In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center senior fellows to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal.
Read on for an interview with Ferd Hoefner, Former National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) Policy Director, lead Washington representative, and Senior Strategic Advisor.
How did you get interested in food systems issues?
I’ve been working on federal food and agriculture policy for almost 45 years now. When I was an undergraduate, I was very interested in studying world food systems. This was in the context of the 1970’s when there was a so-called world food crisis. I became more and more interested in the political dynamics of how US policy was affecting agricultural development in the third world. That was my vantage point for getting interested. Then immediately after I graduated, I wound up in Washington D.C. working for a member of Congress who was on the House Agriculture Committee. I was also doing work for the National Student Center and they had a land grant university accountability project at the time which was very intriguing to me. My interests in food and agriculture grew more from there. I officially started working in agricultural policy for a group that no longer exists called the InterReligious Task Force on US Food Policy. They began covering food policy from the international aspect but they eventually became more involved in domestic agricultural policy. I’ve been working in food and agriculture policy ever since, wearing various hats over the years.
What has changed in food systems over your career?
When I started, agriculture policy and nutrition policy were separate. Nobody talked about food systems. Now, the world of food and agriculture policy is much more rich and complex. That is the most major change I’ve seen in my almost-34 years with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. When we started, we had committees on conservation & environment, farm programs, and research/extension, but it wasn’t until the mid-’90s that we added a food systems component to it. Now it is probably the most popular of all the ongoing committees. Also, within Farm Bill politics at the federal level, there were no food systems programs prior to the last 20 years, but now there are many.
What’s an innovation or development in the food systems world that you’re excited about?
It is an exciting time right now for the USDA and Biden Administration because there was so much money in the American Rescue Plan and the CARES Act going toward food supply chain programs. This is largely due to the pandemic opening people’s eyes to the problems with the industrial paradigm in food and agriculture. I fought many battles over the years to get local and regional food systems programs launched and funded each year for relatively small amounts of money. Now, suddenly there is a lot of money available to USDA for programs like that without very much Congressional direction. It’s a unique moment where there are big dollars and it’s up to the Administration to decide how to spend it. For instance, they are planning on spending 500 million dollars to support small meat processing plants, which has huge implications for regional food systems and pasture-raised meat producers that currently lack processing facilities. This would be a lot of money for that sector which hasn’t received many public resources before. There are a lot of other ways they are going to spend the money, but I’m watching that one closely. It could be a gamechanger for small and medium sized farms that are doing pasture-raised production, and for the processing sector to fill a niche that the major meatpacking companies aren’t addressing. The pandemic money also might be spent on regional food centers in seven regions of the country. This would allow us to see what is lacking in planning regional food systems and how we can improve it. This is still in the planning stage, but if they roll that out, it would probably become part of the policy-related food system landscape for years to come. This is a rare moment from a policy perspective because there is usually prescriptive legislation and regulations. This is much more free-flowing because of the way pandemic money was put together to fix supply chain issues. This can lead to new, innovative approaches to problems within our food system. Hopefully the new programs aren’t just one-and-done, but will actually become part of the policy landscape. The next generation of sustainable food systems policy folks will hopefully bring us to the point where a regional food system is a reality and not just a concept.
If there was something a new graduate of a food systems program should know, what would it be?
I always tell students that working in policy isn’t the be-all end-all, but it is incredibly important if you want to see real change in the food system. Policy plays a huge role. Students interested in food and ag policy should take courses that help them understand how policy works and then do various internships and/or fellowships. Then, they should try to make a career out of it. It’s frustrating how many people come to DC, work for 5 years in policy, and then move on to something else. We really need people who are going to do it over a long period of time. In the advocacy realm, it takes a long time to figure out how things get done, how to make things happen, how to have important relationships to make change, etc. We need people who are committed for the long haul. Within policy, there are lots of ways to go. I dabbled in working in Congress early on in my career and then I made the decision to work on the outside as an advocate. Students should find whatever feels right for them and then aim to make a long career out of it so that they can become an expert within sustainable food systems. There are a lot of experts in the conventional agriculture industry, but not a lot in the sustainable food systems industry.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?
Lentil soup! My mother had a rule when I was growing up that if we were really sick in bed, we could ask her for anything that we wanted to eat. I always wanted her homemade lentil soup when I was sick. She didn’t even have to ask; if I was sick in bed for a few days, she made lentil soup. It’s healthy, tasty, and comforting when you’re sick.