Fixing Our Broken Food System: The Plate of the Union Initiative
The U.S. food system is out of balance—and it’s time our leaders started talking about it.
Supermarkets, convenience stores and fast-food outlets offer an endless supply of cheap processed junk foods. Meanwhile, fresh fruits and vegetables, and healthy prepared foods, are unaffordable for many Americans—and in many neighborhoods, hard to find.
The consequences are all around us. For the first time in a century, children born in the 1990s and later had a lower life expectancy than their parents, thanks to spiking rates of obesity and diet-related diseases like diabetes and hypertension. Families of color are disproportionately affected: one in two youth of color will develop diabetes in their lifetime. These diseases also add billions of dollars each year to our national health care bill.
This problem reflects a broken food system. Behind the supermarket shelves and fast food menus is a set of government policies that make junk food the most affordable to families, while doing little to promote healthy foods. This system relies on the exploitation of millions of low-wage workers, damages the environment, and limits farmers’ choices about what to grow and how to grow it.
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How did we get into this mess?
Our broken food system is largely the result of policy choices from a bygone era. Federal farm subsidies were originally intended to stabilize incomes for family farmers and ensure affordable food staples to meet Americans’ basic needs. These subsidies have failed farmers and society—but a huge agribusiness lobbying operation has grown up to defend them in Washington.
Agribusiness lobbying perpetuates an industrial farming system that produces ever greater quantities of subsidized crops like the corn and soybeans used to make processed junk foods. Overuse and mismanagement of the chemical inputs that prop up this system damage the air, water and land in our rural communities. And current policies stack the deck against farmers who want to grow healthier crops, or farm in ways that preserve the long-term health of the land.
Right now, our food system works really well for a few huge corporations. But the cost to taxpayers is too high. We shouldn’t be subsidizing the production of junk food, then paying again for the harm it causes to our health and the environment. We shouldn’t support a system that enriches a few corporations at the expense of farmers, rural communities, taxpayers, and food workers.
It’s time to overhaul this outdated system—and Americans agree. A recent poll by Lake Research Partners shows that a majority of Americans across the political spectrum are concerned about issues such as affordability of healthy food, the impact of the food system on children, and the need to support sustainable farming practices.
How can we fix it?
We need to reform the tangled mess of current federal food policy and replace it with a coherent plan, driven by the goal of making sure every American has access to healthy, affordable food that is fair to food workers, good for the environment, and ensures that farmers can keep farming.
This means supporting farmers who want to grow fruits and vegetables. It means investing in research to drive advances in modern, sustainable farming practices. It means fostering fresh entrepreneurial ideas for making healthy food available and convenient everywhere, at prices people can afford. It means paying food and farm workers wages that will support a life of dignity, promoting the success of independent farms, and protecting rural communities from the abuse of chemicals that show up in their air and water.
To accomplish these things, we’ll need innovative thinking, careful planning, and big changes to federal legislation, agency regulations, and research priorities. Most of all, we’ll need leadership—all the way up to the President. So the first step is getting 2016 presidential candidates to acknowledge the harm our broken food system is doing to American families, then commit themselves to addressing it.
The Plate of the Union initiative
Plate of the Union is a joint effort of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Food Policy Action, Food Policy Action Education Fund, and the HEAL Food Alliance. We’re mobilizing a broad range of Americans—including farmers, scientists, community activists, thought leaders, chefs, and ordinary citizens—to amplify our call for healthy and affordable food that is fair to food workers and protects the productivity of our farmlands. If we’re successful, the next president will take bold steps to improve our food system.