Vilsack calls for structural changes in U.S. food distribution systems to deal with hunger, equity

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stressed the need for structural changes to U.S. food distribution systems in order to tackle hunger, strengthen equity, and increase access to school meals during his keynote address Wednesday at the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, a multi-day event co-sponsored by Feeding America and the Food Research & Action Center, in cooperation with the National CACFP Forum.

Vilsack drew attention to the twin crises of food insecurity and “nutrition insecurity,” citing striking levels of childhood and adult obesity — 18.5 percent and 71 percent, respectively — along with the 40 percent of Americans suffering from more than two chronic illnesses, many of which stem from poor diets.

Fighting hunger and promoting better health outcomes, the secretary said, starts with improving Americans’ access to healthy food. In the coming months, the USDA will focus on enhancing supply chain resilience, identifying ways to improve food bank infrastructure and bolster farms’ collaboration with food distribution sites, in order to avoid the massive food waste seen early in the pandemic. While he praised the nation’s network of food banks, he noted that “the reality is they need more assistance and help on the distribution side,” and underscored the need for ways to expand refrigeration and storage capacities to guarantee that all available resources reach families in need.

Part of this effort will involve reassessing the Farmers to Families Food Box program, a $5.5 billion initiative launched by the previous administration last May to improve food distribution efforts as hunger grew during the pandemic. Ahead of an upcoming listening session on ways to improve the program — scheduled for March 22-31 — Vilsack expressed his intent to “modify or change the program” so that families can receive assistance in a “meaningful way.”

Beyond revising pre-existing programs, Vilsack hinted at broader structural changes to incentivize cooperation between farmers and food distribution sites, including pantries and grocery stores.

“We need to recognize that there’s a financial disincentive to donating,” he said, noting that, for example, it costs $1.50 to transfer of a gallon of milk from a farmer to a processor to a grocery store. “It’s pretty hard to ask the farmer, or the processor, who’s already losing money, to lose another $1.50 to produce that gallon” so that it can end up at the food bank — especially when it’s unclear if the food bank has the necessary refrigeration and infrastructure to get the product to families.

The reality, Vilsack added, is that “when you have that disincentive, it’s sometimes easier to dump and destroy than it is to donate. And whatever we do with a revised system … we make sure that we remove as best we can this disincentive, and we build up the infrastructure of this incredibly efficient distribution system so that [food banks] are better able to accept these items.”

Vilsack also echoed anti-hunger advocates’ demands for tools to improve access to feeding and nutrition programs, such as WIC, SNAP, and school meals, by providing program information in English and Spanish. He also stressed the need for outreach to senior citizens, 5.6 million of whom are eligible for SNAP but not receiving it. “Some seniors believe that SNAP is a welfare program,” he said, which discourages them from enrolling. “It’s not welfare; it’s really about maintaining the health of everyone. Seniors with access to healthy foods will have fewer trips to the doctor. From a messaging perspective, we need to make sure people understand why we have these programs, and what they’re designed to do.”

With regard to growing calls for the administration to support schools in offering permanent universal free meals beyond the pandemic, Vilsack said the USDA would be evaluating the feasibility of such a program over the next month in light of economic conditions, unemployment levels, and prospects for schools reopening.

“Would we be better off as a society … making these changes or similar changes more permanent? I think the jury’s still out on that. I think we have some thinking to do about it, but I think we ought to be asking the question,” he said.

Throughout his address, Vilsack reiterated his commitment to applying an “equity lens” to food policy, looking at “past discrimination” in order to craft forward-looking policies to close the gap between Black and white farmers — a priority, he said, that the USDA has “put off for too many years.” Vilsack has stressed the need to address racism in food and farming policy, both in the context of the recent pandemic relief package and with the creation earlier this month of an “equity committee” to “identify and root out any systemic racism that may exist” in USDA programs.