In his address to Congress President BidenJoe BidenBiden says Beau’s estimate of the first 100 days would be “Be who you are”. Biden: McCarthy’s support for Cheney ouster is “above my pay grade” drew a vivid picture of our national hunger crisis, in which “Cars were lined up for miles … waiting for a box of groceries to be placed in their trunk. I don’t know about you, but I never thought I’d see this in America. “The latest stimulus package was crucial, but America’s food infrastructure needs further strengthening.
Fortunately, Minister of Agriculture Tom VilsackTom VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-School Programs Help Schools Serve Healthier Meals seems ready to stand up for nutrition and health. “Food insecurity” is the new buzzword in the Department of Agriculture (USDA), signaling a refreshing shift in an agency approach that has long treated hunger and nutrition separately, rather than treating them as two aspects of the same problem.
To be clear, it is necessary to continue to focus intensely on alleviating food insecurity – which the USDA measures as a difficulty in getting enough food. Census surveys during the COVID-19 pandemic reveal enormous spikes and racial disparities in food insecurity.
At the same time, improving food insecurity, which can be measured using outcomes such as food intake, nutritional quality and diet-related diseases, needs to be better integrated into these goals. The pandemic is also relevant here: people with diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop severe COVID-19. Even before 2020, poor nutritional quality was a major contributor to death and disability. The US government (through Medicaid and Medicare) spends more on treating diabetes than it allocates for the entire USDA budget.
Our food system infrastructure promotes food insecurity. Food manufacturers are marketing ultra-processed junk food products – which leads to weight gain, a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes – and making sure their products are cheap and available wherever we shop. Worse still, advertisements for these unhealthy foods are popping up on children’s online learning platforms. Consumers understand this industry tactic: Most shoppers believe that food manufacturers and supermarkets should make it easier for people to eat healthily.
And widespread inequalities occur in access to nutritious, affordable food. Racial differences in diet-related chronic disease rates are partly due to generations of discriminatory policies that create barriers to land ownership and economic resources. Targeted marketing in the food industry increases these differences.
Individuals shouldn’t have to face an uphill battle against the many factors that conspire against access to nutritious foods. To address food insecurity in a robust and equitable manner, the needs and leadership skills of people with years of experience must be brought to the fore, the root causes of food insecurity must be addressed and the faulty infrastructure of the food system remedied.
People suffering from food insecurity, especially in color communities, should be involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of strategies to combat this food insecurity. USDA’s leadership is now prioritizing working with these stakeholders, including through a series of listening sessions. Some groups, in collaboration with our organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, speak directly to participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to identify ways to increase food security through SNAP.
Politics should address systemic racism and resource scarcity as root causes of food insecurity. For example, the American Rescue Plan’s debt relief plan for paint farmers will begin to address generations of discrimination. Policy advances in removing barriers to access to SNAP, extending benefits to children when schools and childcare are closed, and increasing benefits permanently, will help families afford healthy food.
We also need nutritional strategies to correct our faulty food system. Within the USDA wheelhouse, schools must provide healthy meals to all children for free. We must also maintain the value and nutritional quality of the Special Nutritional Supplement Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). SNAP attendees are interested in marketing standards for SNAP retailers highlighting healthy foods and trying out a model that incentivizes fruits and vegetables and does not include sugary beverages in SNAP. Sugary drinks have been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and tooth decay, and this approach could save lives and billions of dollars in healthcare costs.
Nutrition strategies through other USDA food distribution programs could include increases in funding for the purchase of unharvested crops and traditional indigenous foods under the Emergency Food Support Program and the Indian Reservation Food Distribution Program. USDA could also add fresh produce to the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and strengthen and expand the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
It is high time for Congress to address the poor food infrastructure in the country. Public health and anti-hunger advocates can band together and play a vital role in securing a future where everyone has access to nutritious and affordable food.
Emily Friedman, JD, is a lawyer at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Maya Sandalow, MPH, is a Senior Policy Associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.