Open Letter to Secretary Tom Vilsack

This open letter is a project of the 2012 Presidio Graduate School’s Capital Markets class.  To read more letters, visit the project page here.

By Sarah Cabell

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

As a graduate student in sustainability, I am writing to express my concern regarding America’s food systems. Until recently, I was a USDA employee working to reduce childhood hunger through the WIC Program. I am now trying to help in a different way, taking into account the interaction and impact of different economic sectors on each other, the food we eat, and our well-being.

As you know, the U.S. is facing a series of crises:

Ninety-six point four million acres of American farmland are used to grow corn each year. Approximately 40 percent of U.S. corn is used to produce ethanol for fuel, while another 40 percent goes toward animal feed. The rest goes mostly toward corn syrup and other processed foods. This is arid land not used to grow nutritious fruits and vegetables.These issues have something very important and seemingly unlikely in common: food production.

Conventional farming, including corn for ethanol, requires significant energy to run machines and create highly toxic synthetic fertilizer to grow the corn. Fuels are also needed to transport food and process corn into food products. It is estimated that U.S. food travels an average of 5,000 miles per year. Processing foods takes even more energy. This energy use contributes to rising food costs.

Rising food costs contribute to rising food insecurity and hunger because people cannot afford to purchase and eat nutritious foods. They are either forced to eat cheap, processed foods (often empty calories) or not at all. The USDA published a report showing that 14.9 percent of households were food insecure in the U.S. in 2011, an increase from 2010. A link between low-cost, high-calorie foods and obesity and diabetes is well documented in the aptly coined, The Obesity-Hunger Paradox.

Unemployment comes into play because high fuel costs means less money to pay employees and labor. Highly mechanized agricultural production means fewer hands needed to do the work, which means fewer jobs. Unhealthy consumers means lower productivity.

What if there were a way to address all of these crises, together, at once?

Americans need to eat. My friends, family, and many others want and deserve to eat well and affordably. They also want to live comfortably, be healthy and disease-free, and know their food is safe. Demand for local, fresh foods is growing significantly, and already a $5 billion business in 2008.

Instead of subsidizing corn production, the federal government could offer subsidies to farmers to convert corn farmland to organic specialty crops, including labor. This process may require a couple of years to transition the soil. In the meantime, build local food hubs, including aggregators, distributors, processors, and end markets to connect these farms to consumers once they’re ready. Reduce the need for fossil fuels by reducing machinery, fertilizers, food transportation (currently half the U.S.’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables comes from California), and heavy processing.

A smaller supply of corn would increase cost of the processed foods that contribute to the health crisis while increasing affordable access to the nutritious, fresh foods that keep us well. It would also reduce our need for energy, and therefore corn production for ethanol. Develop alternative energy solutions at the same time so there is no need for ethanol production.

While it seems we have created a highly efficient food and farming system in the U.S., we are actually causing more harm than good. We need a food and farming solution that feeds people in a way that promotes good health for them and the soil. Please consider my appeal to shift our food systems.

Sarah V. Cabell

Presidio Graduate School

Photo Credit: Prairie Dreams Photography, Flickr


Sarah Cabell is getting her MBA in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School with a focus on sustainable food and agriculture. She co-chairs the Presidio Sustainable Food Club and seeks to help increase access to affordable healthy foods that benefit communities and the environment.

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