Focus on Food: A Conversation with Congressman Dwight Evans

July 25, 2017
In The News

Since 1933, the Farm Bill has been  a cornerstone of American agricultural legislation. For decades, it has regulated crop insurance, legislated healthy food access for underserved Americans, and included programs for training in sustainable farming. The 2014 Farm Bill was comprised of 12 sections, from trade and commodities to conservation and rural development. And as Congress prepares to pass a new Farm Bill in 2018, Congressman Dwight Evans of Pennsylvania—a member of the United States House of Representatives Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Nutrition—believes food security should be a key consideration.

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Evans to discuss how he sees food policy as inextricably linked to foreign policy, his thoughts on food insecurity intervention in the U.S., and his expectations for next year’s new Farm Bill.

“Food policy should be one of the tools in the State Department’s toolbox,” Evans says. This echoes his message in an op-ed from early June 2017 in which he stressed the importance of food in American diplomacy. Throughout the op-ed and conversation with Food Tank, Evans emphasized his firm belief that “our food policy is our foreign policy.”

Food for diplomacy dates back many years, notably including the 1954 Food For Peace (FFP) legislation, which encompassed emergency programs, nutritional support programs, and development programs across the world. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Evans cited, employed this diplomatic tool, operating with the understanding that ensuring adequate nourishment for developing areas helps to stabilize vulnerable populations.

And food remains as important for diplomacy now as ever, according to the Aspen Institute’s Food Security Strategy group. In 2016 the group, of which Albright was a member, called food security “a critical priority in planning for climate security, political stability, national security and economic growth” over the next three decades.

Evans also underscored the power of food policy for domestic benefit. He haschampioned food security awareness and policy interventions since his time in the Pennsylvania state legislature, especially as a leader on the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI) project. The FFI involved using a combination of federal and state financing to stimulate the food marketplace in several Pennsylvania food deserts. The FFFI built the food landscape by offering financial support to “operators located or locating in communities where infrastructure costs and credit needs [were] not met by conventional financial institutions.”

The Food Trust had mapped out where there were rural and urban areas that needed food and…the policy triggered the marketplace,” says Evans. Investment in supermarkets resulted, followed by “corner stores to greenhouses to all of the things you need to attack food insecurity.”

Widely celebrated as a success, then First Lady Michelle Obama said the FFFI demonstrated “that we can do what’s good for our businesses and our economy while doing what’s good for our kids and our families and our neighborhoods at the same time.” Since its inception in 2004, the Initiative has become a part of the national Farm Bill.

Now Evans would like to see the formation of an alliance between consumers and farmers and a greater understanding of where, how, and by whom food is grown. The Congressman isn’t alone here—various agricultural organizations and food producers are urging consumers to get to know the origins of the food they eat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says consumers who understand where their food comes from can “make more informed decisions to maximize quality, freshness, and nutritional value,” while helping to “support local economies through purchases.”

In his June op-ed, Evans wrote of the need for “a strategic approach to tackle the issue of food insecurity…[for making] a real, tangible impact in the daily lives of those most in need.” That strategic approach “is both public and private,” beginning with “a real robust policy around federal, food banks, and food policy, restaurants, as well as food producers.”

This first means “smart food policy in terms of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program),” according to Evans. The SNAP program (formerly referred to as Food Stamps) assists participants by providing a monthly sum that amounts to about US$1.40 per person per meal. Evans calls that amount outrageous, suggesting that SNAP must account more thoroughly for increases in cost of living and inflation, starting in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The future of the SNAP program is uncertain as the Trump administration’s new budget has proposed a 25-percent cut to the program in the next decade. The official 2017 Budget of the U.S. Government says these cuts would “close eligibility loopholes, target benefits to the neediest households, and require able-bodied adults to work” in order to “reduce SNAP expenditures while maintaining the basic assistance low-income families need to weather hard times.” Experts who study U.S. food assistance programs warn against increasing the regulations for qualifying for the programs. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, recently told the PBS Newshour that such regulations can increase stigma and limit the extent to which the program helps vulnerable Americans.

Evans, among others as evidenced by the SNAP-Ed program, also suggests the SNAP program further address food and health education. In addition to providing adequate assistance, “you need to also teach people how to cook, what to cook, and about dietary issues,” to most effectively improve food security.

Most recent data from the USDA reports that 41.6 million Americans are participating in the SNAP program. A Pew Research Center survey from 2012 indeed found the U.S. to be “a bipartisan nation of beneficiaries,” with one study of SNAP use showing no difference in proportion of Americans of differing political ideologies (conservatives, moderates, and liberals) receiving SNAP benefits—17 percent of respondents in each group had received SNAP benefits. Congressman Evans told Food Tank that Congress should “stop treating the SNAP program as a political football.”

Evans hopes for a response to food insecurity that crosses party lines, recounting his experience with a small-scale gardening project from his time in the Pennsylvania state legislature in which the state government’s garden donated its vegetables and fruits to local food banks. “I could see every state capitol with a garden on its grounds where democrats and republicans could work together;” in his experience, even small efforts like these go a long way to feed those most in need.

In addition to SNAP reform, he sees the future of food security as tied to the sustainable future of U.S. agriculture. Evans says, “we have to figure out how to get more young people into agriculture” citing the increasing average age of American farmers. The USDA reported the average age as 58.3 in 2012, up from 57.1 in 2007.

“I keep telling people that food is not grown at McDonald’s,” emphasizing that “here in America, we can feed ourselves, using what is very naturally available to us.” But in order to do so young Americans have to enter the agricultural sector.

According to Eric Hansen, of the National Young Farmers Coalition, “for every six farmers over the age of 65, there’s only one under the age of 35.” Statistics like these, Hansen says, have prompted the USDA to reallocate funding to help support beginning farmers and draw more people into the agricultural sector.

In rural states like Pennsylvania, opportunities exist for young people to get into farming by attending agricultural schools. For U.S. food security, Evans believes “we have to think of the future,” and that might mean increasing the interest in and attendance at agricultural colleges. In the Congressman’s district, there is even an agricultural high school—W.B. Saul High School—that Evans calls “the largest future farmer organization in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” and considers critical for the future of American agriculture.

Overall Evans doesn’t see partisanship as an issue in the development of food policy, though the Farm Bill in 2014 “had been mired in partisan gridlock” and stalled for two years, largely because of cuts to food assistance and issues around increasing crop insurance.

Regardless of partisanship, Evans remarked that substantial food policy improvements can be accelerated with the help of a so-called cheerleader: someone “who raises the issue to consciousness, making people aware of the whole aspect of food insecurity and how we can attack it from a public and a private side.”

He has hopes for a future U.S. leader to “raise the consciousness about food policy” and “articulate a message around agriculture.” “I don’t think anyone has really made food a focus,” says Evans. He asks, “what asset could be more powerful to connect rural America and all of American than food policy?”

To read more about Evans’s experience as a policymaker, check out his book Making Ideas Matterin which he devotes a chapter to “The Start of the Food Revolution.”