The Dangers of a Fragile Food System

Last week marked the end to a 16-day shutdown of the United States government. Federal agencies are now operating again after thousands of employees, deemed "nonessential" by Congress, were sent home without pay. While the turmoil of recent weeks has passed for the time being, the fact remains that some of these "nonessential" employees include those that provide vital services that safeguard our public health, national food economy, and keep at-risk citizens out of hunger. Facing the suspension of these services, the American public felt less safe about its food, farmers experienced greater economic anxiety, and furloughed employees faced an inability to reliably obtain something to eat. Together these issues underscore the fact that our existing food system, in which the majority of Americans have and expect dependable access to healthy food, can be easily disrupted by political insensibility. We must get our priorities straight and stabilize our food system in order to ensure that in the future we do not suffer the same consequences.

During the shutdown, the diminished capacity of the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A) and the Center for Disease Control (C.D.C) caused Americans to distrust the quality of their food. A recent salmonella outbreak has garnered large media attention specifically because it occurred as employees were furloughed. The F.D.A sent home close to 45 percent of its staff while the C.D.C sent home 68 percent of its employees. The F.D.A inspects and regulates food processors to make sure that both the majority of domestic and imported food items are "safe, wholesome, sanitary, and properly labeled," ordering recalls if they believe it is in the public interest. The C.D.C advises state health agencies about how to effectively deal with outbreaks of foodborne illness, such as listeria and E.coli, by identifying the type of pathogen, notifying the public if there is an outbreak, and tracking the source. Without these organizations working at full capacity, the consequences are frightening because we expose ourselves to a new cluster of foodborne disease every two days. Additionally, the F.D.A collaborates with states and private industry to help protect the nation's food supply from terrorist threats as a matter of homeland security. The case is made that these agencies and their employees keep us safe every day and are very much "essential."

While the F.D.A and the C.D.C are focused on food safety and disease prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A) supports the farmer who provides us with foodstuffs. As a result of the government shutdown, the U.S.D.A could not give farmers the typical assistance they require to stay economically competitive. The World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates Report, a U.S D.A. production, was postponed during the shutdown and the delivery of that report has been canceled altogether. Traders and commodities brokers routinely use this document--which includes information on the world supply and demand of crops like corn and wheat--to set prices for these items. Without this knowledge and as a result of an irrational market place, farmers suffer because they cannot price their goods or plan production sensibly. Much is uncertain at the moment for farmers due to the effects of the government shutdown. We must give American farmers the information they need to thrive and economically succeed in order to maintain our national food supply.

Many Americans were forced to recalculate their ability to purchase healthy food during the shutdown which highlights the need for food security. Most notably, the furloughed workers themselves were those most directly affected by a nonfunctioning government. Lacking a stable paycheck, many of these federal employees, numbering approximately 800,000 at the beginning of the shutdown period, had to fund their next meal without the usual support. While the government went back to work last week, the fact remains that approximately 47 million Americans live this experience each day and are dependent on food stamps to eat. As a 2009 stimulus boost for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal assistance program that funds food stamps, runs out on November 1, the difficulties for America's food insecure will increase. SNAP recipients will receive an average of $1.40 per meal, hardly enough to fund consistently healthy diets. The health of the country will deteriorate as a result and we are losing precious time to change this course.

We need to look at these effects of the government shutdown and understand that our food system remains fragile. The work of the F.D.A, C.D.C. and U.S.D.A should not be considered secondary in importance through the eyes of the federal government. Each of these agencies keeps our country's food system intact in ways that many of us do not realize. Even more striking about the government shutdown is that without a functioning government, valuable time was lost to pass legislation to maintain the level of funding adequate to feed our nation's hungriest citizens. We cannot allow political squabbles to obstruct the actions necessary to help address our already pressing food issues. With the government currently funded through January 15, 2014, we must consider these employees and their services "essential" in the event that history repeats itself in a few months' time.