How America’s Meals System Might Change Beneath Biden


Transitional notes from the left of American agriculture piled up almost as soon as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential victory was clear.

There were small and big requests. Establish the rules for raising organic cattle and reverse the department’s track record with black farmers. Restore school food standards and strengthen GMO labels. Prioritize the climate crisis. There was even a proposal to change the name of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Department of Food and Welfare.

Chef Michel Nischan is one of those who spoke to the Biden transition team about food and agricultural policy. His résumé for food advocacy dates back to the first Bush administration. It was his idea to double the value of food stamps on fruits and vegetables, a term that has grown into a national program.

He has a message for his fellow warriors, many of whom say their problems were pushed back several spaces on the game board under former President Donald J. Trump: The Department of Agriculture is an understaffed agency that addresses the dizzying challenges of starvation and hunger Security faces the pandemic. Repairs must be made before reform.

“It’s like, we know you want us to jump from serving meat to being vegan,” said Mr Nischan. “But man, we have to get the stove fixed first.”

Tom Vilsack, who was Agriculture Secretary in the Obama administration and who is likely to be re-elected by the Senate for another round, said in an interview on Friday that he had already outlined his agenda.

“There are probably five very, very big challenges ahead that will need to be overcome very quickly,” he said. Topping the list is protecting the Department of Agriculture staff and those who process the country’s food from the virus and which land grant universities, state laboratories and other departmental offices may store and administer vaccines.

Famine relief is a pressing issue, as is two other priorities of his boss: promoting social justice and combating climate change.

Next, regional food systems will be supported and farmers helped. “Once we’re a bit on the other side of the virus, we have the important business of revitalizing the rural economy that is being hit,” Vilsack said.

Mr. Vilsack returns to a completely different department than he did in the Obama era when she landed on Forbes’ list of America’s Best Workplaces. Morale is low and many positions are vacant, especially in agencies that provide data and scientific research on which policy decisions are made.

“Spiritually and emotionally, the career staff are just devastated,” said Sam Kass, the White House chef who became President Barack Obama’s chief nutritionist and spoke to Mr. Vilsack about his agenda. “You have to start stabilizing the ship.”

Disciples of the Good Food movement, which promotes healthy, local foods grown in environmentally friendly ways by people who are paid fairly, say that during a Trump administration devoted to agribusiness and factory farming, many organizations necessarily got stronger. They had to find ways to innovate without the support of the huge federal food authority.

The Department of Agriculture, with a budget of $ 153 billion and nearly 100,000 employees, operates 29 agencies and offices whose tasks range from feeding the poorest Americans to regulating the food for public school children, managing forests and helping farmers sell Goods like soybeans abroad are enough.

Progressive federal food policy had grown slowly but steadily since the Clinton administration when California chef Alice Waters urged the White House to improve school lunches and create a kitchen garden in the White House. when the first national organic standards were introduced; and when the division’s attention was raised on civil rights issues.

Under Obama, child nutrition and the quality of school food became a priority. Michelle Obama created a permanent garden in the White House. Thousands of microcredit went to small and young farmers, and climate-friendly policies became more important.

When Mr. Trump arrived at the White House, his followers joked about turning the garden into a putting green. His Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue moved the division’s largest science-based research agencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, from Washington to Kansas City, Mo. Whether by design or by default – many employees resigned rather than relocate – employees became gutted, which limited the effectiveness of the agencies.

Mr Trump became a champion in many rural communities, easing regulations and paying farmers when his strict trade policies and the pandemic hurt sales.

“In my 40+ years reporting on the agricultural business in Washington, I have ever seen a president talk as much about agriculture and trade policy as our president,” said Jim Wiesemeyer, correspondent for the Farm Journal Washington, in an interview with the magazine .

But on the other hand, the mood was gloomy. “In retrospect, it was pretty brutal,” said Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, which represents a $ 50 billion segment of the food industry. “The root of this was an anti-anti-regulatory agenda with no respect for organic products or other forms of sustainable agriculture.”

Some, like Ms. Batcha, trust Mr. Vilsack, who most recently was the top executive of a global dairy trading group.

Others consider it a makeover without a fresh, progressive view of improving the food system. Not all agricultural and raw material farmers are happy either. Many hoped the job would go to Heidi Heitkamp, ​​a former North Dakota senator with deep connections to rural issues. Social justice and environmental campaigners fought hard for Marcia L. Fudge, a Cleveland congresswoman whom President Biden eventually nominated as secretary for housing and urban development.

In Mr. Vilsack, the experienced new president went to find someone who could work immediately on pandemic-related safety and nutrition issues. The number of Americans suffering from hunger rose to around 50 million in 2020, to around 50 million in 2020, according to estimates.

On Friday, President Biden signed an executive order that aims to increase both the amount of state food aid for approximately 12 million people who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) and the food allowance for families of school-age children. He also added more money for grocery stamps and other federal feeding programs to his proposed $ 1.9 trillion stimulus package.

“Of all the problems we face in this country, hunger is the most solvable for me,” said Billy Shore, founder and chairman of Share Our Strength, a company that works to end childhood hunger in America . “We are very focused on the lack of vaccines or tests. There is no shortage of food in the country or food programs. I think it’s a moment of enormous opportunity. “

Public schools have made an effort to feed the students even after the pandemic has kept them at home, which has renewed a call for universal school meals. The idea is to remove the administrative complexities of the $ 18 billion program and provide healthy food to all students, regardless of their family’s income, like bus rides or textbooks are. (According to an order from the Trump administration related to Covid, all children have temporary access to free school meals until the end of the school year.)

The department could help heal political divisions by making it easier for schools to use locally grown foods and making meals healthier, said Curt Ellis, the executive director of FoodCorps and a member of a group that stood up during the first 100 of Biden puts days in a White House summit on child nutrition.

“This type of local economic development is very popular in both rural communities in Red State and urban communities in Blue State,” Ellis said, adding that the school nutritionists he works with have made progress despite Trump administration guidelines .

“The question now is how much we can achieve with the wind behind us,” he said.

The pandemic has shown how fragile the food supply chain is, Vilsack said, underscoring the need to open more regional and local markets and increase the number of meat processors so the country doesn’t rely on a handful of crops as much.

Changes that many believed were decades away, such as universal school lunches, stronger urban-rural supply chains, and e-commerce for agriculture, have accelerated both during the pandemic and during the Trump administration, said Krystal Oriadha, senior Director of Policies and Programs for the National Farm to School Network.

Farmers, cooks, environmentalists, and anti-hunger advocates – groups that often pull in different directions – have been forced to strengthen relationships based on intersectionality and a new understanding of the connectivity and vulnerability of the food system.

“This is a new moment where a new generation of voters are putting pressure on ideas about environmental and racial justice like we have never had before,” she said. “For the first time we can all see ourselves in it.”

Even Ms. Waters, the cook who has long relied on relationships with senior politicians to fuel her efforts to improve child rearing through gardening, is now working closer to her home. She is advocating for the University of California to replace its food procurement system with a system based on a network of local farms as part of its global food initiative, and to include food in the university’s aggressive carbon neutrality plan.

In a recent interview, Ms. Waters said that despite the change in administration, she has given up looking in Washington for solutions to what she sees as the broken food system.

“If we have an idea at the national level that suits everyone, it just gets watered down,” she said. “I can no longer think nationally. I have to act locally. I have to go where the doors are open. “