Think Forward blog

Food Safety in the Legislative Grinder

Posted August 13, 2009

Before they broke for summer recess, the House of Representatives passed a bill designed to improve food safety. In a new commentary, IATP board member and former USDA official Rod Leonard dissects how jurisdictional battles among House committees ultimately weakened the bill and set back more fundamental food safety policy reform. You can read the full commentary here.

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Midwest Rural Assembly In Pictures

Posted August 12, 2009

Thank you to anyone who submitted pictures of the Midwest Rural Assembly this week. A special thanks to Shawn Poynter of Rural Strategies. If you are interested in submitting photos, please upload them to Filckr and tag them "midwestruralassembly" so they will appear in the same photostream.

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Live from the MRA: Herseth-Sandlin and the Blue Dog Democrats

Posted August 11, 2009

South Dakota Representative Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin gave members of the Midwest Rural Assembly a window into the so-called Blue Dog Democrats—most of whom represent rural districts. She recently voted against the health care and climate change bills in the U.S. Congress. In both cases, she acknowledged the real need to address both issues—but felt that the concerns of rural America were not addressed in either piece of legislation.

On health care, Herseth-Sandlin criticized current Medicare reimbursement rates, and the inclusion of that same rate within a public health care option. She argued for a more equitable reimbursement rate for rural communities. She also emphasized the need to address the loss of primary health care doctors in rural America.

On energy and climate change policy, Herseth-Sandlin talked about how rural issues—both in agriculture and rural utilities—were not considered until the end of the legislative process. And again, she did not view the last minute additions as adequate for rural communities.

Judging by some of the questions Herseth-Sandlin took after her presentation, not all participants agreed with her positions on health care and energy and climate change; however, the central point that rural concerns have been largely left out of these two national debates seemed to resonate.

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Live from MRA: Making Ideas Happen

Posted August 11, 2009

"When people love something, they take care of it together." This was the message of Minnesota Secretary of State, and IATP founder, Mark Ritchie at the Midwest Rural Assembly this morning as he linked together community pride, patriotism and rural revitalization. 

For rural communities, Ritchie talked about the importance of marrying short-term and long-term goals. He hearkened back to the farm crisis of the 1980s, where there was a need to address foreclosures and farmer suicides in the short-term, but also a long-term vision to plant the seeds for renewable energy in the form of wind farms and ethanol plants.

In facing current challenges, Ritchie emphasized that government officials are often more accessible and more interested in partnerships than many citizens recognize. He encouraged participants to reach out to government officials, particularly the USDA, and tell them what you need.

"In nearly every small community in Minnesota, you can find common interests," said Ritchie. He pointed out how in meetings with an Indian tribe in northern Minnesota and the Chamber of Commerce in the Twin Cities, he heard participants define civic participation as a love of country and community.

"They defined patriotism as love—so strong that we need to take care of what we loved," said Ritchie. "We say it and we share the responsbility of taking care of each other. It may be the land, community or family. If we can demonstrate this type of patriotism, we can help become a healing force for our society."

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Live at the MRA: Success Stories for Working Landscapes

Posted August 10, 2009

Rural communities are part of the vanguard of new ideas promoting small-scale sustainable production and use of energy and food. One of the challenges in expanding and scaling up these ideas is getting success stories out there and allowing others to benefit from their experience. At the Midwest Rural Assembly this afternoon, four communities shared their stories.


Cheryl Landgren of Milan, Minnesota described the town's efforts to launch a Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) in partnership with IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy.Milan is a small farm town with a growing immigrant community. They are hoping to host the country's first rural, smalltown SEU—a community-led initiative to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. An SEU is designed to be a one-stop shop to secure advantages of the new green economy encompassed in energy efficiency, renewable energy and biomass production. The SEU will identify funding resources, engage in public education, set up a revolving loan fund and invest in energy savings. Milan is in the early stages of developing an SEU, but ultimately it will be community governed and controlle, thereby allowing Milan to control its energy future.


Martin Kleinschmit discussed a three-year test project with 10 Nebraskan farmers focused on carbon sequestration. In this project, farmers grew a number of different crops to store carbon in the soil—emphasizing crops with longer root systems and longer growing seasons. He emphasized that there are more than just climate benefits in building carbon in the soil; these types of crops can help retain water and build the soil for future crop production.


Jacob Limmer gave his unique perspective as the owner of the Cottonwood Bistro in Brookings, S.D. and the operator of nearby Glacier Till Farm. Jacob talked about the challenges of sourcing local foods (usually from multiple farmers with different billing methods), the challenges of farming for local markets and the need to find off-farm work to keep the farm going. He emphasized the need for improving collective local food distribution systems—which would allow buyers to more easily source local foods and provide larger, more consistent buyers for farmers.


And finally, Linda Meschke of Rural Advantage told attendees about efforts in Madelia, Minnesota to use renewable bioindustrial processing to provide a market for new crops (outside of the corn/soybean rotation). The town went through a public process to set priorities for the new facility and agreed to emphasize both community investment, perennial crops and local sourcing (within 25 miles). The project could bring multiple benefits to the community, including: water quality, renewable energy, habitat preservation, greater sustainable agriculture, and keeping wealth within the community.


There are many stories like these being shared at the assembly—where interesting ideas continue to grow.

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Live from the MRA: USDA's Tonsager Outlines Rural Agenda

Posted August 10, 2009

At the Midwest Rural Assembly this morning, USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager got everyone's immediate attention by emphasizing that the agency has twice as much money as it had last year—and it needs to get that money out the door and into the countryside. But perhaps most impressive was his emphasis on government as a partner with rural communities and a clear belief that government can play an important role in improving peoples' lives.

Tonsager outlined his top priorities for USDA's Rural Development office as:

1) Improving collaboration between communities within the same region to better leverage resources.

2) Capitalizing on the economic benefits of local food systems.

3) Improving the effectiveness of community development programs already at USDA.

4) Expanding economic opportunity from bioenergy; including biofuel, biomass and cellulose.

5) Increasing broadband access to rural communities (See Julia's blog on this topic).

6) Identifying and working with strategic partners on the ground in rural communities.

7) Improving the flow of capital into rural communities to make important investments.

We sat down with Under Secretary Tonsager for a short interview to find out more:

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Live from the MRA: Broadband and Rural Communities

Posted August 10, 2009

"If urban America has the technology and we don't, what does it say about democracy in this country?" — Loris Taylor, Native Public Media

Many of us who live in urban areas take for granted the digital access we have in our homes and workplaces. We use our lightning-fast connections for everything from reading the news, looking for jobs, doing our work and keeping in touch with friends. That's not the case for much of rural America, something I'm learning more about in a breakout session here at the Midwest Rural Assembly.

It's a great panel of four speakers: Beth McConnell from the Media and Democracy Coalition; Joshua Breitbart from the People's Production House; Loris Taylor from Native Public Media; and Edyael Casaperalta from the Center for Rural Strategies, who've all been discussing the digital divide—lack of access in rural areas to broadband technology, and particularly the lack of access that minority and lower-income populations have to high-speed internet service.

According to the speakers, this is an issue that goes beyond email and Facebook to actually strike at the heart of civic engagement. If rural Americans cannot get online, they cannot get the same access to news (something that's becoming ever-more important as print media collapses), to political tools and information, to healthcare information (as well as telehealth—something that's becoming an important part of rural healthcare strategies), and as important, to conversations that help build more vibrant rural communities.

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The Best of the Midwest Rural Assembly

Posted August 10, 2009

Today and tomorrow, we'll be with government and community leaders in Souix Falls, South Dakota at the Midwest Rural Assembly to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing rural communities. We will hear from government officials like Dallas Tonsager, the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development at USDA, U.S. Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, among others. In turn, they will hear from community leaders focused on retaining young adults, expanding health care access and building working landscapes that promote environmental stewardship and healthy food.

Throughout the next few days, we'll be blogging from the Assembly, reporting on the presentations as well as interviewing participants. Look for more here soon.

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How Are Your Tomatoes?

Posted August 5, 2009

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

Between 1845 and 1852 the population of Ireland was reduced by 25 percent. Over a million people perished in one of Western Europe's great famines. The oomycete Phytophthora infestans was responsible for the—as it is more commonly known—Irish Potato Famine. Just three weeks ago P. infestans made its quiet arrival into our fields, and as rain continued to fall (near record levels this year) the spores began their tumultuous spread. Since its arrival we have pulled a quarter of our tomato plants. It has since spread to our potato plants, which we will soon mow to prevent the fungus from going tuber. Acting quickly, we have begun a spraying program on our crops with an organically approved fungicide.

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Leave PVC Off the Back-to-School List

Posted August 4, 2009

Believe it or not, August is already here and the first day of school is just around the corner! Parents are gearing up for the school year and literally “gearing up” their kids with all the implements their class lists require.

Remember those days? With your knees all scraped up from summer activities like bike riding, baseball and climbing trees—your parents would drag you through the department store for a new backpack, notebook or some ugly lunch box just because it was 40 percent off?

Well, it turns out that a lot of those school supplies—including lunchboxes, backpacks and three-ring binders—are made with polyvinyl chloride (also called PVC or vinyl)—a toxic plastic that is dangerous to our health and the environment; not only during its production but during use and disposal as well.

School supplies made with PVC can contain dangerous chemical additives, like phthalates and lead, which can leach out of the products over time and pose unnecessary health risks to our children.

You may already know that due to the risks posed by exposure to phthalates, the federal government banned them from children’s toys last year, but they can still be used in other types of products like school supplies. So Healthy Legacy, in partnership with the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), is releasing the Back-to-School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies. The guide is a tool parents can use to identify which products are made from PVC and provides tips and tricks to finding a product that’s just as useful, but made from a safer alternative.

(Products made from vinyl can often be identified by a number “3” inside, or the letters “V” or “PVC” underneath the recycling symbol. If a product isn’t labeled, contact the manufacturer to ask—you have a right to know.)

There’s also another reason to avoid products made from PVC. As previously mentioned, PVC—also known as “the poison plastic”—is toxic through its entire life cycle (that is, from its creation, through its useful life and to its disposal). That means that the communities where this plastic is manufactured are often at a higher risk for health-related problems.

That’s exactly the case in the historic African-American community of Mossville, Louisiana, which is home to more PVC plants than anywhere else in the U.S. Studies have shown that residents there are more likely to suffer from health problems like ear, nose and throat illnesses; central nervous system disturbances; and increased skin, digestive, immune and endocrine disorders. Would you want that in your neighborhood?

As you write up that list of “must-haves” and head out to the stores to prepare for the coming school year, make sure to go toxic-free and avoid products made from PVC!

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