Feeding hungry Americans has become an even greater priority during the COVID-19 pandemic, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture is stepping up its efforts to help, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

But feeding Americans must not be the only goal. Improving the nutritional quality of food needs to be as important as combating hunger, he told a group of the news media.

"It's very easy to talk in this country about food insecurity," he said. "But I think there's a much larger problem we have to confront, which is not only food insecurity but nutrition insecurity. When you consider that 60% of Americans have one chronic disease and 40% of Americans have two or more chronic diseases — and diet is directly connected to many of those chronic diseases."

Vilsack, the ag secretary during the Obama administration who recently retook the position under President Joe Biden, spoke during an online presentation March 3. The event, open to the news media, was hosted by the National Press Foundation.

"I think it's incumbent on the Department of Agriculture, working in concert with the food and agriculture industry, to begin the process of transforming our food system so that we can address not only the issue of food insecurity but also nutrition insecurity," he said.

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About two-thirds of USDA spending goes for food programs, with 23% spent on farm, conservation and commodity programs. In fiscal year 2020, U.S. spent $120 billion on food programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infant and Children (WIC), soup kitchens, food banks and other programs, according to informational material from the National Press Foundation.

Children, the elderly and low-income Americans all benefit from the food programs, Vilsack said.

But "first and foremost, we need to modernize" the process through which Americans receive benefits, he said, noting that only about 50% of eligible WIC recipients actually get benefits.

Increasing online opportunities to utilize food programs is one way of doing that, he said.

"At the end of the day, our kids' future depends on it," he said, citing the link between healthy children and educational attainment.

One concrete example of what USDA has done already: monthly SNAP benefits have been increased by 15%, and that increase is expected to expand, Vilsack said.

One of the challenges facing American families during the pandemic is that fewer children are eating meals at school. That increases the pressure of their families to feed them at home — even more difficult because families can't get the volume discounts that schools, which buy in bulk, can obtain on food purchases, Vilsack said.

Precision ag analogy

Vilsack mentioned the growing role of precision ag, which treats each square foot of farmland differently to fit its individual needs.

"The same concept needs to be applied with nutrition," with each individual's food consumption tailored to his or her particular needs, Vilsack said.

The pandemic has taught America many things about its food system. One of them is the need to transition more quickly from food consumption at restaurants and other food-service locations to food-assistance programs, he said.

That means, for example, "making sure our food banks, our pantries, are well-equipped to be able to handle the surge" in additional demand, Vilsack said.

To learn more about what USDA is doing to combat hunger: https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2021/03/03/biden-harris-administrations-actions-reduce-food-insecurity-amid.