With each new election cycle, presidential hopefuls craft a campaign platform to bring American voters to their side. And while issues like immigration, job security, taxes, healthcare, and gun control have made predictable appearances in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s platforms, issues of food and agriculture—with the exception of a few bullet points in Hillary’s “Plan for a Vibrant Rural America”—are once again glaringly absent.
But we are a nation of eaters, and that is not okay.
Recent initiatives like Plate of the Union, a campaign spearheaded by Food Policy Action, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the HEAL Food Alliance are working to firmly plant food system issues in the election conversation.
Here’s a look at three important issues and what the November election may mean for our food system’s future.
Why It Matters
There’s endless debate surrounding the definition of food security, but according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, “food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” In other words, food security deals with questions like: Do people have enough money to buy healthy food? Do they live close enough to a grocery store selling fresh fruits and vegetables and foods relevant to their culture? Research shows that food security lays the foundation for a wide range of vital health and social outcomes. Food insecurity has been associated with an increased risk of depression in mothers, poor academic performance in children, and the development of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes.
We can’t talk about food security in America without discussing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (food stamps), a nearly $75 billion United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) program that gives up to $357 a month to qualifying families of two (almost six dollars a day per person). In 2014, SNAP helped 4.7 million Americans transition out of poverty. In 2015, more than forty-five million people used SNAP dollars, a large portion of which went toward feeding working adults with families and children.
According to a Bellweather Research and Consulting report last year, 45 percent of voters see increasing access to healthy food as “their top priority for changing the food system.” It’s critical to understand any prospective president’s stance on this issue. Michel Nischan, founder of the food-security nonprofit Wholesome Wave, describes it this way: “[If] somebody’s going to vote to take food off of the plate of a child living in a family struggling with poverty, they are likely not going to make other decisions that are in the best interest of the country as a whole.”
What A President Can Do
What power does the president have over an issue like SNAP? He or she cannot mandate extensive policy changes without Congress. But the issues that the president chooses to highlight, especially at the start of his or her term, hold significant weight for domestic food policy. If the president promotes sound food policy that aims to comprehensively address food insecurity and hunger, this public stance reverberates across the country. What the president advocates from the bully pulpit has the power to influence public opinion and creates expectations for Congress. Under the president’s direction, White House staff can lobby Congress members to write or pass legislation that achieves the president’s goals. Wes King, policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), a policy-advocacy organization, explains, “Having a president come out and say, ‘American agriculture and feeding hungry people is critically important to me and is a priority of my administration. I want to see a farm bill that lives up to that overarching goal…’ can make a big difference in changing the parameters of the debate.”
The president can also influence issues like SNAP and food security by appointing the secretary of agriculture and a number of under secretaries at the USDA who will interpret and enact the laws put forth by Congress. However, without legislation that gives the USDA jurisdiction to make specific changes or a clear food-policy agenda from the president to back up their decisions, the hands of these political appointees are tied. According to Nischan at Wholesome Wave, “making sure the right language gets into legislation sets up an environment for success for a secretary of agriculture to effectively disseminate policy. When the president makes sure that food is a top priority, it sets the tone for the secretary of agriculture to actually come in and be empowered to carry out his or her job in creative entrepreneurial ways that can move the needle forward on some of these issues.”
Reana Kovalcik, Associate Director for Communications and Development at NSAC explains it this way: “[Having an impact on these issues] is really about setting up the right people through all the president’s many administrative appointments and then understanding the issue enough to act on it.” Without a complete and accurate understanding of a particular issue, the president can advocate something that hampers rather than furthers a cause.
Hillary Clinton is committed to SNAP. Tyrone Gayle, Regional Communications spokesperson at Hillary for America, says, “As president, Hillary will fight to strengthen SNAP and protect the program from any attempt to weaken it.” During her time as a New York senator, Hillary sponsored the Food Insecurity Reduction Act (2008), which would have expanded the SNAP eligibility window for some adults to twelve months. “When Hillary Clinton was junior senator in New York state, she was really engaged in ag policy,” says Nischan. “We know from her own history of speaking that she is pro-SNAP, pro protecting SNAP, and understands the linkage between hunger relief programs like SNAP and agriculture, and just thinks that they make very good sense.”
In addition to advocating for SNAP, which gives struggling families economic support to buy food, Hillary’s food-security platform involves plans to increase local food options. She plans to double funding for two of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s existing programs: the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) and the Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP). FMPP’s grants allow farmers to connect with consumers directly through marketing channels like farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. The complimentary LFPP extends grant money to businesses working to foster infrastructure and distribution networks for local food procurement. By supporting myriad initiatives—ranging from food hubs to farmers’ markets to mobile markets—these USDA programs help address institutional, geographic, and economic obstacles to local food access and ultimately contribute to community food security.
Scant information is available to indicate Trump’s official stance on SNAP and nutrition assistance programs, besides his disapproving posts about food-stamp spending on social media, and a critique of President Obama’s food stamp measures in his book Time to Get Tough. Contacting Trump’s campaign headquarters yielded little in the way of definitive answers. In separate phone calls in the same day, campaign representatives gave me three different responses: Trump is “definitely” for SNAP, probably not in favor of SNAP, and I don’t know. Furthermore, neither his campaign platform nor his speech at the July Republican National Convention mention his plan for SNAP or food security. We do know, however, that the Republican Party platform advocates removing SNAP from the USDA’s purview, which would mean casting it out of the farm bill altogether. King predicts, “If the Republican members, particularly within the House, are going to be pushing this position with the Trump administration then it seems that he’s going to be likely to follow.” NSAC worries that this could cause the coalition between rural farmers and urban hunger relief advocates, who have cooperated on food system issues in the past, to unravel. This would dish out a serious blow to the farm bill, the more than $489 billion federal bill that shapes food system programs ranging from SNAP to crop insurance to conservation.
Why It Matters
Over the last few years, the Fight for $15 has firmly lodged the minimum-wage issue within the national consciousness. Almost four years ago, New York fast food workers took to the streets calling for a $15 minimum wage, and since then low wage workers across the country have joined the fight. Following California and New York’s recent efforts to heed the campaign’s call, the question on the minds of most Americans (more than half of whom want to increase the minimum wage to $15 according to one Public Religion Research Institute survey) is: What will the next president do?
The issue of minimum wage is bound tightly to food security. Without high enough wages, working Americans cannot take home enough money to pay for food. It’s as simple as that. And minimum wage is particularly relevant to food policy because food related jobs rank as five of the eight lowest paid occupations in the country. Not only do food system workers, who make up one sixth of the domestic labor force, tend to earn less than their counterparts in other sectors; they’re also much more likely to use SNAP, according to a 2012 report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Furthermore, many food workers go without paid sick days and employer-paid health insurance.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, but 57 percent of workers in the food system work in food service, such as restaurants. Of that 57 percent, workers earning $30 or more from tips each month are subject to the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour (though many states have passed higher tipped minimum wages). But tips are often mishandled, or fail to cover the gap between the federal minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage. As a result tipped workers experience higher poverty rates than other workers. Additionally, minimum wage laws do not apply to farm workers on small farms.
What A President Can Do
The president can work with public officials on local and regional levels to raise the minimum wage. Additionally, through an executive order, the president has the power to set the minimum wage for federal contract workers. The ripple effect of an action like this should not be underestimated. Obama heightened the visibility of the issue and spurred state-level dialogue and support by using the bully pulpit to promote minimum-wage change and releasing an executive order in 2014 that brought the minimum wage to $10.10 and the tipped minimum wage to $4.90 for some federal contract workers. Following Obama’s 2013 State of the Union, in which he emphasized the importance of boosting the minimum wage, many states have done just that. Hillary or Trump can build upon this work by exceeding the $10.10 minimum wage for federal contract workers and repealing the tipped minimum wage for these workers.
An executive order, however, only goes so far. To raise the federal minimum wage for all workers, not just federally contracted workers, a bill must make its way through Congress first. In this case, the president can still use his or her position to urge Congress to listen and pass a federal minimum wage bill.
According to her website, Hillary officially supports a $12 federal minimum wage but “support[s] state and local efforts to go even higher.” In other words, Hillary has yet to endorse a $15 federal minimum wage as the Democratic Party platform did in July. Although Hillary’s stance on the minimum-wage issue has wavered throughout her presidential campaign, an April interview on This Week with George Stephanopoulos revealed that she is in favor of a conditional, rather than strict, federal $15; instead of an immediate, unilateral increase to $15, she advocates an increase that occurs in stages, goes into effect more quickly in some areas than others depending on factors like cost of living, and is subject to monitoring (à la New York’s minimum wage bill that just passed in April).
A law of this sort would raise the wages of fast food workers across the nation, but it would leave restaurant workers, many of whom are subject to the tipped minimum wage ($2.13/hour) untouched. According to Tyrone Gayle, Hillary’s team recognizes the issue of low wages for restaurant workers and thinks something should be done about it. Says Gayle, “In most states today wait staff who rely on tips are paid even lower than the minimum wage… These workers are also more likely to face exploitation, wage theft, and sexual harassment. That’s why Hillary believes we should end the so-called ‘tipped minimum wage.’”
Trump’s position remains murky. In a GOP debate last November, Trump did not advocate increasing the federal minimum wage, saying that it would hurt America’s ability to stay competitive in the global economy. Since then, however, Trump has changed his tack in tweets and public appearances. In a May interview with Meet the Press, Trump argued that the minimum wage should go up through state action rather than a federal minimum wage policy. Then at a press conference in July, Trump proposed a $10 federal minimum wage, which as of August 1 continues to be his position. The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” produced a useful overview that comprehensively charts Trump’s inconsistent stance on minimum wage over the past year. When I called Trump headquarters to pinpoint where he stands on minimum wage, one representative said, “I do not know and cannot comment,” whereas another member of Trump’s team hung up as soon as I uttered the words “minimum wage.”
Although we can’t look to a voting record to predict how Trump may impact worker’s rights in office, we can examine the labor practices of his own companies. According to USA Today, Trump’s empire has been served with at least sixty wage theft lawsuits and some of the plaintiffs have been food workers: dishwasher Guy Dorcinvil sued one Trump resort for withholding overtime wages for several years and this past May forty-eight contracted servers charged Trump Miami Resort Management LLC with stolen overtime wages. Saru Jayaraman, cofounder and codirector of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United and the director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, comments, “We do know what to expect from him. We can expect very little, if at all anything. What he says is one thing, but given his record and what he believes in and what he stands for, we can expect pretty much disaster for workers in a Trump administration.”
Why It Matters
Agriculture has an immense impact on the natural environment: conventional agriculture leaks pesticides and fertilizers into waterways, and agriculture as a whole swallows about 40 percent of the total freshwater withdrawn in the United States, and releases more greenhouse gases than any other source in the world. If the U.S. does not begin cultivating healthier agro-ecosystems in order to address some of these adverse trends, the wellbeing of communities, our food system, and the environment at large is at stake. It is imperative that the next president helps farmers transition toward more sustainable agriculture that conserves water and fosters soil health and biodiversity, including crop and pollinator diversity. Voters agree. According to the 2015 Bellweather Research and Consulting report, 75 percent of voters think the government should take action to advance sustainable agriculture.
King shares some of NSAC’s agricultural concerns for the upcoming administration: “One of our key priorities coming up for the next administration, but also the next farm bill, is natural-resource conservation. Soil and water protection is part of the reason why we have national farm policy to begin with, dating back to the times of the Dust Bowl. Unfortunately, over the last several years or so, but also in the last farm bill, we’ve seen for the first time really in history Congress and administrations cutting the very conservation programs that protect the soil and water, which is where all of our food begins… It’s a priority for long-term and short-term food security and farming viability to protect the very soil and water that we all need.” So, what can we expect from the presidential candidates in terms of agricultural policy that will steward these resources?
What A President Can Do
The actions a president can take to influence agricultural sustainability are similar to what they can do to support SNAP and food security: lobby Congress, appoint officials at the USDA, and perhaps most importantly champion food system issues. At the beginning of the year, the president also is in charge of releasing an annual budget, which outlines how much money should be allotted to various programs, including the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE). SARE leverages regional specialists and the extensive resources of its learning center to promote sustainable agriculture and has made grants available to more than five thousand sustainable agriculture initiatives in research and education. The president’s budget proposal kicks off the appropriations process, and therefore provides a critical starting place for Congress to make its own budget recommendations for programs affecting both food security and agricultural sustainability.
Hillary’s Plan for a Vibrant Rural America is the only place where she details her agenda for sustainable agriculture. In it, she lays out her plan to fund two programs of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). EQIP finances farmers and ranchers who are interested in adopting ecological-management practices and creates tailored conservation activity plans (CAPs) for them. For instance, EQIP may help farmers engage in water-conservation measures or promote native-pollinator diversity. There even is a specific national EQIP initiative geared toward organic growers. RCPP gives select partners funding to work with agricultural producers to achieve specific conservation outcomes. Funding these two critical programs would equip farmers with the finances and expertise to better steward natural resources.
As you can tell by now, Trump’s public food policy is up in the air, and this includes his stance on agricultural sustainability. When I called his campaign headquarters in August, a representative said Trump is “for organic foods from local farmers” and “against pesticides.” The representative told me that this was Trump’s official stance, adding that Trump would have articulated it more eloquently. It’s hard to say whether this exchange accurately reflects Trump’s official position on sustainable agriculture. The Republican Party’s platform on this subject is a little clearer: “Farmers and ranchers are among this country’s leading conservationists. Modern farm practices and technologies, supported by programs from the Department of Agriculture, have led to reduced erosion, improved water and air quality, increased wildlife habitat, all the while maintaining improved agricultural yields. This stewardship of the land benefits everyone, and we remain committed to conservation policies based on the preservation, not the restriction, of working lands.” This platform goes on to advocate ranching on public lands but does not mention EQIP, RCPP, or any government programs that economically incentivize farmers to initiate sustainable changes on their farm.
In the end, what do we know about our presidential candidates?
Hillary says she will promote SNAP, increase the federal minimum wage to $12 (or a conditional $15), and fund programs governing sustainable agriculture and food security. Trump, on the other hand, has said little about SNAP, recently announced he’s for a $10 minimum wage (despite a track record of saying otherwise), and has yet to release any sustainable agriculture or food security plans. It’s worth pointing out that in the process of reaching out to Hillary and Trump’s campaigns, Hillary’s team answered my questions, whereas Trump’s press team failed to respond to my six emails and two voicemails, and when I got through to Trump headquarters (at least eight times), Trump’s team hung up on my phone calls (twice), gave conflicting responses (three times), or didn’t have an answer (twice). Perhaps on the most basic level this too says something about the willingness of each campaign to engage with food policy issues.
Either way, much is at stake in this next election, and our food system is no exception. At the end of the day the president cannot fully mold policies to their liking without Congress, but they still hold considerable power over our food system, and as Nischan puts it, “food as a single subject has an impact on human health, environmental health, and economic health.” And as Election Day nears, this is something worth paying attention to.