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Organic Trade Association Capitol Hill Visit

Last month, as Manger of Policy at SPINS, with Product Library Director, Susanna Ghaemi, I had the opportunity to participate in a day of Capitol Hill visits on behalf of the Organic Trade Association (OTA). What an experience! What probably should not have been surprising, but was, is that anyone can enter into a House or Senate office building. Assuming you pass a basic security scan for weapons; otherwise, no name or ID required and you are off to sort through the labyrinth of hallways and staircases to find your destination. Of course, an unannounced visit might only grant you three minutes with an administrative assistant to state your case and drop off some materials, while a prearranged appointment is your better bet. Our education and advocacy day, arranged by OTA at the close of its annual Policy Conference, set all 200-plus attendees loose throughout Capitol Hill to seek support for organic.

cherry blossomsMy schedule had me ping ponging back and forth between the senate and house buildings aligned along the north and south ends of the Capitol. This was a welcome reprieve to stretch my legs after two days of valuable, fascinating discussion, yet sedentary conference duties, while warm weather, sun and fading remnants of cherry blossoms beckoned. Each of my four visits were wonderfully different with a unique blend of personalities and industry representatives – farmers, processers, manufacturers and retailers – arranged into groups of two to six people. The buildings are a constant buzz of paid registered lobbyists and unpaid advocacy folks like myself. The breadth of interests is dynamic from the Pork Producers Association and Cargill to several pink-shirted women representing the Susan G. Komen Foundation. The reality is, only a lucky few will meet the politicians themselves, while aides and office staff handle the bulk of requests. What a process to behold. With so many day-to-day visitors, there is limited space for proper meetings, with many conducted in hallways where distractions abound!

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) office visit

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) office visit

Meeting with a broad range of republican and democratic policymakers meant encouraging those on both sides of the aisle to support organic growth, if not for good public health then for economic development within their constituent districts. Engaging a budget constrained Congress on the benefits of organic, the better arguments for it – stressed by several keynote speakers at the preceding conference – should be simplified around the discussion of economic growth. Never assume a congressperson is uninformed, but that there is always more education to provide and that is a delicate balance to achieve. In meetings with those loudly in support of organic agriculture, we served a purpose of gratitude, more than anything else.

The 2015 Asks centered on supporting organic data collection initiatives, funding an organic sourcing program for school lunches, organic research, regulating ‘organic’ language on non-agricultural products and joining the House Organic Caucus. Thirty-one out of the top 50 districts with the most certified organic operations were republican, which had poor representation in the house caucus compared to democrats. OTA’s message was clear: not only do we think it’s important to fund and support organic, but get involved in the discussion to leverage and support the beneficial growth of the sector in your corresponding district.

With the federal crop insurance year beginning June 1st and appropriation committees finagling federal agency program allocations for fiscal year beginning October 1st, the April timing of the OTA’s conference and hill visit is obvious. I know I’ll keep these dates in mind as I fully immerse myself for improving and expanding the capabilities of organic supply like the need for ‘big data’ collection, still relatively slim when compared to conventional processes, but extremely important to level the safety-net playing field. Organic farmers deserve equivalent crop insurance opportunities as non-organic farmers.

Bulgur Wheat Salad; Popped Kamut and Kale Salad with ingredients from Senator John Tester’s farm

Bulgur Wheat Salad; Popped Kamut and Kale Salad with ingredients from Senator John Tester’s farm

My visit to Capitol Hill was intimidating, but exhilarating to realize my potential to make a clear argument for organic, no longer a fringe movement, well on its way to improving public health outcomes. Perhaps a little stage fright caught the best of me while I observed the pros, but I am more than excited for next year. Second to the thrills of a Capitol Hill first timer, my personal highlight was listening to Montana Senator and organic farmer, John Tester speak. A passionate man for all things organic also supplied much of the conference’s nutritiously delish lunch. Not everyone in Washington believes organic practices can save a farm from ruin – with improved soil and actual increased yields – like Tester’s farming story, but I sure am glad he’s on the inside, advocating for more success stories like his. Next year, I look forward to thanking him for all his hard work.

Want to get involved? Encourage your congressperson to support the Farm to School Act of 2015, as the current Child Nutrition Act expires this September. It’s all about the kids; access to better nutrition through education, gardening and local sourcing options, and an Organic Pilot Program – approved, but never funded. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-V), lead author of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act is spearheading the child nutrition renewal process, which means organic is close to his heart. Let’s get the word out to reauthorize and ultimately fund the Organic Pilot Program!