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Maggie Gosselin


In the past century, the American food system has undergone a transformation: agricultural yields have increased due to new crop varieties, machines, practices and chemicals; our food choices have expanded; fewer people produce more food; and food expenditures take up less and less of our income. But these gains have come at a cost: agricultural pollutants negatively impact environmental and human health; the incidence of diet-related disease is growing, as is the number of individuals classified as food insecure; and farming is no longer an economically viable vocation for most young people.

As the damaging effects of how food is grown, distributed, transported and consumed are illuminated, proposals to reform the United States’ agriculture, food industries and policies have become more numerous. What many Americans are asking of their food system constitutes a tall order: ideally, it should provide safe, healthy foods that are affordable and accessible to all; benefit the environment; remunerate farmers and farm workers fairly; and treat all participants, including animals, humanely. Barriers to these ideals range from deliberate agricultural policies to unwitting results of laws and regulations, or lack thereof, in diverse areas of government; for this reason, thinking about these goals requires a broad framework.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is titanic, charged with the administration of commodity, conservation and nutrition programs, Cooperative Extension, the soil survey, the development of dietary guidelines, economic and scientific research—the list goes on. But USDA is not the only federal body influencing what, and how, food is raised and consumed in the United States: many other spheres of governance shape our food system in significant, and sometimes surprising, ways. In carrying out their mandates, these entities affect food access and safety, fisheries, trade, food prices, land use, climate policy, agricultural labor and inputs, and consumer information. While changes to USDA’s policies and programs are certainly necessary for food system reform, some critical components of the system are largely outside of the department’s jurisdiction.

Currently, there is no integrated approach among government departments and agencies to address food-related issues. Thus, the efforts of one entity may undermine the activities of another. With so many government bodies influencing so many facets of our food system, how can we move towards federal food policies that are smart, non-contradictory and truly serve the public interest? As a start, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) should convene an interdepartmental task force on food policy to bring together the diverse departments and agencies that have bearing on food production and consumption in America. A better understanding of federal oversight of the food system is a prerequisite to a more clear and coordinated approach to food.

This report attempts to summarize the roles that key federal departments and agencies, other than USDA, play in America’s food system; it also lists relevant grant programs and resources they offer and, in some instances, provides ideas for changes that would support a more sustainable and just food and agriculture system. This is not a comprehensive document, but we hope that over time—with input and ideas from our colleagues—it might become one. Most of all, we hope that this paper helps policymakers, sustainable food advocates and others to continue broadening the definition of “food policy” and think beyond USDA to improve our food system.

The report begins by looking at departments and agencies that have the most obvious and well-defined roles in regulating our food system, moves to those that have a less clear connection to food, and then looks at a few specific issue areas and the entities that influence them.

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