Let's Make America's Food System Great Again
I couldn’t help myself – had to write SOMETHING about this election. So I did. And it’s up on Huffington Post! Read it there, here.
With less than two weeks to go until the election, the divisiveness of the 2016 Presidential campaign is reaching new and worrisome levels and the debate over where America goes from here seems to be at an impasse. There is, however, one idea upon which we should all agree: That we need to make America’s food system great again.
Current food policy, and therefore nearly all political discussions about food (when, on the rare occasion, they occur), focuses on four issues: Food access (how many people can buy and eat healthy foods,) nutrition (the quality of the foods that people eat,) sustainability (the quality of food produced and its effects on the environment,) and agricultural economics. These four issues are typically dealt with separately and without enough coordinated effort. I would argue, however, that the most efficient way to address inequality, nutrition, sustainability and a strong economy in our food system is take a comprehensive approach much like the one we had up during the first half of the twentieth century.
When my grandfather left U.S. soil for the Pacific nearly 55 years ago, he left behind a country that was, by and large, getting their food through traditional farming techniques. That meant that though mechanized, farming was done without the use of chemical pesticides and genetic engineering. People predominantly ate home cooked meals with their families; sweets were special treats, and eating “whole foods” was the norm – indeed processed food products were only just being introduced to the America palate. When America became embroiled in WWII, families at home did their part by planting Victory Gardens and accepting ration cards.
This food system was partially a result of the historical precedence, but we also had a coordinated national food strategy. The Federal Surplus Relief Agency of the 1930s and early 1940s, for example, worked with states to provide surplus commodities like apples and beans made their way into the hands of people in need through the first school lunches, unemployment programs, and charities. This assisted both farmers, who had excessive commodity crops and were facing the prospect lower prices, and of course, people who were able to get fresh foods they otherwise would not have been able to afford. And, when nearly 25% of WWII draftees showed up for their physicals malnourished, the federal government launched several programs to study and improve nutrition for all Americans. It was during this time that the first nutrition guidelines, which focused on balanced “whole food” diets, was released as part of the war effort.
In the years following the end of WWII, we saw an increase in industrial and chemical farming, the end of surplus commodity programs, the rise of “TV dinners”, and the commercialization and marketing of processed foods. Today, these factors – and many others – have left us with a food system in crisis. More than a third of adults in the United States are obese (the result of eating poor quality food and a significant factor in the manifestation of chronic disease), 42.2 million Americans – including 13.1 million children – are living with food insecurity, and the dual threats of climate change and shortages of potable water mean that the continued existence of agriculture as we know it is at risk. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays out $20 billion in subsidies incentivize farmers to grow crops like corn, wheat, rice and soybeans instead of higher-quality fruits and vegetables.
What if, instead of accepting this as normal or irreversible, we, as a country, agreed to reform a food system that is no longer working for any of us? We could start by taking some cues from our parents and grandparents.
First, we should shift the focus of our subsidies from commodity crops to fruits and vegetables while also offering farmers additional financial incentives to make that change, which could prove costly and time consuming for them. Second, we should reinstate the surplus relief program, paying farmers for surplus crops that would then get redistributed to families in need. And third, we should offer incentives for farmers to shift to more environmentally friendly, non-toxic and sustainable agricultural practices.
Would these changes cost money? Yes. But by shifting economic incentives in our food system to align more appropriately with better healthy food access and nutrition, we could save billions of dollars in obesity-related health care costs, which are expected to, at current rates, exceed $200 billion a year in the U.S. by 2030.
In other words, creating a comprehensive and forward-looking national food policy plan would result in more money in the pockets of Americans, a healthier, more productive population, and a vigorous agricultural economy that is both viable for famers and serves our national wellbeing.
Wouldn’t that be great?