According to US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, 43 million Americans are currently receiving assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Before the pandemic, it was a serious problem, and in recovery, it will be top of the list for President Joe Biden’s administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prepare the American food system to provide aid quickly, when, where, and how it is is needed.

Vilsack spoke to the National Press Foundation about hunger in America during a webinar on March 3. He said there are four key areas where the USDA can focus its efforts to address food insecurity in the nation.

First, Vilsack said, we need to modernize the food and nutrition security system and aid program. When the pandemic sheds light on something related to hunger, Americans struggle just understanding what program support is available in their states. Work continues in the states to ensure they receive the assistance to educate the public about the benefits available so that aid goes to those in need.

Next, Vilsack said it was time for the department to work to expand where the benefits could be taken, saying that in remote rural areas or even in urban centers it was difficult to run the programs according to the rules in force to use. Not everyone can get to a large chain of stores to take advantage of the programs.

Consumer education is also vital, and Vilsack said tools like “My Plate” are just one way to reach out to Americans and help them choose healthier foods so they can be responsible for their own health and health can take over their welfare.

“But a much bigger problem than food insecurity is food insecurity,” he added. Forty percent of Americans have two or more chronic diseases, and the country spends $ 160 billion on the treatment of diabetes through Medicare and Medicaid alone. That’s well over the entire budget for USDA, Vilsack said.

In addition, Vilsack mentioned that there is great concern about the significantly high rate of obesity in American children. On a purely national security level, military commanders are concerned about recruiting our volunteer military, he added.

Eventually, an important lesson learned the hard way during the pandemic was that there was an urgent need to transform the country’s food system. Prior to the pandemic, 50% of food in America was consumed outside the home through the food service sector, Vilsack said. This sector relies on larger bulk packaging of food ingredients for restaurants and cafeterias.

However, during the pandemic, food manufacturers and suppliers were unable to convert these food service lines into retail lines fast enough to keep pace with overnight shelter demand in retail stores. And there was strong demand for food banks and pantries to carry the burden of food aid more than ever as millions of Americans were laid off and in need of help. Vilsack said he is directing USDA staff to investigate exactly what happened and find solutions to resolve the problems that came to light.