Chellie Pingree is committed to protecting the environment while putting food on the table. She has been a legislator for decades — first serving in the Maine state Senate from 1992 to 2000 and then the House of Representatives since 2008 — and is also a farmer.
In this Voices in Food story, Pingree tells Jodi Helmer about her work on the House Agriculture Committee, crafting legislation like the Agriculture Resilience Act and the Food Recovery Act of 2020, and tending to vegetables, pigs and chickens on a 200-acre organic farm in Maine. It’s this commitment to progressive food policies that earned Pingree the 2017 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award.
On the food policy issue that the government must address
Climate change in agriculture is our most pressing issue. Farmers are dramatically affected by it because, as a farmer, your ability to succeed is intrinsically linked with the weather.
Our agricultural policy, what we reward farmers for, what we encourage, what we subsidize, could have a big impact on climate change. Climate change has given us an even more important, overarching reason to use good agricultural practices like using fewer chemicals, herbicides … and that has got to be our next lens. A lot of our agricultural policy could shift dramatically if we had a United States Department of Agriculture and a Congress that’s focused on tackling climate change and using agriculture as one of our tools, making farmers our partners and changing our practices — or at least what we subsidize as practices.
How legislation could reduce food waste and improve food access
We waste 30% of the food we produce. If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The problem is eminently fixable, whether it’s helping kids in school to not waste all the food off on their plates, or supporting curbside composting operations so we waste less food and get more food to the people who need it. I’m a big believer in using the Farm Bill as a vehicle to tackle these things.
We have some good programs like the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program program or the “double bucks” program, so that if you take your SNAP (food stamps) benefit card into a farmer’s market, you can get double the amount of fresh produce to get over the barrier of fresh food costing more than noodles and high-carbohydrate foods. These programs could work pretty well if there wasn’t a constant fight that we have with every Farm Bill and appropriations bill over things like school meals and SNAP benefits.
How the coronavirus pandemic changed everything
When people walked into a grocery store and saw the shelves empty and then heard about how few pork processing plants we have in this country and how quickly the illness spread through them, it gave them a firsthand understanding of consolidation in the food industry and the problems with our supply chain around food.
I have pushed for a long time to get back to diversifying our agriculture system … and trying to find more support in the Farm Bill and in our appropriations process that would go to small and medium-sized farmers. A lot of our funding has gone to support Big Agriculture, supporting commodities, supporting price supports and we need to make sure that small-to-medium-sized farmers are eligible for that same kind of funding.
There was already a huge, growing interest in people buying more food locally and getting to know their farmer … but it started to go off the charts when people couldn’t find food in the grocery store. Suddenly people were thinking, “Let me find out who sells food locally,” even if they hadn’t made that attempt before.
On food as a bipartisan issue
It’s an oversight on the side of both [presidential candidates] not to be talking about food issues in their platforms for the upcoming election. We did some polling quite a few years ago in Maine and it was phenomenal how much interest people had in their food; they were very interested in buying food locally and said they’d be willing to pay more to support farmers in the rural economy.
It’s a very bipartisan issue and politicians should lead with it more often because it engages all people. I work with a lot of Republicans on the other side of the aisle and politicians like Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who’s very conservative on a lot of things, is also very engaged in the food sovereignty movement. It’s a very big crossover issue.
On the need for more farmers in politics
I’ve loved the ability to have the experiences working on a small-to-medium-sized farm and I know a lot of the issues that farmers deal with, whether it’s wanting to have their own chicken processing facility or trying to comply with food safety laws … and when we’re working on issues, I’m able to say, ‘Here’s what the impact will be.’ We should have a lot more farmers in office, and we should have a lot more people who are dealing with what farming of the future looks like.
This interview has been edited for clarity.