Mark's Food Policy Blog

Finding Solutions to Today's Food System Challenges

Mobbing the Issue (and More)

I’m sharing two brief excerpts below from Stand Together or Starve Alone: Unity and Chaos in the U.S. Food Movement to give you a peek into what my third book has to offer. Just a reminder, you have until March 31st to purchase Stand Together directly from the publisher. Go to  and add to your cart. Be sure to enter Promo Code: Q11820 to receive your 20% discount. And of course there’s always Amazon.

Mobbing the Issue

In a phenomenon that I call “mobbing the issue,” foundations, other well-intentioned donors, and social entrepreneurs are stampeding to food waste (as they have to other issues in the past). I first observed this herd-like behavior, when I, like thousands of parents, put in my time as an assistant soccer coach. About the only thing that we amateurs hoped to teach our 10-year-old children was to spread out and play their positions. Short of nailing their little feet to the turf, however, there was virtually nothing we could do to keep them from “mobbing” the ball. The result was a giant, 44-legged insect crawling up and down the field pursuing the ball until by some freak of nature, it landed in one team’s net.

Over the course of my career, I’ve always been fascinated by how the interest in certain food issues suddenly soars to stratospheric heights as it has with food waste. Given that Americans supposedly do not consume at least 30 percent of the food that is produced in our food system—losing it along a food chain that stretches from non-harvested field crops to household plate waste—multiple spotlights have been turned on the issue. Presumably this is because food waste has the potential of addressing multiple problems, among them reducing greenhouse gas emissions, feeding the hungry, and responding to American’s innate sense of frugality.

While the issue has merit, it’s hard to make a convincing case as to why it should suddenly rise to the top of the play charts. Ferd Hoefner, the former policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), a Washington-based food and farm advocacy group, told me in July 2016 that every major national environmental organization, for example, the Natural Resource Defense Council, have multiple staff (and sometimes whole divisions) working on the food waste issue. “There are so many more important issues than food waste that are under-resourced now,” said Hoefner, who is a 25-year-old veteran of national food and farm policy.

A 2015 Chronicle of Philanthropy article (Stiffman, November 18) identified food insecurity, obesity, and food waste as the top three food issues among funders. In spite of the fact that the nation’s 206 very large food banks and the 60,000-plus soup kitchens and food pantries have refined the art of receiving and redistributing hundreds of millions of tons of uneaten food every year—from farm field gleaners to tractor-trailer loads of unsaleable processed food to restaurant and cafeteria food recovery programs—there seems to be a new-found urgency to make food waste a the national food issue. If there was more than anecdotal evidence that more robust food waste reduction efforts would significantly reduce hunger, then perhaps the emphasis is warranted. But as we know, domestic food insecurity has remained at high rates even though the food banking system has grown larger and more highly efficient over the past 20 years.

Until there is a process by which funders, policy leaders, academics, and organization directors can rationally evaluate needs and coordinate appropriate responses—preferably within a food system’s and collective impact context—“mobbing the issue” will remain a problem.

The Dietary Guidelines: An Opportunity to Forge Unity

At the national level, food advocates have been struggling for two decades to join agriculture, environmental and climate, food security, and human health issues into one “joined-up” national food policy, most likely through the “Farm Bill.” While the realization of that goal could be years away, a glimmer of hope came during the spring of 2015 (and faded shortly thereafter) through another national policy moment, which is the five-year update of the nation’s Dietary Guidelines. Among its many progressive and insightful recommendations, the expert government panel stated, “Meeting current and future food needs will depend on two concurrent approaches: altering individual and population dietary choices and patterns and developing agricultural and production practices that reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources . . .” (Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, 2015). In other words, eat like your life and the life of the planet depend on it.

Additional recommendations addressed household food security and access to healthy and affordable food in so-called food deserts. Nothing this far-reaching in the annals of national food policy had ever been uttered before. But science can run into a brick wall when the truth it reveals threatens to gore another’s ox. That was the unfortunate outcome when the panel of 15 health and nutrition experts, assembled at the behest of the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, presented its recommendations. The final guidelines, however, are approved and issued by the Secretaries, not the panel. They are the nation’s most important health promotion tool since they constitute “official” advice for ordinary citizens on what and what not to eat. Just as important, they strongly influence food regulations and education related to all federal nutrition programs such as Women, Infant, and Children Program (WIC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and school meals (Department of Health and Human Services, 2015).

In the 2015 process, it became clear that politics had as much sway as science. As reported in Time (Heid, 2016), various food industry groups, especially those that represent livestock and meat, were able to dilute the  recommendations that advised Americans to eat less meat. Again, these recommendations argued that more plant-based food and less meat consumption would reduce carbon emissions and conserve water, therefore benefiting the environment. Determining that sustainability—and agriculture’s impact on climate change as well—was outside the scope of the panel’s work, the Secretaries ruled that any discussion of the connections between food choices and their impact on the environment were out of bounds.

But don’t give up hope. There are reasons to believe that the guidelines present a serious opportunity to promote food movement unity, and that a publicly transparent, evidence-based process can override self-interested industry groups. Over 30,000 people and organizations provided official comment on the recommendations, about 10 times more than for the 2010 version (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2015, personal communication with Angie Tagtow). While many of those comments opposed the more far-reaching recommendations (e.g. the meat and sugar industries), there was more participation from every segment of the food movement than at any other time in recent memory. This was a rare moment of unplanned unity achieved through what, at least at the scientific level, was a powerful consensus about the validity of the food system connections. Though the results were not most people wanted once filtered through the political screen, the Dietary Guidelines give future food movement activists much to build on and common ground to till.






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