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Engaging candidate dialogue on food and farm policy

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 September Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

There’s no denying that this election season has been the strangest in a generation. But while the media has its cameras entirely focused on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, there are actually dozens of other races happening right here in Massachusetts, and these races are arguably as important or even more important to the future of our commonwealth and our country.

All of our nine federal representatives as well as all 40 state senators and 160 representatives will be seeking reelection this November. That means we, the citizens of Massachusetts, have a chance to shape the conversation regarding farm and food policy. But starting that conversation can be daunting, especially for those who have felt alienated or numbed by political discourse. In this article, we’ll look at some ways to engage these candidates and what questions to ask them once you have their attention.

Know Your Politicians

Of course, the first step is to actually know who currently represents you. Many of you may already know who your federal representative is, but if you’re like the vast majority of citizens, you don’t have a clue who your state senate and representative is. Sure, state politics may not be as dramatic or entertaining as the circus-like race for the White House, but in fact, these are the politicians who will be most responsive to a phone call, a petition or an in-person visit.

So, go ahead, take a look. Learn their names. Find out what their platform is and what kind of background they have. Check who the major donors to their campaign have been. And most importantly, check their voting record on the issues you care about most. If you want to know their record on food and farm policy, take a look at their scorecard.

Then find out who these incumbents are running against in this election cycle. And again, do your research: Who funds them? What experience do they have? What do they want to change?

Engage Your Politicians In Dialogue

Now that you know what they’ve done and where they stand, it’s time to start the conversation. Most members of Congress host occasional town hall meetings, either by phone or in person. By checking their website you can generally find a list of upcoming meetings during which you can ask specific questions or explanations of their votes. During campaign season, most of our D.C. Representatives will also be hosting myriad events, fundraisers, and meetings which are open for all to attend.

State senators and representatives are generally easier to track down and engage with. Start by setting up a meeting with them at their district office. But be careful not to go in with guns blazing; the first step in turning them into an ally is building a relationship and educating them on the issues. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of an in-person meeting with a legislator:

  • Do your research: The more you know about them and their record the more specific you can be. That way you can make sure they are accountable for their actions.
  • Show up with allies: If you bring several people from their district to the meeting that will make it clear to them that the issues you are raising are important to a larger constituency.
  • Make it clear that you have power:Remember, politicians are likely to focus on the issues that will keep them in office. Make it clear that you will organize your community and vote for their challenger if they don’t take action on X, Y, or Z. Remember, they’re supposed to represent you!
  • Keep the conversation respectful: They’re going to be much more willing to meet with you again if they felt respected and listened to. Learn the art of disagreeing without seeming rude.

Asking Tough Questions

Now that you’ve done your research and made initial contact, it’s time to think through your game plan. How are you going to engage them on food and farming policy? There are so many places to start, so much we need to fix. Here are just a few suggestions for questions to kick start your conversation:

Questions for Federal Politicians:

  • Industrial agriculture is responsible for roughly ⅓ of all greenhouse gas emissions. What policies do you support that would limit the climate havoc wrought by agriculture? What work have you done already that would address this crucial issue?
  • Food subsidies have been shown to be directly linked to cheap fast food that is implicated in historic obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates. How would you amend the next farm bill’s subsidy program to ensure a healthier citizenry?
  • Recently, a bill was signed that pre-empted state’s abilities to regulate GMO labeling and created a variety of loopholes to understandable, plain language labels. Did you support the bill? Do you support any other reforms to food labeling?
  • Right now, most farmers require second jobs just to make ends meet, regardless of whether they farm one or 1,000 acres. In your analysis, what has led to this situation? What can we do to ensure that farmers receive a fair share of the food dollar?

Questions for State Politicians

  • Massachusetts has some of the highest real estate prices in the country, which has meant that many farms have been bought out by developers in recent decades. What policies do you support that would limit the loss of valuable farmland and keep farms viable?
  • Food and meat processing facilities are extremely limited in Massachusetts. How would you work toward creating affordable access to facilities for start-up food processing companies? More generally, do you support using state funds to support the local food economy?
  • Would you encourage state and local institutions to source food from local growers and producers? What policies would you support that would encourage institutions to change their food buying power toward more sustainable, local sources? 

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