Now is the time to strengthen America’s nutrition infrastructure
In his address to Congress, President Biden painted a vivid picture of our national hunger crisis, with “cars lined up for miles…waiting for a box of food to be put in their trunk. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t ever think I’d see that in America.” The latest stimulus package has been critical, but America’s nutrition infrastructure needs further shoring up.
Thankfully, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appears ready to champion nutrition and health. “Nutrition insecurity” is the new buzzword at the Department of Agriculture (USDA), signaling a refreshing shift in an agency approach that has long handled hunger and nutrition separately, instead of treating them as two aspects of the same problem.
To be clear, continuing an intense focus on alleviating food insecurity — which USDA measures as difficulty acquiring enough food — is necessary. Census surveys during the COVID-19 pandemic reveal enormous spikes and racial disparities in food insecurity.
At the same time, improving nutrition insecurity, which could be measured through outcomes like nutritional intake, diet quality and diet-related disease, must be better integrated into these goals. Here again the pandemic is relevant: Those with diet-related diseases like type 2 diabetes are more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19. Even before 2020, poor diet quality was a leading contributor to death and disability. The U.S. government (via Medicaid and Medicare) spends more to treat diabetes than it allots for USDA’s entire budget.
Our food system infrastructure fuels nutrition insecurity. Food manufacturers market ultra-processed junk food — which leads to weight gain, a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes — and ensure their products are cheap and available wherever we shop. Even worse, advertisements for these health-harming foods are popping up on children’s online learning platforms. Consumers have caught on to these industry tactics: Most shoppers think food manufacturers and supermarkets should make it easier for people to eat healthfully.
And widespread inequities appear in access to nutritious, affordable foods. Racial disparities in nutrition-related chronic disease rates stem in part from generations of discriminatory policies that create barriers to land ownership and economic resources. Targeted food industry marketing compounds these disparities.
Individuals shouldn’t have to fight an uphill battle against the many factors conspiring against their accessing nutritious food. Robustly and equitably tackling nutrition insecurity requires centering the needs and leadership of those with lived experience, addressing nutrition insecurity’s root causes and rectifying our flawed food system infrastructure.
People who have experienced nutrition insecurity, especially in communities of color, should be involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of strategies to combat it. USDA’s leadership is now prioritizing working with these stakeholders, including through a series of listening sessions. And some groups, in partnership with our organization, Center for Science in the Public Interest, are speaking directly with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants to identify ways to strengthen nutrition security through SNAP.
Policy should address systemic racism and resource scarcity as root causes of nutrition insecurity. For example, the American Rescue Plan’s debt relief for farmers of color will begin to address generations of discrimination. And policy advancements to reduce barriers to accessing SNAP, extend benefits to children when schools and child care are closed, and permanently increase benefits will help families afford healthy food.
We also need nutrition-specific strategies to correct our flawed food system. Within USDA’s wheelhouse, schools must provide healthy meals for all kids at no cost. We also need to sustain increases in the value and nutritional quality of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program food packages. And SNAP participants are interested in marketing standards for SNAP retailers that highlight healthy foods, and in testing a model that incentivizes fruit and vegetables and doesn’t include sugary drinks in SNAP. Sugary drinks are linked to heart disease, diabetes and tooth decay, and this approach could save lives and billions of dollars in health care costs.
Nutrition strategies through other USDA food distribution programs might include increased funding for purchasing unharvested crops and traditional Indigenous foods in the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. USDA could also incorporate fresh produce into the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and strengthen and expand the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
It is high time for Congress to address the country’s poor nutrition infrastructure. Public health and anti-hunger advocates can unite and play a critical role in ensuring a future where everyone has access to nutritious and affordable foods.
Emily Friedman, JD, is a legal fellow at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Maya Sandalow, MPH, is senior policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.