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By Austin Frerick
Candidate for U.S. Congress, Iowa

Last year, I had a revelation at a diner halfway between Des Moines and Omaha: none of this food is from around here. I could get in my car and drive ninety minutes to the east or ninety minutes to the west and find farm-fresh food in a wealthy urban center. But at a restaurant in the middle of one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, there was no local food on the menu.

Rural communities in the Midwest are under attack. Since 1974, Iowa has lost a third of its family farms. Iowa is home to some of our country’s best soil, yet more and more of its children are left without enough food to eat. Child poverty in Iowa is up 44% since 2000, and many rural school districts have free/reduced lunch rates that resemble impoverished urban areas.

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This situation is the result of a model of industrial agriculture that favors corporate interests while squeezing farmers, consumers, and small businesses. Earl Butz, who served as Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford, took a pitchfork to New Deal agricultural policies that sought to manage supply and protect farmers from the big agribusiness companies. New Deal policymakers had seen first-hand how focusing only on volume could devastate the land’s productivity — the Dust Bowl was a fresh memory. Butz ended this successful system of supply management and told farmers to “get big or get out,” and urged them to plant commodity crops “from fencerow to fencerow.”

Monopolies are thriving under this model. If approved, two companies — Monsanto-Bayer and Dow-DuPont — will control about three-quarters of the U.S. corn seed market. The meat industry is now even more concentrated than when Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle.” Or take baby food – one company sells 73% of it. Or pet food – one company sells 47% of it. By the way, it’s the same company: Nestle.

But the rush to “get big or get out” has come at the expense of our rural communities.  Small towns are hollowed out when ten farms growing diverse products consolidate into one growing a single crop. New farmers can no longer afford to start a farm because the financial barriers are too high, and existing farmers struggle to compete with huge corporations. The loss of local control has ripple effects throughout rural communities.

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This model also hurts our health and environment. The cost of healthy, locally sourced food has skyrocketed relative to easily accessibly unhealthy processed food. That’s why only 7% of Iowa adults get enough vegetables in their diet, according to the CDC. Our nation’s obesity epidemic is a result of this imbalance. Moreover, planting “fencerow to fencerow” has caused Iowa’s waterways to be among the most polluted in the nation.

Eating healthy, locally-sourced food has become a privilege in American society. But healthy food should be a right. We can seize this moment to rethink agriculture and the food industry in Iowa and across our nation. Addressing economic concentration is just the first step.  Let’s end this model of agricultural production and move to a more sustainable way of growing our food.

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Austin Frerick is a candidate for the U.S. Congress from Iowa's 3rd Congressional District. To learn more about him and his campaign, click here.

Photo credit: Benjamin Handler for Austin Frerick's Campaign