Just two weeks into his presidency, Donald Trump has signed orders implementing sweeping policy changes in the areas of immigration, public health, and trade. While he has yet to touch food policy explicitly, the Trump administration is expected to address measures influencing everything from wages and labor standards for restaurant workers to food safety, agriculture, trade, and government food assistance.
As members of Trump’s Cabinet undergo confirmation hearings and the federal workforce falls subject to cyclical, albeit rather tense, changes under the new administration, many are awaiting hints of what new policies will come out of the labor and agriculture departments.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU, says it’s difficult to predict this new administration, noting that “[Trump] has appointed Cabinet members who are on record as despising the work of the agencies they now head.” By her assessment, the changeover brings particular vulnerabilities when it comes to food assistance and food safety. “On the USDA side: SNAP, school meals, child nutrition programs, dietary guidelines and food guides, organic food standards, and meat safety,” she lists. “On the FDA side: food labels, health claims, and the safety of all other foods. And then there’s the White House garden, and food advertising at the FTC.”
At Food Tank’s recent Summit in D.C., Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), former member of the House Committee on Agriculture, called the current situation in Washington “unusual and somewhat chaotic.” “It could be the foggiest crystal ball I’ve ever looked into in my short tenure in Congress,” she says.
So let’s try to look into that crystal ball. Here’s what an array of experts believe the Trump administration could and should have on its food policy agenda in its first year.
The Reality: Trump himself has a fraught history with employees and contractors, and his pick for Department of Labor secretary, fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder, is no different. The Republican national platform released last summer took a clear stance that minimum wage "is an issue that should be handled at the state and local level." (Puzder himself is opposed to raising the federal minimum wage above $9.) Meanwhile, Puzder’s confirmation hearing has now been delayed for a fourth time.
1. Raise the federal minimum wage; standardize tipping and service charges
Rontel Batie, a federal advocate for the National Employment Law Project, tells Eater that in an ideal world, the administration should proceed with implementing wage changes that resemble last year’s proposal from President Obama, including an elevation of the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. This seems unlikely.
According to Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute, it’s far more likely that the labor department will leave the minimum wage issue up to the states. To that end, he says, there’s a good chance any efforts to overhaul minimum wage and overtime pay standards will come from the bottom up and not from federal policy. Likewise, any standardization of wage policies with regards to tipping and service charges will come from restaurants and chefs themselves.
“I’m extremely skeptical that the update of the salary threshold will occur at the federal level,” Bernstein says. To him, asking the Trump administration to do the bare minimum when it comes to labor protections is enough: “What [the Trump administration] should do is beef up their wage and hour division and make sure that the labor standards we have in place are being enforced.”
2. Protect overtime regulations
The wage policy initiative Obama attempted to roll out last year, which a Texas court blocked, would have made salaried workers who earn less than $47,476 a year eligible for overtime pay. According to Batie, this is a policy the labor department should push for — it guarantees paid sick, family, or medical leave; assists workers in scheduling shifts; and protects against harassment and discrimination.
However, Batie says Puzder as labor secretary foreshadows a less regulatory approach to wage and hour issues. “If he does push for these changes,” Batie says, “it will be credited to the millions of workers and organizations who advocate on their behalf for keeping the pressure on him to make sound decisions, as well as Congress for holding him accountable.”
The Reality: Trump selected former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue to head the Department of Agriculture, and while the nation awaits Perdue’s confirmation hearings, a look at Perdue’s track record hints at what could change under his purview. Perdue has previously said he would aim to improve USDA interactions with agencies like the FDA and EPA, in addition to prioritizing trade. He also has previously expressed a less strict stance on immigration than Trump, but if the president follows through on his promises to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, it could have a major impact on the agriculture labor force.
3. Address immigration reform
Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of sustainability at George Washington University and former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture (2009-2013), believes immigration is the biggest issue at hand today. “From our farms to our foodservice workers, if we don’t get [immigration reform] straight sooner as opposed to later, we’re going to really suffer,” she says. “We’re going to see growth in other countries’ food production that we could capture here at home if we could solve this problem. The hysteria around citizen status is at a point where coming up with a solution becomes more elusive.”
Merrigan believes the current administration should provide unauthorized immigrants a path to work legally and potentially achieve residency. “We need to find ways to keep the doors open for agricultural workers,” she says. “Farmers, particularly those working in specialty crops, have already moved some of their operations outside of the country because they can’t find adequate labor.”
Senior VP at Story Partners and former USDA spokesperson Matt Herrick emphasizes the precarious nature of the farm economy: “It's important not to underestimate the severity of the recent downturn in the farm economy. We've seen a reduction in farm income, we've seen a reduction in the level of exports, and I think when you couple that with a hostile trade policy, hostility toward renewable energy, such as renewable fuel standards, and hostility toward immigration and guest worker programs, you have to consider whether or not enough attention is being given to the economic condition for farmers and ranchers out there. That's important because safety net programs — commodity support programs, conservation programs, and crop insurance — they're the difference between life and death for many farmers today.”
Dave Runsten, policy director for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, agrees that Trump’s immigration policies could put undue stress on mid-sized farms in particular. “As wages go up and the availability of labor goes down, the very smallest farms that barely hire anyone will likely benefit,” he says. “The largest farms will mechanize or move to Mexico or get Trump to let them import guest workers or something. It’s the farms in the middle, particularly the highly diversified produce farms that hire a lot of labor, that are going to be under the greatest stress. Farm workers are getting older on average. This can't continue indefinitely.”
4. Pass a comprehensive farm bill
Since 1933, the U.S farm bill has addressed a wide range of policies that impact how and what Americans eat, how much they pay for their food, and how much farmers are paid for their work (the bill tackles commodity subsidies, farm credits, trade, rural development, agricultural research, SNAP/food stamp benefits, food and nutrition education, and marketing). The bill, which is fraught with politics, is passed every five years. There is almost no wiggle room; it cannot be delayed because too many sectors are dependent upon its policies and funding.
Merrigan, who has worked on past farm bills, says Congress must figure out if the next iteration will address the important issues of today, including putting in place ways for farmers to pass on their land to the next generation.
“There is a ticking time bomb, and it’s the aging of our farms and farmers,” Merrigan says. “I’ve visited dairy farms where farmers are in their 80s, working seven days a week, 365 days a year. Part of the reason why is that they haven’t figured out how to transfer the farm to the next generation. We’re losing farms in this country, and when you lose that land, sometimes it’s developed and it’s hard to get it back.”
According to Wes King, a policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “having an active and engaged USDA could be very positive” for the structuring of the next farm bill. “The last several farm bills have done a lot of work to invest in local and regional food systems, which is part of the reason why over the last 10 to 20 years we’ve seen such growth,” he says. “It’s one of the hot trends in the restaurant world.” As such, King advocates for a USDA that “champions all forms of agriculture, including small and medium-sized farms that are selling into local market.”
Meanwhile, Dan Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture (1995 until 2001) believes that agricultural research and development, which is often funded in part through the farm bill, should be a priority for the new administration. “Without an amply funded development budget, food and agriculture cannot grow in the future,” he says.
5. Maintain government food assistance
King also says the USDA should focus on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and electronic benefits transfer (EBT) system. While the system is fairly easy for retailers to implement, it is less so for farmers and farmers markets, meaning local and regional food systems miss out on participating in the program.
“Part of the problem stems from when SNAP went from actual food stamps to EBT,” he says. “This whole ‘local food’ and farmers market world was much smaller than it is now, and it wasn’t even considered in that transition.” King says he expects to see some changes in this area. “We share an opinion that we don’t want to see it separated from the larger farm bill and we don’t think a major overhaul would be appropriate.”
Sharon Feuer Gruber, co-founder of Food Works Group, a D.C.-based consulting practice dedicated to a smarter food system, is concerned that SNAP benefits and related programs could be significantly cut or altered in the next farm bill. The Trump administration should not “cut the safety net of federal nutrition programs,” she says, although the current tenor of conversations has her concerned. “We cannot rely on charity to resolve hunger — the scale of food insecurity is just too large.”
The Reality: While it is unlikely to be on top of the agenda, the regulatory system at the USDA “is in serious need of repair,” according to Gregory Jaffe, director of the Project on Biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Currently, it is more of a process-based system, but “this administration, as well as other administrations, should want to have a science and risk-based regulatory system,” Jaffe says.
6. Address GMO regulation
Herrick, who worked for the USDA under two administrations, says “we missed an opportunity 20 years ago on GMOs, to have a conversation with the public about the benefits of these products.” According to Herrick, it’s time to double down on transparency in the food system “because it’s good for consumers and it’s good for business.” Because we didn’t two decades ago, “there's a lot of confusion today.”
Herrick believes that by taking advantage of the GMO labeling bill passed last year by Congress, food producers can finally put the right information in the hands of the consumer. The new labeling guidelines mean processors can “potentially give consumers information about how food was raised, what standards were placed on conservation issues, values behind the company, or what allergens are in the food.”
Jaffe says there are two steps the new administration should take with regards to regulating genetically engineered foods. The USDA’s current process-based system leaves room for both overregulation and under-regulation: some genetically engineered crops may fall outside the regulatory scope, while others that may not need it are regulated, presenting a confusing system for consumers. A science and risk-based system would enhance consumer confidence and allow farmers to use genetically engineered crops in a sustainable way. Changing the policies that regulate genetic engineering would require the USDA to analyze how it could modify the current regulations within the legal standards. If altering regulations requires statutory changes, the department would need to seek legal recourse through Congress.
Kent Messer, a professor within the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, says the USDA will need to “follow scientific consensus behind the safety of GMO foods, but do it in a way that acknowledges that some consumers are going to have a desire to know more about the food and the process by which it was developed.”
7. Standardize labeling laws
Labeling will also be important to address, in King’s eyes, and not just in terms of genetically modified or engineered organisms. “There’s a plethora of labeling claims that exist, whether it’s GMO-free, antibiotic-free, pasteurized, grass-fed,” he says. “There’s new labels that are coming out it seems like every six months, and I think it’s really important that as a community we all are paying attention to that.” Truthful and meaningful labels will provide opportunity for farmers and clarity for consumers.
Overall, says Messer, “I would recommend that the Trump administration really look at ways of making government as effective as possible.” Exactly how that shakes out in the realm of food policy — and beyond — will remain to be seen.
Dana Hatic is an Eater contributor.
Editors: Daniela Galarza and Whitney Filloon