Food and Farm Progress to be Thankful For

November 16, 2016 | 4:56 pm
Photo: Karen Perry Stillerman
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

It seems like a million years since October 2008. That’s when author Michael Pollan published his open letter to the next “farmer-in-chief,” calling on the incoming president to take bold steps to transform the nation’s food system. The role of farmer-in-chief has been inhabited ever since by Barack Obama, and as his presidency winds down, some observers—including Pollan—have criticized the administration for not doing enough.

Others have tempered that assessment, arguing that the Obamas accomplished a lot in the food arena under tough circumstances, even though we have a long way to go. Personally, I agree with the latter view: we have quite a bit to be thankful for, in terms of concrete progress over the last eight years toward a healthier, fairer, more vibrant food system.

In the spirit of next week’s much-needed holiday, here’s my short list of Obama-era food policy advances to give thanks for:

  • The White House Kitchen Garden – The organic vegetable garden Michelle Obama installed on the South Lawn of the White House in 2009 is symbolic…sort of. But not really. The White House Kitchen Garden supplies some 2,000 pounds of food each year for the White House, with excess food donated to a local charity. It has hosted children from around the country, teaching them about growing and cooking healthy food. And with new permanent upgrades and long-term maintenance funding, it will (hopefully) continue that mission into the future.
  • Let’s Move! – FLOTUS’s broader healthy eating initiative, launched in 2010, is more complicated. This signature initiative has been controversial on the left for its partnerships with Big Food, while critics on the right made “food police” and “nanny state” accusations. The White House has compiled a list of the campaign’s accomplishments, but it is too soon to know whether Let’s Move! has had a measurable impact in stemming the tide of childhood obesity, its ultimate goal. Still, the campaign started a national conversation about food and fitness, led from the top, and that’s not nothing.
  • The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 – This one was a big deal. A really big deal. This landmark bipartisan legislation, energetically championed and applauded by the Obama administration, represented the first major reforms to school meals and other child nutrition programs in decades. HHFKA brought taxpayer-subsidized school meals and snacks into accord with federal dietary guidelines, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued regulations requiring schools to provide more fruits and vegetables, lower-fat milk options, less sodium and fat, fewer calories, and higher quantities of whole grains in school meals and snacks. Studies (like this one) have demonstrated that the rules are working, and national polling has shown that Americans agree. The White House stood firm against Congressional efforts to roll back progress in 2015, though Congress still has not passed legislation to reauthorize the law.
  • Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food – The KYF2 initiative is a coordinating effort launched in 2009 to bring together staff from across USDA to coordinate, share resources, and publicize USDA efforts to promote local and regional food systems. Just in the past year, the USDA under the umbrella of KYF2 has expanded microloans to help new and underserved farmers purchase land, developed a toolkit to help urban farmers, and launched the Food LINC program, a collaboration with philanthropic partners to link rural farmers with urban markets across the country. The Obama administration institutionalized KYF2 earlier this year with the hire of a permanent, full-time coordinator.
  • Funding increase for agricultural research – President Obama’s 2017 budget request included a major increase in funding, up to $700 million, for the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). One of AFRI’s primary goals is to foster a better understanding of how to manage agricultural lands to improve the health of farmland and surrounding environments, a field of study known as agroecology. Last year, a UCS-led study found that less than 15 percent of USDA competitive research grants went to research that included agroecology. Some 350 scientists from universities in nearly 50 states have called for a greater public investment in this research, which is necessary to help farmers address current and future farming challenges. Committees in both the House and Senate later approved lesser AFRI funding increases (25 percent), but Congressional appropriation work stalled pre-election, so the final outcome is still uncertain.
  • MyPlate – Launched in 2010, the MyPlate dietary guidelines are an improvement on earlier federal dietary recommendations (remember the Food Pyramid?), with the colorful plate graphic clearly showing that half our plate at every mealtime should be covered by fruits and vegetables. The dietary guidelines aren’t perfect, of course, and UCS has pushed for more reliance on science over food industry lobbying in regular updates.
  • FDA added sugar rule – Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a strong new rule that will require packaged food manufacturers to clearly label how much sugar they’re adding to their products, and to list the percent daily value that amount represents. That’s a big win for public health, and something UCS pushed hard for.

It’s clear to me just from this list that progress has been made since 2008. And it’s progress for all Americans. After all, everybody eats.

But what happens now, with the Obamas heading for the exits and a new administration coming in that has shown little interest in healthy food and lots of interest in rewarding agribusiness lobbyists?

Like many Americans, food system advocates are now waiting with trepidation to see what a Trump administration has in store—whether it will build on the progress we’ve made or tear it down. It’s too early to say, though early signs aren’t exactly encouraging.

But UCS and our partners have called all year for the next president to take up the task of reforming federal farm and food policy. And we still see good reasons for president-elect Trump and his people to look seriously at our proposals, which would help struggling farmers and revive rural communities; help workers and invest taxpayer dollars in ways that don’t create additional costs; help farmers adopt sustainable systems with a variety of benefits; and reinforce, not subvert, federal dietary guidelines to ensure a healthier generation of American children. More on our recommendations to the incoming administration in an upcoming post.