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Five Things a Biden Administration Can Do to Advance Food and Health Equity

by Nancy. E Roman – President & CEO, Partnership for a Healthier America

November 10, 2020

Man voting The 2020 Presidential election is now decided, but the issues underpinning both campaigns are far from resolved. From COVID-19 to the murder of George Floyd, fundamental issues around racial equity require collective attention and action—and leadership. At PHA, we see the inextricable links between food equity, health equity, and racial equity.

According to The Atlantic’s COVID Racial Data Tracker, “COVID-19 is affecting Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color the most.” At the heart of this disproportionate impact are economic, health, and ultimately food inequities.

As President-elect Joe Biden takes on the world’s toughest job, under historically challenging circumstances, the country is begging for improvement from every sector. Here are five things that a Biden Administration can do to advance food equity and health equity:

1. Understand and acknowledge that our nation’s food supply is an under leveraged tool for health.

Food is both a primary driver of poor health outcomes and an essential tool for preventing, slowing, or, in some cases, reversing the development of diet-related disease. A growing body of research supports the adoption of specific dietary patterns to treat or reverse common chronic diseases, including the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) developed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and mediterranean or plant-based diets which can reverse diabetes and significantly decrease heart disease related mortality.

2. Create a cabinet-level Food Czar who leads the Administration’s efforts in leveraging food as a tool for health and the planet.

Many countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa have a Minister of Food and Environment or Minister of Food and Agriculture. Food policy in the U.S. remains frustratingly fractured—and as the COVID-19 crisis has revealed, we need a more cohesive and comprehensive approach to ensure that we not only clear the bar of feeding all Americans, but far exceed it by providing all Americans with equal access to affordable, healthy foods.

3. Raise public awareness of the link between what we eat and climate change.

In January 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission issued a report based on a growing body of research that identifies global food consumption as a key driver of human health and environmental sustainability. The report defined a series of scientific targets for improved consumption from sustainable food systems to feed the anticipated 10 billion global population by 2050 and reduce environmental degradation from greenhouse gas emissions to a safe operating space.

The report’s recommendations include doubling consumption of fruit, vegetables, legumes, and nuts, while reducing consumption of added sugar and red meat. It is estimated that following this guidance would prevent 11 million deaths globally per year, representing between 19 and 24% of total deaths (pre-COVID figures).

4. Subsidize health-friendly, planet-friendly foods through SNAP and public procurement processes.

2020 has highlighted the importance of and innovation to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). With need at its highest, we saw a drastic expansion of SNAP for online grocery purchases—an important step. But too many consumers are still favoring processed, unhealthy foods. As the program evolves, finding ways to subsidize better-for-you foods through the program could help shift diets and pre-empt the diet-related disease epidemic.

5. Incentivize states and cities to procure better-for-you foods for hospitals, schools, and other public venues.

Incentivizing shifts in procurement could have lasting ripple effects on the food supply chain. First, it could shift innovation in food manufacturing from being focused on the next, cheapest package of junk food to affordable, better-for-you foods. Second, it could create long-term shifts in demand and personal behavior toward better-for-you foods at all price levels, impacting the offerings that retailers prioritize. Third, especially for our schools, it could ensure that we’re providing our children with the proper nutrition that has unfortunately been a political football for too long.

If President-elect Biden wants to, he can make a mark for his administration by using food as a lever for human and planetary health. The outcomes will pay for themselves many times over and can help move the needle on the two most pressing issues of our time: COVID-19 and systemic racism.