Earlier this week, in a jarring and widely covered move, President Donald Trump's administration ordered science researchers in the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service to stop publishing news releases and public-facing documents like photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content, as reported by the Washington Post. This order was issued just days after Trump's inauguration and the nomination of former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue as Secretary of Agriculture, and in tandem with a similar clampdown on the EPA. (But as of Wednesday, the gag order for the USDA had been "lifted" after it became clear that the memo had been sent out by the ARS chief of staff and the department's leadership had not reviewed it.)
For many in the food policy and activism sphere, these swift measures, along with the thought of what else from the previous administration is at stake, have reverberated in a deeply unsettling way. I've gotten whiplash trying to follow everything over the past week, and in the back-and-forth I keep returning to something Danielle Nierenberg, President and Founder of Food Tank, a non-profit organization dedicated to pursuing food system change, said to me—a statement that seems all too obvious.
"Food and agriculture issues should not be politicized," Nierenberg put bluntly. "Republicans and Democrats should all agree on increasing access to more healthy and affordable foods, preventing food loss and food waste, and increasing incomes for farmers."
Though perhaps it should be, we all know it isn't that easy. While the folks I spoke to were not keen to try and divine the future without a confirmed Ag Secretary, there was a clear fear of repeals and stark changes to come for the USDA, a 100,000-employee-strong, $155 billion dollar agency, from regulating industrial animal operations to childhood nutrition policy to the Farm Bill's renegotiation happening in 2018-2019. Here are a few of the food initiatives that were put in place or furthered by the Obama Administration to keep an eye on as President Trump's ag policy takes shape:
Transparency in how the USDA handled agriculture and food issues was a central theme in the Obama Administration, even if it wasn't always achieved. The USDA Open Government Plan shows that the aim of Tom Vilsack, former Secretary of Agriculture, was to enhance transparency into the department's actions. If the last week is any indication, the Trump Administration has little regard for transparency, with the "gag" orders on USDA and EPA research, requesting the government website on climate change to be taken down (and then relenting), and the fact that there has been no conversation around the advancement of GMO labeling that was signed into law in July 2016 by Obama. The agricultural arm under the new administration's direction has several industry leaders worried about openness, Grub Street reports, many citing how Perdue's ties to Big Ag, his skepticism of climate change, and his penchant toward de-regulation will be detrimental in the position, even if, on paper, his skills and experience fit the bill. (For more about Perdue's background, read this brief primer from last week.)
School Meals, Let's Move!, and The White House Kitchen Garden
It's pretty safe to say that there are and will continue to be children in this country who will benefit from free lunches and nutrition/exercise education in schools in the coming years. The Obama administration put children's health front and center with First Lady Michelle Obama's initiative Let's Move!, focused on combatting childhood obesity, and the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. (It's worth noting that some legislators want to repeal the requirements of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act put forth by this act, claiming it increases food waste.)
Another initiative that's been exciting to see grow under the Obama Administration is the White House Kitchen Garden, not only because it symbolizes being close to the food you consume, but that it's quite literally about growing your own food—both things we're pretty into here at Food52. Trump has yet to choose a chef for the White House to succeed Cris Cumerford, so it remains to be seen if this beloved addition will continue to thrive under the new administration, or even survive.
"It's hard to predict how Trump will deal with some of the Obamas' innovative policies," says Brian Halweil, Editor-in-Chief of the New York City-area Edible magazine suite. "The Trump family seems to have some interest in family health, which argues for reinforcing and expanding Let's Move!, the White House Garden, and improved school lunches." But, he adds, the administration's cabinet picks around agriculture and health do not support that.
The SNAP Program, or Food Stamps
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps eligible, low-income people afford food. It's a nutrition assistance program that one must apply and interview for to receive an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card that be used as food stamps and, in some cases, can be used at ATMs to withdrawal cash if the recipient qualifies. (If someone doesn't qualify for cash benefits, the card cannot be used to take cash out from ATMs.) While sometimes controversial—some news reports will have you think food stamps are all spent on soda—a report from the White House Council of Economic Advisors in 2015 shows otherwise, as Mother Jones reported:
SNAP benefits lifted at least 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2014—including 2.1 million children. SNAP also lifted more than 1.3 million children out of deep poverty, or above half of the poverty line (for example, $11,925 for a family of four).
"Food stamps keep so many families out of poverty," Nierenberg explained, citing that, to her, one of the best things that has happened over the past 8 years is that families can now use them at farmers markets, increasing access to affordable, healthy foods. But she also pointed out that this was not all of the government's doing—it required a lot of hard work from activists, advocates, research organizations, and even celebrity chefs. "I think that work will go on without that government support," she said. But, she added, if funding is cut (as the GOP has been aiming to do for months), there will be a lot of unhappy families—and children, who make up two-thirds of households who use SNAP, who will have to struggle.
The Obamas and Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack made it clear early on that they were interested in understanding the regulatory landscape of industrialized agriculture across America (this press release, from 2010, details that series of workshops). What they found was a lot of abuse of small farmers (Michael Pollan recounts some of that in the New York Times Magazine from October 2016) and in response, enacted a strong regulatory landscape against Big Ag to protect them. Pollan does goes on to describe some disappointments from the administration—which was echoed by some industry players on our site last year—but he concludes by saying the Obamas do deserve credit for celebrating what he calls "Little Food."
The nomination of Perdue, who has strong ties to the industry he may soon be in charge of, hints at the possibility of many Obama-era regulations being rolled back. Critics point to the fact that he sold fertilizer before becoming a politician, has accepted campaign donations from agribusinesses, and grew commodity farming (vs. small farms) while decreasing farms overall in Georgia during his governorship. In addition, Halweil explained that there was talk of making a woman and/or a Latino the Secretary of Agriculture—and what we got was an extremely conventional, traditional pick instead. "Trump's America First rhetoric would argue for supporting our farmers and encouraging local and regional food systems, but I don't see any evidence or interest of that in their staff picks or campaign goals," he said.
Are there food policies or initiatives that have affected you, positively or negatively, from the Obama Administration? Is there anything you'd like to see discontinued, or championed, by the new President? Tell us in the comments below.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card can be used at ATMs, but withdrawing cash from ATMs can only be done if the the recipient qualifies for cash benefits.