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Food Politics in America: Finding Balance with Power

November 30, 2016


Politics determine many facets of food in the United States. The political regulation of food production, inspection, merchandizing, and education stems from aims toward public health and safety but also extends to economic interests of large corporations and the national profit. Regulation of supply and price, coupled with government subsidies for farmers of choice crops and livestock, drive the food market. Corporate interests also influence the government-provided nutrition education and recommendations (such as MyPlate). As politics gain further jurisdiction over the food supply, politics become inevitably, and often detrimentally intertwined with personal freedoms, health science, and business, but this does not have to be the case.


The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are two of the main governing bodies of food production and sale in the United States. The USDA manages food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, food assistance, and related issues for Americans (“United States Department of Agriculture,” 2016). This direction is based on current policy, science, and logical economic management. The USDA aims to provide economic opportunities by creating jobs, supporting international trade, and promoting agricultural production that better nourishes Americans (“AllGov – Departments”). The USDA governs several aspects of our dealings with the food supply, such as food safety inspections, recalls, organic certifications, and much more. The FDA is also an important component of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. It protects public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, quality, and security of food products, drugs, supplements, vaccines, and medical devices (“FDA Fundamentals,” 2013).


The USDA and FDA are examples of governing bodies that ensure the supply and safety of our food supply. Both are vital to public health, as they spread awareness of contaminant risks, set hygienic requirements in food service, and require allergen labeling. Evidently, government involvement in the public’s food decisions can be advantageous, but there is uncertainty over the degree to which government should regulate the public’s dietary habits. For example, New York City’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, proposed a ban on the sale of sugary beverages that are over sixteen ounces at food service establishments. This proposal stemmed from efforts to protect public health interests by combatting obesity and the rising health care costs, but was interpreted as a far too invasive measure. Restaurant owners and public consumers opposed, as did Judge Milton Tingling; the ban did not pass. Interestingly enough, the New York City 2008 ban on trans fats in commercial food establishments passed without opposition. This example displays the challenge of promoting public health through law while protecting individual freedoms.


 Public health ethics also come into question over the conflicting interests of agricultural business and human health. In the government’s effort to foster job security and economic growth, it subsidizes cotton (13%), dairy (3%), tobacco (2%), livestock (2%), oils (19%), corn and grain (61%), and fruit and vegetable (0.45%)(“Why food policy is worth fighting for”, 2014). Financial partnerships may alter the way information is portrayed to the public. Processed food corporations, such as General Mills, have sponsored the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for ten of the last twelve years (“The politics of food in the United States,” 2013). The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ list of approved continuing education providers include the processed food tycoons Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods and Nestle (“The politics of food in the United States,” 2013). The conflict of interest is evident in this example; the manufacturer and marketer of food products should not be involved in the nutritional education of health professionals or of the public. One is lead to believe that dietary recommendations are unlikely to omit a food product that is engaged in a financial arrangement with the government, regardless of the latest health science findings. For example, Coca-Cola sponsors a course for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics dispelling the fact that sugar is harmful to child health (“The politics of food in the United States,” 2013). Additionally, the government recommends that grains comprise the greatest proportion of the American diet, at six to nine servings of grains per day for American adults. In fact, grains have been found to contain anti-nutrient compounds and be an entirely unnecessary part of the human diet, as carbohydrates and fiber needs can easily be met through fruit and vegetable intake. The Arthritis Foundation even recognizes the fact that gluten, grains, and dairy can cause an inflammatory response in a large portion of the population, yet the USDA’s latest dietary recommendations still include six to nine servings of grain and three servings of dairy per day for the general adult population (“8 foods that can cause inflammation”). The government subsidizes both grain (61%) and dairy (3%); food lobbyists in these categories are also heavily influential in the politics of food. These are examples of health science being inconsistent with the government’s dietary recommendations, leading one to question which drives the dietary recommendations more: science or business? Public health ethics would suggest the two should not be intertwined.


As previously mentioned, food policy has its roots in interest of improving public health; it has the capacity to do so when conflicting interests are removed and science is respected. An ethically justified public health policy serves important social goals, it is likely to be effective in achieving the goal(s), less burdensome options are not as likely to achieve the goal, and it is fair and just in its methods (Resnik, 2013). Alternative food networks, such as community-supported agriculture (CSA), farmers’ markets, and urban farming hold a great potential to bring environmental soundness, social justice, and financial security to the broken American food system (Matacena, 2016). Interventions like these will enrich the role of local family businesses and farmers by offering a more direct relationship between producer and consumer. This fosters entrepreneurship, bringing financial success and independence to small communities while also confronting the issue of American disconnection with the food system by re-socializing food production and consumption. The greater connectedness with the food processes will empower the consumer to make more informed choices as to the nutritional, environmental, and labor implications of their food choices.  Since the 1980’s, city governments across America have begun serving important roles in the food system by fostering greater accessibility to local, nutritious foods, regardless of geographical constrictions and socioeconomic status (Matacena, 2016). One example of such effort is the Baltimore Urban Gardening with Students (BUGS) after school program. This program offers the experience of gardening to low income, under-served, at-risk youth in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. It includes lessons in math and science as they pertain to gardening and aims to foster academic growth, nutritional awareness, physical activity, creativity, and sense of community (“Living classrooms foundation”). BUGS is a public school opportunity and that is funded by state and local taxes. The logistical and financial support of local and state governments, as demonstrated with BUGS, is crucial to the success of alternative food networks.

Government has its place in supporting public health through the food system; BUGS is an example of a government-funded, publically organized program that does so without corruption by food corporations or inflicting overbearing policy (such as the sugary drink ban). Urban food initiatives ought to concentrate on supporting local economies, taking precautions toward environmental protection, and cultivating social justice as it pertains to nutritious food accessibility. Food policy efforts in this direction can fulfill these goals first by creating a platform to spread awareness about the current problems in the food system: producer-consumer disconnectedness, socioeconomic disparities in accessibility to nutritious food, corporate agriculture’s degradation of the environment, and the power food tycoons have over national dietary recommendations. Efforts should be away from corporate control in the food chain and aim to enhance the producer-consumer interaction, educate the public on the nutritional and ecological facets of our food system, and develop local economies by reallocating control in the food system from the global corporations, back to the consumer. Politics have become intertwined with personal freedoms, health science, and business, as they pertain to food in America, but responsible application of policy and government support of alternative food networks can optimize the role of politics in the food chain.




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