Food Justice in the Trump Age: Priorities for NYC Advocates
By Nevin Cohen, Nicholas Freudenberg and Janet Poppendieck, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute
Trump’s inauguration, coupled with Republican Congressional control, requires every constituency to analyze the threats to the gains of the last eight years. This is particularly urgent for New Yorkers involved in eliminating food insecurity and hunger, fighting malnutrition and health inequality, and ensuring a sustainable food system with good jobs. Anticipating efforts to undermine food justice enables advocates, researchers, and policy makers to choose priorities in our work and forge strategic partnerships. The following brief identifies three broad areas requiring attention.
Maintaining Federal Food Assistance
Federal food assistance programs are a crucial lifeline for New Yorkers and add roughly $20 billion to the NYC economy. Approximately 1.7 million receive SNAP; 1.1 million children consume 650,000 federally subsidized school lunches and 200,000 breakfasts daily; senior centers serve 7.5 million meals; and 4.5 million meals are delivered to homebound seniors and people with disabilities. Statewide more than half a million people participate in WIC, which provides nutritious foods for pregnant and lactating women, infants, and children. These are all at risk through the following mechanisms.
Block Granting Food Entitlement Programs
Block granting, in which states receive fixed allocations of federal funds and wide latitude to spend them, would end the entitlement status of SNAP and school meals. Both are currently funded so that all who qualify can participate with no waiting lists or caps; they expand along with needs, a policy that Republicans have tried to reverse since the Reagan administration. Block grants would allow states to restrict eligibility and require Congress to approve funding levels, putting the programs in the cost-cutting crosshairs. House Speaker Paul Ryan has already called for cutting SNAP by $23 billion. As a companion article illustrates, block granting welfare in the 1990s led to cutbacks, and SNAP and school food would likely suffer a similar fate. Countering these efforts must be a priority.
Decoupling SNAP from the Farm Bill
A second threat is the Republican Party’s desire to separate SNAP from the Farm Bill. Since the 1960s, food assistance was included in the farm bill to ensure rural support in exchange for urban lawmakers’ support for farmers, an alliance benefitting both constituencies. Separating SNAP and breaking the rural-urban link reduces political support and makes it an easier fiscal target, and should be opposed by food advocates.
Reversing School Food Progress
Republicans failed to agree on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) Act this session in large part because their chances of reversing the school food nutrition gains of the First Lady and Obama administration grew with Trump’s election. The failed legislation included pilot-testing a school food block grant, and without a veto threat after January, Congress may try to block grant the entire program. Congress is also likely to scale back the Community Eligibility Option (CEO), which permits schools with at least 40% of students “direct certified” for free school meals to feed all children for free, which reduces stigma for low-income students, increases participation in the lunch program, and cuts paperwork for schools. The House proposed raising the CEO threshold from 40% to 60%, which would remove this progressive option from hundreds of NYC schools. It is also likely that Congress will try to reverse recently improved nutrition standards for school food. New York City has its own more stringent standards, but while NYC schools are unlikely to return to deep fat fryers, weakening the federal standards will undermine efforts by NYC and other school districts to use purchasing power to get manufacturers to create healthier institutional food for schools and other government programs. New York’s advocacy community has been actively involved in CNR, and will need to redouble its efforts in the coming administration.
Inhibiting Immigrant Access
Trump’s proposals and campaign rhetoric have increased fears of entanglement with immigration officials, especially for those with undocumented family members. This will deter many immigrants, including those with appropriate documentation, from applying for federal food benefits like SNAP or free school lunch. (See recent Urban Food Policy Forum and policy brief on Immigrants and Food Access.) Anything dissuading the city’s 3 million foreign born residents from accessing food benefits will increase hunger, food insecurity, and malnourishment. Commitments by Mayor de Blasio and other cities to protect immigrants may quell fears, but efforts to reach out to immigrant communities will be critical to ensure their health and well-being.
Affordable Care Act Repeal
While public health activists are justifiably focusing on the loss of basic health care to New Yorkers if parts of the Affordable Care Act are repealed and Medicaid is cut, the effects on nutrition and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) will also be significant. The uninsured may not routinely receive preventive care to identify risks like excessive weight, high blood sugar, and other diet-related health effects. Fewer people will be treated for diseases like diabetes and heart disease, resulting in increased morbidity and mortality. These impacts will be borne disproportionately by communities of color that already suffer from excessive rates of diet-related diseases. Nutrition advocates now must also be ACA advocates.
Countering Industry Deregulation
Trump campaigned against food industry regulations, proposing at one point to cut the “FDA food police.” As President, Trump has substantial authority to affect food safety by appointing the commissioners of the following agencies:
- the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which ensures the safety of substances added to food, regulates food processing, packaging, and labeling, and prevents foodborne illness and sets rules for food contaminants;
- the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which inspects all meat, poultry, and egg products; and
- the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates advertising, including food advertising to children.
The effects of the president-elect’s plan to roll back food industry regulations -- what one observer described as “putting a fox in every hen house” -- will depend on the extent to which Congress pushes back. Further threats to regulation come from the President's opportunity to name a new Supreme Court Justice, with the potential of adding a new corporate-friendly voice to a Supreme Court that is already heavily tilted towards The stakes for New York City, where diet-related diseases are leading causes of death and principal drivers of health inequalities, are substantial.
The Obama Administration achieved modest improvements in creating a healthier food supply and Michele Obama pressured the food industry to change product formulations and marketing to children. Absent White House pressure, food advocates and state and local health departments will need to step up their efforts to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply. There is precedent for cities taking the lead: New York banned trans-fat, required calorie labeling, and recently imposed salt warnings on restaurant menus. Other cities have imposed taxes on sugary beverages to reduce their consumption. These successes illustrate the potential for advocates, allied with city and state officials, to advance local policies that eventually can influence national policies and shift the marketplace.
New York City is vulnerable to Trump’s interest in backing off from food safety regulation. Each year, thousands of New Yorkers become sick from contaminated food. While the City inspects restaurants and investigates food poisoning outbreaks, only enforcement of national and global food safety rules can prevent large foodborne disease outbreaks. By monitoring these outbreaks over the next four years, state and local health departments, university-based researchers and food safety advocates can assess the health effects of relaxed federal regulation and enforcement and demonstrate the need for stricter national monitoring and enforcement. State Attorneys General can step up if federal agencies step back. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman previously forced changes in the practices of the largely unregulated dietary supplement industry and the retailers who sell them. By joining forces with counterparts in other states, New York can pressure the food industry to change harmful production and marketing practices.
Since the great recession, food jobs are among the fastest growing segment of New York City’s economy, but most are in the low-wage fast food sector. Trump’s proposed Labor Secretary appointment of Andrew Puzder, fast-food restaurant CEO and outspoken opponent of increasing the minimum wage, suggests that the White House will oppose efforts to improve the status of food workers. Organized labor and worker rights advocates will need to be vigilant in the coming years to ensure that a wide range of labor standards are upheld and not reversed. A national movement, called Fight for Fifteen, has been successful at raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for fast food workers in New York and in other cities. New York and other cities have also adopted paid sick leave requirements and other policies and programs that benefit food (and other) workers, suggesting that for the foreseeable future, efforts to create good food jobs will remain at the state and local level.
Sustaining Regional Food Systems
Some predict that cuts to USDA under a Republican administration may be targeted at Obama administration efforts to help small and mid-size farmers, like “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” farm-to-school programs, and support for farmers markets and other direct marketing efforts. These cutbacks may make it more expensive for New York City to source regional produce for municipal programs and to sustain rural agricultural economies in its upstate watershed. But these reversals will be minor in comparison to the existential threat of Trump’s denial of climate change, his pledge to withdraw support from international climate treaties, and his plan to intensify fossil fuel production.
Trump’s nomination of Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, indicates that the White House will try to undo many environmental regulations and executive orders adopted by Obama. It is no coincidence that Pruitt has ties to coal and gas companies and led a legal challenge to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which requires states to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The adverse effects of climate change on regional food systems will be significant: climate change-induced variations in precipitation and temperature will disrupt regional agriculture, along with food prices; shifts in pest and weed populations due to warming may affect farm productivity and encourage the aggressive use of pesticides and herbicides, with potential harm to farmworkers and consumers.
The Trump administration’s likely unwillingness to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions will ultimately threaten coastal cities like New York, and, as Superstorm Sandy demonstrated, New York’s food system is particularly vulnerable. The risks include not only flooding of the Hunts Point food market but also damage to the electrical grid, transportation systems, and retail infrastructure that would disrupt the city’s food supply and leave its most vulnerable residents without access to adequate food and water. In response to Sandy, New York City prepared a report on food infrastructure vulnerabilities to plan the necessary investments to enable the food system to withstand increasingly frequent storms resulting from climate change. With a White House committed to increasing fossil fuel production – and thus carbon emissions -- these impacts will be much larger, putting the New York City food system at an even greater risk.
Trump’s consideration of Rick Perry to head the Energy Department and U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, an advocate for oil and gas development, to head Interior suggests the administration would carry through on its promise of dramatically expanding domestic energy production. In addition to the effects on climate, a more direct risk to food production will come from efforts to support hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) that have threatened groundwater in agricultural regions. Currently, New York State has banned fracking, but New York City depends on a national foodshed that includes agricultural areas that may be affected by increased fracking and pollution from expanded petrochemical production. Food advocates must ally with environmental advocates and state governments to keep political pressure on the Administration and Congress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, address climate change, and support the transition to renewable energy.
Strategies to Move Forward
Advocates concerned about the changes in Washington are considering several strategies. Some that deserve attention from those working to improve food in New York City are:
- Developing state level initiatives as foundations for national change four years from now. For example, a new alliance to protect and grow the New York regional foodshed could be a model for other regions.
- Mobilize local elected officials to stand up to Trump and fight for policies that protect New York City.
- Our senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are influential, and food activists should communicate what we expect from them and consider how to support them when they resist harmful changes.
- As noted above, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman could open new legal routes for reducing harmful food industry practices.
- On the issues of climate change and gun violence, mayors from around the nation have educated voters and other policy makers and articulated alternatives to conservative positions. Mayor Bill de Blasio has an opportunity to organize Mayors to defend SNAP and school food, expand immigrant access to food benefits, and develop other sound, healthy food policies for the nation’s cities.
- Develop new and deeper alliances with groups working on other related issues such as climate change, farmland protection, and living wages to increase the reach and power of those with a common agenda opposing the changes espoused by Trump and the Republican leadership. Finding unlikely allies in the private sector may open new policy possibilities.
- Document and speak out on the harm done by new policies that roll back food benefits, deregulate the food industry, or put food workers at risk. Tracking these changes will provide evidence to mobilize constituencies before extensive harm is done. This is our mission at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. We will continue to monitor changes in food policy to inform policy makers and advocates of benefits and harm, convene both the “usual suspects” and new constituencies to analyze and advocate for changes to improve food environments and nutritional health, and advance the core public health values that all people deserve access to healthy affordable food and the opportunity to achieve their full health potential. We welcome our readers’ suggestions and guidance on how to translate this mission into practice in the unfolding political environment.