Top American official reveals successes and challenges of US food systems and efforts to increase projects in Africa

The United States of America, however great, is not without challenges when it comes to its national food system. 

In January, the USDA held its first national food summit dialogue based on a United Nations Food Systems Summit template, bringing together stakeholders from across the nation to better understand the challenges the US faces. They found three main areas of contention, but also many successes.  

There were gaps in information about healthy diets and sustainable foods, along with a general misunderstanding of how sustainability across industry and consumer use was defined and achieved. They found inequality of access to healthy foods and the lack of opportunity in farming, food systems, and related entrepreneurial ventures. They also found that environmental degradation and climate were challenging farmers throughout the country. 

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) supports the USDA’s findings on a lack of information on healthy diets and unequal access to healthy foods.  The CDC found a prevalence of obesity among America’s population was 42.4% in 2017~2018. Among that percentage, at least 15 states had an obesity prevalence of 35% or higher among Hispanics. These statistics speak to inequality and inaccessibility to healthy food for marginalized groups. 

Elise Golan, the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit Lead and the Director for Sustainable Development at the USDA, spoke exclusively to Kristi Pelzel, Senior International Correspondent and Henry Kohn, Policy Analyst and Writer at Today News Africa on the approach the US should take to building a truly sustainable food system focused on inclusivity. 

“We have to make sure we are involving stakeholders across the whole food system, that’s “eaters” and growers and everyone else in between because otherwise, we are not going to move together,” said Golan. 

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Despite national challenges, there are successes too. Through innovation, farmers have been able to do more with less, conserving natural resources. Commodity production in the US increased 400% over the last 90-years, says Golan, and acreage for production has dropped by 9% decreasing farmland by 20 million hectares. These are all testaments to the work done to reduce the strain on natural resources and increase productivity. 

It’s these innovative ideas and success stories that the US will bring to the UN Food Systems Summit later this year to share with other countries that need support and knowledge, especially Africa. 

The USDA spends more than 200 million dollars every year supporting African food projects on the Continent to strengthen sustainability and the resilience of food systems. And the work is ongoing, especially since the African Free Trade Area Agreement went into effect this January, creating the most prominent free trading area globally and bringing opportunity for growers, producers, and entrepreneurs. 

Now that the United States, under the Biden Administration, has rejoined and recommitted to active participation and collaboration in global bodies like the Paris Agreement, the World Health Organization, and across the United Nations, more international engagement within national government agencies are expected to follow. 

The UN Food Systems Summit will be a powerful platform and opportunity for private, non-profit, and government agencies to make meaningful connections to their African partners and for African partners to also help the US since sustainability and innovation is an eternal cycle of iteration and great ideas can come from anyone, anytime, from anywhere. 

Kristi Pelzel is a Senior White House correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Kristi also covers the US Department of State and the United Nations. She holds a master's degree from Georgetown University.

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