Thursday, October 25, 2012

'Food Movement' Leaders Form Policy Watchdog Group, Release Congressional Scorecard

Food Policy Action coalition ranks lawmakers as "champions" or "failures" for food and agriculture votes, plan lobbying push...

By Jerry Hagstrom
Founding Editor, The Hagstrom Report 

Washington, DC: The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and 11 other organizations that consider themselves part of the “food movement” on Wednesday announced a new organization called Food Policy Action, and released a scorecard on every senator and House member based on 32 floor votes — 18 in the Senate, 14 in the House — that Congress has taken over the past two years. EWG President Ken Cook and Tom Colicchio, chef/restauratuer and star of the Top Chef TV show, unveiled the group's plans during a news conference.  (Above:  Cook, l, and Colicchio in action)

The National Food Policy Scorecard, a phrase the group has trademarked, gives members of Congress ratings between 100 and zero and declared 11 senators and 39 House members to be “food champions” and some others as “food policy failures.” Details on the scoring and the group membership are listed below.

All champions were Democrats except for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who caucuses with the Democrats, and all the members who got zeroes were Republicans.

Cook and EWG Vice President Scott Faber said that the effort was not partisan because some Republicans ranked rather well even if they were not at the top, and many Democrats ranked poorly.

Colicchio, a high-profile supporter of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, testified before Congress during the child nutrition re-auhorization hearings in 2010.  He said the scorecard is not about politics but about values — “if you value where you food comes from, whether you think organic farming is important, if you value whether or not people go hungry in this country.”

Colicchio said the movement is about how voters can get members of Congress “to change and spend my money the way I want them to spend my money. Will they spend my money according to the values I have?”

Cook said he and the other group leaders formed the organization after they began asking a year ago “why the food movement does not yet have political clout,” and realized “there are not a lot of political institutions in the food movement.”

To date, the term “food movement” has included just about anyone who questioned industrial agriculture, from vegans to city dwellers who want to raise animals in their backyards.

Asked whether the founders of Food Policy Action were declaring themselves an institution that can speak for the food movement, Cook said that there are a lot of differences among the founding members on individual issues. He also noted that no farm group had been asked to join the new group because it would be hard to find “common ground” with them. (For a list of founding groups, see below.)

Food Policy Action’s immediate priority is to inform voters about the standing of each member before the November 6 election, but long term the group hopes to influence members’ voting behavior by informing them that certain votes may be scored, the same way that other groups do.

Whether the group will form a political action committee that would make donations to campaigns is “a great question,” said Cook, who chaired the news conference today. Cook noted that the League of Conservation Voters, whose work seems to be the model for Food Policy Action, has a PAC.

The Food Policy Action website says, “Our mission is to highlight the importance of food policy and to promote policies that support healthy diets, reduce hunger at home and abroad, improve food access and affordability, uphold the rights and dignity of food and farm workers, increase transparency, improve public health, reduce the risk of food-borne illness, support local and regional food systems, treat farm animals humanely and reduce the environmental impact of farming and food production.”

That translates into giving a “thumbs up” to members for voting to limit farm subsidies, repeal the ethanol tax credit, stop the Environmental Protection Agency from legalizing E15 ethanol, require labeling of genetically modified foods, require conservation compliance, offer crop insurance for organic crops, encourage pulse crops in school meals and to spend more on rural development programs that encourage local food systems.

The scorecard also gave a “thumbs down” for voting to reduce funding for domestic and international food assistance programs, weaken EPA pesticide regulation and cut conservation spending to fund disaster assistance.

Food Policy Action is organized as a 501(c)4 organization, Cook said, with an initial $50,000 in funding coming from EWG. The new group is already soliciting donations and “will be able to leave the nest pretty quickly,” Cook said.

“In the interim while raising the funds, EWG staff will do the basic maintenance to figure out which votes should be part of the score card,” he said. “Very soon Food Policy Action will have a staff, its own office, will stand on its own two feet.”

Asked whether Food Policy Action would be willing to take donations from food companies or other groups that oppose corn-based ethanol because they believe it raises feed and food costs, Cook said no anti-ethanol group has offered to make a donation, but “what we accept will be up to the board.”

National Food Policy Scorecard... 
Scoring senators and House members on their votes is a common practice in Washington that is more an art than a science, but nevertheless has become a shorthand way for voters and particularly for activists to decide what to think about a politician.

The Food Policy Action board has issued composite scores on members based on a series of votes on food, agriculture and ethanol policy that it’s safe to say no one has ever considered together before.

Whether this Food Policy Scoreboard becomes influential may depend on whether it gains a popular following and whether foundations and other groups become interested in providing the money to sustain it.

Unlike most other scoreboards, the Food Policy Scoreboard is, in essence, issued by a coalition rather than a single group. And while the Food Policy Action board hopes that a low score will embarrass members, some politicians from agricultural districts may consider a low score that comes from an organization so closely associated with the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidy database to be a badge of honor.

As the Food Policy Action center noted in a news release today:

“Among the votes included in the score calculations were proposals to cut nutrition assistance, increase food safety funding, repeal conservation programs, allow states to label genetically engineered food and subject crop insurance subsidies to means testing and payment limits. The scorecard will continue to track votes on a wide range of food policy issues, including food and farm worker protections, increased food access and affordability, food additives, animal welfare, and the environmental impact of farm and food production.”

EWG President Cook noted that the board would have liked to score members on votes on humane treatment of animals, marine stewardship and drinking water, but no votes on those issues occurred in this Congress.

In the future, the advisory council and the board will be looking for a broader range of votes to score and will inform members in advance that certain votes may be scored, EWG Vice President Scott Faber said.  Chef Colicchio also noted that the votes did not include any on obesity or the overall school lunch program, but that the group is interested in those issues as well.

The scoreboard listed votes on broad budget and regulatory policies included in the House budget proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who is now the Republican candidate for vice president, as “dishonorable mentions,” but did not include those in the scoreboard, Faber added.

Senators appeared to be at a disadvantage in the rankings because the Senate voted on the farm bill and on a series of amendments while the House did not bring the farm bill to the floor and therefore did not vote on a series of controversial issues.

Scores for Individual Lawmakers...
Senators and House members who are rarely associated with agricultural or food policy generally got better scores on the Food Policy Scoreboard announced today than members of the House and Senate agriculture committees or agriculture appropriations subcommittees. That is not surprising since members from heavily agricultural states and districts have to think about agricultural as an industry as well as thinking about consumers.

Out of a possible 100, the average score for Senate lawmakers was 58 percent, while the average score for House lawmakers was 57 percent.

FPA analysts identified 50 members of Congress who received a perfect score of 100 percent.

FPA said these “good food champions” are:

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. D-R.I.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Sen. Jeffrey Merkley, D-Ore.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash.
Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
Rep. John Larson, D-Conn.
Rep. James Moran, D-Va.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn.
Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.
Rep. William Pascrell, D-N.J.
Rep. Steven Rothman D-N.J.
Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y.
Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici*, D-Ore.
Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y.
Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass.
Rep. Michael Doyle, D-Pa.,
Rep. Janice Hahn*, D-Calif.
Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md.
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.
Rep. John Olver, D-Mass.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.
Rep. Ron Barber*, D-Ariz.
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md.
Rep. Christopher Van Hollen, D-Md.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.
*Lawmakers who did not serve a full term and did not vote on all scored votes.

In an effort to appear bipartisan, FPA noted “Many GOP lawmakers had higher than average scores, including Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Reps. Jon Runyan, Frank LoBiondo and Chris Smith of New Jersey, Reps. Chris Gibson and Richard Hanna of New York, Reps. Jaime Herrera and Dave Reichert of Washington state, Reps. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Charles Bass of New Hampshire, Frank Wolf of Virginia, Robert Dold of Illinois and Erik Paulsen of Minnesota.”

EWG Vice President Scott Faber also noted that Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who got an 11, and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who got a 33, scored poorly but were “key leaders on certain votes.” Chambliss brought up an amendment to require conservation compliance be linked to crop insurance, although other members have said Chambliss brought that up to give him leverage in negotiations on the commodity title.

No senators got a zero, but three Republican House members did: Mark Amodei of Nevada, Steven Stivers of Ohio and Robert Turner of New York.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., got a score of 61 and House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., got a 57, while House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., got a 36 and Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., got a 17.

The differences between the parties were most evident in the scores given to party leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., got an 89 while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., got a 22.

FPA did not score House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, because he did not cast any votes on the relevant items, but House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., each got a 14.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., got a 92 while House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., got a 93.

The scoreboard contains some surprises. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., got only a 33 while Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., her opponent who is known for his conservatism, got a 46.

The leadership leans left...
Food Policy Action’s board consists of leaders of 12 groups, all of which would be considered on the left of the political spectrum, even if their leaders claim to represent bipartisan, policy-oriented organizations.  A vote advisory council with a somewhat different membership recommended the food policy votes on which members of Congress were scored (list below).

Food Policy Action board

*Ken Cook, Environmental Working Group president
*Tom Colicchio, chef, restauranteur, head judge of “Top Chef”

*Gary Hirshberg, co-founder and chairman, Stonyfield Farm

*Wayne Pacelle, CEO and president, Humane Society of the United States

*Ray Offenheiser, president, Oxfam America

*Rev. David Beckmann, president, Bread for the World

*Dave Murphy, founder and executive director, Food Democracy Now! 

*Mia Dell, chief lobbyist, United Food and Commercial Workers
Navina Khanna, co-founder, Live Real

*Robin Schepper, formerly executive director of “Let‘s Move,” senior adviser to Bipartisan Policy Center
*John Boyd, president, National Black Farmers Association

*Michael Jacobson, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest

Vote Advisory Council

EWG President Cook said that members of the vote advisory council have set aside their institutional affiliations to decide what votes to recommend.

*Stacy Dean‬, Center for Policy and Budget Priorities
*Ariane Lotti, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (formerly with Organic Farming Research Foundation)
*Ferd Hoefner, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
*Christine Melendez Ashley, Bread for the World
*Colin O’Neil, Center for Food Safety
*Erik Olson, Pew Charitable Trusts
*Franz Matzner, Natural Resources Defense Council
*Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group
*Mia Dell, United Food and Commercial Workers
*Robin Schepper, formerly executive director of “Let‘s Move,” senior adviser to Bipartisan Policy Center
*David Plunkett, Center for Science in the Public Interest

Members of the board said in a news release that they joined the new group because the food movement is not well represented in Washington.

“Hungry people don’t have well-paid lobbyists working to protect the programs they rely on to help lift themselves out of poverty,” said Beckmann, a World Food Prize laureate who also is president of the Alliance to End Hunger.

“The food policy scorecard will ensure that families who are hungry, as well as those who care about hunger, know who voted for food and farm policies that serve the public interest,” he said.

“Without greater pressure from voters, Congress won’t change our food policies to promote healthier diets and lifestyles,” said Schepper, former executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative to fight childhood obesity.

“Everyone has a role to play if we are going to reduce childhood obesity, especially our legislators in Congress.”

Jerry Hagstrom
, founder and editor of the best online, subscription-only agriculture and policy newspaper The Hagstrom Report, cross-posts at Obama Foodorama.  If you're not a subscriber to The Hagstrom Report, you're missing crucial coverage. 

*Photo courtesy of Food Policy Action