Presidential Politics to Sink Your Teeth into

Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York Magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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Foodies. It’s an awful word: precious, infantilizing and usually hurled derisively at people who care more about heritage pork than pork-barrel spending. But a new poll suggests that food is a top concern for a majority of Americans, most of whom (thankfully) would never call themselves foodies: Eighty-one percent of voters are very concerned that one-third of children are on track to develop type 2 diabetes, and 69 percent are very concerned that children today are expected to live shorter lives than their parents. A majority—53 percent—said that too many Americans can’t afford healthy food, and better food policy is needed to ensure that everyone has access to nutritious food.

Research in hand, a coalition including Food Policy Action, Union of Concerned Scientists and HEAL Food Alliance launched a campaign called “Plate of the Union” with the goal of putting food policy on the presidential agenda in 2016. “We know now, without a doubt, that people care about this issue,” Tom Colicchio, chef and co-founder of Food Policy Action, said last month at the New York Times Food for Tomorrow conference at Stone Barns Center. “We want candidates running for president to talk about the broken food system, to delve into it and come up with policies that work.”

The “ask” surprised me. It seems unlikely—no, impossible—that the subject of food access or subsidizing fruits and vegetables could sideline the endless debates over granting asylum to Syrian refugees or Donald Trump’s hair. Instead, as I’ve long argued, food-reform advocates are more successful when they start small and stay focused. To wit: In 2010, a coalition of chefs, nutritionists and educators successfully overhauled the nutrition standards for the $21 billion spent annually on school food. (This year, that same network is fighting Republican plans to roll back the changes. Last month, 55 chefs from 40 states descended on Capitol Hill to plead the case.) In 2014, an alliance of farmers and public-health advocates persuaded Congress to allocate $100 million to incentivize food-stamp recipients to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. (Disclosure: I do contract work for the nonprofit Wholesome Wave, a proponent of fresh-food incentives.)

Does a presidential food campaign make sense?

To find out, I called up Food Policy Action Executive Director Claire DiMattina. She is no political naïf. Before joining FPA, DiMattina worked for nine years on food and agriculture issues on the Hill, including a five-year stint as legislative director for Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Congress’s most vocal supporter of sustainable agriculture. In partnership with the Environmental Working Group, FPA created a National Food Policy Scorecard that holds lawmakers accountable for their votes on food and farm issues. (The 2015 scorecard was just released.) Last year, it targeted Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) for his votes to roll back funding for healthy food initiatives and against food-safety measures designed to keep E.coli and pesticides out of food. Southerland was one of only two incumbents to lose his seat in the midterms.

“Politicians will pay attention to this because we can show that being good on these issues is good politics,” DiMattina told me.

A deeper dive into the research suggests she might be right. Although food issues polled extremely high among all likely voters, they tested even higher among white, suburban women—and white, suburban women often decide elections. According to the FPA poll:

  • 92 percent of white, suburban women are very concerned about children developing type 2 diabetes, and 70 percent are very concerned that today’s children are expected to live shorter lives than their parents.
  • 90 percent are concerned that although the federal government recommends that half our plates be fruits and vegetables, less than 1 percent of farm subsidies go toward their production.
  • 82 percent are concerned that five of the eight worst-paying jobs in America are in the food system.
  • 77 percent favor government incentives to encourage sustainable farming.

Numbers this high make pollsters salivate. “This shows that food is shifting from a policy issue to a core value,” says Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research, the Democratic polling firm that conducted the poll. “You only get those kinds of numbers when you ask people whether they agree that we should protect our children or if America is the land of the free.”

If pollsters get excited, so, in theory, will the candidates. “Hillary and Bernie, they’re looking for good domestic policy issues,” DiMattina says. Already, she has had a “positive response” from one Democratic contender. No interest yet from any Republicans. 

But then, there’s time. There are 12 months before election day—12 long months before we discover whether 2016 will be the year that redefines what it means to be a “foodie” and, perhaps, America’s food system, too.