Building the Appetite for Food Policy in National Politics

By Fiona McBride

This year’s midterm elections reached a fever pitch unlike many midterms before, producing the highest voter turnout since 1966 and excruciatingly close races across the country. Various media sources have reported on seemingly every angle, detailing percentage breakdowns, pernicious disenfranchisement of minority groups, and what the new balance of power in Congress means. Now, as the focus shifts from politics to policymaking over the next two years, it is also imperative that we encourage our leaders, new and old, to shine a greater spotlight to an oft-ignored subject matter: food policy.

On both the local and national levels, food policy frequently takes a backseat to what may appear to be more pressing policy areas. In reality, food touches on so many of the most important problems and solutions of our day that it ought to be elevated beyond its status as a niche issue. Representative-elect from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the soon-to-be youngest member of Congress — is one of the few candidates during this election cycle who acknowledged the significant role food plays. In a recent interview with Bon Appetit, she said, “The food industry is the nexus of almost all of the major forces in our politics today. It’s super closely linked with climate change and ethics. It’s the nexus of minimum wage fights, of immigration law, of criminal justice reform, of health care debates, of education. You’d be hard-pressed to find a political issue that doesn’t have food implications.”

On the one hand, the food industry drives significant destruction and injustice — agriculture is one of the leading contributors to climate change, and farming and restaurant work accounts for some of the worst and farthest-reaching abuses in the labor force. Just this month, as Northern Californians evacuated fire and smoke-stricken towns, farm laborers continued to work outdoors in toxic conditions.

On the other hand, food policy presents enormous opportunities. Organic, sustainable agriculture has the potential to not only neutralize some of the effects of climate change, but actually make the earth healthier. Growing, processing, preparing, and eating food can be a source of empowerment, social justice, and human connection. Children with proper nourishment are more likely to excel in school, and healthy food access could turn the obesity epidemic around.

This fall, Bay Area food leaders (including Goldman School alumna Beth Spitler) hosted a one-of-a-kind event that should serve as a model for food policy conversations across the county. It gathered residents of California’s 15th district (eastern Alameda County) at a Richmond school auditorium to hear the two candidates for State Assembly, Jovanka Beckles and Buffy Wicks, debate food issues for a full hour. Moderator Nina Ichikawa, Policy Director at the Berkeley Food Institute, asked for the candidates’ thoughts on everything from their favorite local food businesses to their voting records on food issues, how the state can better support marginalized farmers, and soda taxes in the Bay Area. Wicks echoed a similar sentiment to Ocasio-Cortez in affirming the power of food: “Food is so critical across the board. It brings families together. It brings communities together. It brings cultures together. It hits every single issue.” (Watch the full conversation here.)

Despite these two examples, candidates’ positions on food issues — like farmers’ rights, food access, or the role of fruits and vegetables in preventative medicine — are rarely weighed as seriously as other policy questions, especially when it comes to national politics. Unfortunately, this kind of forum is rare in the larger political landscape, a shame given food’s potential as both a unifying common denominator and a tool for driving forward bipartisan policy change. If there was one central takeaway from the 2018 election cycle, it is that the country is terribly divided. The public should be energized by the kind of exceptional policy opportunities that more than one side of the aisle can get behind.

Currently, Congress is in the process of finalizing one of the most important pieces of food policy legislation, the Farm Bill. It often stays under the radar despite the fact that it is renewed every four years, is budgeted at hundreds of billions of dollars (this time almost a trillion), and covers a significant expanse of policy from liberal-backed social welfare programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) to large-scale farm subsidies supported by industrial agriculture organizations and their conservative allies. In this unique bill, diverse policies make for strange bedfellows: food access meets economic stimulus, and conservation grants help farms do better business. In the 2014 bill, advocates succeeded in passing a $100 million pilot program providing financial incentives for fruit and vegetable purchases among the SNAP population. A huge boost for public welfare and health initiatives, the measure passed somewhat surprisingly through a Republican House of Representatives and tightly-held Democratic majority in the Senate because it also bolstered local economies and had the potential to lower healthcare costs. The 2018 bill aims to expand the program to $285 million, a stipulation that has gone largely unchallenged even by the Republican-held Congress. If the newly-blue House is going to act as much more than an obstructive force in the next two years, driving forward these kinds of dynamic policies will be crucial. Food provides one such productive lens.

The Farm Bill is already close to being passed, but if you’re looking for ways to elevate food policy in public discourse, there are many other opportunities. Ask your representatives how they plan to vote on food issues, read up on legislators’ track record using Food Policy Action’s Scorecard, educate yourself and others through great food reporting by publications like Civil Eats or NPR’s “The Salt”, and talk to those you know in the food industry — farmers, servers, entrepreneurs, grocery store cashiers — about what matters most to them.

Fiona McBride is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.