WH Hunger Strategy Should Advance Equity, Health & Wealth

The upcoming White House conference presents a rare opportunity for the Biden administration and Congress to advance racial justice, health, environmental protection, and local prosperity. 

The upcoming White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health presents a rare opportunity for the Biden-Harris Administration and Congress to advance racial justice, health, environmental protection, and local prosperity. NRDC submitted the following comments to inform the strategy that will be presented at the Conference this fall.

Recommendations for the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health

NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council) appreciates the opportunity to provide comments to inform the national strategy that will be announced at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. On behalf of our more than three million members and advocates, NRDC works to safeguard the Earth – its people, its plants, and its animals, and the natural systems on which life depends. Our current agricultural system threatens our environment and health, but agriculture also has great potential to protect our climate, enhance biodiversity, and build healthier communities.

We urge the Biden-Harris Administration and Congress to examine the numerous ways our food system currently reinforces racial, health, environmental, and economic inequities and to advance reforms that simultaneously increase equity and improve health, environmental, and economic outcomes, particularly for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) and low-income communities. The national strategy should leverage resilient food systems approaches as tools for achieving food security and building wealth in underserved communities, especially BIPOC communities, including policies and investments that:

  1. Develop and expand organic and regenerative production of nutritious, climate-friendly food.
  2. Prevent and reduce food waste throughout the food system.
  3. Support regional foodsheds and stable markets.
  4. Strengthen social safety nets.
  5. Address food system consolidation.

As President Biden stated in Executive Order 13985 on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, “[o]ur country faces converging economic, health, and climate crises that have exposed and exacerbated inequities,” and “a historic movement for justice has highlighted the unbearable human costs of systemic racism” – particularly in our food system.  

Chronic hunger – or more precisely, food insecurity – is a symptom of these inequities; it must be named and addressed at the root causes. Food insecurity is an economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to nutritious and culturally appropriate food; income, food pricing, and food availability are key factors that influence food insecurity, and each of these factors is shaped through public policies that have failed, and continue to fail, our most vulnerable people and communities. Accurately and relevantly naming the challenge of accessing adequate nutritious and culturally appropriate food is an essential step in identifying potential solutions.

Communities have been harmed by the crisis of food insecurity for decades, and our country’s dependence on charitable food distribution to fix food insecurity is not working. Today, nearly 40 million people living in the United States do not have reliable access to affordable and nourishing food. In addition, the climate crisis threatens our ability to produce a stable supply of such food, unless we take steps to shift food production away from extractive and toward regenerative practices. Communities, including Tribes and Tribal Nations, need to be able to obtain and/or produce healthy, nutrient-dense foods that are grown, raised, produced, or gathered with organic, climate-friendly, and culturally relevant practices.

For far too long, quantity and quality of food have been treated as separate issues, and at worst – pitted against each other as competing rather than complementary priorities. Approaches to alleviating food insecurity that prioritize low-cost calories without sufficient attention to nutritional quality and externalized harms to public health and the environment from food production fail to truly advance health in vulnerable communities. As a result of agricultural policies that skew markets toward cheap commodities that are produced in ways that generate environmental and agricultural pollution, many of the same people living with poverty and struggling to put food on the table also face health threats in their air, water, food, workplaces, homes, and communities. We need meaningful policy solutions that address these challenges together.

1. Develop and expand organic and regenerative production of nutritious, climate-friendly food.

We need a permanent, comprehensive national organic transition program that supports smaller-scale producers and producers of color as they transition to organic farming and ranching, especially in regions of the country that have not received an equitable share of public investments in agriculture. With funding to ease the risks of transition for farmers and ranchers and regionally relevant support for both practices and business development, more producers will be able to supply their communities with affordable food produced in ways that build wealth and protect health. Public investments in organic provide a path toward economically and environmentally sustainable farming that expands access to healthy food for everyone.

Investing in organic and regenerative systems can also help us move away from intensive livestock agriculture that harms agricultural and frontline communities, exacerbates climate change, and increases the risk of antibiotic-resistant infections. Helping producers transition to systems that keep animals on pasture for most of their lives or on diversified farms where animals and other crops are integrated will lessen these harms. These investments should be coupled with clear commitments from the Biden-Harris Administration to increase sustainably produced plant-forward and plant-based foods on menus under its purview, such as school meals, military commissaries, and hospital cafeterias.  

2. Prevent and reduce food waste throughout the food system.

We also need to ensure that as much food as possible makes it to people’s plates, by preventing waste throughout the food system. In particular, more flexible regional supply chains, educational campaigns, and investments in research and technology to reduce on-farm loss can keep good food out of landfills (and avoid exacerbating our climate crisis). When there is surplus food, we should rescue and redistribute it, while simultaneously focusing on solutions that address root causes of food insecurity. We also need more federal investments in all levels of composting infrastructure, from the community to regional level, to reestablish a closed loop that turns food scraps into a nutrient-rich soil amendment that ultimately grows more nutritious food, while sequestering carbon.

3. Support regional foodsheds and stable markets.

In addition to reducing food waste, investing in vibrant local and regional food supply chains also builds community food security and economic stability. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of our centralized, highly concentrated food system. In contrast, local and regional food supply chains offer an important stabilizing effect. We need more local and regional scale infrastructure – aggregation points, processing, cold storage, and beyond – to ensure that affordable, nutritious food is consistently available everywhere and producers are not forced to send their harvests long distances or leave them to rot when a single link in the food chain breaks. Whether the challenge we face is a public health pandemic, wildfire, drought, or other climate-related impact, investments in nimble local and regional food supply chains will boost community resiliency in the long-term.

Shorter supply chains that circulate money in local economies also bolster economic stability in good times and in difficult stretches. Investing in local and regional supply chains has long been considered an effective way to deliver widespread economic benefits to small- and mid-scale producers, who are often farmers of color and historically underserved by traditional agricultural programs, and to the communities where these farms are situated. Organic and regenerative producers need these local supply chains, and markets to compete in an increasingly consolidated system. Ultimately, shorter supply chains can help fight food insecurity by creating more stable supply of products to at risk communities. Local and regional food systems also generate a powerful multiplier effect, benefiting not only farmers and ranchers, but also food processors, food hubs and food manufacturers, especially when coupled with robust institutional markets. For example, we know that every dollar spent on Farm to School purchasing means up to $2.16 in local economic activity. In addition, strengthening links between regional foodsheds and institutional buyers (e.g., schools, food banks, hospitals) will ensure that food producers have markets and communities have food. 

4. Strengthen the social safety net.

Our country’s dependence on charitable anti-hunger food distribution ignores many of the root causes of food insecurity in the United States. The impacts of climate change are also adding to these struggles. Heat exposure for farm workers can worsen the risks of pesticide exposure; supply chain disruptions can make incomes unstable and unpredictable for food system workers; and crop losses due to droughts and floods can put farms out of business and raise food costs for consumers. When emergencies strike, people on the frontlines need immediate and flexible assistance that enables them to rebound. Food pantries cannot absorb the increased need for food assistance - especially as more natural disasters occur due to climate change. Pandemic response policies have helped farmers, workers, and consumers alike weather unprecedented challenges and prepare for the future – from supporting cover cropping through crop insurance to SNAP incentives, providing year-round meals at school, and connecting local food producers with people who urgently need food. Rather than moving away from these policies when the COVID crisis is behind us, many of those policies should be made permanent to build more resilience into the food system and our social safety net, before the next disaster strikes.

5. Address food system consolidation.

Finally, policies to address hunger, nutrition, and health cannot be complete without policies that reign in food system consolidation. The people at the poles of the food system – food and farm workers and consumers – are struggling to make ends meet, in part because a handful of companies at key points in the food system reap most of the profits. The largest players in our food system have disproportionate power to influence who eats what, where, and at what price, as well as how food is produced, who profits, and who bears the costs. Policies that drive investments in local and regional food systems, rather than exacerbating consolidation, keep money in communities and increase local wealth, which is an important tool for ensuring food is affordable.

We appreciate your attention to the ways the national strategy released at the Conference can promotes holistic health – for people, ecosystems, local economies, and the environment.

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