We all see them now. Food and supply shortages, security breaches, and insufficient protections for essential workers have given us a giant wake-up call. Private and government philanthropic funds are desperately trying to hold together a fundamentally broken food system.
Fixing the inadequate and inequitable food system we had before Covid-19 attacked is the wrong approach. Instead, we should seek to create a crisis-proof system that we can all trust and be proud of. With some policy adjustments, federal and state governments can help build a vastly improved system that provides nutritious, sustainably grown, and equitably produced food for all, even when it compensates and protects food workers and better supports farms premises, restaurants and other small businesses. .
The core of such a system would be a clearer focus on equitable access and the development of stronger local and regional food supply chains. Fortunately, we don’t need to study and innovate to start building this better system. Research and design work has already been done. We just need to get moving.
This is what we should do:
Feed all people well. The primary function of the food system is to support all people in all American communities by providing affordable food that keeps us healthy and well-fed. In the long term, we need to reduce dependency on food assistance programs by increasing income. We also need to improve nutrition by ensuring that every neighborhood has access to grocery stores that have healthy options at affordable prices, in part to reduce conditions like heart disease and diabetes that have made Covid-19 more deadly.
Until that vision becomes a reality, we need effective programs to support those who were already starving and those who were made food insecure by the pandemic. Congress should boost food assistance and make permanent the recent exemptions that have been granted to make SNAP and school meal programs even more effective. The pandemic pushed lawmakers to expand food assistance benefits for families with children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. That expansion should be available for future pandemics and expand to the summer months when children don’t go to school.
Prioritize regional supply chains. The closer the farms are to the holders, the fewer disruptions in times of crisis. At the core of today’s food system vulnerabilities is a misguided federal agricultural policy that encourages a national supply chain for most of what we eat. We see this point clearly when the closure of a single meat processing plant threatens to topple an entire industry. Regional supply chains with small producers and producers have countless benefits: they are more economically resilient, they encourage food companies to be closer to the customer, they are a boon to local economies, they reduce the large environmental costs of food production, and In a crisis, they give us more options to get food where it is needed.
Some immediate actions would help. Right now, local, family-owned ranches have to pass their cattle through large USDA slaughterhouses spread across the country, sometimes sending animals to three states for slaughter just to send the meat up for sale. If Congress passed legislation to allow small protein producers to be sold locally, we would quickly see fewer shortage reports. Meanwhile, USDA should do more to support regional supply chains and make direct-to-customer markets accessible to all communities.
Recognize and support the role of small businesses and workers in the food system. We need to disarm the system that currently hurts small local and regional food businesses, including restaurants in the heart of our communities. In all sectors, the fight for access to federal stimulus dollars has pitted small business owners against massive corporations. Nowhere is this more evident than in the food sector, where large food companies have opted for the system to secure funding, while small independent chefs and restaurant owners are left to collect the remains.
Small food businesses are the heart of any community. Any future federal financing program should recognize the economic impact of small food businesses and close the loopholes that allow big, investor-backed businesses to eat their share. The upcoming farm bill should also aim to level the playing field for agriculture by supporting small family farms rather than subsidizing global food conglomerates.
Just as importantly, we must take steps now to protect the people who grow and process our food, from those who harvest fruit to those who butcher meat or wash dishes. Today, many of these people cannot afford to buy the food they produce for the rest of us and do not have the health care protections they need to stay safe and protect the rest of us. Our food system cannot function without them, and we can no longer treat them as invisible.
This crisis has shown us that strengthening our food system is a matter of national security. Reducing supply chain vulnerabilities and ensuring that the system better serves all of our communities can literally save American lives, both during and after this crisis.
If Congress and the administration make these policy changes and better coordinate existing policies, we will make a great effort to ensure that our food supply is never again seriously threatened, either during a pandemic or during the next crisis, either whatever. is.