Diane Sullivan, an anti-poverty and affordable food advocate, shares her story of standing up for agriculture while the Humane Society of the United States pushed for a ballot in Massachusetts that would hurt low-income families at the grocery store.
Less than a year ago, I attended the 2016 Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit, my first real introduction to agriculture beyond labels on products in the grocery store. I had recently learned about a ballot initiative filed in my state that, despite efforts to legally challenge its certification, would become Question 3 on the Massachusetts 2016 ballot.
As I considered engaging in this food policy debate, I reflected on my own family’s experience with hunger, homelessness and poverty which drives me in my work for social justice. I recalled the times I would dig through my sofa for change just to purchase a dozen eggs to feed my children some protein for dinner. In deference to the real victims of Q3, I would later agree to become campaign manager for Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice.
In my work, I have always sought to break down the stereotypes we all know too well – that poor people are lazy and uninspired; that if we would just go to work, we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Rather than focus on solutions to poverty, policies began to look more like punishments, as broad brushes of accusations of fraud, waste and abuse taint us all when one bad apple makes a new headline.
While attending last year’s summit, I quickly learned that those of you providing the gift of nutrition have your own unique, yet similar challenges. I noted to Brian Klippenstien of Protect the Harvest at the time that low income families and farmers have their respective stories to share, stories that left untold by us, would be told for us by others with self-serving interests.
My years in policy work have also shown me that when we start to solve for a problem that does not exist, there will be unintended consequences. More often than not, the poor will suffer the worst. Q3 is the very definition of social injustice, those elite with money and satisfied choices imposing burdens on those with neither.
On its surface, Q3 would appeal to the good-hearted voters in Massachusetts who want to prevent cruelty to animals. In reality, Q3 was a cruel indifference to those of us who struggle to feed our families in a state ranked 47th in housing affordability and where our food costs are already 26 percent higher than the national average. Like most everyone, I don’t want to be cruel to animals, but I refuse to be cruel to people.
The Humane Society of the United States and their supporters would ultimately spend $2.7 million on the passage of Q3, while ensuring that the good and truth of agriculture would be a story left untold in my state. HSUS would continue to ignore not only the economic impacts for some of our state’s most vulnerable citizens, but also the animal welfare trade-offs for the very livestock they claim to protect.
The politics is strange. Imagine if President Trump were to propose doubling the cost of the most affordable and accessible source of protein available to low income families. Outrage would ensue as advocates for the poor and the media would express their disdain for such a heartless and reckless act. Yet, when merchants of veganism do it, compassion for our fellow humans can simply be set aside, it seems.
Thankfully, Mr. Forrest Lucas and the National Pork Producers Council would provide enough funds for me to give voice to the voiceless in this debate. Sadly, we would ultimately be outspent 10:1 as funds directly from HSUS and their supporters in places like California, New York and DC poured into their campaign. Citizens for Farm Animal Protection rained down TV ads that portrayed animals in awful conditions, duping MA voters into thinking these conditions existed across farms in our state and were acceptable, normal agriculture practices across the country.
Walking into this debate, I had no idea how extraordinary our food producers and science partners are at providing healthy, affordable and sustainable nutrition. I am among the grateful who appreciate why your work is so critical and meaningful. I know why, going forward, the coalitions that I am accustomed to working in must be working in partnership with you all who feed us.
HSUS cleverly played on the emotions of voters in a progressive state where we, in general, know very little to nothing about agriculture. HSUS has bullied our local farmers into submission with direct threats to their livelihoods. HSUS lied about the cost, as they did in CA, selling their ‘penny-an-egg’ story to unsuspecting voters. HSUS claimed that consumers were driving their cause, not mentioning the consumers they were referring were retail executives who know about a good marketing plan, not your average shopper on a budget. HSUS called me as a pawn for big agriculture.
HSUS would soon learn that my supporters hadn’t just come to MA to randomly pick some low-income woman to be the face of this campaign. HSUS wasn’t certain how to handle me. This low income grandma, working 2 jobs to survive, with a solid record of 15 years in anti-poverty work, was on a crash course in agriculture. I found myself being the voice for not only those victimized by Q3, but also in defense of agriculture.
I created a unique challenge. HSUS couldn’t protest in front of my home: my neighbors would have had a field day with them. HSUS couldn’t threaten a boycott of my business: I don’t own one. HSUS couldn’t bully me out of this debate: though they tried. Their supporters suggested that I be locked in a cage. Some commented that my children should not exist if I ever struggled to feed them.
Despite our efforts, Q3 would pass overwhelmingly in MA, with a 2022 implementation date. As predicted, HSUS has moved along to another small, coastal state that, like my own, ranks among the very lowest in agriculture receipts in the country. HSUS is taking to state legislatures and ballots what they have been losing at the check-out counter where 90 percent of us purchase conventional eggs.
As I consider my next steps in this debate, I am reminded that HSUS did not happen overnight. Campaigns take time. Now, I know there has been an on-going food policy debate where those most impacted – and harmed – have been absent. I am here to take my seat at the table. HSUS is now pressing further, trying to bully big agriculture into producing slower growing broilers driving up the consumer price of chicken meat. That negotiation does not include the voice of those most adversely impacted. Any meaningful debate on these issues requires the presence of one of its major stakeholder groups –low income consumers.
In MA, nearly 800,000 residents rely on the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). Nationwide, that number is 45.5 million. We know that these numbers only scratch the surface at what food insecurity in the United States really looks like.
We must be more united and assertive in protecting and distributing our abundance. We must have the victims of this debate join with those who produce. The voice of low-income consumers can no longer be excluded from the negotiating tables. It is critical we unite urban and rural partnerships to promote food security and protect our dinner plates from the self-appointed food police.