Congress can address food access, public health, and the economy with these food laws and policies recommended for the next congressional stimulus package.
Today, the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) released policy recommendations to address major food system issues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The recommendations were published as Congress debates a fourth stimulus package to curb the mounting food, health, and economic crises.
Despite the enactment of three stimulus bills since the pandemic began, support for the food system remains inadequate. Food supply chains for the hospitality sector have dried up and some avenues of processing and distribution have slowed due to closures from illness and social distancing rules. As a result, many producers are unable to sell their products. This trend contributes heavily toward food waste, even though this food could instead support emergency food assistance programs (e.g., food banks). At the same time, estimates are showing that up to 38% of people in the U.S. could be food insecure due to the pandemic, up from 11% in 2019. FLPC’s food policy recommendations outline opportunities to address gaps in the federal government’s response to the crisis, and leverage funds that Congress has already appropriated to meet the needs of food producers, workers, and consumers. The broad policy categories of FLPC’s recommendations include:
- Increase SNAP Benefits, Expand Online SNAP, and Ensure Online Expenditures Support Small Vendors. SNAP is the nation’s largest food assistance program. In addition to providing dollars for food insecure individuals, every $1 in SNAP benefits creates a $1.79 economic return in the community. FLPC recommends that Congress increase SNAP benefits to help the growing number of families in need and better support the economy. Congress should also support the roll out of online SNAP in all states and ensure that small vendors can benefit from online SNAP redemption.
- Increase WIC Benefits and Make Them More Accessible. WIC reduces food insecurity, alleviates poverty, supports economic stability, and improves health outcomes for women and children. FLPC’s policy recommendations suggest that the program could be even more effective with increased funding, a rollout of online benefits redemption, and additional flexibility in WIC food packages.
- Increase Support for School Meals and Boost Direct Sales Opportunities that Benefit Farmers. FLPC recommends several policies to ensure students have access to the food they need during the pandemic. Solutions include increasing reimbursement rates for school meal providers to account for increased transportation and administrative costs, expanding and increasing food benefits (P-EBT) to reimburse families for the cost of school breakfast and lunch, and supporting more school purchases from local and regional farmers.
- Incentivize Increased Food Donation for Surplus Food That Would Otherwise Go to Waste. An estimated 63 million tons of food goes to waste in the U.S. each year. Building more flexibility into existing tax incentives and liability protections for food donations could ensure that more safe, wholesome food that cannot get sold is donated to those in need.
- Increase Support for Food Producers Who Have Lost Markets, with a Focus on Small-Scale and Direct Market Producers. Congress should provide additional funding to enable small-scale farmers and local and regional food producers to develop online sales portals, and to connect surplus food to emergency food organizations. These solutions put money in the hands of producers whose markets have evaporated while helping to alleviate food insecurity.
- Support and Protect Essential Workers Throughout the Food System. The COVID-19 crisis has shown what many working in food policy already know: that those working in the fields, food processing plants, and grocery stores are “essential workers.” Robust national support is needed to ensure the health and safety and economic security of workers throughout the food system.
- Expand Coverage for the Health Care System to Better Support Nutrition and Improved Dietary Quality. COVID-19 has underscored the crucial connection between food and health. FLPC outlines policy opportunities to support the integration of nutrition services in the health care system, including requiring Medicare and Medicaid to cover nutrition interventions.
- Develop a U.S. National Food Strategy to Better Coordinate and Set Priorities Across the Food System. COVID-19 has shed light on our fractured food system. At the federal level, more than 15 different U.S. agencies have authority over aspects of food system safety and supports. The U.S. could develop a coordinated federal approach to food and agricultural law and policy that prioritizes, coordinates, and charts a course for long-term food system development for COVID-19 and beyond.
“Through the past three stimulus bills, Congress and federal agencies have demonstrated that they support food producers and vulnerable individuals impacted during this time of growing economic strain and food insecurity,” said Professor Emily Broad Leib, Faculty Director of FLPC and Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. “However, several gaps remain in the federal government’s response. We implore policymakers and government officials to consider our policy recommendations as critical solutions to keeping people safe, healthy, and nourished during this unprecedented crisis.”
FLPC’s food policy recommendations are available at: https://www.chlpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/FLPC-Policies-v4.pdf.