Report from the Field - Farmbill Hack

Caption detail of Farm Bill Hackathon proposal, winning project

Project description and cover graphic of 'A Clean Bill of Health' as created by Jamie Leo,Trey Shelton, Peter Krohmer, Illya Bomash and Henry Lau for Food+Tech Connect's FARMBILL HACK.

Just because GRACE was a sponsor of Food + Tech Connect's Farm Bill Hackathon didn't mean that we couldn't participate in the collaborative event, but after twelve rigorous hours, I certainly didn't expect the project I worked on to be judged the best of several inspiring efforts.

By 8:30 am on Dec. 4, 2011, my colleagues Destin Joy Layne and Chris Hunt and I were being fair-trade, artisanal-ly caffeinated at the airy Cookstr workspace, while being introduced to the day's format by Food+Tech Connect's tireless Danielle Gould and Beth Hoffman and our co-hosts at Gojee.

Easy enough to put your head around the schedule: each attendee would pick from one of 12 previously submitted ideas for how to visualize a particular aspect of the Farm Bill. Then we'd assemble with others who chose the same topic, and begin to strategize how we would - by day's end - turn a question or some data into an online application, widget, tool, graphic or something else that would effectively communicate about the farm bill. And then came the hard part: figuring out how to collaborate with five people who'd never met: a media company CEO, a graphic designer, a doctoral student, a Google developer and myself, creative lead for food programs at GRACE.

The topic we latched on to? Environmental Working Group and Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) had proposed "Major Imbalance and Misplaced Priorities in National Farm Bill Spending: Commodity Crops (and Meats) Vs Fruits, Nuts and Vegetables."

The bill is one of the defining governmental policies of our lives, affecting not only Americans, but the global population.

Kari Hamerschlag (and the EWG team) and Rebecca Klein (and CLF) had distilled some impressive (and outrageous) facts: only 1% of US children are getting their recommended allowance of fruits, nuts and vegetables; if we shifted just 10% of the funding out of the commodity subsidies into fruit and vegetable procurement programs, we could pay for doubling fruits and veggies in the entire national school lunch program and meet the new USDA proposed school lunch guidelines for fruit and vegetables. Important stuff! And we wouldn't settle for a dry snoozer of a white paper at the end of the day - one of the key reasons for the hackathon was that the very mention of the farm bill tends to put a glaze on the face of anyone in earshot. But the bill is one of the defining governmental policies of our lives, affecting not only Americans, but the global population. CLF's in-depth Farm Bill Budget Visualizer rewards a patient reader with a deep well of info about the bill's allocated spending, but it's not short attention span communication; it's an interactive presentation of exhaustive research data.

I hope you'll check out Food + Tech Connect's detailed descriptions of the other groups and their efforts. But to give you an idea: other teams assembled to take on corporate control of the 'grocery meat case' and the consolidation's impact on farmers' share of the consumer food dollar (proposed by F&WW and us at GRACE; GRACE also proposed to leverage the growing number of people interested in Meatless Mondays through a crowdsourcing project, which came in second place). The Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food and Farming proposed a visualization of how much government money is available for new farmers. Another team worked on how to connect agricultural consolidation to food miles. Still another worked (with Oxfam), asked how the farm bill contributes to poverty and helps drive global food insecurity (and earned the third-place prize). A visualizer was suggested to expose hunger in America; a mobile app about cider production; a visual showing how to track one's influence on the bill, and finally, a tool to open up a credit tab with a local farm (which took fourth place).

Heady stuff.

The team I was collaborating with, undaunted by complex factoids, decided to take a familiar path by developing a narrative - in of all technical platforms - Powerpoint. Even as we recognized Powerpoint may not be perceived as 'cutting edge technology', we decided this was the best technical platform to present what we wanted to convey - and to maximize easy access to educators and other concerned citizens. (We are now developing a version in the animated online presentation platform Prezi and as an infographic poster). We all combed the facts, with Illya Bomash and Henry Lau researching how we might support arguments. Trey Shelton and I developed a narrative, while Peter Krohmer and I sketched and designed to give the piece a desirable look and feel. With onsite support from CLF's Rebecca Klein and offsite input of Kari Hamerschlag of EWG, we hammered away on our piece right up until it was time to present to the judges, balancing facts and figures and illustrating why they matter.

I don't think any of us imagined that the judges (Ashley Tyson of Food Republic, Sara Farmer, of UN Global Pulse, Danielle Gould of Food+Tech Connect and Michael LaValle of Gojee) would vote our work, 'Clean BILL of Health' as the best of the all the fine projects. And to have Marion Nestle describe our work as "the terrific winning entry" was surprising, too - and gratifying).

Destin Layne, our director of food programs at GRACE described the day eloquently:

It was thrilling to experience a new convergence in food consciousness among a variety of constituencies, both through live and viral collaboration; and moreover, many participants unfamiliar with the pressing issues of sustainable and industrial agriculture used this event, and the expert presentations, to start to uncover the hidden truth of our conventional food system.

But the farm bill needs you . Your turn for some 'hacking.' Pick your favorite farm bill hack and post it on your Facebook page, blog or send some links to a news outlet...