7 Ways the Second Gentleman Could Address the Root Causes of Hunger

Experts weigh in on how Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, and the rest of the Biden administration, can develop long-term solutions to our food insecurity crisis.

doug emhoff and kamala harris posing outside an event.

The day before Thanksgiving, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, made an appearance at D.C. Central Kitchen. They met with World Central Kitchen founder Chef José Andrés and thanked the D.C. Central Kitchen staff members who were preparing 10,000 holiday meals. During the visit, Emhoff told reporters that food insecurity is one of the issues he hopes to work on while serving as second gentleman.

The 56-year-old entertainment lawyer and father of two has called himself “an advocate for justice and equality.” And while it’s not clear how much experience Emhoff has advocating around food issues, during her time in the Senate, Harris was described as a “great champion” of anti-hunger policy. It’s possible, then, that Emhoff could step up to address one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Many of 2020’s most devastating images have been visual representations of the hunger crisis. Cars lined up for miles at food banks that are running out of food. Masked volunteers distributing food to the homeless and delivering it to people who are homebound and elderly.

And yet, experts say the photos cannot possibly capture the bigger picture: The U.S. has been experiencing a national food insecurity problem since long before 2020—and it will persist if charitable donation models continue to dominate the country’s response.

“We had over 30 million people who were food insecure in this country before COVID put a spotlight on it and amplified the problem to levels that were just incredibly shocking,” said Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). In a September report, FRAC found that, between April and July, one in 10 adults with children said they did not have enough to eat. For Black and Latinx families, that number was one in five.

In a recent Princeton study that looked at how families already receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits fared in the early months of the pandemic, more than half of the respondents said they skipped meals, relied on others for food, or visited a food pantry. “These are families that have had disruptions to their eating, or gone without food, or had to make tough decision not to pay for medical bills, rent, or other key expenses,” Guardia said.

In response, the federal government implemented emergency programs, many authorized through Congress’ relief packages, such as Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) and Farmers to Families Food Boxes. But Guardia said the efforts have not been nearly enough, and recent analyses show food insecurity is getting worse and will likely continue to rise as spikes in COVID-19 cause further shutdowns around the country this winter.

Now, a new administration will be tasked with confronting these challenges. In addition to Emhoff’s pledge, President-elect Joe Biden has said he will raise SNAP benefits and expressed support for an emergency food relief bill introduced by and championed by Andrés. Yesterday, he formally nominated Tom Vilsack to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which manages federal hunger relief programs. While some groups have pointed to Vilsack’s strong record on improving food access, many progressives see the nomination as return to the status quo that is unlikely to result in much needed systemic changes.

As the transition approaches, Civil Eats spoke with experts and advocates from around the country about how the incoming administration can meet the challenge head on.

“My advice for the second gentleman is to not treat hunger as an insurmountable problem but to look at this as an opportunity to seize. We can use this moment to strengthen our communities, to improve public health, to create more common-sense agricultural policies, and to kickstart our economy,” Andrés told Civil Eats. “You can take a short drive from the White House or the Naval Observatory to see the devastating effects of hunger, of food deserts, on our communities—and from there, you will see that we have the opportunity to come up with solutions that can improve the lives of all Americans, from our cities to the rural farmland [where] so much of our food comes from.”

The mere fact that Emhoff might direct attention to food insecurity would be a step in the right direction, said many of the folks we heard from. However, for meaningful change to take hold, a massive shift toward addressing the complex, systemic causes of food insecurity will also need to take place—and the time is now.

“Food insecurity is going to be a huge issue in the coming months and the coming years,” said Devita Davison, executive director of FoodLab Detroit. “It seemed like overnight, every nonprofit in Detroit turned into a feeding organization. Now we’re working on resiliency, and this is where policy comes in. We have to start lobbying for policy that is going to strengthen our community. What’s happening right now is going to change the way in which we grow, harvest, process, distribute, and ultimately eat food.”

Based on what we heard from the food security experts, here are seven recommendations for Emhoff and the incoming administration.

1. Invest in Local

Davison started FoodLab as a way to create economic opportunities and further food justice in the wake of Detroit’s economic collapse. For her, some of the disruptions caused by the pandemic have felt familiar. “We know what happens when you live in a post-apocalyptic city, when systems fail. And that’s what we’re living through right now,” she said. “The thing we’re really trying to drive home and deepen the conversation around is . . . if we’re going to build back better, we have to invest in the infrastructure that gives us a hyperlocal system where people can quickly respond to the needs of their neighbors and communities. And we’re seeing that in the FoodLab community. Chefs were able to pivot really quickly by emptying out their freezers and feeding their staff. Over time, they’ve turned their kitchens into community kitchens. We saw how urban farmers in Detroit responded with CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture programs] and boxes of food for the community.”

Government policies that favor Big Ag divert resources to the wrong place, Davison continued, undermining local food sovereignty work. Mike Curtin, the CEO of D.C. Central Kitchen, agreed. Giving subsidies to large commodity farms over small farms that grow what is referred to as “specialty crops” (aka produce and nuts) undermines long-term anti-hunger efforts, he said. “We’ve spent over a million dollars since March to put produce from small family farms into the community here in D.C., either through grocery bags or meals. But a lot of these farms can’t get the food they’re growing in Virginia into the school districts or local stores because they don’t have processing plants, storage facilities, and infrastructure.”

Blake Jackson, policy officer at the University of Arkansas’ Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, said tribal communities are also pushing for help with producing and distributing more food locally.

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“The longer the supply chain is, the more vulnerable it is to disruptions,” Jackson said. “We’ve seen this come to life during COVID-19 with widespread disruptions, and it’s been felt especially hard in Indian Country because of the remote locations and the already high rates of food insecurity.”

2. Dismantle the ‘Hunger-Industrial Complex’

Andy Fisher, author of Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups and executive director of EcoFarm, said people of all backgrounds who have lived experiences with hunger should be given more of a voice when it comes to shaping policy, to counter the prevailing voices of corporate lobbyists.

“[The administration] is going to get sucked into food waste arguments and charity and corporate do-goodism and volunteerism, all things that have plagued what I call the hunger-industrial complex,” said Fisher, referring to the system of corporations paying poverty wages while funding charitable hunger-relief efforts their own employees rely on, and getting big tax breaks for donating expired foods.

“The conversation desperately needs to be reframed,” he continued. “For 40 years, we’ve seen this needs-based approach within a neoliberal economy with declining social safety net benefits and stagnating wages. [We’re] transferring more wealth to the business community, and the government is expecting the public and private sector to pick up the slack through NGO efforts. It maintains the problem instead of solving the problem. If we’re going to change it, we need to think about taking it out of the hunger language and thinking more about poverty. How do we address poverty and inequality in this country?”

Another way to unravel the problem is to redirect the billions of dollars from federal nutrition programs that currently end up in the coffers of big companies like Sysco, Tyson, and Walmart, through SNAP, WIC, and school meals, Fisher added. “How can we redirect those funds to support economic development in communities of color and rural communities? You’ve got this money that’s already out there . . . that really could be better spent,” he said.

3. Raise Wages

On the poverty and inequality side, Fisher said the place to start is the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25. “Doubling the current minimum wage will raise a lot of people out of food insecurity,” he said.

Everyone we spoke with emphasized this point.

“We are not going to feed our way out of hunger,” D.C. Central Kitchen’s Curtin said. “But this is the way we have operated as a country. [The approach suggests that] if we build enough food banks, pack enough backpacks, and give away enough sandwiches, somehow people will stop being hungry. That hasn’t worked, and it isn’t going to work. That doesn’t mean we don’t feed our brothers and sisters and make sure they get to tomorrow, but it’s a systematic failure. Low wages and access to affordable health care are the real issues.”

4. Increase SNAP Benefits

However, boosting SNAP benefits could make an important difference for a lot of families.

“The single biggest thing that we—and a lot of other people—have been advocating for has been a boost to the SNAP program. This is America’s first line of defense against hunger,” FRAC’s Guardia said.

“SNAP has many virtues. As we saw in the Great Recession, it has an immediate impact for people facing food insecurity. And unlike some other intervention, it has a very positive stimulant effect on the economy. We know that for every dollar spent on SNAP benefits, $1.50 to $1.80 gets returned back into the economy,” Guardia said. “So, at a time when the government is struggling to figure out what can be done to boost the economy, SNAP is a tremendously underutilized stimulus tool. Increasing SNAP benefits should also be considered part of a long-term solution.”

5. Address Systemic Racism

Experts also agreed that inequalities exacerbate food insecurity, and a focus on food justice is essential. “There’s no question that if we lived in a more just society, where systemic racism and inequality wasn’t a reality, we wouldn’t have the food insecurity we have now,” Curtin said. “We can’t just pretend that that’s okay. There needs to be a serious, honest reckoning about where we are. We’ve got a long way to go before we’re a country that’s really equitable.”

“I would love to see what policies are going to address systemic racism,” Davison added, noting that policies that dismantle racism in other sectors would impact—and could be tied to—food access. “Might there even be a policy that is wrapped around housing that could also tie into food? What does that look like? And immigration policy: how are we looking at that from a food lens?”

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6. Give Indigenous Communities More Control Over Federal Food Programs

To bolster Indigenous food sovereignty, the tribes with which Blake Jackson works have asked for more control over federal food programs, such as the Women, Infant, Children Program (WIC) and SNAP. The 2018 Farm Bill authorized a program that now allows tribes to administer the Food Distribution Program on reservations, a change that has allowed for more Indigenous foods and for tribes to more effectively respond to the unique needs they see on the ground.

“The hardest challenge for folks is always going to be transportation and accessing food. Since COVID-19, just trying to keep the doors open so we can make sure people are fed has been a huge challenge,” said Mary Greene-Trottier, director of the Food Distribution Program (FDP) on the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota. “I think it’s important that tribes have the same administrative control over all of our feeding programs just as much as the states do.”

That would include transferring administrative control of SNAP to tribes, and Greene-Trottier said the FDP also lacks sufficient funding. Preference in federal food programs for tribal producers and help with procurement requirements that might shut them out of those programs would also help. To understand why policies like these are needed on reservations, she said, the most important factor is continued consultation with tribes. “There have to be voices at the table with the administration in order for change to happen. Our voices were heard in the last farm bill, and that work will continue.”

7. Connect the Dots Between Food and Other Justice Issues

Many experts we spoke to said a massive shift towards breaking down policy silos is necessary as the nation moves forward to address hunger and food insecurity.

“Is it possible that the answer is not wrapped up in food policy? What is it like when we bust out of our policy silos and we start thinking about climate, education, housing, and more?” Davison said.

Fisher said he’d suggest Emhoff create an office within the White House “to serve as a focal point for coordinating cross-agency initiatives around the root causes of food insecurity. That would be a really positive accomplishment, because you have these activities and policies being made in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Is there a way to break down the silos?”

At D.C. Central Kitchen, Curtin said, one of the biggest factors that impacts food security for the women he works with is access to daycare. Writing policies that get at nuanced, root causes of hunger like that will be more difficult and possibly less popular than doling out meals, but he’d advise Emhoff and the rest of the administration to think far beyond their time at the White House.

“I’d say: ‘Make some unpopular, tough decisions, and say, I’m fixing the problem for five, 10, 20 years from now by working on healthcare, wages, daycare, and mental health issues,” Curtin said. “[I’m] creating that equity where more people have a seat at the economic table.’”

Lisa Held

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior policy reporter. Her stories on the food system, sustainable agriculture, and food policy have appeared in many additional publications, including Eater, NPR’s The Salt, and Edible Manhattan. She also produces and hosts the weekly podcast “The Farm Report” on Heritage Radio Network. In the past, Lisa covered health and wellness for publications including the New York Times and Women’s Health and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Thanks Lisa. There is a systemic racial aspect that Michelle Obama touched on, and that is Food Deserts. Many city dwellers need to travel increasing distances as stores offering fresh food are often located further away from the urban poor. They can easily spend as much getting to the store and back as they spend on food. This is how fast/junk food becomes "economical". I was at The North Carolina Ag + Tech State University (HBCU) on a study trip and they were doing some work on this. Check them out. Thanks Roberto

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