Production-based incentives make it hard to get nutrition and food waste outcomes we want


At yesterday’s #Foodtank Summit, former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman invoked a line from the 1967 movie The Graduate, in which the father-in-law of Dustin Hoffman’s character counsels in hushed tones that, in a word, “plastics” are the secret sauce of the economy’s future.  Mr. Glickman then leaned over the mic and told the foodies and influencers in the room:  “Today, food and agriculture are the secret sauce”.

I have to agree.

Food is one of the primary drivers of the US economy (accounting for 12.6% of Americans’ household spending).
Food is at the root of Americans’ health.


And yet.

We are wasting food like never before ($40 billion worth a year).
And our citizens are undernourished like never before (“starved and stuffed”, as journalist Simran Sethi (@simransethi) called it).

What the heck?

After a day of listening to many of the country’s top influencers on topics ranging from protein in the diet to food waste to nutrition, a few of the dots began to connect:  while some of our country’s food policies once served us quite well, they don’t anymore.

Many years ago, our country developed a set of policies aimed at incentivizing production.  At the time, that was a good thing.  As poor immigrants arrived, the primary outcome needed from these policies was to get enough food to those who didn’t have it.  And as agriculture developed, government wanted to aid and abet the production of calorie dense commodity crops for that same reason.  They did so, and there have been many upsides to that policy.

But some of today’s problems are a clear byproduct of those production-based incentives.  Lots of food means food is cheap.  And cheap food has caused unintended consequences.

  • Cheap corn and sugar, in particular, have made it easy to make junk food with refined sugars.
  • Lots of cheap junk food finds its way disproportionately to people with the lowest incomes and accelerates diabetes.  (Thanks to grocers like Giant and Shoppers getting sheet cake and other junk food out of their donation steams, we are making headway on this issue. More on that soon.)
  • An overabundance of cheap food makes it easier to create food waste at every part of the production chain – particularly at the retail level.

I’m not suggesting that we work to make food more expensive.  But I am suggesting that we need to think through what we want and then work to incentivize that outcome.

Currently, we are working like mad to produce plentiful cheap food, and then working like mad not to waste it.  And we are clamoring for it to be more nutritious and less processed, while failing to realize that our policies have all been constructed to produce a result that is just the opposite. We have not connected the dots. And until we do, we will grapple with the ramifications – both on the health side (“stuffed and starved”) AND on the food waste side.

Simran Sethi (@simransethi) has rightly described agriculture as “a series of decisions about what to grow and not grow, and what to eat and not eat.”  At #Foodtank yesterday and today, the calls could be heard, loudly, for a recalibration of our current series of decisions to drive production not of ample cheap food, but of enough nutrient dense food.

At CAFB, we are among the voices calling for a change in our food system, and we’re voting with our feet and our forklifts.  With help from retailers “upstream”, and a careful eye on our inventory “downstream”, we’re building access to nutritious foods while finding ways to curb food waste.


We have much farther to go, and we can’t do it alone.

Join the movement.