Our food systems are set up to produce cheap calories to the detriment of the environment and our communities. Over the past several years, we have experienced increasing frequency and intensity of climate change impacts including hurricanes, floods, and droughts. Our water is contaminated, and our soil is depleted. Farmworkers are facing health risks and food insecurity. And our communities are getting sick. The large industrial corporations that have hijacked our food system do not care about their impact; they only care about raking in record profits every quarter.
When we ask for a better food system, one that protects human and environmental well-being, we are told we should make better choices and the market will respond. That is simply not true.
Blaming consumers for their behaviors to justify the harmful decisions of corporations propped up by federal policy does not hold up when faced with actual data. Consider this: at least one out of every 10 households in the United States was food insecure each year over the past 20 years. One out of every seven people in the United States has sought help from food pantries, and one out of every eight people receives financial help to put food on the table through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) each month. And on top of this, one out of every six people lives in an area that does not have easy access to a supermarket. Many households simply lack the resources to make different, or better, choices—they are already doing the best they can.
While perhaps shocking, these statistics conceal the many more households that may be struggling to afford food, perhaps due to inflation or a personal emergency. For many, food choice is a heavily constrained choice. They are stuck in a system where cheap food comes at the cost of our health and our environment, but that is the only food they can buy.
This year, we have a chance to advocate for a food system that gives us a choice to protect the environment, workers, our communities, and our health. But to do this, we must transform our view of food security. Food security should not mean only having enough cheap food to eat. Instead, food security should factor in nutrition and long-term environmental and economic sustainability—literally, the ability of farmers and others (like fishers) to produce nutritious food well into the future. That’s why the 2023 food and farm bill needs to redefine food security to protect our right to sustainable nutrition for all.
We need to redefine food security
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.“ However, the official measurement of food security is predominantly concerned with quantity of food. In other words, the USDA only measures whether people have enough food, not whether this food supports an active and healthy life—or a healthy environment (which is also needed for an active and healthy life the last time I checked!).
Another aspect of food security is food access. Food access is measured in terms of distance from a supermarket. A common indicator of food access is being within half a mile in urban areas and 10 miles in a rural area. Income also plays a role, as people in upper-income neighborhoods are more likely to own cars, making it easier to get to and from the grocery store. On the other hand, even a short distance may be too far for people with mobility issues. Just like the definition of food security, the definition of food access is limited. By only measuring distance from a supermarket, this measure does not consider the many other ways people may get their food—or what type of food is available on the shelves of their local supermarket, or how expensive it may be to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables there.
Expanding the definition of food security is important for two reasons. First, the current limited definition conceals the real scale of the problem. While about one out of every 10 households experienced food insecurity in 2021, many more were unable to support their own health by purchasing sustainable and nutritious foods. A survey showed that 79 percent of food pantry clients coped with food insecurity by purchasing cheap, unhealthy food to stretch their food budget. What would the number of people dealing with food insecurity and low access look like if we included people who are forced to compromise the quality and sustainability of their diet to simply eat enough? Instead of focusing on quantity, should we not instead measure how many people cannot afford or access nutritious, sustainable food?
Second, definitions that rely on food quantity and availability suggest that the solution is to make food cheaper and open more supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods. But in the United States, cheap food often comes from the industrial model of agriculture: the food is grown in monocultures or raised in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) with the use of chemicals and antibiotics, heavily processed, packaged in plastic, and shipped thousands of miles. In many places, supermarkets are now megastores owned by a handful of massive corporations. And large corporations often pay low wages to retail and food service workers. So those solutions are not real solutions—they are Band-Aids that perpetuate the problem.
Our vision for 2023
We need to reimagine food security to reflect our collective priorities: healthy lives in healthy environments. Our proposed definition for nutrition security incorporates these concepts (our additions to the USDA’s definition are in italics): Nutrition security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that is produced without exploitation of labor or natural resources, facilitates food sovereignty through equitable economic opportunity and engagement in the food economy, and meets cultural and dietary needs and food preferences for active and healthy lifestyles.
Perhaps to make the interconnections between our health and our environment even more explicit, we need a new label entirely: sustainable nutrition security.
Sustainable nutrition security measurements should therefore include food safety, nutritional profile, and sustainability indicators among other dimensions. Parallel to this, food access should be expanded to include points of sale beyond the supermarket, including farmers’ markets, farm stands, food cooperatives, and other places that support local farmers, create good jobs, and contribute to local economies.
Sustainable nutrition security also needs to focus on health equity. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) communities are disproportionately affected by both food insecurity and negative environmental outcomes of food production. Statistics show twice as many Black households experience food insecurity as White households. Among Hispanic households, the rates are 1.6 times higher. Karen Washington, an urban farmer and food justice leader from the Bronx, calls this food apartheid. This name highlights racism as the root cause of these issues, including historic disinvestment and exclusion by government and businesses.
Rather than supporting the status quo of having enough cheap calories, sustainable nutrition security signals a vision of a food system in which human and environmental well-being are intertwined—and one in which equity is at the forefront of our priorities.
How can the federal government support sustainable nutrition security?
Through this new lens, we encourage the USDA to shift its focus toward long-term thinking about nutrition and sustainability. In 2021, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the agency’s focus on nutrition security, and we suggested the edits above so the definition could be based in equity and sustainability.
This new definition should also inform the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are due for an update (unfortunately, they currently lack explicit inclusion of sustainability). Following the new definition, the federal government can invest in this vision of sustainable nutrition security and pave a path to a more resilient future. This includes the following actions:
- Include a new funding stream for sustainable nutrition science (SNS), a science at the intersection of food production, nutrition, and sustainability. Our previous analysis revealed that less than 25 cents of every research dollar are invested in sustainable nutrition science. Though the USDA recently provided additional funding, we encourage it to increase this investment, emphasizing equity in funding and engaging with BIPOC leaders across the country to advance health equity.
- Expand existing food assistance and provide additional funding for low-income communities to access not just enough food, but food that is nutritious and sustainable. Programs that expand the reach of SNAP dollars at farmers’ markets to free prescriptions for fruits and vegetables from a medical provider are immensely popular and support the health of local communities and economies. A recent evaluation showed that every dollar spent on government funding produced almost two dollars in economic benefits for the local community. But incentives for participating individuals are still limited and not available everywhere; funds should support both expansion in program reach and available funding per household.
- Provide additional funding for programs that bring sustainable and nutritious food directly to residents by expanding sustainable nutrition access beyond the supermarket. This includes funding for local farmers to bring their products to market, for local organizations and businesses to build and maintain local markets, and for other opportunities as well. Aside from access, such programs promote local economic growth and job creation. Yet our back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that for some programs, only about a quarter of the total requested funding is awarded each year, leaving a gap in important services to communities. Closing this gap would go far in supporting access to sustainable, nutritious foods while supporting local communities.
2023 and beyond
While providing more support for these programs is important, what we ultimately want to see is a transformation to a food system that eliminates hunger and provides equitable access to sustainable, nutritious food. Science can tell us how to make our food system better. The next food and farm bill should follow the science and incentivize the shift to agroecology, preserve soil health, lower climate emissions, and protect the health of our farmworkers and our communities. To do this, the government should rein in corporations and instead support local economies, especially in rural areas.
While this is a long-term project, the Union of Concerned Scientists is advocating for it this year through the new food and farm bill. And we will be offering many opportunities for you to advocate for science-based policy—please join us on this journey!