Reform the Nation’s Food System

By Tom Colicchio

The nation’s food system is out of balance. Instead of focusing on public health, food policy in Washington is dominated by money — prioritizing corporate interests at the expense of our health, the environment, and working families. The federal government provides subsidies that help keep junk food cheap and drive up rates of chronic health problems — like obesity, diabetes, and even cancer. There is growing concern about limited access to affordable, healthy food, and the next President will have to take bold action to address this challenge.

For an issue that is central to the well being of every American, you don’t hear much about it on the campaign trail. That’s why a group of allied organizations have launched Plate of the Union. Plate of the Union is a collaborative campaign driven by Food Policy Action, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the HEAL Food Alliance to amplify the voice of millions of Americans who care about food and farm issues. Together, we’re calling on the next President to create a food system that rewards farmers and farming practices that protect our environment, that provides dignity and fair wages to workers, and ensures that all Americans have access to healthy food that they can afford.

Our broken food system has caused a national crisis that impacts public health, the environment, and the economy. The crisis is perpetuated by government policies created and maintained by powerful lobbyists. This system relies on the exploitation of workers, damages the environment, and puts a financial squeeze on farmers. The consequences are all around us — from climate change to polluted waterways to sub-minimum wages for food workers and their families. For the first time in a century, children born in the 2000s had a lower life expectancy than their parents, thanks to spiking rates of obesity and diet-related diseases. In addition to the human toll, there is an incredible financial cost as well — the U.S. spends over $200 billion annually on obesity-related healthcare costs and over $175 billion annually in direct medical costs for diabetes.

While most presidential candidates have been slow to address this issue, large majorities of voters across the political spectrum support real change to our nation’s food system. In a national poll conducted by Plate of the Union, an overwhelming majority of voters expressed strong concerns about the food system’s impact on the health of children. They believe special interests and money in politics influence the system, and that our current food policy is more focused on money than on health. Voters want change that makes healthy foods more affordable — 53 percent agreed that: “Too many Americans cannot afford healthy food in their communities. We need to change policies so that we make healthy and nutritious foods more affordable for every American, regardless of their zip code.” Other key findings include:

· 81% are very concerned that one third of children today will develop type-2 diabetes.

· 69% are very concerned that today’s children are expected to live shorter lives than their parents.

· 81% expressed that they were very or somewhat seriously concerned that food and agriculture companies gave over $76 million in campaign contributions to members and candidates for Congress in the 2014 elections.

· 75% favor government incentives to encourage sustainable farming practices that protect the environment, including 62% who strongly favor.

There are some obvious first steps that the next President can take in his/her first year in office to begin reforming our food system. Presidential candidates should start by committing to five common-sense steps:

1. Stand with working families: Commit to ensuring that all Americans have access to healthy, affordable food.

2. Keep our kids healthy: Stop companies from marketing junk food to kids and end subsidies that support processed junk food.

3. Support farmers to grow healthy food: Realign agricultural subsidies to match the U.S. government’s fruit and vegetable recommendations, and expand incentives for sustainable practices.

4. Protect food and farm workers: End Fair Labor Standards exemptions for farmworkers, raise the minimum wage for all food workers, and eliminate the subminimum wage for restaurant workers.

5. Keep antibiotics working: Ban the practice of feeding antibiotics to farm animals that are not sick.

To help make sure presidential candidates hear this message, Plate of the Union is mobilizing voters in key presidential battleground states — including New Hampshire, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio. We will have a team of full time organizers in each state who will be traveling extensively to rally grassroots support. Our supporters will engage candidates and voters around major campaign events, both in person and through social media. We will have a presence at both party conventions and you’ll see us on the campaign trail throughout the summer and into the fall — just keep an eye out for the official Plate of the Union food truck, spreading the word by serving healthy and delicious food to hungry voters.

In the months ahead, we will be working with high-profile allies and grassroots organizers on the ground — including my fellow chefs as well as public health professionals, scientists, elected officials, farmers and food advocates — to recruit tens of thousands more Americans to our cause. After Election Day, we look forward to working directly with the President-elect and her/his transition team, preparing detailed policy proposals and rallying public support for swift action following inauguration.

The stakes are too high for this issue to stay under the radar any longer. The policies that shape our food system influence our health, our environment, and our economy. Every American deserves access to healthy, affordable food that is fair to workers, good for the environment, and keeps farmers on their land. It will take presidential leadership to make this a reality.

Tom Colicchio is Food Policy Action Co-Founder, good food advocate and owner Crafted Hospitality