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Food System Primer

Food Policy


Farm Bill Budget

U.S. Farm Bill budget, 2014.

The Farm Bill is arguably the most influential piece of legislation on the U.S. food system. Renewed every five years or so, the bill shapes federal involvement in numerous roles, including providing nutrition assistance to low-income families, insuring farmers against crop loss (e.g., from pest outbreaks or unpredictable weather), and incentivizing farmers to conserve soil and wetlands.

Data source: U.S. Congressional Budget Office.2

Click images for captions

The policies of local, state, and federal governments determine, to a considerable degree, how we farm and what we eat. Ideally, these policies would help ensure that all people have access to safe, affordable, healthy food; protect our air, water, and land; support the farmers and workers who put food on our tables; and uphold rigorous standards for the welfare of animals used for food. Where these policies fall short, there are opportunities for change. The following is a brief exploration of how selected U.S. federal policies address (or fail to address) several key areas, followed by a discussion of how citizens can get involved to create positive food system change.

If you eat, pay taxes, care about the nutritional value of school lunches, worry about the plight of biodiversity or the loss of farmland … you have a personal stake in the tens of billions of dollars annually committed to agricultural food policies.1

– Dan Imhoff

Supporting farmers

Depression Farm

Depression-era farmers.

If the supply of a product increases while demand remains unchanged, a surplus occurs, leading to a drop in prices. Over the 1920s and 1930s, large surpluses and crippling low prices forced nearly 100,000 farm foreclosures each year. In the words of then Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, "Our surpluses of food crops seem to have had as disastrous an effect upon national well-being as crop shortages used to have on the isolated communities of a simpler age.”3

Photo credit: Dorothea Lange. Public domain.


To alleviate agricultural surpluses, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933) authorized the U.S. government to pay farmers to destroy their crops and slaughter young pigs and pregnant sows. In the end, over 6 million pigs were killed. Most of them never became food and were instead ground into fertilizer, much of which was never used. The decision to destroy crops and waste food while people went hungry sparked public outrage.4

Photo credit: U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, 2008.

Bread lines

Breadline (line of people waiting to receive free food) beside the Brooklyn Bridge, circa 1930.

At the height of the Great Depression, a quarter of the American workforce was unemployed, while U.S. farmers were producing more food than they could profitably sell. After the wildly unpopular decision to destroy surplus food, the U.S. government established programs to purchase surplus food from farmers and distribute it through hunger relief efforts.4

Photo source: Library of Congress.

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U.S. federal policies have a long history of influencing agricultural markets—the prices farmers receive for their crops, for example, and the quantities of crops they grow.

The first of such policies was the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933, when U.S. farmers were producing far more goods than they could profitably sell. This was a problem of agricultural surpluses: as the supply of agricultural goods exceeded demand, the prices farmers received for selling those goods dropped.3 To make a living on deflated prices, farmers responded by producing even more goods, feeding a vicious cycle that further increased surpluses and lowered prices.4 According to one South Dakota lawyer, “Our farmers … did everything possible to raise a maximum crop. ... If they had loafed upon their jobs, and had worked eight hours a day instead of 16, and raised only one-half or two-thirds of a crop, it would have been worth a great deal more than the entire crop which they did produce.”4

In what may have seemed like a counterintuitive plan, the AAA aimed to support struggling farmers by incentivizing them to produce less—leaving some of their cropland fallow (uncultivated), for example, or even plowing under planted crops. The AAA later allowed the federal government to purchase surplus meat, dairy, and grain from farmers and distribute it to the unemployed and hungry. Later versions of the AAA set minimum prices for major crops, such as wheat, to prevent prices from dropping too low. These and other policies helped reduce surpluses, stabilize prices, and support farmers through difficult times.5,64

Although the federal government withdrew its involvement in controlling production and stabilizing prices in 1996,7 many of the ideas pioneered in the AAA live on in what became known as the U.S. Farm Bill (see captions).

Feeding the hungry

SNAP benefits

Every $10 of SNAP benefits (food stamps) generates up to $15 in economic activity.

Federal food and nutrition assistance programs can boost the economy. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), for example, encourages participants to spend more on food. Every dollar’s worth of SNAP benefits generates an estimated 17 to 47 cents of additional spending, creating jobs for grocers, farmers, and other businesses.14,15 When SNAP benefits are accepted at farmers’ markets, they have the added benefit of supporting local economies.

Image credit: Brent Kim, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.


Industry groups often hold considerable sway over state and federal governments. In the early 1980s, for example, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began exploring the idea of banning advertisements of high-sugar foods to young children. The proposal was met with fierce industry opposition and rebuke from Congress, ending with the FTC losing much of its funding and regulatory power.16

Photo credit: Aaron Escobar, 2007. Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.

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Roughly one in seven U.S. households experiences food insecurity at times during the year. This can mean going hungry because there’s not enough money to buy food, worrying food will run out, or having to rely on food banks or soup kitchens.4 Federal food and nutrition assistance programs like SNAP (food stamps) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) help low-income families put food on their tables. Funding for SNAP is shaped by the budget of the U.S. Farm Bill (see caption), an important piece of legislation that is not just about farms.

Food insecurity is also a global problem. Worldwide, malnutrition is responsible for nearly half the deaths of children under 5.8 How do U.S. policies affect efforts to address food insecurity in other parts of the world?

Every year, the U.S. government purchases surplus grain from its farmers and distributes it to countries in need. International food aid alleviates hunger, at least in the short term, and can target the most vulnerable populations. Aid programs also support U.S. farmers by reducing surpluses, raising the value of their grain. In areas that receive food aid, however, farmers may see their own prices drop with influxes of donated grain.9–11

In each situation, the pros and cons of sending food aid deserve careful consideration. In some cases, aid programs have been driven not by hunger but by industry pressure to reduce surpluses. In 2001, rice industry representatives successfully lobbied for increases in aid, arguing that “immediate increases in food aid now could mean the difference between survival and financial disaster for rice mills.”12 As an alternative to sending food, the 2014 Farm Bill increased the amount of funds that can be used to purchase food directly from farmers in regions where aid is needed.13

Keeping the food supply safe


The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) process is a prevention-based approach required by U.S. Department of Agriculture (for meat) and the Food and Drug Administration (for juice and seafood) that monitors food safety hazards at key points along the supply chain.19 HACCP procedures, for example, might involve checking temperatures during cooking or making sure containers are properly sealed during food packaging. 

Photo copyright.

Meat processing

Workers at a poultry processing plant.

From farm to retail, the majority of U.S. food chain workers lack health care coverage and paid sick days, many do not receive proper safety training or safety equipment, and only an estimated 13.5 percent receive a living wage.20 Farm workers in particular have a long history of being excluded from U.S. labor policies.21

Photo credit: Joe Valbuena, USDA.

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The food supply chain, from farm to plate, is subject to contamination by bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, and various chemicals. What are the roles of government agencies in keeping these contaminants out of our food supply?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) work to reduce the risks of foodborne contamination, such as by inspecting processing facilities for signs of contamination, and by requiring producers, processors, restaurants, and other businesses to follow safety protocols. Food safety inspectors may also check food for visible signs of contamination, such as fecal residue on poultry carcasses. In rare cases, samples may be collected for further analysis, to check for contaminants that are missed during visual inspection. Federal agencies are often understaffed, however, and are unable to monitor most of the enormous number of products that enter our food supply.17

If contaminated food makes someone sick and they report it, or if there is a widespread foodborne illness outbreak, the FDA, USDA, and/or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) work to identify the source of the illness and control the outbreak by coordinating with local, state, and federal officials. Government agencies may urge or order food companies to recall the contaminated products.

The FDA also has an important role in reviewing drugs and other chemical compounds used in food animal production, including antibiotics. FDA policies have thus far been very permissive in allowing producers to routinely use low doses of antibiotics in animals’ feed and water—a practice that contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which may spread to people through the environment and via contaminated meat.18

Protecting the environment


The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 to regulate the release of pollutants into U.S. waters and set water quality standards. Some agricultural pollutants, such as nutrient runoff, are regulated under the act.

Public concern about water quality helped generate the political will that led to the Clean Water Act. Public awareness heightened in 1969 after a floating oil slick on Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire for at least the 10th time.29

Photo credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli, 2010. Cropped from original. Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.


In food animal production, Clean Water Act regulations generally apply only to facilities that qualify as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). A facility is considered a CAFO if it meets certain criteria, such as housing a certain number of animals (e.g., at least 10,000 swine).30 Facilities that do not qualify as CAFOs are generally exempt, even if they still threaten water quality.27

Photo credit: Farm Sanctuary.


The vast majority of animals raised for food in the U.S. rarely, if ever, experience the outdoors.

Federal laws offer only minimal protections for farm animals.31 Policies at the state level, such as bans on gestation crates and battery cages, have seen some success in establishing stronger animal welfare standards. Industry groups frequently respond to animal welfare legislation with strong opposition, but in some cases they have been unexpected and powerful allies.32

Photo copyright.

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Agriculture, for better and for worse, has always affected air, water, land, and climate. U.S. farm policies can play important roles in helping conserve resources, reduce pollution, and promote more ecologically sound farming practices.

The U.S. Farm Bill (see caption), for example, offers incentives for farmers to reduce soil erosion and runoff, conserve freshwater, shift to renewable energy sources, preserve wetlands, and protect wildlife habitats.22–25 Other federal policies authorize the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate certain agricultural pollutants. As part of the Clean Water Act, for example, certain industrial food animal production (IFAP) facilities must apply for a permit, which requires the operator to submit a plan detailing the steps they would take to prevent animal waste from polluting ground and surface waters.26,27

Many such policies, however, fall short of their intended goals, often because they have been weakened by industry groups that have a financial interest in avoiding government regulations. The permitting process for IFAP facilities, for example, was watered down by industry pressure and now applies only to the largest facilities that meet specific criteria—those designated as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs (see caption). Facilities that do not qualify as CAFOs are generally exempt, even if they still threaten water quality. Even among CAFOs, many facilities have avoided applying for permits, or permits were approved without a thorough review. In many cases, water pollution from CAFOs is investigated only after citizens submit complaints.26,27  Other forms of pollution from IFAP operations, including most air pollutants, are not regulated at all.28

Citizen engagement

US organic food sales

Growth in U.S. Organic sales and production, 1992–2011.

Informed food choices—voting with our forks—can influence how and what farmers produce. Sales of organically produced food in the U.S., for example, were nearly six times greater in 2008 than in 1997.37 Growth in consumer demand encouraged U.S. farmers and ranchers to bring additional land into organic production. In 2011, however, certified organic land still represented only 0.6 percent of total U.S. agricultural land.38

Image adapted from the USDA Economic Research Service.38

Organic produce

Citizen engagement has shaped some of the more significant developments in our food system. The first draft of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards, for example, would have allowed for the use of genetically engineered organisms, treated sewage (for fertilizing crops, see next caption), and irradiation. The public was outraged, and submitted an unprecedented number of letters (over 275,000). In response, the USDA revised the standards, which were later adopted in 2002.39

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan, Flickr. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0.


Food policy councils unite community members with farmers, food distributors, chefs, grocery store owners, policymakers, and other stakeholders in a local, state, or regional food system. These councils look for opportunities to improve the food system, particularly where food security is concerned, and provide policy recommendations to local, state, and federal governments. Persons seeking to become more engaged as “food citizens” may find opportunities through a food policy council.

Photo credits, L to R: Laura Pohl, Bread for the World, Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0; Mike Milli, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future; Pete Souza, The White House; Mike Milli.

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Vote with your fork, and even better, vote with your vote.

– Marion Nestle

The popular motto “vote with your fork” expresses the potential for food purchases to send market signals that reflect consumers’ desires, ultimately affecting what, where, and how food is produced, processed, distributed, and sold. For example, consumers can adopt more sustainable eating patterns—such as eating fewer animal products and more plant-based foods—taking into account the downstream public health, social, and ecological consequences of their choices.33 This idea is captured in the words of farmer and author Wendell Berry: “How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”34

While the collective use of our food dollars can exert economic pressure on the food system, we can exercise even greater change by moving beyond our role as “food consumers” to that of “food citizens.”35 In addition to making informed food choices that reflect their values, food citizens leverage their political power to shape food and agricultural policy.

At the local level, for example, food citizens can work with schools and other institutions to offer healthier and more sustainable food options; or advocate for local zoning laws that encourage farms, gardens, and healthy food stores. Communities facing unwanted health, environmental, or nuisance threats from proposed industrial food animal production (IFAP) operations may respond by working with legal representatives and local government agencies to prevent construction.36 Food citizens can also influence policies at the state and federal levels, for example, by writing letters or calling government representatives to express concern about food system issues.

Citizen involvement has shaped some of the more significant developments in our food system (see captions). Well-informed food citizens who make their voices heard can create positive change.


The following list of suggested resources is intended as a starting point for further exploration, and is not in any way comprehensive. Some materials may not reflect the views of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

For teachers

Reports and other documents

Academic journal articles


1. Imhoff D. Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2007.
2. Congressional Budget Office. Letter to the Honorable Frank D. Lucas. January 2014.
3. Alston LJ. Farm Foreclosures in the United States During the Interwar Period. J Econ Hist. 1983;43(4).
4. Poppendieck J. Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression. Rutgers University Press; 1986.
5. Rasmussen WD, Baker GL, Ward JS. A Short History of Agricultural Adjustment, 1933-75. USDA ERS; 1976.
6. Saloutos T. New Deal Agricultural Policy: An Evaluation. J Am Hist. 1974;61(2).
7. Lauck J. After Deregulation: Constructing Agricultural Policy in the Age of “Freedom to Farm.” Drake J Agric Law. 2000;5.
8. World Health Organization. Children: reducing mortality. 2014.
9. Tschirley D, Donovan C, Weber MT. Food aid and food markets: lessons from Mozambique. Food Policy. 1996;21(2):189-209.
10. Sharaunga S, Wale E. The dis-incentive effects of food aid and agricultural policies on local land allocation in developing countries: The case of Malawi. Dev South Afr. 2013;30(4-05):491-507.
11. Isenman PJ, Singer HW. Food Aid: Disincentive Effects and Their Policy Implications. Econ Dev Cult Change. 1977;25(2):205-237.
12. Oxfam International. Food Aid or Hidden Dumping? Separating Wheat from Chaff. 2005.
13. Schnepf R. International Food Aid Programs: Background and Issues. Congressional Research Service; 2014.
14. Hanson K. The Food Assistance National Input-Output Multiplier (FANIOM) Model and Stimulus Effects of SNAP. 2010.
15. USDA. The Benefits of Increasing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) Program Participation in Your State. 2011.
16. J. Howard Beales. Advertising to Kids and the FTC: A Regulatory Retrospective That Advises the Present. U.S. Federal Trade Commission; 2004.
17. Maki DG. Coming to Grips with Foodborne Infection — Peanut Butter, Peppers, and Nationwide Salmonella Outbreaks. N Engl J Med. 2009;360.
18. Hayes JR, English LL, Carter PJ, et al. Prevalence and Antimicrobial Resistance of Enterococcus Species Isolated from Retail Meats. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2003;69(12):7153-7160.
19. Kevin Keener. Safe Food Guidelines for Small Meat and Poultry Processors: Overview of HACCP. Purdue Extension; 2007.
20. Food Chain Workers Alliance. The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers along the Food Chain. 2012.
21. Liebman AK, Wiggins MF, Fraser C, Levin J, Sidebottom J, Arcury TA. Occupational health policy and immigrant workers in the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sector. Am J Ind Med. 2013;56(8):975–984.
22. USDA National Resources Conservation Service. Financial Assistance.
23. USDA. Rural Energy for America Program. Rural Dev. 2013.
24. USDA Farm Service Agency. Conservation Reserve Program. 2014.
25. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Protecting Environmental Compliance Programs: A Public Health Priority. 2012.
26. Centner TJ. Governmental oversight of discharges from concentrated animal feeding operations. Environ Manage. 2006;37(6):745-52.
27. Graham JP, Nachman KE. Managing waste from confined animal feeding operations in the United States: the need for sanitary reform. J Water Heal. 2010; December:646-70.
28. Wilson SC. Hogwash! Why Industrial Animal Agriculture is Not beyond the Scope of Clean Air Act Regulation. Pace Environ Law Rev. 2010;24(2).
29. Stradling D, Stradling R. Perceptions of the Burning River: Deindustrialization and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River. Environ Hist Durh N C. 2008;13(3):515-535.
30. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What is a CAFO? 2014.
31. Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; 2008.
32. Fatka J. UEP Abandons HSUS Egg Deal. Farm Futures. February 2014.
33. Gussow JD, Clancy KL. Dietary guidelines for sustainability. J Nutr Educ. 1986;18(1):1-5.
34. Berry W. The Pleasures of Eating. In: What Are People For? New York: North Point Press; 1990.
35. Wilkins JL. Eating Right Here: Moving from Consumer to Food Citizen. Agric Human Values. 2005;22(3):269-273.
36. Head T, III R. Local Regulation of Animal Feeding Operations: Concerns Limits, and Options for Southeastern States. Environ Law. 1999;6(503).
37. Greene C, Dimitri C, Lin B, Mcbride W, Oberholtzer L, Smith T. Emerging Issues in the U.S. Organic Industry. 2009.
38. Greene C. Support for the Organic Sector Expands in the 2014 Farm Act. Amber Waves. July 2014.
39. Delind LB. Transforming organic agriculture into industrial organic products: reconsidering national organic standards. Hum Organ. 2000;59(2).