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Here in the Garden City, it is tempting to take for granted the season's first rush of peas and strawberries. Yet when we stop to think about the forces that affect what and how our food gets delivered to our tables, it is important to consider current legislative action.

Right now, the 2007 Farm Bill is being debated at the national level. This is the most important food and farm legislation that Congress enacts because it sets the direction of the American food system for the next several years. For the first time in the history of farm bills, the current version could be as good for consumers as it is for farmers - that is, if eaters speak up as food citizens.

One problem with the farm bill has been its historic lack of balance. Only 39 percent of all U.S. farmers and ranchers typically receive crop subsidies, very few of which are fruit and vegetable farmers. Farm commodity payments originally intended to help all farmers actually put small- and medium-sized family farms at a disadvantage, because they do not grow crops covered under farm programs.

These imbalances have consequences for eaters as well. In our land of plenty, over

35 million Americans are hungry or food insecure, which means they do not know where their next meal will come from. For these - most of whom are children, elderly and single mothers - the Food Stamp program, financed through the farm bill, is what stands between them and hunger.

Currently, food stamps only provide, on average, $1 per person per meal. This is hardly enough to feed a family a healthy diet. One in eight Missoulians use the Missoula Food Bank's services at some point throughout the year to supplement their food budget.

Between 1985 and 2000, the real price of fruits and vegetables increased by

40 percent, while the price of soft drinks and other sugary and high-fat food declined by as much as 20 percent. If our farm bills had been healthy food bills, we would have distributed government support more equitably to make nutritious food more affordable. Due in part to this imbalance, we are paying over $100 billion a year in obesity-related medical costs.

How do we put "food" into the farm bill?

There are many great ideas that can make our food system healthier. One idea would supplement school meal programs with fresh fruits and vegetables. This would encourage kids to eat healthier while opening up new markets for local and regional farmers.

Several organizations in Missoula are collaborating to implement a Farm to School program in our local K-12 schools, and our state Legislature just passed a bill making it easier for public institutions to buy Montana-produced foods (SB328). The farm bill can support policy changes that allow for geographic preferences and increased flexibility for institutional procurement of local foods.

The farm bill must also provide easier access to the food stamp program by increasing the minimum benefit, and streamlining the application process. Additional funding for the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program will help ensure that food stamp dollars are spent on more nutritious food choices.

In addition, the 2007 Farm Bill should include increased access to local food through the WIC and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Programs, and through Direct to Consumer Marketing Assistance Programs.

Another idea would be to expand an innovative program known as Community Food Projects. A 2005 grant from this program enabled the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition of Missoula and our partners to create new programs and markets designed to provide greater access to healthy local food for all citizens, regardless of income, ensure agricultural lands remain available for farming and increase the number of farmers producing for and selling into our local markets.

We all know, as eaters, that if there aren't any farms, there isn't any food. We need our federal funds to be redirected so that regional capacity to grow, store, process and transport food can be achieved in a way that is sustainable and affordable for all our citizens.

The 2007 Farm Bill can take us down the road to healthy food and farms, or it can continue to perpetuate the imbalance that has existed for too long. It will be up to us eaters to decide.

Bonnie Buckingham is program manager of the Missoula Food Bank and facilitator of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition.

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