Expanding SNAP Options: A Bill to Make SNAP Purchasing More Accessible During a Difficult Time

This article was written by Ali (Alexandra) Schklair, FLPC Intern.

On July 2nd Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Expanding SNAP Options Act (S.4202). The proposed legislation addresses flaws in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) online purchasing program, which has become increasingly important during the COVID-19 crisis. Since the start of COVID-19, FLPC has been committed to identifying gaps in the federal government’s response to food system challenges. Accordingly, we have provided policy recommendations for meeting the continued needs of food producers, workers, and consumers. One of our key recommendations is to expand the SNAP online purchasing program and ensure that a range of retailers – including small, independent retailers and farmers markets – are able to participate as vendors. We are thrilled that the Expanding SNAP Options Act addresses this concern. We enthusiastically support this legislation and believe the expansion of the SNAP online purchasing program will make SNAP online purchasing more accessible during this difficult time.

The SNAP online purchasing pilot program, which was first authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, allows SNAP recipients in select states to use their benefits for online purchases. While the 2018 Farm Bill expanded the pilot to become a national program, the USDA was slow to approve states for the program. However, because health concerns and social distancing orders during COVID-19 have made in-person grocery shopping more difficult, USDA has expedited its approval process in recent months. As of July 13th, 2020, forty states have been approved. While we are glad USDA has approved more states, we are happy to see that the Expanding SNAP Options Act requires USDA to swiftly approve all fifty states for online purchasing capabilities.

Another concern with the SNAP online purchasing program is that a limited number of retailers have been approved for online SNAP sales, with Amazon and Walmart as the only approved retailers in most states. Due to restrictions on in-person dining and shopping during COVID-19, these large e-commerce retailers are already seeing major hikes in sales, while small and locally owned businesses are struggling to stay open. We see the online purchasing program as an opportunity to boost business for small retailers and farmers while providing more purchasing options for consumers. Our recommendations included many steps Congress can take to diversify SNAP online purchasing options. Specifically, we proposed funding for USDA to partner with a technology firm to create a central online portal to help retailers and farmers participate as vendors in the SNAP online purchasing program, and alleviate the challenges small businesses face in setting up online SNAP payment systems. We also recommended that Congress provide funding to states to help vendors integrate Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) technology into their business. Finally, we recommended Congress provide funding to subsidize delivery fees for small retailers and farmers. This is a cost Amazon and Walmart can easily pay (and indeed, they have waived the delivery fee for orders over a certain dollar amount), but poses a real challenge for most small businesses.

We are thrilled that Senator Duckworth (D-IL) and Senator Durbin (D-IL) included our recommendations in the Expanding SNAP Options Act. The legislation includes three key measures: 1) it requires USDA to implement the online purchasing program in all states, 2) it provides $25 million for USDA to work with a technology firm to create an online portal to help connect small retailers with SNAP customers, and 3) it provides $75 million for a USDA Technical Assistance Center to support smaller retailers and vendors with becoming authorized to accept SNAP online. FLPC fully supports the Expanding SNAP Options Act, which removes barriers to food access and provides opportunities for local businesses, small and independent retailers, and farmers during the current public health crisis, and afterward.

There’s No Excuse For How Much Food You’re Wasting

This article was originally written by Amanda Little and published by Bloomberg News on July 12, 2020.

(Bloomberg Opinion) — “Dump potatoes in the rivers … Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth,” John Steinbeck wrote in “The Grapes of Wrath.” “There is a failure here that topples all our success.” 

Steinbeck’s lament against food waste is eerily relevant today, as supply-chain disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic have continued to force farmers to euthanize hogs they can’t sell and bury excess potatoes. 

Even before Covid-19, Americans, on average, were tossing away more than a pound of uneaten food per person each day, amounting to some 400 pounds of food thrown out annually. That’s far more than any other wealthy country — about 50% more food waste per capita than France and nearly double that of the U.K. According to U.S. government estimates, the cost of U.S. food waste comes out to $161 billion annually. The environmental costs are abysmal.

So the problem of food waste is certainly not new. But it feels newly flagrant at a time when millions of Americans have lost their jobs and 98% of U.S. food banks are reporting demand increases, with 37% reporting critical shortfalls. What makes such waste even harder to accept is that strategies for preventing it abound at every level of government and from big businesses to individual consumers. Taken together, these strategies could radically reduce the amount of food sent to U.S. landfills. Here’s what should happen in each sphere.

For starters, federal agencies need a more concrete plan for food waste reduction. In 2015, the USDA, EPA and FDA vowed to collaborate to cut food waste by 50% by 2030 — a goal endorsed by the Trump administration in 2018 and repackaged as the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative. The Trump plan identified six “action areas,” such as collaborating with industry and educating consumers, but set no clear timelines or ways of measuring progress. The plan should have specific yearly goals, more robust staffing resources and defined measurement practices. Jean Buzby, the USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison, was vague when I asked her for numbers: “Our data and measurement practices are a developing science,” she told me. “It’s not refined enough at this time to compare [waste reductions in] 2018 versus 2019.” That data science needs rapid development.

One area where congressional policymakers can make a difference is food donation rules. A bill (S.3141) introduced in the Senate last December, by Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey and Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, would expand protections for farmers, restaurants, schools and markets, limiting civil and criminal liability when donating food to populations in need. (Half of food manufacturers, a quarter of retailers and wholesalers, and 40% of restaurants cite liability as a barrier to food donation, according to a Food Waste Reduction Alliance survey.) The act would also allow food-rescue organizations to charge a small amount for delivery, alleviating a cost that often deters them from donating their supplies.

Lawmakers also need to clear up confusion around expiration dates on perishable foods, which vary wildly from state to state. “Date label confusion wastes massive amounts of food,” said Emily Broad Leib, who directs the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. “Supermarkets lose about $1 billion a year from food that expires in theory — but not in reality — before it’s sold.”

There is currently a bill pending in the House (H.R.3981) that would clear up such confusion and cut down on waste. Introduced by Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree and Washington Republican Dan Newhouse in 2019, it would standardize dozens of different date-labeling laws and give consumers a clearer understanding of how long their fresh foods are safe to eat. According to Leib, the act has been shelved during the pandemic, because standardizing data is time consuming and the benefits would not be realized immediately. But lawmakers have to be thinking about both near- and long-term solutions. Congress would be wise to put this bill back on the agenda and pass it sooner rather than later.

Legislators can also think bigger: One idea, being pushed by Leib and other advocates, is to allow farmers to receive a tax credit, rather than deduction, for donating their surplus to food banks. Enacting such a measure would quickly help move the mountains of uneaten produce, now rotting on farms, to the hundreds of food banks and pantries reporting surges in demand.

States and cities have gone much further on fighting food waste. In California and six other states, bans on organic waste and landfill surcharges have been very effective at reducing waste. Many cities have also create composting programs to reduce food scraps and yard trimmings, which comprise a third of municipal waste streams. Some of these programs are now being threatened due to Covid-related budget cuts. Rolling them back would be a blow to hard-earned progress on reducing waste and its impact on the environment. Less than 5% of food waste in the U.S. gets composted into soil fertilizer; the rest rots in landfills in an uncontrolled way, emitting methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The private sector is in the best position to push near-term solutions on food waste. The group ReFed, which generates food waste data and analysis, has identified 34 for-profit and nonprofit enterprises helping to solve the waste crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. Among them are Forager, which aims to digitize the food-recovery supply chain, and BlueCart, which helps wholesale suppliers sell to food banks at a discount. Another notable startup, Wasteless, is developing dynamic pricing tools so that grocers can lower the cost of perishables as they get closer to expiring. And Apeel Sciences, which produces a natural coating that extends the shelf life of fruits and vegetables, announced a $250 million funding round in May, even winning the attention of Oprah Winfrey and Katy Perry. Investors and entrepreneurs should consider paying more attention to what’s emerging in this space.

Of course, consumers hold the greatest responsibility in reducing food waste. Forty percent of all wasted food comes from homes, and most of what gets tossed is perishable produce, dairy and meats. Cutting down on this means changing our buying behaviors and being more thoughtful about disposal. For example, you can buy mottled or misshapen fruits and vegetables: They taste just as good as perfect-looking produce, and may be better for you. We can also donate whatever produce we buy but can’t consume; apps like Olio can connect us to local food pantries and neighbors in need.

“A challenge with reforming consumer behavior is that food waste often arises from virtuous intentions,” such as opting for fresh, healthy foods over processed foods with a longer shelf life, says Darby Hoover, a waste expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Fortunately, the rise of online shopping and apps to reduce food waste can help us. When we shop online, we tend to have fewer impulse buys and become more deliberate about our purchases, which can cut down on waste. Such planning ahead can help retailers limit waste, too.

For decades, Americans have taken our overabundance of fresh foods for granted. It took a pandemic to wake us up to our own profligacy. Let’s not squander the opportunity to rein in our waste.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of a Bloomberg Opinion series on the fate of food after Covid-19 as well as the book “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”

Advocates Sue HHS Over Rollback of ACA Non-Discrimination Rule

This article was written by Adam Cancryn and Dan Diamond originally published by Politico on July 10, 2020

Multiple groups on Thursday backed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, arguing that last month’s rollback of the Affordable Care Act’s non-discrimination protections violated the Administrative Procedures Act by “being contrary to law and arbitrary and capricious.”

The rule, which also struck provisions to boost language access for limited English speakers, has been championed by HHS as a regulatory fix after a federal judge blocked key parts of the original ACA policy from taking effect.

Notably, the rule was published in the Federal Register four days after the Supreme Court separately ruled to uphold LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections, a decision that Democrats and some lawyers argue negates the Trump administration rule.

— Who’s suing: The National Women’s Law Center, the Transgender Law Center, the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School and law firm Hogan Lovells.

“This illegal rule puts the lives of women, LGBTQA+ individuals, those with limited English proficiency and the tens of thousands who live at the intersection of these identities at risk,” said NWLC’s Fatima Goss Graves in a statement.

A separate group of LGBTQ clinics and other organizations filed suit against the policy last month.

Lawsuit filed in MA alleges federal attempt to strip LGBTQ+ protections

This article was written by: Drew Karedes and originally published by Boston 25 News on July 9, 2020

BOSTON — A coalition of health care providers and activists in Massachusetts are standing up to a recent move by the Trump administration they say is discriminatory.

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston on Thursday night calls out a new rule that would strip protections of LGBTQIA people.

Ellen LaPointe, Chief Executive Officer of Fenway Health, said she believes it’s in response to a landmark Supreme Court ruling last month.

The ruling extended workplace protections to millions of people across the country.

Fenway Health and six other plaintiffs in the lawsuit accuse the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of stripping out provisions from the Affordable Care Act which protect LGBTQIA people in relation to health care.

“The rule removes protections against discrimination based on gender identity and sex stereotyping, harming LGBTQ+,” the suit states. “The rule would encourage the kind of “implicit and explicit biases” that “negatively impact the quality of health care equity and patient safety.” 

According to plaintiffs, the Trump administration it trying to rollback protections put in place by the Obama administration.

“The Trump administration can’t change this law so what they’re trying to do is interpret the law in such a way by rolling back these protections that the Obama administration put in place,” explained Ellen LaPointe CEO of Fenway Health.

LaPointe said the rollback rule would potentially take effect on August 18th. The suit filed on Thursday night is asking for an injunction to stop it.

“It’s unconscionable that they would purposely make it harder for LGBTQIA people to access essential health care and health insurance,” said LaPointe. “This is unacceptable and cannot stand.”

Fenway Health serves over 33,000 patients at its three Boston locations and through its telehealth program in 20 states.

Just over 40 percent of Fenway’s patients identify as LGBTQ and about 12 percent are transgender or gender diverse.

While Fenway provides health regardless of ability to pay, it generates about three quarters of its operating revenue from patient services.

LaPointe told Boston 25 News Reporter Drew Karedes she’s concerned health insurers could be allowed to reduce or eliminate coverage for LGBTQIA people.

“If this happens, we may not be able to secure reimbursement for the essential care and services we provide our community,” said LaPointe. “We’re taking a stand on behalf of everyone who would be impacted by this rule nationally.”

The lawsuit also states that the rule could allow for denial of certain services related to abortion.

“The Rollback Rule emboldens discrimination based on pregnancy, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery therefrom, and childbirth or related medical conditions.  It also specifically targets abortion by importing religious and abortion exemptions, which will harm a wide range of individuals who have had or are seeking abortion care, miscarriage management, or treatment for ectopic pregnancies,” the suit reads.

Civil Right Orgs, Harvard Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, and Firm Hogan Lovells File Lawsuit Against Trump Administration’s Rule Removing ACA’s Non-Discrimination Protections

Tonight, the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School (CHLPI), the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), the Transgender Law Center (TLC), the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF), and law firm Hogan Lovells filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts against the Trump-Pence administration’s rule, released June 19, 2020, that undermines the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) non-discrimination protections which prohibit discrimination in health care on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and sex — including pregnancy, gender identity, and sex stereotyping.

The lawsuit is filed on behalf of plaintiffs Darren Lazor, The Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY), Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, Campaign for Southern Equality, Equality California, Fenway Health, and Transgender Emergency Fund. Lazor, 35, is a transgender man near Cleveland, Ohio, who experienced numerous counts of discrimination from healthcare providers on the basis of his gender identity from 2012 to 2017. He is a member of Equality California. 

The lawsuit asserts that the new rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act by being contrary to law and arbitrary and capricious. Notably, it was published on June 19,  just days after the June 15, 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, which found that it is unlawful sex discrimination to fire employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

The lawsuit also asserts that the new rule will embolden discrimination and harm LGBTQ+ patients and people seeking reproductive health care, further stigmatize abortion and other pregnancy-related care, harm patients with limited-English proficiency, especially immigrants, and harm people with chronic illnesses, including those living with HIV. The rule will also create confusion about the scope of protections against discrimination under federal law. 

The rule was issued amid a global pandemic, unprecedented national unemployment with people losing access to health insurance, an epidemic of police violence against Black people and a crisis of violence against Black trans people. In the last two weeks alone, six Black trans women have been found dead: Brayla Stone in Little Rock, AR, Merci Mack in Dallas, TX, Shaki Peters in Amite City, LA, Draya McCarty in Baton Rouge, LA, Tatiana Hall in Philadelphia, PA, and Bree Black in Pompano Beach, FL. 

Trans people, like plaintiff Darren Lazor, already face disproportionate discrimination in health care settings, including mistreatment by insurers and humiliation and harassment by doctors – problems that are exacerbated for Black and Latinx trans people, and trans people living in rural regions and the U.S. South. In seeking to deny trans people access to the healthcare they need, the Trump Administration is putting trans people, and especially Black trans women, in danger through deliberately harmful governmental action.

“I have experienced feeling like a doctor doesn’t care if I live or die — which is just shameful,” said Darren Lazor. “No one should be denied life-saving health care or be discriminated against the way I have simply because of who they are. I hope that sharing my story can help others understand that transgender people are who we are, and we deserve to be treated fairly under the law.”

“The Affordable Care Act has helped transgender people, people living with HIV, people with limited English proficiency, and others access equitable health care and coverage,” said Kevin Costello, Litigation Director for the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. “We cannot allow this Administration to roll back protections and sanction discriminatory practices. We are committed to holding HHS accountable to Supreme Court precedent and federal law, and to ensuring that the ACA’s civil rights provisions are available to all.”

“The Trump-Pence administration has again shown us that there is no limit to their quest to allow discrimination in health care. This illegal rule puts the lives of women, LGBTQA+ individuals, those with limited English proficiency and the tens of thousands who live at the intersection of these identities at risk,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of NWLC. “We refuse to accept this dangerous rule, especially when our country has already lost thousands of lives due to a global pandemic. We join our communities, plaintiffs and partners in court reaffirming that no one should fear being turned away by a health provider or denied coverage or care because of who they are.”

“The rule will embolden discrimination in health care and make it more difficult for patients—particularly transgender people and women—to access the care and insurance coverage they need,” said Kirti Datla, senior associate at Hogan Lovells. “We represent a broad group of plaintiffs whose experiences make clear just how devastating the effects of this action will be. Working alongside partner organizations, we hope to quickly secure a ruling that the rollback is unlawful several times over, and that no person should be denied health care due to discrimination.”

“The abhorrent changes by HHS are yet another illegal attempt by the current administration to further endanger the lives of transgender people, especially Black transgender women who face the greatest challenges with accessing health care,” said Andy Marra, Executive Director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund. “Today, with our partners and plaintiffs, TLDEF is challenging these regulations to ensure that explicit health care protections for transgender people remain intact, especially during a pandemic that is placing the lives of those most pushed to the margins at severe risk. We look forward to seeing HHS in court.”

“Trans people should be able to seek medical care when we need help without being turned away or denied treatment because of who we are or where we live,” said Dale Melchert, Staff Attorney at the Transgender Law Center. “This dangerous and intentional move by the Trump Administration contradicts federal law while putting the lives of trans people in jeopardy – especially trans people living with HIV, Black trans people and people of color, trans people with disabilities, and trans people living in rural areas and in Southern states.”

“Ripping healthcare away from millions of Americans is wrong; to do so in the middle of a global health crisis is just plain evil,” said Equality California Executive Director Rick Chavez Zbur. “As long as President Trump keeps attacking transgender people like Darren and other LGBTQ+ Equality California members simply because of who they are, we’ll keep fighting the Administration in court.”

“Transgender people, especially those living in Southern states, face significant barriers to accessing the health care they need and deserve; we hear stories from our members all across the South of delaying care because of these challenges or of driving for hours to see an affirming provider,” said Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. “Now that the Trump Administration has undercut critical protections from the Affordable Care Act, transgender Southerners will be additionally vulnerable to being turned away from care altogether – in the midst of a pandemic, no less. As a plaintiff in this lawsuit, we’re honored to stand with organizations across the country asking the court to restore these protections.” 

“It is unconscionable that the Trump Administration would purposefully make it harder for LGBTQIA+ people to access essential health care and health insurance,” said Fenway Health CEO Ellen LaPointe. “That they would do so in the midst of a global pandemic that has already claimed the lives of more than 130,000 U.S. residents, put 14 million people out of work, and exacerbated significant racial and ethnic disparities in access to healthcare and health outcomes only serves to magnify the heartlessness of this unlawful action. Fenway Health is compelled and proud to take a stand on behalf of some of the most marginalized and at-risk members of our community, advancing a core principle at the heart of our mission – that all people deserve access to care, and that LGBTQIA+ people are entitled to the same rights as all others in our society.”

“In our over 50 year history providing care to LGBTQ+ communities, we have fought hard for equal rights and equal protections for transgender and non-binary people. Healthcare is a human right – and this rule is designed to deny that right,” said Wendy Stark, Executive Director, Callen-Lorde Community Health Center.

Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School Receives $110,000 Grant from Tufts Health Plan Foundation

The Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School (CHLPI) was awarded a two-year grant for $110,000 from Tufts Health Plan Foundation. The funds will be used to create a statewide inventory of nutrition programs available to older people and their households to make it easier for health care providers, payers and social service agencies to connect eligible patients to Food is Medicine services. This is one of 13 new community investments totaling $1.7 million that reflect the Foundation’s support of collaborative community efforts and systems change to advance healthy aging. 

“We have an opportunity to think differently about how our systems are addressing community needs,” said Nora Moreno Cargie, president of Tufts Health Plan Foundation and vice president for corporate citizenship at Tufts Health Plan. “We are living in unprecedented times. We need to learn from this experience and think about how we can change the conditions that hold problems in place.” 

This project is a priority for Food is Medicine Massachusetts, a coalition of more than 70 organizations committed to realizing the goals outlined in the Massachusetts Food is Medicine State Plan. Older people are disproportionately impacted by nutrition-related diseases. Many older people rely heavily on Food is Medicine services – or the provision of food specifically tailored to health conditions – that can help to improve health outcomes and control health care costs. However, there is currently no accessible, centralized database of Food is Medicine programs in Massachusetts. The inventory will fill this gap and help ensure that older adults in Massachusetts can access the foods they need to heal and thrive. 

CHLPI will work in partnership with Community Servings, a Boston-based not-for-profit medically tailored meal provider. These organizations have worked together with local and national partners to develop the evidence and policy base for integrating Food is Medicine interventions into health care delivery and financing 

“There has long been a need for a centralized, easily accessible database of Food is Medicine programs serving older people and their households,” explained Robert Greenwald, Faculty Director of CHLPI. “Such infrastructure will help facilitate referral partnerships and promote access to the funding needed to scale programs and meet the demand for services. This project is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic as we work to keep older adults – especially those with chronic illness — healthy at home and out of emergency rooms.”

Think Covid-19 Disrupted the Food Chain? Wait and See What Climate Change Will Do

This article was originally written by Georgina Gustin and published by Inside Climate News on July 7, 2020.

The pandemic has revealed deep flaws in the world’s food system and food leaders are calling for global coordination and climate resilient agriculture.

In the months since Covid-19 convulsed the globe, the world’s food system has undergone a stress test—and largely failed it.

The pandemic disrupted global supply chains, induced panic buying and cleared supermarket shelves. It left perfectly edible produce rotting in fields, and left farmers no choice but to gas, shoot and bury their livestock because slaughter plants were shut down. 

It also revealed a glaring problem: Though researchers have known for decades that climate change will roil farming and food systems, there exists no clear global strategy for building resilience and managing risks in the world’s food supply, nor a coherent way to tackle the challenge of feeding a growing global population, on a warming planet where food crises are projected to intensify.

“We need to make sure food is safe, nutritious and sustainable, not just for today but for the future,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. “There’s growing acknowledgement that this has been something that’s not been addressed in a coordinated way.”

Already, there are 820 million people in the world without adequate food, and Covid-19 is likely to push 130 million more to the brink of starvation, more than doubling that number to 265 million by the end of the year. Developing countries are not the only ones staring down a crisis: In June, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis said food insecurity has also risen substantially in the United States. 

“Hundreds of millions of lives are at stake,” said Michael Puma, director of the Center for Climate Systems Research at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “We don’t have a coordinated response to that, in the United States or globally. It’s a complete vacuum.”

But the coronavirus pandemic has also ushered in a rare opening for an overhaul. In the absence of leadership on climate resiliency—making agriculture and food production able to withstand and respond to erratic, shifting climatic conditions—advocacy groups, lawmakers and researchers are now mounting a range of new efforts aimed at the challenge. 

Late last month, an international group of food, farming and environment experts released a “blueprint” for making food production more resilient to both climate and non-climate shocks that calls for $320 billion in public and private funding to transform food systems.

“The disruptions caused by this terrible pandemic have at least awakened the world to the fact that our food systems are far more vulnerable than many realized,” said Bruce Campbell, a director with the group that crafted the blueprint. “Climate change is already compounding these problems, but the solutions we present—which seek bold transformations in everything from farming to trade, diets and government policies—offer an opportunity to pursue a much brighter future for people and our planet.”

The transformation that Campbell and others call for is ambitious and complex, encompassing a range of actions that include shifting to less carbon-intensive diets; providing incentives for farmers to use lower-emissions practices like less tillage; reducing food waste; preventing expansion of agricultural lands, particularly in the tropics; and helping farmers conserve soil through practices like planting carbon-storing crops in the off-season.

The United Nations is holding a first-of-its-kind “Food Systems Summit” next year—a “major opportunity to craft a well-organized global effort to address the many challenges facing our agricultural and food security systems,” a group of world leaders recently wrote to the United Nations and G20 nations.

And dozens of American food advocacy and farm groups are in the early stages of banding together to create an ambitious alternative to the Farm Bill—the massive, quadrennial legislation that directs U.S. food and agriculture policy. Their new version, they hope, will emphasize conservation methods rather than over-production of commodity crops.

“The coronavirus pandemic is exposing fundamental shortcomings in our food system, the role of people of color in our food system, the degree to which consolidation in agriculture has hobbled our ability to provide nutrition for everyone and a living wage for farmers,” said Eric Deeble, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which is part of the Farm Bill effort. “We’re at an inflection point. A lot of folks are trying to seize the moment.”

Contrasting Views of the Future 

Nearly 10 years ago, when Olivier de Schutter, then United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, used the term “agroecology” in a speech before the General Assembly, most of the members stared back at him, blank-faced and puzzled.

“At the time, the word agroecology was not widely understood by many governments,” De Schutter said, referring to the concept of farming with fewer pesticides, less fertilizer and a diversity of crops.

Over the next several years, though, that started to change. As a growing stack of reports and research began pointing toward the expanding carbon footprint of large-scale, industrialized agriculture, the United Nations began to incorporate some of agroecology’s ideas. In 2018 it published a guide to the principles of agroecology, saying “high-external input, resource-intensive agricultural systems have caused massive deforestation, water scarcities, biodiversity loss, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.”

The UN’s consideration of an alternative type of agriculture represented a significant shift for the influential global organization and the emergence into the mainstream of a competing view about how best to feed a growing population as climate change makes the job more challenging.  

It also amplified conflicts of opinion about whether it’s possible to feed 10 billion people without a highly mechanized, industrial approach.

“There is a very ideological debate about what the future of food systems should look like,” De Schutter said. “The fact is, these ideas are made even more credible by the Covid-19 crisis.”

There are three prevailing schools of thought on how those systems should take shape. 

One, in place for decades, depends heavily on trade and encourages countries to produce food in ways that maximize their particular agricultural advantages. Over the years, this has made more countries heavily dependent on imports to feed their populations and has led to the expansion of monocultures—like vast sweeps of wheat in Russia, endless seas of corn in the American Midwest and enormous swaths of soybeans in what was once pristine Amazon rainforest. 

A related approach calls for increased technologies, including large-scale irrigation, mechanization, pesticides and fertilizers, along with high-yielding seeds in more developing countries, particularly in Africa. Many see this as another technology-intensive “Green Revolution,” like the one that boosted global food production in the 1960s. 

And there’s a growing push to throw more support to smaller-scale farmers, working in regional food systems and producing a diversity of crops and livestock in line with agroecological principles.  These smaller farming systems, advocates say, are inherently less carbon-intensive because they use fewer “inputs” like chemical fertilizer. And they are more resilient because they produce more than one product and tend to use more soil-conservation practices that trap carbon in the soil. 

“There’s huge debate around this,” De Schutter said. “There are three quite contrasting views of the future.”

In May, the European Union weighed in on the debate with the publication of a sweeping report called Farm to Fork, in which the EU set targets for cutting fertilizer and pesticide use, and increasing organic production and diversity on agricultural lands. 

“Diversity is key. Under the current paradigm, we have an assembly-line approach to food,” said Lew Ziska, a plant physiologist and longtime Department of Agriculture researcher. “If the climate is copasetic, then everything works fine. But if you start seeing extreme events, then it becomes a problem. In the assembly-line approach, you have uniformity and if you have uniformity you have no capacity to respond to an outside threat. If you have a virus or a pathogen, you’re devastated.”

Tensions at the UN

Late last year, when the United Nations announced it would hold the Food Systems Summit sometime in 2021, food security and farmer advocacy groups welcomed the news.

Agriculture had largely been marginalized in global climate conversations. Now there would be a forum focused specifically on agriculture: its role in causing climate change, the toll climate change would take on food production and the promise farming holds for reversing the effects of climate change.

Most significant for advocacy groups, the summit would also present a chance to push for more inclusion and support for small-scale, diversified farming—an opportunity for the small players to be heard in a landscape usually dominated by big agricultural livestock, crop, seed and chemical companies.

After the last global food crisis in 2007 and 2008, the UN resurrected an essentially moribund group within the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), called the Committee on World Food Security, in response to a strong push from groups representing small-scale farmers. The group was designed to be the “most inclusive” platform working on food security.

The committee became the central organizing force within the UN for addressing food security and resilience—a welcome change for many food advocates and academics who felt the UN’s approach was scattered across departments.

But critics worry that the committee’s role in the upcoming food summit is now being overtaken by corporate interests, in part because a recently appointed special envoy to the summit, former Rwandan agriculture secretary Agnes Kalibata, was the former head of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Critics say the alliance, backed by the Gates Foundation, and the “Food Action Alliance“—a group made up of development organizations and Rabobank, the world’s leading agricultural bank—will advance the interest of global agricultural giants at the expense of the small farmers. 

“It’s the only global policy forum on food in which those constituents—the small farmers, small fishers—who are most directly concerned and who, incidentally, feed the world, are actually full participants,” said Nora McKeon, a food advocate who spent her career at the FAO and has written extensively on food security and governance. “The new alliance is a horrible corporate-led attack.”

Alliance members, however, say any effort to lead the world’s food system will need the participation of global financial institutions and corporate agri-business.

“Partners in the Food Action Alliance believe that fragmentation within the current food system represents the most significant hurdle to feeding a growing population nutritiously and sustainably,” said Sean de Cleene, a member of the executive committee of World Economic Forum, upon the announcement of the alliance. “We urgently need new business models and innovative partnerships to transform the way food is produced, supplied and consumed.”

As U.S. policy makers and advocacy groups gear up for the next Farm Bill, the same controversies will continue on this side of the Atlantic.

“There’s an enormous ideological divide in the U.S., as elsewhere, but in the U.S. in particular,” De Schutter said. “The international debate could be reflected in the U.S. in the next few years.”

Breaking Up the Power of Big Ag 

Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack remembers his early days leading the agency during the Obama administration and his growing awareness of the threats posed by climate change.

“There were a small number of people in the department when I got there who had been working on the issue of climate and understood the challenge, but were operating under the radar,” Vilsack said. 

After the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, the administration started to take action across agencies, including the Department of Agriculture. Vilsack implemented a number of climate-focused initiatives, including one to increase carbon stored in soils by 120-million-metric tons a year and a network of “climate hubs” at land-grant universities. The department’s research arm directed roughly one-fifth of its $656 million budget to climate change-specific research between 2009 and 2015 and supported 20,000 research papers that brought in $2.2 billion in funding.

The Trump administration has since sidelined climate research, potentially reversing years of progress. “It’s fair to say it’s probably not as elevated in the current administration,” Vilsack said.

But, he noted, building resilience to climate change and embracing soil conservation practices, such as planting off-season crops that capture carbon in the soil and tilling less to leave soil undisturbed, are catching on, even among larger, mainstream farming operations. Vilsack believes that the dichotomy—between big and small, global and regional, monocultural and diversified—represents a false choice. 

“You need both,” he said. “You need the facilities that can support a local and regional food system. They can be part of a local market as opposed to a global market that they can’t control.”

He added, “To me it’s a combination of the big guys looking at their own business plans  and government providing help for the development of local and regional systems.”

Critics point out that there’s an enduring history within the department of lopsided support for large-scale agriculture at the expense of small-scale farmers or conservation, and that the Trump administration has continued that pattern. 

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the industry’s largest lobbying group, has been historically resistant to the idea of requiring farmers to store carbon or reduce emissions—or even to climate change itself. But it does support a recent bill that would help farmers participate in carbon markets. 

And some large-scale monoculture, commodity crop farms and livestock operations have adopted practices aimed at reducing emissions. 

Still, the numbers of farmers using climate-friendly farming methods remains exceedingly low.

A coalition of around 30 farm, food justice and environmental advocacy groups is forming that will attempt to change this. Much of its focus will be on creating an alternative to the Farm Bill, which is set to be negotiated for 2023.

“The Farm Bill is a losing proposition for organizations seeking reform because it’s really about the status quo. The big corporations continue to hold sway,” said Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is involved in the effort. “We really need to figure out how to work together on the objective of breaking the power of the agribusiness monopolies.”

A ‘Moonshot’ Plan of Action

The chances of an alternative to the Farm Bill are slim, but the prospects for the groups’ policy proposals are significantly brighter if the November elections bring a change in administration. Joe Biden, who will almost certainly face off against Trump in the presidential election, issued a proposal last year that aims to make American agriculture carbon neutral and would expand soil conservation programs on farmland.

Last week, the Democrat House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis issued a “moonshot” action plan to combat climate change, including a substantial chapter on agriculture that calls for support for farmers to make their lands more resilient to the impacts of climate change. 

“America’s farmers and ranchers are critical partners in solving the climate crisis, as many agricultural practices can provide valuable climate and ecosystems benefits,” the committee wrote. “Congress should dramatically increase investments to support the efforts of America’s farmers and ranchers to employ climate stewardship practices.”

For the foreseeable future, though, the giants of the agriculture industry will continue to insist that only they have the technology and scope to feed the 10 billion people projected to inhabit the planet in 2050.   

The world’s small-scale farmers and the groups advocating for them will keep arguing that the industry’s approach consumes resources, crushes biodiversity, pollutes the environment and negates agriculture’s potential climate benefits, all the while producing crops and foods of diminishing variety and nutrition.

As the debate continues, a growing number of researchers say risks to the world’s food supply need to be better tracked and managed and that building resilience should be the job of a single agency or effort, rather than the diffuse, piecemeal approach that now exists.

By 2050, over half the world’s population could depend on food imported from other countries, and that could be extremely dangerous for food security, especially if governments decided to impose export restrictions to feed their own populations.

“You need to consider not just the risk that trade poses or climate poses, but trade and climate and economic factors—essentially all the things we know that form food security,” said Weston Anderson, an agro-climatologist with The Earth Institute at Columbia University. “That involves some form of leadership at a global level.”

Request for Proposals: Approaches to Reducing Consumption of Sugar

In 2018, the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC), with support from Arnold Ventures, launched an initiative to identify locally-supported policies that will reduce sugar consumption and build capacity for policy change. Now in the project’s third and final year, FLPC is seeking proposals from partners who will build upon FLPC’s expertise in food access and nutrition policy to advance sugar reduction policies in their respective communities.

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic represents our most immediate public health concern, but diet-related chronic diseases remain among the most severe and costly threats to our long-term health. Researchers have linked excess sugar consumption to obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related chronic diseases. Reducing population-level consumption of sugar is one of the most promising strategies for addressing these issues.

FLPC is offering pro bono technical assistance (TA) to community organizations, food policy councils, and local, state, and tribal government entities across the United States interested in implementing innovative sugar reduction policies.

This request for proposals (RFP) application will remain open until August 1, 2020. FLPC anticipates making two TA awards as a result of this RFP. TA grantees will be notified by August 20, 2020. Please contact flpc@law.harvard.edu with any questions.

Read the RFP.

How to Navigate Patient Privacy in Integrated Care: A Guide for Food Banks

Originally posted on Health Law Lab on July 1, 2020

The Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School (CHLPI), together with Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, has released Food Banks as Partners in Health Promotion: Navigating HIPAA,* a resource for food banks working together with health care entities while navigating federal patient privacy law.

Across the country, health care providers and payers are increasingly focused on the social determinants of health—conditions in the places where people live, work, and learn that affect their overall health but are not traditionally addressed in a doctor’s office. This trend has led to a growing number of effective collaborations between health care entities and social service organizations, including food banks working to address an important social determinant: access to food.

Food plays a key role in shaping health and wellbeing. Nutrition affects the onset, management, and outcome of many health conditions, including but not limited to: diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, obesity, and HIV. Recognition of the impact of food on health outcomes shines a spotlight on food banks as frontline organizations addressing food insecurity and supporting people in meeting nutritional needs. This point is further underscored by the critical role food banks have played during COVID-19.

By working together, food banks and health care entities can complement each other’s expertise with tangible benefits for patients, as proven through a number of studies on nutrition interventions in health care. However, operationalizing these partnerships can pose unique challenges as organizational leaders navigate complex health laws and policies.

Food Banks as Partners in Health Promotion: Navigating HIPAA is an in-depth and practical guide to help food banks (and health care providers and payers) build optimal, integrated systems that are compliant with HIPAA—the key source of federal requirements relating to patient privacy. The resource includes:

  • Approaches to structuring a partnership and information-sharing in compliance with HIPAA;
  • Tips on using HIPAA-compliant software;
  • Sample agreements to support partnerships; and
  • An overview of various HIPAA requirements.

As communities re-open following public health and safety efforts to control the coronavirus emergency and strategize around recovery, there is an unprecedented opportunity to envision a more holistic, just, and equitable health care system that addresses social determinants of health. This resource is here to help advance that vision.

HIPAA Resource Cover Page and Link

*In 2017, CHLPI and Feeding America published Food Banks as Partners in Health Promotion: How HIPAA and Concerns about Protecting Patient Information Affect Your Partnership. This document provides an overview of how HIPAA influences information-sharing between health care providers and food banks, and strategies for effective coordination and communication to keep health information safe. In this update, Feeding America and CHLPI highlight additional approaches to sharing information in compliance with HIPAA and respond to questions received—and lessons learned—from food banks that have put the guide into practice.

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