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Food Policy on the Ballot: What’s at Stake This Election

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Your Election Day cheat sheet to all decisions related to restaurants and food

Photo: Ken Lyons/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Taxes, terrorism, and trade are top issues this campaign season, but one thing voters aren’t hearing much about is food. While it may not seem as crucial as national security, food policy encompasses a variety of issues that could affect voters’ daily lives: We’re talking labor, wages, environment, nutrition, animal rights, and taxes, to name a few. And with about 20 food-industry-related measures on state ballots and two presidential candidates with clashing views, this year’s election will have a profound impact on the food industry.

That’s something people like Tom Colicchio — James Beard-winning chef, restaurateur, and Top Chef judge — wants voters to know. Colicchio co-founded Food Policy Action in 2012 to educate and empower voters about food policy. The activist organization has run educational programs and has campaigned against members of Congress they feel have “failed” when it comes to food policy legislation. In 2014, the group targeted Florida Congressman Steve Southerland with voter turnout phone calls and digital ads, calling his policy choices “harmful to families and small farmers.” The Republican representative eventually lost re-election that year. Food Policy also teamed up with other organizations to take on the presidential election, creating Plate of the Union, a campaign petitioning the next president to make food policy reform a top issue.

The groups are trying to address a disconnect between voters’ food-related concerns and politics as usual, says Claire DiMattina, executive director for Food Policy Action. “Politicians have not taken a leadership role in many of those issues,” DiMattina says. “Food isn’t being discussed enough in elections, and it isn’t discussed enough on Capitol Hill.”

But voters will have the chance to put food front and center this November. Between the presidential election, congressional elections, and local ballots, this Election Day will undoubtedly have an influence on food policy. Here’s what you need to know before heading out to the polls:

The third presidential debate, as seen from TV screens at Washington, DC’s Hawk ‘n’ Dove.
Photo: Zach Gibson/AFP/Getty Images

Presidential Election

The next president will have a tremendous impact on food legislation in the United States, and presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump differ on several key issues affecting the food and restaurant industries.

The most obvious is immigration. Foreign-born workers make up 17 percent of the American labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and seven percent of foreign-born workers are employed in food service. While both candidates seek immigration reform, Trump has vowed to increase immigration control and make American jobs less attractive to foreigners who might come to the states illegally for work. Clinton, on the other hand, takes a laxer stance on immigration, but also wants to increase the number of jobs filled by American citizens.

When it comes to unions, only two percent of American food-service employees are represented by them, but many workers, especially in the fast-food sector, have called for more unionization in the industry. Clinton’s mantra is “when unions are strong, America is strong,” while pro-union activists have criticized Trump’s unclear stance on unions and labor rights. Trump has also given conflicting views on increasing the federal minimum wage, while Clinton wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 (with variations for regions with higher cost of living), the amount cited by fast-food workers as necessary to adequately cover their costs of living.

One issue on which Trump has taken a strong stance is regulation. Regulations from agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Trade Commission affect what the food industry can and cannot do. But Trump plans to enact a “temporary moratorium on new agency regulations” as soon as he takes office. Agencies will have to rank their rules from most to least critical to public health and safety, with the least critical being most open to repeal. His plan would also include repealing President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (which mandated that restaurant employers offer health care for full-time employees) and stopping some currently required energy regulations, like the carbon emissions–focused Climate Action Plan, which includes agriculture practices for farmers.

Clinton, on the other hand, wants to continue many of the current administration’s regulations, while giving small businesses tax reliefs and guaranteeing 24-hour government response time to entrepreneurs with business regulation questions.

Overall, Clinton’s stances on food policy are easier to track than Trump’s. Clinton’s campaign website targets several food industry issues not discussed on Trump’s website, including animal welfare. Clinton’s campaign says the Democratic nominee will encourage farms “to raise animals humanely and work to eliminate the use of antibiotics in farm animals for non-therapeutic reasons.” The Trump campaign, on the other hand, has not said much about farm animal welfare. Clinton is in favor of labeling GMO foods, while Trump is opposed.

Clinton’s track record and clear public stances on food issues is why Food Action Policy endorsed her, writing in a press release that “unlike Secretary Clinton, Donald Trump has been on the record in support of food policies that would be harmful to our food system.” In the same press release, Colicchio argued, “the Clinton-Kaine ticket is the better choice to make our food and agriculture system more balanced, healthy, and sustainable.”

"I voted" wristbands Photo: Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

Congressional Election

But the president won’t be the only one making food policy decisions in the next few years. As all 435 U.S. House of Representatives seats and 34 Senate seats are up for election this November, DiMattina, Colicchio, and activists want voters to know that the choices they make for Congress will also change the food industry.

To do that, the Food Policy Action site offers a scorecard for every congressperson, rating them on how their votes have influenced food policy and the food industry. The scores are based on votes on specific legislation, chosen by food policy experts as most important each year. People can search for their congressman and check out their rating and voting history before making their voting decisions. “We want to arm the public with information on how their legislatures vote,” DiMattina says.

Protestors advocate for a $15 minimum wage earlier this year in Los Angeles.
Photo:  Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

State Ballots

In addition to voting for pro-food congresspeople, millions of Americans will have a chance to vote on roughly 20 state ballot measures affecting food production, food sales, and the restaurant industry.

Minimum wage and labor rights remain top issues. Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington will have ballot measures for raising state minimum wages, while South Dakota will be voting whether or not to lower the minimum wage for minors. In Alabama and Virginia, voters will decide on amending the state constitutions to officially ban companies from requiring workers to join unions, or from making deals with unions to only hire unionized employees.

Six states will have votes on farming, hunting, and animal rights issues, all of which have been met with pushback. Oklahomans will vote on amending their constitution to include the “right to farm,” allowing farmers to use agricultural equipment, livestock, and ranching techniques while limiting legal scrutiny. But these “right to farm” laws face opposition from those who say they are simply corporate tactics that try to avoid public accountability when it comes to controversial farming practices.

Meanwhile, Indiana and Kansas will vote on the constitutional right to hunt, fish, and trap wildlife — placing the freedom to hunt and fish alongside the constitutional right to bear arms and other guns rights in the respective state constitutions. Supporters of the amendments, like the National Rifle Association, say passing rights to hunt and fish could make it harder to pass anti-gun laws.

This year’s ballot measures will impact consumers, too. In Oklahoma, citizens will be voting on tax policies that could increase sales taxes. And two measures on the California ballot focus on the state’s controversial ban on plastic bags in grocery stores. One lets voters choose whether to keep the ban, and the other lets them decide if the proceeds from the subsequent sale of paper grocery bags should go exclusively to environmental causes.

Here is a full list of list of food-industry-related November 2016 ballot measures (source: Ballotpedia):

Measures Affecting Workers

Measures Affecting Businesses

Measures Affecting Consumers

That’s a lot for voters to consider, and that’s on top of the existing list of “hot-button” political issues Americans hear about on a daily basis. But when Americans enter voting booths in November, they will have to consider more than what’s largely discussed in debates and interviews: They’ll have to remember their votes will impact an industry on which they rely every day.