When we think about how we can change the food system, our first thought may be of things we can do as consumers: Buy organic. Buy local. Look for phrases like “free range” or labels like Fair Food or Seafood Watch.
All these things are very much worth doing. But the food system can’t be transformed through consumer choices alone. The mess we’re in has been largely created and sustained by bad public policy, and it’s going to take smart, evidence-based policy to move us forward. Much of this work needs to be done on the federal level, though state and local governments can also play an important role.
The federal farm bill
The farm bill is large and complex piece of legislation, renewed at five-year intervals, that sets the policy agenda and budget priorities for much of the federal government’s food-related work. It covers everything from nutrition programs to crop insurance, agricultural research, trade, and conservation programs.
Each time the farm bill is up for renewal, UCS identifies a list of top priorities for that version of the bill and works, both through direct lobbying and mobilizing our supporters, to ensure that those priorities are reflected as much as possible in the final version. In recent years, our priorities have included defending the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), strengthening conservation programs, and supporting new initiatives to connect farmers with local markets and to assist new farmers.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans
This blueprint for a healthy diet is issued jointly by the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, based on recommendations by an advisory committee of scientific experts. The Dietary Guidelines is revised every five years to keep up-to-date with current nutritional science. However, lobbying efforts have sometimes succeeded in removing or diluting scientific advice that threatens industry bottom lines. And we need to do a better job of supporting the guidelines with policy initiatives that make it easier for people to follow them.
Federal child nutrition programs
A suite of federal programs, reauthorized at regular intervals, provide funding and nutritional standards for healthy meals in our nation’s schools. For many students, especially those in families facing food insecurity, a federally subsidized school lunch or breakfast may often be their only healthy meal of the day. It’s critically important for the health, well-being, and academic success of our children that we continue to fund these programs and to set high nutritional standards for them. The processed food industry makes ongoing efforts to weaken these standards so they can sell more chocolate milk and tater tots. We have to keep pushing back.
Good Food Purchasing Programs
While consumer action at the individual level can make a difference, large institutions such as school systems or hospitals possess far more leverage. Good Food Purchasing Programs (GFPPs), adopted already in several cities and being considered in many more, commit a government entity or large organization to make food buying decisions according to a set of criteria that incentivize fairness, sustainability and local economic benefit. GFPPs are challenging to adopt and implement, but can be a powerful tool for positive change.
State, local, and private sector solutions
Not all of the work of transforming the food system through policy reform is being done at the federal level. States and municipalities can do much to move the system in the right direction. And forward-looking businesses can make themselves part of the solution by taking a proactive role in treating workers fairly, sourcing local, sustainable food, and partnering with communities to help improve the local food environment.