The USDA Has a Plan to Fix Our Nutrition Crisis—But Will It Work?

March 23, 2022 | 12:17 pm
photo of a couple about to eat a trayful of fast-food hamburgers and french friesNeONBRAND/Unsplash
Sarah Reinhardt
Senior Analyst, Food Systems and Health

More people in the United States are sick than are healthy. Sixty percent of adults now live with one or more chronic diseases, many of which are directly linked to poor diets, and there’s reason to believe our children may follow in our footsteps. There is no age group in this country that scores higher than 63 out of 100 on the Healthy Eating Index, a validated tool used to measure the healthfulness of what we eat.

With all of this in mind, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled a new report last week outlining the steps it is taking to address the national nutrition crisis. But will it be enough?

The short answer is, it depends.  

Nutrition policy and program changes show potential

In a speech announcing the report, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack underscored the importance of nutrition security (a concept often differentiated from “food security” by its focus on the nutritional quality, not just the quantity, of food that people need to stay healthy and avoid disease). It wasn’t the first time Vilsack had used the term. In March 2021, just over one year ago, he announced that the department was putting a greater focus on getting more healthy food to more people. But last week was the first time we’ve seen a summary of the steps being taken to do that.

According to the USDA, whose Food and Nutrition Service administers more than a dozen nutrition programs serving millions of families each year, its approach is built on four strategic pillars: 1) providing meaningful nutrition support throughout all stages of life; 2) connecting all Americans with healthy, safe, and affordable food sources; 3) developing, translating, and enacting nutrition science through collaborative partnerships; and 4) prioritizing equitable systems.

For anyone hoping to see a strategic plan for achieving nutrition security, the new USDA report may read less like a road map and more like a review of recent policy and program changes. Nevertheless, these changes, many of which were part of the COVID-19 pandemic response, were significant. For example, last year’s update to the Thrifty Food Plan—the model used to estimate the cost of a healthy diet, and the basis for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit levels—was the first such update in 15 years, and resulted in a 25 percent increase in average SNAP benefits. Many schools received support in procuring and preparing local foods, and in most states, SNAP participants were finally able to use their benefits for online food purchases. Meanwhile, $20 million in nutrition incentives from programs like the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program continued to help families purchase more produce with their SNAP dollars, leading to increases in fruit and vegetable consumption and decreases in food insecurity.

Maintaining the momentum of the pandemic response—including sustained investments in programs that have demonstrated success in improving health and nutrition outcomes—will be essential if the USDA hopes to move the needle on nutrition security. But even then, these efforts will only go so far without addressing the underlying causes of poor nutrition and diet-related disease, including drivers of persistent health disparities.

The pillars of nutrition security need a strong foundation

If the USDA is using four pillars to prop up nutrition security, it should be a top priority to make sure the foundation underneath those pillars is strong. In other words, a comprehensive plan to address nutrition security must also acknowledge and address the social, economic, and environmental conditions that create nutrition insecurity in the first place.

As we have written before, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it painfully clear that our current food system is far from foolproof. On the contrary, it relies on the routine exploitation of food and farm workers, heavy use of fossil fuels and chemicals that pollute the environment, and the degradation of soil and other natural resources that are critical to future production of healthy food. And due in part to economic systems in which a relatively small number of food and farm companies have disproportionate political power and influence, most people—in particular many Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who are subject to racism in the food system and beyond—remain unable to access a healthy diet. Left unchecked, these challenges to nutrition security are likely to get worse.

To achieve true nutrition security, we need more than strong federal nutrition programs. We need healthy and sustainable food systems. The next farm bill, slated for completion in 2023, is a critical opportunity to create such systems, from funding transdisciplinary, sustainable nutrition science to supporting school food purchases that benefit kids and local economies, workers, and the environment.