Vilsack: Ending food and nutrition insecurity for Americans is top of post-pandemic list at USDA

There are currently 43 million Americans receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program help, according to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Before the pandemic it was a serious concern, and in the recovery it’s going to be top of the list for President Joe Biden’s administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get America’s food system ready to quickly deploy help when, where, and how it’s needed.

Vilsack spoke to the National Press Foundation about hunger in America during a webinar March 3. He said there are four key areas where USDA can focus its efforts to address food and nutrition insecurity in the nation.

First, Vilsack said, we need to modernize the nutrition and food security system and the assistance program. If the pandemic shined a light on anything in regard to hunger, its that Americans have difficulty just understanding what program assistance is available in their states. Work remains in states to make sure they have the assistance to educate the public about the benefits available so that assistance goes to those in need.

Next, Vilsack said it’s time the department worked to expand where benefits can be used, saying that in remote rural areas, or even in urban centers, it’s difficult to use the programs under existing rules. Not everyone is able to get to a large box store chain to use the programs.

Consumer education is also critical, and Vilsack said that tools like “My Plate” are just one way to reach out to Americans and help them make healthier food choices so they can take charge of their own health and welfare.

“But a much larger problem than food insecurity is nutrition insecurity,” he added. Forty percent of Americans have two or more chronic diseases and the country spends $160 billion through Medicare and Medicaid on diabetes treatment alone. That’s significantly more than the entire budget for USDA, Vilsack said.

Additionally, Vilsack mentioned that there is major concern about the significantly high rate of obesity among American children. On a purely national security level, military commanders are concerned about recruitment for our all-volunteer military, he added.

Finally, an important lesson that was learned the hard way during the pandemic was that there is a great need for the country’s food system to be able to transition more quickly. Pre-pandemic, 50% of food in America was consumed outside of the home through the food service sector, Vilsack explained. That sector relies on larger bulk packaging of food ingredients for restaurants and cafeterias.

However, during the pandemic, food manufacturers and suppliers couldn’t shift those food service lines into retail lines fast enough to keep up with the overnight demand in retail stores from folks who were having to shelter at home. And there was a heavy demand on food banks and pantries to carry more of the food assistance burden than ever before as millions of Americans found themselves laid off and needing assistance. Vilsack said he’s directing the USDA staff to investigate just what happened and come up with solutions to address the issues that came to light.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at [email protected].