We recently joined President Joe Biden and thought leaders from across the country at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. As experts in nutrition education and behavior, we were impressed by the administration’s understanding of this complex topic — but a critical element was missing.
Both the conference and the accompanying strategy released by the White House said very little about building sustainable food systems. This is disappointing because moving our nation’s food supply to more sustainable systems is necessary to meet our national goals—not only in nutrition and health, but in the fight against climate change.
We call on the Biden administration to do more to incorporate sustainability into its food and agriculture plans going forward.
Sustainable food systems reduce the burden on the economy, society and ecology of the community they serve. The farmers in these systems are typically more local, more family-owned and operated, more focused on community nutritional needs, and more focused on providing living wages for local workers. They emit less pollution and they can mitigate rather than increase climate change. They are profitable, viable businesses and globally produce most of the food that nourishes people. As many have learned in recent years, these systems are often more resilient than the industrialized food system with its thinly stretched global supply chains.
Most of us think of these types of growers as appearing only at farmers markets or specialty stores — not as playing an important role in our basic food supply. That is starting to change, but we need to do a lot more.
First, let’s focus on how sustainable food systems are helping the Biden administration address hunger. Pillars 2 and 3 of the administration’s strategy talk about prioritizing the role of nutrition in health and giving consumers the opportunity to access healthy food choices. Both of these are a smart shift away from outdated views of hunger, which focused only on quantity of food and not quality. The lack of healthy food options and abundance of ultra-processed foods in many poor communities are well-known contributors to higher rates of diet-related conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, in these neighborhoods.
That means making fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible and affordable in more communities, which can’t happen without more local growers bringing these fresh produce to market. In 2019, the USDA awarded about $72 million in grants to support specialty crops, which include fruits and vegetables as well as nuts and flowers. That same year, through various programs, the department distributed more than $4.2 billion in subsidies for corn, wheat and soybeans, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group.
That’s why it’s cheaper to buy nacho flavored chips than broccoli. Ultra-processed foods being cheaper than fresh foods is not inevitably a market (it makes some sense when you consider the extra costs of processing): It is the result of government policy choices. We can choose to support more local, sustainable fruit and vegetable growers instead.
This is why growing sustainability and fighting hunger are not opposed, as some have argued, but are linked. Those who have blocked efforts to prioritize sustainability have often claimed to stand up for communities dealing with hunger. But in our experience, these communities understand, value and want the choices offered by resilient, locally based food systems.
The real source of opposition is the corporations that dominate our food system and see increased profits when food prices rise. Due to industry consolidation in recent decades, market power in our food system is dominated by a handful of meat and poultry processors and a few multinational companies that produce most of the products on supermarket shelves. The current system works for them, and they use the language of hunger to defend their gains.
Equally important is that the current globalized food system is deeply dangerous to our global health. We are both members of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior and, as that organization said in its official remarks at the White House conference, “the food system both affects and is significantly affected by climate change and ecosystem fragility.” This year we are already seeing the devastation that climate change-driven storms, floods, fires and droughts are having on our ability to grow the food we need. Tackling hunger in the future will not be possible without tackling climate change.
Sustainable agriculture has the potential to be a game changer in the fight against climate change. According to Project Drawdown, one of the most comprehensive reports on potential climate solutions, encouraging more local and plant-based diets and reducing food waste are literally the two biggest possible solutions we have to combat climate change. Together, they reduce greenhouse gases almost 22 times more than the transition to electric cars. In total, the food, agriculture and land use sectors contribute about 24 percent of our current greenhouse gas emissions, the report says.
Focusing on sustainable food systems is critical to many of the Biden administration’s laudable goals. We urge the White House to address sustainability and hunger together as it moves forward.
Sara Elnakib is Chair of the Department of Family and Community Health Sciences at Rutgers University and Chair of the Public Policy Advisory Committee of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior.
Pam Koch is the Mary Swartz Rose Associate Professor of Nutrition and Education and Faculty Director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy and Co-Director of the Center for Sustainable Futures at Teachers College, Columbia University and was the 2020 President of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior until 2021.