by Liia Koiv-Haus, Associate ASLA
Food policy councils (FPCs), fresh food alliances, food and farm networks, food coalitions—there are dozens of types of food-related groups that shape food policy nationwide. Most have one thing in common: they are diverse groups of stakeholders with goals related to improving food access and nutrition. Because food policy is such a complex, interdisciplinary field, oftentimes one sector or one level of government alone cannot tackle issues like hunger, obesity, and food safety. It takes a concerted effort by federal, state, and local governments, businesses, nonprofits, and passionate community members to keep our food system running smoothly and adapting to changes like a pandemic.
The biggest federal piece of food legislation is the farm bill, which has its origins in the Great Depression era. New machinery during WWI had boosted food production drastically. American farmers initially benefited by simply exporting their surpluses to Europe, but by the late 1920s, Europe had recovered its production and US farmers were still overproducing. The federal government stepped in and began to pay landowners directly with checks to reduce output.
The federal government provided similar relief a few years ago when tariffs on exports caused farmers to overproduce (China stopped buying commodities like soybeans). Then, in the early months of the 2020 pandemic, large amounts of food were being thrown out again, but this time neither due to overproduction nor lack of demand. Instead, food was being discarded because farmers were unable to sell their output due to the closing of restaurants, schools, and hotels (New York Times). The established supply chains were too rigid and could not adapt quickly enough to increased demand at grocery stores and food pantries. With two rounds of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program as well as the more recent December 2020 relief package, government payments to farmers added up to nearly $46.5 billion in 2020 (including farm bill subsidies).
While this money provided immediate relief to farmers, it didn’t magically revive or restructure our food system. That happened as the result of the community-based response from business owners, nonprofits, local governments, and other players. The federal government’s authority is limited to regulating food that travels in interstate commerce; states and municipalities have more authority regulating restaurants, food retail establishments, and other food businesses. Local governments and health agencies shaped their own regulations to adapt the food service industry to the pandemic: temporary patio permits, sidewalks extended into vehicular lanes, to-go alcohol containers, etc.