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Resource: Empowering Eaters Summit: U.S. Congresswoman Valerie Foushee on Food Access and Accessibility

Fireside chat with U.S. Congresswoman Valerie Foushee on Food Access and Accessibility. Presented at the Empowering Eaters: Access, Affordability, Healthy Choices, and Food is Medicine Summit in Support of a National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health “The Health and Wellbeing of Future Generations in Policy.” Co-hosted by Duke University and Food Tank on March 3, 2024.

Transcript

Danielle Nierenberg

It is now my incredible honor to introduce U.S. Congress Member Valerie Foushee, who represents North Carolina’s fourth congressional district, and so we’re so excited to have her and her voice here, so please give her a round of applause as she joins the stage.

Thank you so much for being here. It should be turned on. Another round of applause, please. So thank you for joining us again. I’m wondering if we can talk about something that was sort of mentioned in the last panel, and that’s the need for different kinds of infrastructure to connect eaters with food markets and local growers.

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

Sure. First of all, thank you for having me here and certainly allowing me to be a part of this very important conversation.

Yes, it’s good to talk about this situation holistically, and I think part of that is talking about infrastructure and about ways of not just moving people from point A to point B, but ensuring people have access to services, access to all of those things that are needed for them to be able to raise healthy and providing nutrition for their families. So I’m proud that there has been from the federal government through the Biden-Harris administration funding coming directly to the fourth district, particularly as it relates to providing more funding for buses and for the rail system.

We know that over the past few months there has been $2.1 million invested right here for expanded access to bus services, and I think we all saw the announcement where a billion dollars has been invested right here for the Raleigh to Richmond S-Line Rail service. So I’m glad to see those kinds of things happening and understanding that we take the opportunity now to provide transportation so that people are connected with the services that they need.

Danielle Nierenberg

Because so many folks are living very far away from farmer’s markets or grocery stores, buses are… I’m hoping you can touch a little bit more on that. Buses are so important, and for those of the folks in the audience who drive cars and get around that way, buses are vital. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

Sure. For several reasons, first of all, we know that we need to do what we can to reduce the effects of climate change, and so we’re talking about relieving congestion. We’re talking about easy access, cleaner access, safer access, all of those. And I mean, they’re important. We see, particularly in a growing area where we are trying to remove as many combustible engines off the roadways, just allowing for people to have access without the need for putting more cars on the road is the way that we should be going and providing that funding allows us to do so.

Danielle Nierenberg

So important. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about the role that green spaces play in improving the overall health of communities. We’ve talked about whole-person holistic health. Green spaces are a huge part of that.

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

Absolutely. Because we’re talking holistically, we want people to be healthy, and so we have to allow for those spaces to be available by way of parks and other areas of green space so that people can move people can have access to recreation. When we also talk about green spaces, we’re talking about reducing other factors that contribute to climate change. We take these opportunities to reduce pollution and have those green spaces in centers where people can access them. Again, if you connect green spaces with access to transportation so that people can get to these areas, have the opportunity to explore parks, explore nature, add to what we know to be a thriving ecosystem, all of that is important.

Danielle Nierenberg

And so important for children.

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

Absolutely, and for seniors like myself.

Danielle Nierenberg

Not at all. Not at all. I’m wondering what opportunities you’re seeing right now as such an influential member of Congress to improve food security at the national level before November.

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

Yeah. So I’m glad that… How about that one? I’m glad to have heard some of the conversation with the earlier panel because I think, particularly since the pandemic, we’ve seen how the federal government did come in and provide nutrition for not just people who didn’t have access by way of transportation or being able to get out, but with school children not having access to be in school buildings where many students who live in poverty were relying on meals. They were getting meals for breakfast, getting lunch, and many of them leaving school buildings with backpacks with food. But that whole situation, that was funded by the American Rescue Program where for a long period of time, people became reliant on access to those meals. It gave the opportunity for not just children but also senior adults. People who had not engaged the system before had the opportunity to be provided with nutritious meals.

I think we know that there is a responsibility that government plays in ensuring that there is food security. I think we learned a lot of lessons from that. It is my hope that we would continue all of those programs that provided for nutrition for children and their families.

It’s interesting that a number of situations were revealed during the pandemic. Such that there was a greater push to not just acknowledge that this was a situation but to provide for it and to come together in a bipartisan way to provide those funds. It’s not like when the pandemic ends, people went back to having opportunities for job placement and that sort of thing. It’s not such that people were able to move back into what they knew to be normal.

So to just stop have a dead point where no longer these programs were available not, does not make a whole lot of sense, and so I’m hoping that my colleagues will move forward with understanding that until we get to a point where people can count on assistance as it relates to our farmers, particularly new farmers, farmers who saw a period of time where they could not invest in equipment as we heard earlier, or understanding what the supply chain situation yielded for all of us. Our role as a responsible government is to not only see those things, but to address them such that we can move our country forward.

Danielle Nierenberg

As somebody who is an anti-hunger advocate and understands the lessons that we learned from the pandemic, and to be frank, not a lot of your colleagues are remembering those lessons. Do you feel optimistic that we can make these changes and make them quickly enough so the generation of kids right now who are struggling, the generation of families right now who are struggling that they won’t have to six months from now, two years from now, four years from now?

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

That’s a really tough question. I want to be positive about it, but I think all of you… No, there’s no one in this room who has not watched and has seen that there is gridlock in Congress, but I do believe that their by and large is a sense among most folk in Congress that we are at a critical point where it is our responsibility to provide.

I’m hoping that when we return this week and we talk about providing appropriations for governments such that our country functions that we’ll put these issues front and center. That we understand that people are not just wanting to see, but people need to see us address their needs, and particularly as it relates to poverty and nutrition, particularly where it relates to housing as you heard earlier, and particularly as it relates to helping people to understand how you build wealth in such a manner that when situations come that don’t allow us to function as we normally have, that they are reserved not only personally, but that the government has reserves that come in and provide what people need.

Danielle Nierenberg

So important. You mentioned poverty and poor nutrition go hand-in-hand. Safety nets are critical. You’re a co-sponsor of extending WIC for New Moms Act, and I’m wondering if you can talk about that. And again, why it’s so important?

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

Interesting. I didn’t know about WIC until I had my own children. And seeing what WIC does for women, and infants, and children, particularly the children up to age five, providing that necessary nutrition so that they have healthy starts is critical. We know that children don’t perform well when they’re hungry. None of us do, but for children who are developing, to not have access to nutrition makes no sense. What expanded WIC does is to provide for moms and children to have access to these resources for a longer period of time, from six months to 12 months. And for women who are breastfeeding, to extend that period of time from 12 months to 24 months, such that we know that we are providing healthy starts by way of nutrition for young children and for the moms, because WIC not only provides those resources but also those safety net resources become available to those moms, those infants, and those children.

Danielle Nierenberg

It’s such common-sense legislation and programming. I don’t know who could be against it.

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

Absolutely. No one should think that.

Danielle Nierenberg

You are also a member of the Hunger Caucus in Congress, and I’m wondering what are some of the Caucus’s big goals right now.

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

And I want to say so that all of you know that because I’d like for us to think of things in bipartisan fashion. Certainly, we are indebted to the Biden-Harris administration for how it did bring us through the pandemic and what those pieces of legislation by way of the IRA, the IIJA, the Investments and Infrastructure Jobs Act, all of those pieces of legislation that has brought us to this point. But that caucus is a bipartisan caucus where Republicans and Dems come together to talk about this issue, and this issue in particular, because hungry people are Democrats, hungry people are Republicans, hungry people are people who are not affiliated to any particular party. So it is our goal to make sure that we are pushing forward by way of the Farm Bill, by way of other pieces of legislation to make sure that we are addressing the needs of the American people.

One of the things that we spent a lot of time talking about is what we do for farmers and understanding how important it is that we equip farmers to provide the food stuffs that we need. So it’s a good place to be.

Danielle Nierenberg

It is a good place to be. And we talked about farmers and the aging population of farmers in a previous panel. What do you see as most successful in helping Black and brown farmers, indigenous farmers, those young farmers who want to get into this but are facing so many obstacles, whether it’s student loan debt or lack of healthcare? How can the federal government, how can the state government, I mean, from your perspective, help those farmers really succeed?

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

Well, I think first of all, having acknowledged how difficult it is, that the federal government should be in position to provide funding, whether it’s by low-cost loans or for grants that allow for farmers to be successful in purchasing equipment and those other necessary things for successful farming.

In addition to that, it seems to me that we need to continue to fund land-grant universities, particularly like here in North Carolina, North Carolina A and T State University and North Carolina State University, that has these extension programs that help our farmers with their needs, understanding that there is a place where they can go for.

I sat in on a session that talked about what regenerative practices are for farmers and where as we heard from our Native Americans that these are things that were done decades and centuries ago, and now they’re fancy to do.

Danielle Nierenberg

Sure, sure. They’re not new.

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

They’re necessary to do. They’ve always been necessary. And to have these institutions to come out and help our farmers to understand that these are ways that they can be more successful, that’s a role that the government can play and should play. And I’m happy to know that we are doing it to a good extent, but we need to do more, and we can do more.

Danielle Nierenberg

I’m so excited that you’re here because you’re such an advocate for farmers, and you’re an advocate for solving the climate crisis. Farmers are on the front lines of the climate crisis right now. What needs to happen for them here in North Carolina?

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

Well, again, if we are addressing climate change in such a manner that farmers know that we hear them when they say that if we go through serious droughts, we have trouble, if we’re going through floods, we have trouble, to be in position where we are addressing the climate change needs, but also as it relates to preparing farmers to do other things in those situations, such that in the interim that they’re still successful, that there are other ways of putting forward that product, making sure that we are assisting in ensuring that they can get products out, that in the meantime, they’re doing other things that allow them to be successful until those times that we return to situations where we’re not in droughts and we are not in extended heat periods.

Danielle Nierenberg

Thank you for that. I’m wondering, Congresswoman. I think a lot about this idea of citizen eaters, people who vote on behalf of farmers on the food system who vote for climate resilience. How do we get more candidates like you in office?

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

So I think what we have to do is pay attention to who is representing us and to understand that… Let me just say this. I believe that most people who come to public life come because they want to help. Somewhere along the way, we get distracted, but it is incumbent upon all of us to look at who is standing before us and what they’re saying about what they will do for us. A lot of that has to do with making sure that people who come to state government, people who come to Congress, have the political will to stand up for everyday citizens. And somebody has asked me, “What do you mean by everyday citizens?” I mean, all of us, that no one of us carries a greater weight than any other of us. It’s the same way in a legislative body. If there are 50 of us, then all 50 of us carry the same weight.

Well, it should be the same for the American people that we don’t just cater to people who have the loudest voices, but understanding that each of us represents a number of people.

I grew up very poor in this area, but through education and persistence of my parents, who were teenagers when I was born, but they understood the value of hard work, so there worked more than one job. They understood the value of education, and so they made sure I got one. And they understood faith, and they made sure that it was pushed into me, such that I came here from church today.

These are things that I think you should be looking at people who want to represent you. Do they share the same values that you share? And if you look at what they have done, if they have any kind of record at all, look at what they’ve done and for whom they’ve done it. If they don’t have a political record but you haven’t seen them in your community, whether it is PTA or some festival where you saw them at the table working, rather than just enjoying the benefits of that, look at those folk who you can genuinely see a desire within them to ascend themselves beyond themselves for somebody else than themselves. Those are the kinds of people we should be sending to represent us in any legislative body.

Danielle Nierenberg

I’m sorry, I’m emotional. You made me cry. We are at the end of our conversation. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your inspiration. Thank you for your service.

Congresswoman Valerie Foushee

Thank you. Thank y’all.