Has anyone every told you our food system works well? If so, simply respond to them that a system which produces widespread hunger and obesity, wastage of up to 40%, deplorable conditions, low wages for food service workers, and environmental degradation, is broken.

The government's current system is also incredibly fragile to oil prices, drought, and economic conditions. Poor people and people of color suffer disproportionately, as they are more likely to live in food deserts – neighborhoods with more fast food restaurants and fewer fruits and vegetables. In turn, they are highly vulnerable to obesity and other diet-related diseases. 

Over the last few decades, community organizations and grassroots movements have stepped up to the plate to improve local food systems and economies. They're not waiting for the government to figure it out. These organizations are recognizing the power in growing and cooking their own food, and in educating others to feel empowered to do the same. 

beer, coffee, tea
Camryn Hellwarth

With our current crisis, however, these bottom-up actions, although impactful, are not enough. Sustainable food systems are not even a topic of conversation among political candidates and officials. Anything beyond incremental change needs government support. As Will Allen, CEO of Growing Power, said, we need to stop subsidizing wealth and start subsidizing health

I'm a proponent of financial incentives. Food and nutrition education doesn't go far enough if McDonald’s can feed a family of five for under $10. The average American will only choose a plant-based diet over fast food and hyper-processed snacks if it is economical. Here are six examples of incentivizing policies that can be passed by federal, state, and local governments.

1. Subsidize fruits, vegetables, nuts, and sustainably produced meat.

These products need to be made more affordable for consumers. Taxpayers are already funding agriculture, so that money just needs to be redirected and redistributed.

2. Terminate subsidies to big agribusiness and food corporations.

Kasey Wien

Our largest farm subsidies should not be going to the largest growers, especially when they produce unsustainable and inedible crops for fuel and animal feed, rather than to nourish our citizens. Corn and soy monocultures degrade landscapes and produce raw materials that become unrecognizable when they end up as additives in fast food and nearly every item on the supermarket shelf. 

3. Incentivize consumers to purchase affordable produce.

Programs that make fresh produce more affordable need to be expanded. For example, for every $10 that SNAP participants spend on local Double Up Food Bucks, they get an additional $10 toward their local produce at participating grocery stores and farmers' markets. More programs would encourage consumption of healthy produce from local producers.

4. Raise taxes on the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods.

There are already existing soda taxes, but they should be expanded to include other low nutrient, high calorie foods. This policy would be doubly beneficial if the tax money is then used toward nutrition education, urban gardening, and other educational programs.

5. Discount imperfect produce.

Produce that is too small, large, or wonky-shaped at is almost always thrown away, causing huge food waste. Producers can profit from produce that would otherwise be a total loss; supermarkets or farmers’ markets should then sell it at a discount. This change would fight food waste and make produce more affordable. First, however, there needs to be a shift in consumer preferences toward imperfect produce.

6. Pass zoning laws that encourage urban gardens.

This would be especially essential in food deserts and areas with low-income and minority populations. The ability to grow food is exceptionally empowering and allows people to taste fresh produce, gain confidence and a sense of responsibility, and circumvent the food industry to nourish themselves.

Our current food system is dangerous, and we cannot accept apathy from our governments any longer. Everyone eats, but some are eating far worse than others because of systemic issues with our food system, resulting in social, environmental, and public health degradation. While bottom-up action has increased food sovereignty for many communities, the system cannot be transformed without government action.