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Expert Perspective

Putting Health at the Center of Food Policy

Food systems

Amy Trubek, PhD

Rebecca Mitchell


November 15th, 2022


In this perspective, Dr. Amy Trubek and Rebecca Mitchell share insights and lessons from their efforts to transform the food system in Vermont.

Where we live in Vermont, a rural state with a robust agricultural sector, accessing locally grown whole foods should be easy. Yet families with low incomes still struggle to afford fruits and vegetables, or even find them in their neighborhood stores.

Vermont’s decision to enact free school meals for all students this year—and, hopefully, for years to come—is a crucial step to getting healthy, whole foods to all kids. But when we looked critically at inequities in food access, we realized that in order to help more families put whole foods on the table, we also have to create opportunities for local farmers.

Farmers are literally in a race against rot—they have an extremely short window to get perishable foods from the orchard, field, or farm to the grocery store many miles away. This creates high transportation and distribution costs which, when paired with low wholesale prices, means farmers who grow whole foods can actually lose money. 

In contrast, processed foods are cheap and easier to produce at a large scale, resulting in a higher profit margin. This means, stores are more likely to stock them—grocery stores in lower income neighborhoods often don’t even stock any whole foods—and, as a result, consumers are more likely to buy them.

In our current food system, the processes of growing and producing happen somewhere else. We’re working to build a community-based system that allows small farmers to earn a living wage and empowers families to make choices about what they eat and where their food comes from.

Amy Trubek, PhD, Chair and Professor, Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, University of Vermont

For the most part, it is local farmers who can best feed our community. Local farmers have shorter distances to travel, so produce remains fresh and nutrient-rich, and buying from local farmers strengthens the local economy. So we’re working to understand their experience, and exploring possible solutions that could help them provide fruits and vegetables at an affordable price to consumers with low incomes. These are some of the questions we’re asking:

  • How can we level the playing field for small farmers? We know our current food system sets small farmers up to fail, so we’re testing different policy solutions to reform the marketplace. One strategy is using food hubs or other aggregators that allow small farmers to pool their produce and sell to large buyers they otherwise couldn’t access. Another is implementing a block payment system for small farmers, which would provide them with a set amount of income each month or year through a government entity.
  • What are the untapped markets for local farmers? Many families, regardless of income, depend on schools to feed their kids. And school systems have been stepping up to the challenge by providing healthy, nutritious breakfast and lunch for free. Yet school meal programs operate on razor-thin budgets, and local farmers just can’t make ends meet by selling to schools. We need local food purchasing incentives, like the ones Vermont has created, to help schools pay a fair price for locally-grown produce.
  • Sugar, corn, and soybeans are all subsidized. What if we did the same for fruits and vegetables? It’s clear that production of nutrient-dense, whole foods can’t be done without subsidies. To give small farmers who are growing whole foods a fair shot, we need a subsidy program based on the goal of promoting health.
  • What if we reframed the conversation about healthy foods to more explicitly include frozen produce? We tend to think of perishable foods as the healthiest option, but frozen fruits and vegetables can be just as nutritious—and provide farmers with a more feasible time frame for distributing their products.

As we work to improve food access in Vermont, one thing is clear: our country must do more to put health at the forefront of food policies. 

We need to reconsider what’s driving decisions about what food we grow, how we grow it, and why we are growing it in the first place: is it for nutrition or profit? And we must work toward policy solutions that benefit our kids, our families, and our economy.

Food is a basic human right: we all need it to survive and thrive. When we begin shaping policies with this in mind, we’ll start to see meaningful progress toward a food system that not only promotes healthy foods and economic inclusion for farmers, but also benefits entire communities and future generations.

Increasing food access is a public health issue, but it has to be achieved through systemic change. When we support policies that promote access to affordable, nutritious foods for everyone, we can prevent hunger and ensure children have the opportunity to thrive.

Rebecca Mitchell, Food Systems Research and Action Coordinator, Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, University of Vermont

About the Authors

Photo of co-author Rebecca Mitchell
Amy Trubek, PhD
Dr. Trubek is Chair and Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont.
Photo of co-author Amy Trubek
Rebecca Mitchell
Rebecca Mitchell is the Food Systems Research and Action Coordinator in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont.

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