If the United States wants to make healthy food a priority, we need to make changes, especially regarding elected officials. That’s the conclusion of Congresswoman Alma Adams, Ph.D., elected in November to her third term in the U.S. House of Representatives, North Carolina 12th Congressional District.
Adams serves on the Agriculture Committee, among other committee assignments, and is an Assistant Whip for the Democratic Caucus. She was a panelist at the recent Global Summit for Food Security, which was organized by Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance and supported by W.K. Kellogg Foundation with media sponsorship by Food Tank.
“It should be a right for everyone to have access to good quality food and be able to afford it,” said Adams, a Kellogg Fellow. “Policymakers should put themselves in the place of the people we are sworn to serve. We need policymakers to develop greater compassion for our communities. If you have money to feed yourself and your family, you aren’t going to understand my pain.”
Easier access to healthy food is a huge priority, according to Adams.
“I filed a congressional bill that dealt with nutrition education recently,” she said. “People can’t afford healthy foods, or they live in areas where nutritious food isn’t readily available. It’s a problem throughout this nation, in cities and rural areas. Folks don’t have cars and these areas don’t have mass transit, so they are stuck with what they can find.”
Many food insecure people are children who live in poverty because their parents do. “If we are punitive to the caregivers, this impacts the children. If kids go to school hungry that’s where their focus is going to be: on their empty bellies,” explained the congresswoman.
Former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt started the statewide prekindergarten program Smart Start because he believed a ‘smart start’ meant that state’s children needed to go to school ready to learn. And food played a big part in that readiness.
“If children have the nutrition they need, they’re better focused on school,” said Adams about the concept. “When you talk about poverty in the 12th District, several reports have indicated this issue of upward mobility becomes a challenge for several reasons, housing, employment, education, all of these things factor into poverty.”
Another priority is helping people earn a living wage.
“Some get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits because they don’t earn enough,” she said. “But the money runs out and the food runs out before the month runs out. Some politicians consider people who rely on these federal programs to be lazy and not willing to work. But when you do the research, you learn most are already working. Two or three jobs.”
Unemployment is down, but some still aren’t earning enough to take care of their families, even with multiple jobs. “Working hard is not enough if you don’t earn enough,” added Adams.
Before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Adams served 20 years in the North Carolina House, and worked for a decade to raise the state’s minimum wage.
“After 10 years, we only got a one-dollar increase,” she recalled. “The federal government also raised the wage, so it’s US$7.25 in North Carolina today. Nobody can survive on that salary. Once they take taxes, that leaves a person about US$5. That wage is shameful in a country as wealthy as the United States.”
She hasn’t seen evidence that raising the minimum wage means losing jobs. “Some cities have increased their minimum wage to US$15,” said Adams. “These cities haven’t gone bankrupt. Jobs weren’t lost.”
About her congressional colleagues, she wondered, “How can they in good conscience let children or elderly people go to bed hungry? We know grandparents who won’t eat so they can buy medications.”
In 2017, Adams filed the Closing the Meal Gap bill, which would have amended the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 to revise the requirements for calculating SNAP benefits.
“Recipients receive only US$1.40 per meal or about US$126 per month. The minimum benefit is only US$16 per month, which is why we are trying to raise it to US$25 monthly,” she explained. “The bill expands deductions for housing costs and seniors’ medical costs, and requires that states provide SNAP recipients job training or exempt them from time-limits.”
The bill failed to pass last year, but Representative Adams will try again this year.
“I’ve learned if it doesn’t get through, keep trying,” she said. “The best advocates are the citizen advocates. We had church groups and others support us on the minimum wage issue in North Carolina. Once it started moving, it grew in momentum. People always want to be on a winning team.”
In her district, she is focused on local farmers, “who are moving away from the Charlotte area,” said Adams.
Some high schools are moving into aquaponics. Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte launched a Sustainability Village with greenhouses, where students grow vegetables, sell produce to farmers’ markets, and donate to food pantries. Blue Cross and Blue Shield gave the university money to build four more greenhouses. The program teaches students about food, nutrition, and community gardens.
“We aren’t reinventing the wheel,” she explained. “In African American communities, we always had vegetables and fruits year-round. My mother, grandmothers, and aunts canned peaches, beets, and vegetables like green beans. Even in urban areas, people grew flowers and foods. Urban gardens aren’t new; we’re just bringing them back. It’s especially good for young people because they gain respect for vegetables and want to eat more.”
With the new Congress, she said the biggest issue is health care.
“It’s not a partisan issue,” emphasized Adams. “Everybody needs to see a doctor if you are sick. If I have pain, it doesn’t matter my political party. Let’s look less at profits and more at people.”
Voting rights matter, too. “You can’t change policy until you change policymakers,” said Adams. “The people gave Congress a mandate. They have a right to hold us accountable to do what we said we would. This was the largest turnout in a Midterm election, the biggest Congressional change since Watergate. You don’t make change by sitting around and talking about it. You do something about it. People understand that now.”
Photo Courtesy of Michael Schwarz