Those who tuned in to the first round of presidential debates hoping to hear a discussion of food and nutrition were sorely disappointed. In fact, food has been largely absent from the entire race so far. But that might not be the case for long.
Launched today, the Plate of the Union Campaign could make both the Democratic and Republican candidates begin to change their tune.
“This is the first coordinated effort among food and agriculture groups to try to influence the candidates running for president,” says Claire Benjamin DiMattina, the Executive Director of Food Policy Action (FPA), one of the core groups behind the campaign.
As DiMattina, FPA co-founder and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the HEAL Food Alliance, and others behind the campaign see it, there is mounting evidence that food could become a galvanizing election issue in 2016. As DiMattina sees it, these issues “could really move the kind of people who need to come out for the next presidential win.”
And not just because Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and other noteworthy food thinkers have recently called for a National Food Policy for the 21st Century.
What makes DiMattina so confident? She and the others behind the Plate of the Union campaign worked with third party research firm to poll a wide range of Americans across the country about the food system. They found that younger voters, African Americans, Latinos, and unmarried women were all especially interested in seeing the food system change for the better.
Here are the top five concerns American voters want the next U.S. President to address on food, agriculture, and nutrition:
1. All Americans Don’t Have Equal Access to Healthy, Affordable Food.
Most Americans don’t have to look further than their own families to find someone whose health has been impacted by diet-related illness. More than two out of three American adults is either overweight or obese, as are one third of children ages 6 to 19. Four of the top 10 leading causes of death domestically are influenced by diet: 1. coronary heart disease; 2. cancer; 3. stroke; and 7. diabetes. Even worse, we’re barreling toward 2.7 billion overweight adults worldwide by 2025, and the “Western diet” is named as a cause.
Americans want more than just nutrition lip service; they want meaningful policy action. According to the poll, their top priority for changing the food system is to make healthy foods more affordable. Fifty-three percent of those polled agreed that “we need to change policies so that we make healthy and nutritious foods more affordable for every American, regardless of their zip code.”
“Making this healthier food more available does not just mean cheap food at the sake of farmers’ profits,” says DiMattina. “It is equally important for farmers to be able to continue to farm the land and adopt sustainable practices. This is a balance and our food system is out of balance.”
2. Children Are Especially at Risk.
The current generation of children could become the first in modern history expected to have shorter lifespans than their parents. Sixty-nine percent of voters polled in the FPA survey were “very concerned” about this statement, while 81 percent are very concerned that a third of children will develop type-2 diabetes.
At the core of this issue is the debate over marketing to children. A 2005 program that made reformulating products aimed at children and reducing marketing voluntary—and put junk food makers in charge of regulating themselves—barely managed to move the needle slightly. In 2013, 80.5 percent of all foods advertised to children on TV were for products in the “poorest nutritional” category.
3. People Are Told to Eat Fruits and Vegetables, While the Government Subsidizes Processed Food Ingredients.
Food activists have often bemoaned the disconnect between the kinds of foods the federal government encourages Americans to eat and those it promotes through the vast agricultural subsidy system. For instance, while the government recommends that half of Americans’ daily nutrition comes from fruits and vegetables, produce production comprise around 10 percent of all agricultural subsidies between 2008 and 2012, while commodity crops like corn and other grains made up 61 percent of federal subsidies worth billions of dollars.
The effect this has on what we eat is enormous: Farmers have less of an incentive to grow fruits and vegetables because they’re not subsidized at the same level as crops like corn and soybeans. Instead, many grow cheap (largely genetically modified) corn, much of which is used for animal feed or biofuels, or turned into ingredients found in snack foods.
Half of the voters FPA polled said they were very concerned about this disconnect between government dietary recommendations and federal subsidies, and a full 50 percent favor limiting subsidies to the largest farm businesses, while 36 percent of voters oppose limiting subsidies altogether.
4. Many of the People Who Grow, Cook, and Sell Our Food Have it the Worst.
Workers all along the food chain face daily challenges—from pesticide exposure and abuse threats to workers in the fields, to low pay and long hours for food retail workers. Three-quarters of those polled by FPA are somewhat or very concerned that five of the eight of the worst-paying jobs in America are in the food system. Whether that means raising the federal minimum wage or not, many American voters appear ready to bring the plight of food chain workers to the national stage.
5. Most of Today’s Farming is Hurting the Environment.
Climate change has been a topic of discussion in the last few presidential elections, but largely in the context of our energy production and usage. Rarely is industrial agriculture—one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as erosion, water pollution, toxic algae blooms, and oceanic dead zones—discussed explicitly at a national political level.
Judging from the FPA poll, Americans are ready for candidates who want to make farming greener. Large majorities of voters across party lines favor government incentives to encourage sustainable farming practices that protect the environment. Overall 75 percent favor this, including 62 percent who favor it strongly. By party, 85 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans favor incentives to encourage sustainable farming.
What the Poll Data Means
The intent of the poll and the Plate of the Union campaign isn’t to overwhelm the candidates, but to help them realize just how important these issues are to voters—even to people who may not yet be identifying them as inherently political problems.
And the polling process itself was enlightening, adds DiMattina. Even people who started out unsure about how to define the food system all responded strongly once the dots between their personal experiences with food and the systems at work behind them had been connected.
“By the time you get through a 2.5 hour conversation, they have really strong opinions,” she says. “They think the next president should take bold action. And they’ve gone from tangentially knowing what we’re talking about in a really short period of time to many times speaking at the activist level, with value statements like, ‘all people should have access to healthy food.’”
How Should the Candidates Respond?
Rather than choosing one food or agriculture-related issue and riding it for the next year, DiMattina and others behind the campaign believe, “It is really important for the next president to say: The food system is broken.”
Publicly acknowledging such a large-scale set of problems could be the first step in working to create a food system that Americans want to see. It would also move decisions such as whom to appoint as the next secretary of agriculture increasingly into the national spotlight.
“This is a big systematic, change that needs to happen,” says DiMattina. “So we’re excited to use the next 12 months to educate the public, talk to candidates, to make the next president understand that these are really important issues and he or she can use the next 4-8 years to really start moving some of those policies.”