Food System Reform Starts ‘In the Classroom’

Activist, chef and GW instructor José Andrés spoke with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the state of food in the U.S. and the impact of climate change.

Tom Vilsack and José Andrés
U.S. Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (left) speaks with activist, chef and GW instructor José Andrés at Jack Morton Auditorium. (William Atkins/ GW Today)
September 08, 2021

By Kristen Mitchell

When U.S. Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke a decade ago with farmers about how climate change would impact crops, he said they largely didn’t believe the dire predictions. In the face of raging wildfires in the West and hurricane flooding in the Southeast and Northeast, the conversations he is having today are markedly different, he told George Washington University students Tuesday evening.

“The reality is they know something's different and that they need to adjust, they need to adapt,” he said. 

Mr. Vilsack spoke at Jack Morton Auditorium as part of “The State of Agriculture in the U.S,” a special session of renowned chef, humanitarian and activist José Andrés’ “World on a Plate” course where GW students explore food's relationship to current social issues. 

The event featured conversations about some of the most pressing topics in agriculture today, covering the state of food in the United States, racial and equity issues in agriculture, the future of urban and rural farming and how the pandemic is shaping the future of food in the United States. The evening opened with a discussion with Mr. Vilsack, followed by a conversation with entrepreneur and fifth-generation farmer PJ Haynie. Mr. Andrés and Tara Scully, associate professor and director of GW’s sustainability minor program, moderated the conversations.

Mr. Andrés, who owns more than 30 restaurants around the world, including Beefsteak on the Foggy Bottom campus, first launched his course “World on a Plate” in 2013. He said he wanted to launch the course to equip students who may go onto careers in government and public service with the knowledge they’ll need to address complex and multidimensional issues around food. 

“We cannot make decisions that create more problems than what that decision is trying to solve,” Mr. Andrés said.

In his early career as a small-town lawyer, Mr. Vilsack, who also served as secretary of Agriculture during former President Barack Obama’s administration, saw first-hand how farmers often operate on thin margins. A prolonged drought or a poor growing season could quickly cost people their livelihoods.

“When you represent people in those circumstances, when you have to deal with that, it never leaves you, nor should it,” he said. “You should always be looking for ways to create new opportunities.”

Tara Scully, PJ Haynie and José Andrés

Tara Scully (left), PJ Haynie and José Andrés discuss farming issues during “The State of Agriculture in the U.S" at Jack Morton Auditorium. (William Atkins/ GW Today)


Whereas the last half century has focused on making the country’s food supply chain as efficient as possible, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how a national disruption can dramatically impact the agricultural system. When restaurants shut down in the spring 2020,  farmers unable to sell their produce were dumping and destroying food. This came as food banks were seeing skyrocketing demand and the United States was unable to pivot quickly to providing widespread food assistance, Mr. Vilsack said. 

The past decade also increasingly demonstrated how climate change can impact food supply, Mr. Vilsack said. To prepare for the future, the country needs to strengthen the safety net for small farmers, enabling transformational changes that will improve system profitability and resiliency. No single administration will be able to accomplish that goal, he said. 

Congress passes a new farm bill every five years, an omnibus bill that governs an array of agricultural and food programs. The next bill in 2023 will require “a much different conversation than we’ve ever had before,” Mr. Vilsack said. The conservation practices that will lead to a net zero emissions agricultural system in the future will create new opportunities and is worthy of investment. Using the farm bill, the United States should be aggressive in its pursuit of this goal, he said. 

Mr. Vilsack spoke about the importance of providing healthy food in food deserts, typically low-income rural and urban areas with limited access to grocery stores. He also encouraged students to stay engaged and organize around food issues such as childhood hunger, food equity and the connection between food insecurity and incarceration. Most major reforms in the agricultural space do not necessarily start on a farm, “they start in the classroom,” he said.

“You have this incredible power—use it, because when you do, you will effect change,” he said. Will you see it overnight? No. You need to be patient.

“If you truly believe as I do that this is a transformational opportunity, as I do— seize it.”

Mr. Haynie, a Virginia farmer and chair of the board for the National Black Growers Council, spoke about the challenge of feeding a growing global population. There will be 9.9 billion people living on Earth by 2050. With more demand for buildings and infrastructure, there will be less land available for planting crops. 

“The only way we're able to go this extra mile is by putting the R&D in,” he said.

Mr. Haynie said that developing high-yield genetically modified foods that are drought resistant or less susceptible to diseases are a big part of that process. Some people are wary of genetically modified foods, but it’s no different than cross breeding livestock.

Mr. Haynie said too many of the decisions about agriculture are made by individuals who have “no clue as to what it takes to be a farmer,” all the while American farmers strive to create the safest, most abundant food supply in the world. 

“It's very important that we are here and having these conversations today,” he said. “Because there's no culture without agriculture.”

José Andrés speaks with students.

Activist, chef and GW instructor José Andrés speaks with students Tuesday evening. (William Atkins/ GW Today)

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