Co-authored by Laurie Hainley

A year after the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed the day-to-day experiences of most Americans, those working in food and nutrition are adjusting to new realities. From rapid supply chain adaptations to staggering rates of food insecurity and obesity-related coronavirus complications, the need to improve public health has become more urgent and more complex than ever before.

One could argue that the world is now grappling with four public health pandemics: climate change, undernutrition, overweight and obesity, and COVID-19. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the reality that to build back stronger, society must address all four challenges in an integrated way. In this article, we take a look at how governments are implementing policy and regulatory solutions in this new era.

Quick Take for Businesses

A reinvigorated food and nutrition policy environment will present new business challenges and opportunities. As you review this article, consider the following questions and action steps.

  • How can you get ahead? Understand how evolving policy actions will impact your business, and build proactive positions and advocacy plans.
  • How can you stay relevant?Ensure health and nutrition-related communications are sensitive to COVID-19 realities, considering social and racial disparities and equity.
  • How can you differentiate?Define your business’s role in supporting sustainable food systems, to unlock new partnership and policy engagement opportunities.

Three Notable Evolutions in Food & Nutrition Policy

  • Food access at the top of policy agendas: The negative health and economic impacts of COVID-19 have disproportionately affected vulnerable populations, leading to a greater reliance on food assistance programs. In the U.S., participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) jumped more than 20% in 2020, with more than 8 million additional people receiving benefits. Brand new food assistance programs also were created. For the foreseeable future, many governments’ top nutrition priority will be getting food in the hands of people who need it.
  • Stronger calls for anti-obesity regulations that deliver quick wins and economic incentives: Because obesity worsens COVID-19 outcomes and continues to carry high economic costs, there is a renewed sense of urgency around policies and regulations that restrict or discourage foods and beverages high in fat, sugar and salt. Front-of-pack labeling (FOPL) regulations continue to gain traction (particularly in Latin America and Europe), as do calls to limit ultra-processed foods from being marketed and sold. Sugar-sweetened beverage taxes have garnered special attention for their revenue-generating potential amidst struggling economies.
  • Broader integration of nutrition and environmental sustainability: More authorities now recognize the critical role nutrition plays in sustainable food systems. Nutrition guidelines and policies increasingly promote personal and planetary health, advocating for strategies that support both. The EU Farm to Fork Strategy aims to create a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system in Europe, with policy recommendations for a standardized FOPL system and sustainable food production measures. Non-EU nations have taken similar actions, such as the UK’s National Food Strategy. Furthermore, by 2025, at least 13 countries are expected to expand their food-based dietary guidelines to include environmental sustainability considerations. The United Nations Food Systems Summit, planned for September, likely will result in similarly integrated recommendations that will set the global food and nutrition policy agenda for the next decade.

Spotlight on the U.S. – Expectations for the Biden Presidency

Reflecting these challenges and policy evolutions, new U.S. President Joseph R. Biden has instructed his federal agencies to set their agendas based on three priorities: COVID-19, racial equity, and climate. Health and nutrition are undercurrents of all three, contributing to the expectation that the Biden administration will be considerably more active and progressive on nutrition than the Trump administration.

While federal agency policy and regulatory agendas are still coming together, a handful of actions are already being explored – or are likely bets – for Biden’s four-year term.

  • Food Assistance Expansions: On day one, Biden called for immediate action to improve SNAP access by extending a 15% benefit increase. The American Rescue Plan also provides $1 billion in additional nutrition assistance to residents of U.S. territories, and expands federal investment in the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
  • Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR): Every five years, Congress can use CNR to update the nutritional standards in child feeding programs, including school meals programs and WIC. New Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow intends to push forward this legislation, which carries opportunities for enhancing WIC food packages and permanently adopting universal school meals.
  • Nutrition Innovation Strategy (NIS) Progress: In 2018, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) introduced a novel strategy to modernize food and beverage claims and labeling to better support public health. Many of these activities stalled under Trump’s presidency, but with new leadership, voluntary sodium reduction targets, updates to the “healthy” nutrient content claim and other planned NIS activities should pick up.
  • Sustainable Agriculture Push: From reentering the Paris Climate Agreement to setting an ambitious goal for a net-zero economy by 2050, the Biden administration is set to introduce forward-thinking climate policies across all sectors. This includes pursuit of climate-smart agriculture practices in the immediate term, and could spark interest in including sustainable diet advice in the 2025-2030 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Which policies rise to the top of federal agency agendas will depend on agency leadership and policy influencers. It’s worth noting that Biden’s administration includes several Obama-era staff – Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and two of his recently appointed Deputy Under Secretaries, as well as former FDA commissioner David Kessler. Look for these individuals to potentially pursue nutrition initiatives aligned with their previous positions and actions.

Consumer advocacy groups and grassroots organizations also will be critical players in the U.S. nutrition policy environment. These groups, which tend to wield more influence during Democratic presidencies, will continue to call for aggressive policy actions like banning junk food marketing to kids and mandating sugar-sweetened beverage warnings and taxes. Such policies are most likely to gain traction at the local or state levels first – like the new healthy checkout ordinance in Berkeley and the sodium warning labels in New York City. However, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate make potential federal standards for these strategies a greater possibility.

As events unfold in the U.S. and globally, food and beverage stakeholders should understand, prepare for, and positively contribute to the evolving nutrition policy environment.

This article was initially published in O’Dwyer’s Food & Beverage PR issue.

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