Notable Food Policy in the 117th United States Congress
Building a robust coalition of stakeholders is an essential component of food advocacy in the United States. Coalition members may not align on every issue, but they can be a powerful force for change if organizers can be inventive with empowering a diverse range of stakeholders.
Be it food waste or immigration, 2022 brought about several important policy reforms that are relevant to food systems and food justice discourse.
The Food Donation Improvement Act (FDIA), if signed into law by President Biden, will build on the legacy of the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (1996) to extend liability protections for businesses to donate surplus food items.
Among other faults, the Good Samaritan Act was never challenged in a court leading to doubts over the effectiveness of its provisions. If the Act was challenged, then a ruling would build judicial precedent– either to strengthen or weaken its provisions. Since this did not transpire, the liability protection is weak because it was never legally tested.
Fast forward to 2022 with its passage in both the House and the Senate, FDIA will clarify language such as “with good intent” in order to minimize civil and criminal suits in regard to food donations from individuals and organizations alike. Schools and restaurants are required by law to go through food safety training, so why should they not be allowed to donate their portion of the nearly 40 million tons of food that goes to landfills on average each year?
By expanding who is allowed to donate food to retailers and schools (among other actors), this will minimize the roughly $408 billion in food waste costs while maximizing access to those with food and nutritional insecurity. Keep in mind that 56% of annual American food waste comes from restaurants, grocery stores, farmers, and food service companies.
These actors include farmers, restaurants, food distributors, retailers, schools, and other businesses that are fearful of legal liability in the event that the food they donate is spoiled. This bill would encourage direct donations to the roughly 34 million Americans facing food insecurity.
This type of legislation is important to realizing a less wasteful food supply chain, but I cannot help but wonder if it would be as successful if it was not for the lobbying power that comes with partnerships such as Weight Watchers, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic.
I do not believe this undermines the validity of this legislation. In fact, it could pose a call to action for grassroots activists to build broader coalitions–on a policy-by-policy basis–with those that are more likely to have the ear of policymakers. Whether one frames advocacy as grassroots activism (raising awareness for reform) or citizen lobbying (proposing policy change), it is interesting to think about coalition members in terms of who benefits from the status quo and who benefits from systems change.
This dichotomy of status quo versus disruption is flipped on its head when the discourse moves from issues of economics such as food waste towards human and legal rights such as farm worker labor reform.
Food Systems & Immigration
While the fate of FDIA looks to be favorable, the terrain for food justice is a mixed bag.
Food advocacy is complicated in the United States because our food system is built upon separation of production and consumption. In other words, many Americans do not see the human cost of farm laborers when shopping at the grocery store.
Case in point, the US Labor Department points out that roughly 49% of agricultural workers in the United States are undocumented immigrants with minimal workforce standards and worker rights compared to other industries and American citizens within the agricultural industry. When you include immigrants that hold legal status, through green cards or permanent residents, the total percentage of farmworkers jumps up to 73% of the total workforce. These numbers may be underestimated given the insecurity of migrants; specifically undocumented migrant workers' living and working situation is heavily controlled by their employers, as I will discuss further below.
In spite of this, there is unruly sentiment in swathes over the US–like many Western countries–that vilify immigration. There are food systems policy reforms that could lead to more just immigration laws. Take the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, or FWMA, which passed the 117th Congress in the House of Representatives.
FWMA would reform the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program so that undocumented farmworkers can apply for Certified Agricultural Worker Status for those who have worked in agriculture for 180 days in the past two years prior to the application. This status would be a form of temporary legal citizenship that could be perpetually renewed every five years as long as applicants can prove that they work on farms at least 100 days out of the year.
Given the political landscape and the recent Supreme Court ruling that the COVID-era Title 42 must remain in place, immigration politics in the United States continues to be a divisive area of public policy. This tension manifests in a compromise version of FWMA in the Senate called The Affordable and Secure Food Act (ASFA). ASFA would lead to a path for citizenship after 10 years of work, as well as make the visas last one year at a time rather than every five years like the House-passed version.
These two policies underscore how politically charged the issue of immigration continues to be in this country, even in the context of ensuring legal status for undocumented farmworkers that do just as much–if not more–to secure American food supply than its own citizens.
The State of California, meanwhile, is taking charge in improving legal rights for migrant farmworkers with the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act. This policy expands union rights for agricultural workers in the state so that they can vote for or against union representation via mail-in ballot, among other improvements that would make unionization efforts more accessible and minimize threats of intimidation that come with in-person voting.
This policy reform would not have been possible without the months-long farmworker march organized by United Farm Workers and amplified by food justice influencers such as @flowerinspanish. For months thousands of farmworkers marched 355 miles across numerous towns, where they ultimately demonstrated in front of the state capitol to pressure Governor Gavin Newsom into signing the bill into law.
Alongside students of all ages, non-agricultural unions (e.g. Teamsters), nonprofits, neighbors, and other California residents, the public made the passage of labor legislation possible.
Even though the public may feel disempowered from getting involved in politics, the 117th Congress proves that policy reform is possible through grassroots mobilization of numerous stakeholders, including directly impacted communities. Be it agricultural labor reform in California or food donation liability protections for businesses, change can happen through top-down and bottom-up movements.