New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker wants to overhaul the American food system — and by overhaul, he means it: from the way farmers make ends meet to the way people access healthy foods.
It's a lofty goal, he knows.
Speaking with PEOPLE, Booker says he's taking a piecemeal approach, aware that change won't come overnight — or even in a year or two. In short, he's in it for the long haul.
"Americans don't realize: The hope of farming and really our food system … is so broken right now. But the solution to it lies within our decisions we make about farming," says Booker, who was appointed to the Senate Agriculture Committee in early February.
The problem, Booker believes, is large corporations squeezing smaller family farmers — and those mega-farm companies, fueled by subsidies and policies that work in their favor, are thereby contributing to a broken agricultural system that endangers public health by contributing to air and water pollution and producing unhealthy foods that contribute to disease.
Booker says the discrimination against smaller farms is particularly concerning for Black farmers, who have lost millions of acres of farmland and hundreds of billions of dollars in inter-generational wealth that land represented.
"It's unfortunate, but we know that the USDA [Department of Agriculture] has been an agent of discrimination against Black farmers, and we have seen profound levels of farming by Blacks being lost in our country's history," Booker says. "It is really tragic. If you're looking for just sheer data, the numbers are really stunning."
The statistics, as Booker explains, demonstrate a massive loss among Black farmers in America. In 1920, he says, the U.S. was home to roughly a million Black farmers.
"Now there's less than 50,000 Black farmers," he continues. "During that time, Black farmers, Black families lost about 20 million acres of farmland and the generational wealth that really comes from that. And the loss of these millions of acres of land was the result of very well-documented systemic racism and discrimination within the USDA against Black farmers, with the majority of that land loss, those millions of acres … lost since 1950."
Booker proposes this solution: The Justice for Black Farmers Act, which he and five other senators re-introduced to Congress last month. (He had first introduced the bill in 2020.)
The legislation would "put in safety checks and guards against discrimination, to protect the remaining Black farmers from more land loss, to restore the land loss by many Black farmers by doing something we've done before," Booker says.
The proposal also aims to create a Civilian Conservation Corps, which would train young farmers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
With the legislation, Booker also hopes to enforce antitrust laws in the farm sector, which he says would "have a big effect in everything from our climate goals and our ecological goals, as well as creating more justice for farmers themselves."
"[We've seen this] massive corporate consolidation going on — creating a system that used to be really our heritage, the original entrepreneurs, farm locks across our country in all ethnic backgrounds, is going on a dramatic case," he says.
Noting that debt relief for Black farmers has been championed by the Biden administration, Booker expresses confidence the farming legislation will pass, though it would require at least some Republican support to avoid a filibuster.
Systemic change must take place, he says, in order for the future of American farming to become brighter.
"These are big issues and stunning, if you think about it, that our government tells us from its health perspective, that the majority of what we eat to be fruits and vegetables. Well, only 2 percent of our subsidies go to that," Booker says. "We are fueling the system of mono-agriculture — where everybody's getting hurt except for the big corporations."
Documentarian Rebecca Harrell Tickell, who joined Booker for his interview on farming, agrees.
Tickell is one of the filmmakers behind Kiss the Ground, a 2020 documentary focusing on how regenerative agriculture can help mitigate climate change. She says farming is — well — the root of the agricultural system, and therefore it must be altered before the rest of the system can change.
"I was born in the Midwest. I'm the seventh generation from a farming family in Ohio and Indiana. And I can tell you that the system that we have in place is not working … And farmers will be the first to tell you that they're going bust," Tickell tells PEOPLE. "That system is a dying system on every level. And we can have a much healthier system looking forward into the future."
Booker's girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson, is featured in a 45-minute educational version of the documentary, Kiss the Ground: For Schools, which is now available for educators across the country and in other parts of the world.
Among the many themes in the field is the idea that an overhaul of America's agricultural system won't just benefit farmers — it will alter healthcare by contributing to easier access to healthy foods.
"If you take communities and give them more access … it actually lowers government costs, because when people have access to healthy food, they choose healthy food, and then their chronic disease rates go down," Booker says.
Booker himself eats a vegan diet, as does Dawson (though the senator is quick to say that she adopted that lifestyle without any prodding from her partner).
"She came to that on her own, which is great because we have, during the time of COVID, we've been working on cooking together a lot more," Booker says.
He says, for the record, that while he is partial to meatless Impossible Burgers, he and Dawson are currently on something of a health kick.
"I am trying to go a stretch without any processed food whatsoever," he says. "Literally she just bought a food processor, a Cuisinart thing, for our kitchen yesterday. So I'm very excited about just expanding my capability to make delicious, healthy, whole, plant-based food at home."
Among Booker's other proposed actions on this topic is the Climate Stewardship Act, a sweeping piece of legislation first introduced in 2019, which he says aims to put farmers "at the center of climate change" and do "a lot of common sense stuff."
Booker says he is looking to make a renewed push on the climate legislation now that he's a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and Democrats have the majority in the Senate.
The act would call for the planting of 16 billion trees; incentivize the planting of cover crops (a move that Booker says would "sequester carbon"); restore and protect two million acres of coastal wetlands; and provide farmers with technical assistance on climate stewardship practices.
"There's so much we already know, that if we just applied that knowledge and puts farmers at the center, their economic wellbeing would improve and the climate would improve in a significant way," Booker says. "And so I want bold, ambitious action."
According to Booker, all of those things in conjunction — protecting the environment, empowering farmers, training youth in conservation practices and creating jobs — would be "a win-win-win-win."
Another goal of Booker's, when it comes to agriculture and climate change initiatives, is in education.
"When I started in the Senate just seven years ago, and people wanted to talk about the fossil fuel industry and all of that, I was fine with pointing out the possibility. But I kept telling people, 'Did you know that the food systems that we have right now are one of the top producers of this climate crisis that we're in?' " Booker say. "And people almost look at me like I was crazy. What are you talking about? Cows? What are you talking about?"
That's why films like Kiss the Ground and other documentaries (Booker names Forks Over Knives and What the Health as a couple highlights) are so important.
Josh Tickell — who, along with wife Rebecca, is the other filmmaker behind Kiss the Ground — explains that the film "details a lot about how we got here in terms of policy."
In other words: how policies, over time, contributed to the current way Americans shop for and eat their foods.
John says that revamping agriculture will require disruption, much in the way that Uber has disrupted the taxicab industry or computers took the place of typewriters.
"Some companies may have to adapt and change … This is the promise that the vast majority of human beings can be fed a healthy nutritional diet, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," John says. "And the planet can actually heal at the same time. That's a no brainer. It's going to happen, whether we promote it or somebody else does."
Though Booker can't promote the film due to ethics requirements, he says he has seen it himself (more than once) and explains that, to him, it demonstrates how "the current system is causing so many of our problems from health problems to environmental justice problems to climate change."
Through the various forms of legislation he's sponsoring — and, with the help of documentary films, trying to educate consumers on where their food comes from, who grows it and even how it can impact their health — Booker hopes to fix what he calls a "broken system."
"We have a system that's all backwards," he says. "This is a revolution in the making for us to reclaim our health and our heritage of farming and be more in sync with our environment … I feel a movement starting to grow in this country, but we've got to wake up more of our friends, our neighbors, our communities to how we have the power to change."
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