. After watching him not finish a breakfast of waffles and sausages during a stop in Pennsylvania, Maureen Dowd did what Maureen Dowd does and wrote, “[T]his is clearly a man who can’t wait to get back to his organic scrambled egg whites.”
But one person’s gaffe is another person’s dog whistle and, for a certain type of voter, Obama’s arugula reference revealed a kindred spirit. It outed him as a foodie, perhaps even a member of “the food movement.” To these people, food is more than a lifestyle issue or even a cultural one; it’s political. They care about how their food tastes, but also where it comes from and what it is doing to their bodies, their communities, and their planet. They like their veggies sustainably grown and their meat humanely raised.
Illustration by Kali Ciesemier
And to them, Obama was offering much more than just a like-minded grocery list. He pledged that, if elected, he would require that foods including genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such and that a food’s country of origin be labeled as well, “because Americans should know where their food comes from.” He promised increased federal assistance to organic farmers. He even name-dropped Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the food movement’s troubadour, in an interview with Time. “[O]ur entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil,” Obama went on to say in the same interview. “[I]t’s creating monocultures.” In the heady days after the 2008 election, some foodies even referred to Obama as “Farmer in Chief.”
Viewed from one vantage point—like, say, a Whole Foods parking lot—Obama has lived up to that honorific. The president and the first lady have frequented locavore restaurants and visited farmers markets. They’ve planted an organic garden on the South Lawn whose crops, grown with crab meal and ladybugs rather than pesticides, include spinach, kale, and (yes) arugula. Even Sam Kass, the Obamas’ personal chef who moved with them from Chicago to cook in the White House kitchen, now holds the title of White House Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy and serves as a public (not to mention photogenic) face for the administration’s foodie-friendly initiatives.
But beyond the realm of the symbolic, Obama’s food policies have followed the depressingly familiar pattern of so many of his other domestic initiatives. He has overpromised reforms, underestimated the strength of his opposition, and then flinched from real fights—far worse sins than not finishing waffles at a campaign stop.
After the 2008 election, Obama’s foodie supporters hoped that he’d tap someone from their ranks to serve as secretary of agriculture: an online petition to appoint Michael Pollan picked up thousands of signatures. Some, including Nicholas Kristof, even asked Obama to rename the Department of Agriculture (USDA) the “Department of Food” as a way to signal that he “seeks to move away from a bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy.” But not only did Obama stick with the old name; he stuck an old pol at the top of the department: Tom Vilsack, a moderate Democrat who, as Iowa’s former governor, had strong ties to agribusiness.
Vilsack initially surprised the foodies, embracing many of their causes as his own. Most impressively, he took on the issue of corporate consolidation in agriculture. Today’s meat, pork, and poultry industries are dominated by a handful of processing companies. The four biggest meatpacking companies, for instance, control 84 percent of the beef market. And these corporations take full advantage of their near-monopoly power with unfair contract and payment schemes, creating a gross imbalance between the farmers who grow our food and the companies that process it. Vilsack tried to fix that. Teaming up with the Department of Justice, the USDA convened public hearings around the country to let farmers sound off about the myriad instances of unfairness; it was a rare case of the USDA actually shaming Big Food in public. Then Vilsack instructed regulators at the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), a special agency within the USDA that has antitrust powers over the meat industry, to draft rules to combat the large companies. “Our job is to make sure the playing field is level for producers,” Vilsack said in June 2010, when the proposed new GIPSA rules were released.
But, as Christopher Leonard details in his new book The Meat Racket, these reforms never made it past the proposal stage. First, lobbyists for agribusiness giants like Tyson and ConAgra raised holy hell on Capitol Hill and forced Vilsack to delay the new rules. Then Big Food used the delay to gin up public opposition, claiming that the GIPSA overhaul could kill jobs and spike food prices. And finally, even after the USDA proposed to scale back the GIPSA rules, Congress killed them outright by passing a spending bill that stripped funding for them.
“The administration was naïve on how much of a fight it was going to have on its hands when it came to the GIPSA rules and changing the balance of power,” says J. Dudley Butler, who ran GIPSA from 2009 to 2012. “And then there were too many naysayers inside the administration who were looking for a reason not to get into a fight.”
The disappointments would only mount from there. After Vilsack initially indicated that the USDA would place geographic restrictions on the growing of genetically modified (G.M.) alfalfa—so as to protect conventional and organic alfalfa growers from G.M. contamination—in early 2011 it caved to the food giant Monsanto and fully deregulated G.M. alfalfa’s growth.
Meanwhile, in 2009, Obama’s newly appointed Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, reportedly likened the problem of overuse of antibiotics in livestock—which can lead to drug-resistant bacteria in animals as well as in humans—to having your “hair on fire”; but late last year, when the FDA finally took steps to address the problem, its program was voluntary. The FDA has also failed to deliver on Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to label genetically modified food.
And it’s not just a matter of unfulfilled promises. On some food policy issues, the Obama administration has actually managed to lose ground. In 2012, the USDA began the regulatory process of allowing poultry lines to increase their speed from a maximum of 140 birds per minute to 175. At the same time, the program decreases the number of required federal food-safety inspectors, who are responsible for spotting unsanitary or diseased birds, on each line from four to one.
“What is the Obama administration’s food policy?” asks Dave Murphy, head of the group Food Democracy Now and a prominent Obama supporter during the 2008 campaign. “The answer, I’m afraid, is that it’s status quo and industrial agribusiness as usual.”
Even Michelle Obama, who has been the toughest food fighter in her husband’s administration, has been forced to compromise. When she launched the anti-childhood obesity “Let’s Move!” campaign in early 2010, its main target was the food companies. In a speech that year to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the first lady berated these companies for marketing unhealthy food to kids. “We need you all to step it up,” she said. But when the industry pushed back against the prospect of new regulations—on both food content and marketing practices—the Let’s Move! campaign changed course.
Rather than fight the food companies, the first lady joined them. Let’s Move! formed partnerships with, for instance, Walmart (to cut prices on healthy foods) and Subway (to encourage kids to put more vegetables on its sandwiches). At the same time, Let’s Move! underwent what the Obama Foodorama blog deemed “a fundamental shift”—turning its focus from nutrition to exercise. Rather than haranguing food companies about putting too much sugar in their products, Michelle Obama sounded the alarm on “the crisis of inactivity that we see among our kids.”
Granted, even the first lady’s watered-down efforts have accomplished some good. In 2012, she successfully backed legislation that made meals in the National School Lunch Program healthier. And in February, she unveiled the FDA’s proposed new food labeling guidelines, which would update serving sizes, increase the font size on calorie counts, and list added sugars. What’s more, her symbolic gestures aren’t entirely without benefit. “I think the White House garden has phenomenal symbolic value,” says New York University professor and prominent food-industry critic Marion Nestle. “It sends the message, without anybody having to make speeches about it, that growing gardens is a fun and useful thing to do.”
But it’s telling that, seven years after arugula-gate, Obama’s foodie supporters still find themselves taking comfort in symbolism. “I think there’s this inherent desire to believe in the Obama administration and to still have hope that they’re on the right side. There’s a huge capacity to forgive for the foodie crowd,” says Christopher Leonard. “But the people who really care about and follow these issues are so defeated. They pushed a rock up a hill for fifteen years, got it almost to the top, and then the rock rolled down back to the bottom. It almost would have been better if they hadn’t gotten so close.”
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.