One Solution for a Broken Food System (part 4)
From Big Food to food deserts, there's a whole lot of corruption going on. 💰
Part 3 of this series showed how farm worker inequality and supply chain problems affect our food system. In part 4, we're covering how food policy skews food prices and nutrient recommendations, as well as the health impacts impacts of unequal food access.
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Food Politics: A Bad (Dietary) Influence
Food politics play a major role in what's wrong with farming, farm worker rights and the supply chain. When we pull back the curtain on these corrupt systems, we find questionable policies that not only support a damaging status quo but also influence food prices, availability and even intake.
According to data from 2020, the large-scale monocrop farms we discussed in part two of this series pump out about 795 billion pounds of corn and 248 billion pounds of soybeans every year. These commodity crops—along with wheat, cotton and rice—receive $20 billion per year in government subsidies, ostensibly to support production, protect against unforeseen losses and ensure fair prices for farmers.
In reality, these subsidies mostly serve to stabilize commodity prices in ways that subvert the normal rules of supply and demand. We're left with a glut of cheap commodities, many of which go to feed animals on factory farms.
Agricultural subsidies have increased over time despite numerous reformation efforts. Crop insurance remains the largest disbursement at $8 billion per year, but many other payouts are available—including risk coverage to guarantee revenue per acre and loans that allow farmers to wait until market prices are favorable before selling their crops.
While there doesn't appear to be a direct correlation between farm subsidies and health outcomes, these programs support only a small fraction of what we grow in the U.S. Farmers growing other crops, including fruits and vegetables, are left at the mercy of the very markets that the subsidies skew.
As a result, we as consumers have gotten used to paying low prices for subsidized foods like meat. The price tag on fresh produce seems sky high by comparison, which has given rise to the belief that healthy eating is expensive.
The Big Food/Government "Revolving Door"
High prices or not, we're not exactly encouraged to eat healthier foods.
Why would we be? Many influential names in Big Food and Big Ag go back and forth between industry jobs and government positions. The practice has become so common that it's been dubbed a "revolving door:"
USDA economists have gone to work for the sugar industry
Monsanto executives have gotten positions at the FDA
A dairy industry C-suite leader was appointed USDA secretary
...and the list goes on.
The influence doesn't stop there. Some of the biggest names in junk food and sugary drinks spend millions on lobbying efforts to ensure that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines don't threaten their profits. Even more troubling, several people with ties to Big Food have served on the advisory committee entrusted with creating these guidelines—which influence everything from what we serve in school lunch programs to what we feed our military.
Subsidies and industry connections have been intertwined with food politics for decades. Disentangling them will take some work, but committed individuals and groups are pursuing several potential options, including:
Eliminating commodity crop subsidies and/or subsidizing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables
Introducing policy reform to end Big Food lobbying efforts
Barring people with conflicting interests from serving on the dietary guidelines advisory board
Food Inequity: Less Access, More Hunger
Even if we reformed subsidies and relied only on unbiased advisors to create the national dietary guidelines, there's still the problem of unequal food access.
Many of us live in a relatively comfortable bubble. We're blessed with the ability to go pick up whatever we want from the grocery store or farmers market—or pop online, order it and have it delivered to our doors.
But COVID-related supply chain delays and waves of panic buying have opened our eyes to the reality that food access is not, in fact, guaranteed. Our plight may be a temporary frustration; for others, it's a daily reality.
About 23.5 million Americans live in low-income neighborhoods with “low access” to supermarkets, which the USDA defines as as:
More than 1 mile away in urban areas
More than 20 miles away in rural areas
These numbers may only tell part of the story, since the definition of "supermarket" also puts small corner stores with limited selection, such as corner delis, on the same level as stores that stock over 30,000 items.
Residents of these food deserts lack access to a variety of nutritious foods. Many rely on fast food and convenience store fare because it's all they can find or afford. This can lead to significant health challenges, including obesity and chronic lifestyle diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
Hunger and Food Insecurity
The number of households that lack access or sufficient income to purchase adequate amounts of food is on the rise, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Known as food insecurity, this problem affected as many as 42 million people—including 13 million children—in 2020. Over 9 million adults struggle with very low food security, meaning one or more people in their families have normal food intake disrupted or reduced on a regular basis.
The problem is often worse in black and Latino communities, particularly in households with children. Food insecurity disproportionately affected these communities during the height of the pandemic, but the disparity is far from new. COVID-related food shortages and access restrictions have only served to highlight a problem that has existed for decades.
In addition to food insecurity, over 38 million Americans experienced hunger in 2020. Lockdowns that ended access to school lunch programs left many without their only reliable source of food, and both inflation and supply chain problems continue to make affordable staples difficult to find in some areas.
Addressing food insecurity and hunger will likely require widespread community initiatives, including:
Community and urban gardening programs
Enabling convenience stores to stock fresh, healthy foods
Teaching convenience shop owners how to purchase and store fresh food
Educating families and communities on food selection, storage and preparation
Ensuring vending machines offer healthy options
Leveraging vertical farming technologies to offer fresh food onsite at grocery stores and restaurants
Next week, we'll dig into the feedback loop between restaurants, grocery stores and our consumption habits—and how that could affect our ability to feed a growing population in the coming decades.