Transforming Food Policy: Could This Be The Year We Get It Right?
I’m going to make a bold prediction I desperately hope comes true: This year, 2023, could be the most influential year in a generation for food and agriculture systems in the United States.
This summer will be incredibly important as lawmakers work to write the latest Farm Bill, the massive twice-a-decade legislation that governs a large swath of federal agriculture and food policy.
So, here’s where we stand on food policy and what we need to do over the next couple months to have the biggest impact possible.
I recently had the honor of speaking with Congressmember Earl Blumenauer. During the height of COVID-19, Representative Blumenauer was instrumental in leading a bipartisan effort to create the extraordinary Restaurant Revitalization Fund and support small, local food businesses.
Four times during Blumenauer’s tenure in Congress, the Farm Bill has come up for reauthorization. And four times, it has fallen short, he said. Every one, an even more devastating missed opportunity to repair the food system.
What if we turn the Farm Bill into a Food Bill of Rights, he asked.
“Each time, it seems like there’s more evidence about how out the Farm Bill is with the needs and wants of Americans,” he said. “[People] who eat, who produce. Our health care system. The environment.”
Public support for more nuanced food and ag policies has strengthened since Blumenauer was first elected, he said. But something else has grown stronger, too: The power that food industry lobbyists and corporations—not farmers or cultural stewards—have over what we eat. The food system will stay broken if we keep letting consolidated mega-corporations control what the world eats without elevating the voices of small farmers, Indigenous traditions, and local cultural needs.
“We pay too much. To the wrong people. To grow the wrong food. The wrong way. In the wrong places,” he said. Joking, he continued: “Other than that, it’s just fine!”
With this statement, Blumenauer succinctly sums up the issues we’re facing. He’s right, that American food policies encourage us to plant, harvest, and eat too much of the wrong foods. These ultra-processed foods—which, as Blumenauer also pointed out, further distance us from the production process—are made from subsidized commodity ingredients and sold super cheaply. And by contributing to diet-related disease, these foods are literally killing us.
And as we know, when these crops are grown in ways that are not regenerative, in places they’re not native, the climate continues to suffer.
“Nature is making our point,” Blumenauer said. We have to listen to the planet.
So let’s bring this back to solutions—and to this year’s Farm Bill.
What can we do? How can we push for policies that prioritize people and planet over profit? How can we create a Food Bill of Rights?
We can support our elected officials who are committed to food. Congressmember Chellie Pingree, a tireless advocate for food systems, is a member of the House Agriculture Committee, which drafts the Farm Bill. As we enter Farm Bill season, she provided an update on her priorities:
“Among the many issues my colleagues and I will work to include to help better our food and agriculture systems, I hope to strengthen infrastructure to support local food systems, address PFAS contamination on agricultural land, improve nutrition and food security, give farmers the tools they need to reach net zero emissions by 2040, and more,” she said.
We can advocate for common-sense food legislation. Here in the U.S., for example, the Food Donation Improvement Act passed this year with bipartisan support, and it’ll have a major impact on reducing food waste.
We can show our power in government, which can take many forms. Last year’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health—the first since 1969—was extremely important. And so is taking time to contact your elected officials who represent you. Make sure they know what you care about.
We can fight to protect and strengthen much-needed food security and assistance programs, like SNAP, formerly food stamps. This is a priority for Congressmember Jim McGovern, who I often call a food and anti-hunger superhero.
“As this year’s Farm Bill comes together,” Rep. McGovern said, “our priority must be not only fighting for a bill that protects SNAP, our first line of defense against hunger, but working to expand our food security efforts, align them with the pillars of the National Strategy released by the White House last year, and make sure that we are all doing our part to achieve the goal of ending hunger by 2030.”
We can enact bold ideas locally. In addition to pushing for progress at federal and state levels, get your city involved. Get your school board involved. Get your local business associations involved. Can we encourage better food procurement practices? Can our local governments recognize food as a human right? Can we pave the way for a better food system from the ground up?
We can start by following our passions and skill sets. Everybody has something to contribute to the food movement. The Farm Bill is complex—which means there are dozens, if not hundreds, of different entry points for you to find a topic that resonates with you.
“The Farm Bill has a massive impact not only on agriculture,” Rep. Pingree said, “but also on access to nutrition, climate change, renewable energy, rural development—such as rural broadband—and much more.”