Maine representative receives James Beard Foundation Leadership Award
NEW YORK — Republican members of the House are more collegial and more interested in working with her on agriculture bills since President Donald Trump’s election, Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said Monday before receiving the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award.
In a speech to the James Beard Foundation Food Summit, Pingree noted that she has been in Congress for eight years and was surprised when she came to Washington to find that there were not many members interested in working on farm bill issues except those that affected specific commodities.
Pingree noted that she got a seat on the House Agriculture Committee and succeeded in getting a number of her priorities into the 2014 farm bill, including providing aid to small- and medium-sized farmers and the Double Bucks program that enables Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants to buy more fruits and vegetables.
Pingree now serves on the House Appropriations Committee and the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.
Looking toward the next farm bill, Pingree noted she has introduced bills to increase organic research, help local agriculture, and reduce food waste by creating a system to make food date labels consistent.
“This isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue,” Pingree said.
More Republicans are now interested in cosponsoring her bills, she said, because whether they are from Nebraska or Iowa or California they are hearing about food issues.
“There are so many difficulties going on with the administration, many of my colleagues are more collegial,” she added.
Pingree said she believes federal food policy is still in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s and has not caught up with what people want. The government has subsidized corn so much that high-fructose corn syrup has been put into much of the nation’s food, she added.
At the summit and in her acceptance speech, Pingree explained that she grew up in Minnesota as the granddaughter of a Norwegian immigrant dairy farmer but knew nothing about farming when she moved to Maine in the 1970s as part of the back-to-the-land movement. When she first had a farm stand, she said, people liked buying food grown close to their homes but never asked questions about whether the food was organic.
In the 1990s when she served in the Maine legislature, she said, there was some but not much interest in food policy.
Now, in addition to serving in Congress, she has an organic farm and an inn where the food served is organic.
“Today the marketplace is 100 percent different,” she said. At both the restaurant and farm, people come and ask if food is organic and what the pig that provided the pork ate.
Some people think organic food is only for the wealthy, but Pingree noted that Maine is not a high-income state, and that restaurants and grocery stores at all levels explain where food comes from because customers want to know.
She also noted that Maine fed the Union army during the Civil War, but that after the war a lot of land went out of production. Now Maine is one of the few states where the number of farmers is growing and “it is very revitalizing to our rural economy,” she said.
Pingree said she doesn’t know whether the farm bill will be written “in December or two years from now.”
But she said she feels very lucky to be “in the right place at the right time.”
Compared to when she started in food 45 years ago, Pingree said, “Today we get to work with very well-educated consumers” who want to know about food and the conditions for workers in the food industry.
“These days I don’t have to make the pitch anymore,” Pingree said. “I get to use all those life experiences. I get to work on all the big challenges of our time.”