by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

Sep 8 2016

Good news: U.S. Household food security improves!

The USDA has just released its annual summary of statistics on national food insecurity, with these encouraging results.

Both total and very low food security have declined since 2014 and are heading back to the lower levels observed in the early 2000s.

The USDA defines food insecurity as not having enough resources to provide food for family members.

The new data show:

  • Households considered food insecure = 12.7%
  • Households considered severely food insecure = 5%
  • Households with children who are food insecure = 7.8%
  • Food insecurity is higher in households headed by single parents, especially those who are Black or Hispanic
  • Food insecurity is higher in some states (e.g., Mississippi = 20.8%) than others (e.g., North Dakota = 8.5%)
  • Food-insecure households participating in federal food assistance programs = 59%

These figures are better than last year’s, but still need improving.

The bottom line: federal food assistance programs do not do enough to alleviate food insecurity, even among households enrolled in them.

Jul 18 2016

City Voices: Hard Truths about Eating Healthy

I am a member of the New York Academy of Medicine and am happy to say that its Institute for Urban Health has just published a terrific new report in its City Voices: New Yorkers on Health series.

This one, published in June, is called “Food and Nutrition: Hard Truths about Eating Healthy.”


It is utterly remarkable and, in my experience, highly unusual.  The authors actually asked low-income community residents in Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens what they think about their diets, risks for chronic disease, and challenges to eating healthfully.

If you care whether people of low income have financial and physical access to decent food, this report is essential reading.

Food advocates: If you are looking for something useful to do, read this report.  It makes the needs clear and also suggests where interventions might best be targeted.

I’m always complaining that public health advocates need to ask people in communities what they think.  These authors did that, and look how useful it is!

Jul 14 2016

How to reduce SNAP caseloads? Easy. Just set a 3-month limit.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has just released an analysis of the recent decline in SNAP caseloads.

Bigger SNAP Declines in States Newly Imposing Time Limits

Some SNAP participants may be finding jobs along with an improving economy and going off the rolls.  Good for them.

But a more likely reason is that states like Florida, Missouri, Alabama, and Arkansas instituted a 3-month time limit in January.  The limit appleis to “unemployed childless adults without disabilities.”

Other states are doing this too.

If you want your state to reduce its SNAP expenditures, here’s one way to do that.

And if there aren’t jobs?  What are poor people supposed to do?

May 19 2016

SNAP politics: strange bedfellows

Wouldn’t it be useful if stores that accept SNAP benefits stocked some other real—as opposed to packaged—foods in addition to the apples, oranges, and bananas most of them now seem to carry (witness Walgreens)?

Congress thought so when it passed the 2014 farm bill.  This intended

to expand or preserve the availability of staple foods in underserved areas with moderate- and low income populations by maintaining or increasing the number of retail outlets that offer an assortment of perishable food and staple food items, as determined by the Secretary, in those areas.

In response, USDA proposed new regulations to improve what SNAP retailers had in stock.

The 2014 Farm Bill required USDA to develop regulations to ensure that stores that accept SNAP offer a broader variety of healthy food choices. The stocking provisions in the proposed rule would require SNAP-authorized retail establishments to offer a larger inventory and variety of healthy food options so that recipients have access to more healthy food choices. SNAP retailers would be required to offer seven varieties of qualifying foods in four staple food groups for sale on a continuous basis, along with perishable foods in at least three of the four staple food groups. The staple foods groups are dairy products; breads and cereals; meats, poultry and fish; and fruits and vegetables. In addition, the proposal calls for retailers to stock at least six units within each variety, leading to a total of at least 168 required food items per store.

Guess what?  Some retailers don’t like this idea.

What to do when you don’t like food regulations?  Go straight to Congress.

Now the House agriculture committee is complaining to USDA about the rule.  It says that USDA’s estimate of the cost per store ($140) is wrong.  Retailers say it will cost them $5000 per month to implement.

Who’s right?  Hence: politics.

The Congressional Black Caucus also wants the USDA to back off on this rule.  It says communities need these retailers (the quality of the foods they sell is not an issue, apparently).  Here is its letter.

Civil Eats has a good summary of the issues.

It troubles me greatly that SNAP divides advocates for the poor and advocates for health.  Don’t all of us want the recipients of federal food assistance to have access to healthful food choices?

May 17 2016

Congressional (mis)action on child nutrition

First the good news

The USDA is applying its school-food rules  to child and adult care programs.  It has just released its final rule for these programs.  These go into effect in October 2017.

Previously, the USDA released standards for the Women, Infants and Children program and for the National School Lunch Program.

Now all three food assistance programs are more or less aligned with the Dietary Guidelines.

The child and adult feeding programs will specify more fruits and vegetables, less sugar and fat, but have reduce the standards for whole grain-rich products and sodium.  Presumably, this will make the rules more acceptable to people who don’t like them, of which there are many (see below).

And now the bad news

The House has released its child nutrition reauthorization bill, with the Orwellian title: “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act.”  Like all such titles, this one means the opposite of what it says.

The House bill increases reimbursements for school breakfasts (good), but then lowers the nutrition standards for school meals and makes it harder for schools to qualify for universal free meals.  Here’s the committee’s bill summary.  And here is what the House Education and Workforce Committee says in its fact sheet.

The Hagstrom Report quotes Margo Wootan of Center for Science in the Public Interest saying that the House bill will:

  • Freeze sodium reduction for at least three years.
  • Require yet another scientific review of sodium.
  • Weaken the whole grain standards.
  • Let junk food back into schools
  • Allow schools to replace fresh produce with dried (without a sugar limit), canned (without a sodium or sugar limit), and frozen fruits and vegetables, thereby allowing schools to replace fresh apples and carrots with sugary fruit snacks, potato chips, jam, or trail mix containing candy.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says this bill will increase food insecurity among children.

Fortunately, not everyone in the House loves this bill.  A letter signed by 111 House members details objections.

The House will be working on this bill tomorrow.  What will the Senate do?

School food advocates: it’s time to get busy.  Here’s the list of House members.  Write to yours today!

Dec 11 2014

Congress again micromanages nutrition standards

Congress, in its infinite wisdom, is again using the appropriations process to micromanage nutrition standards for school meals and the WIC program, against the advice of the Institute of Medicine and other health experts.

The new appropriations bill includes several provisions relevant to issues I discuss frequently here.  By all reports, this is the best that can be expected, given the makeup of this Congress.

  • Section 751 grants exemptions to states from the whole grain requirements for school meals “Provided, That school food authorities demonstrate hardship…in procuring specific whole grain products which are acceptable to the students and compliant with the whole grain-rich requirements (my translation: forget whole grains and recommendations by health experts.  They are way too much trouble).
  • Section 752 says that no federal funds may be used to pay the salaries of people doing work “that would require a reduction in the quantity of sodium contained in federally reimbursed meals, foods, and snacks sold in schools…until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children (We know more about the effects of salt on health than do health professionals and expert committees).
  • Section 753 says Congress won’t pay the salaries of anybody who tries to “exclude or restrict, he eligibility of any variety of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables (except for vegetables with added sugars, fats, or oils) from being provided under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (no, you can’t keep white potatoes out of the WIC program).

Chalk these up to effective lobbying by the School Nutrition Association, makers of salty snacks, and the potato lobby.

The good news, such as it is:

  • Congress did not roll back most of the USDA’s food standards for school meals.
  • It only cut SNAP by $400 million.
  • It only cut WIC by $93 million.

These must be considered enormous victories, given the circumstances.

Addition, December 12:  The Hagstrom Report quotes USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack:

On the provision to require the availability of white potatoes in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Vilsack said, “With all due respect to the politicians who make the law, I have more confidence in pediatricians and more confidence in medical science than in political science.” 



Nov 11 2014

Does the USDA deliberately make it difficult for retailers to accept SNAP benefits?

A colleague and reader who recently took over a small food business wanted to continue to make it possible for people enrolled in SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. Food Stamps—to buy his products.

The business had already followed the steps needed to become an authorized SNAP retailer and had been accepting Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT cards) for a couple of years.

His new ownership required him to start over.  He filed the application with the USDA last April.  As he explained last week:

About six months later now, after repeated follow-up and efforts to move it along and resubmitted paperwork and things not mailed back, we’re finally learning that our accounts were approved for use in August. Probably the 8th person we spoke to since starting was able to tell this to us nonchalantly today. Everyone prior has had *virtually* no idea what’s going on or good answers for us other than “start over” or “I’ll have someone call you.”

Six months to set up EBT, surely among the largest transaction types in the country (in terms of the funding body and the process). The USDA & FNS must be woefully understaffed….

So our EBT accounts were finally approved and activated. What’s fascinating then is the number of companies that reach out to tell us (paraphrasing) that “due to recent changes in the Farm Bill, retailers are no longer able to get free processing equipment from the USDA so call us today to get low-cost equipment and a low-cost monthly flat-fee for your EBT processing needs.”

Obviously our bi-cameral, newly monocular Congress will only care about fraud with respect to EBT. So any responses to bureaucratic inefficiency will not likely result in reform, only reduction.

Alas, he is right about that.  Although Congress, in passing the Agricultural Act of 2014 (a.k.a. the Farm Bill), did not make the deep cuts in SNAP that many Republicans wanted, it did make some mean-spirited changes.

For example:

Section 4002: The Secretary shall require participating retail food stores to pay 100% of the costs of acquiring, and arrange for the implementation of, electronic benefit point-of-sale equipment and supplies, including related services (exceptions: farmers’ markets, nonprofit food coops, etc).  So yes, my reader’s small business has to pay for this.

Here’a another example:

Section 4018: Prohibiting Government-Sponsored Recruitment Activities.  No funds authorized shall be used by the Secretary for:

  • Recruitment activities designed to persuade an individual to apply for SNAP benefits
  • TV, radio, or billboard ads designed to promote benefits and enrollment
  • Agreements with foreign governments designed to promote benefits and enrollment
  • Compensating persons who conduct outreach activities relating to SNAP participation or who recruit others to do so.

It’s possible that the long delay in USDA approval of his EBT accounts could be due to staff incompetence, but it’s clear that Congress does not want anything done to promote SNAP or make it work well for anyone involved in the system.

Let’s hope the USDA is better about approving the eligibility of recipients.

As of August 2014, 46.5 million Americans received SNAP benefits at an average of $124 per month.   The USDA needs to do a better job of serving them and the retailers they buy from.

Aug 29 2014

Global Nutrition Report: How US Citizens Can Hold Government Accountable for Preventing Malnutrition

Lawrence Haddad, senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), invited me to comment on how to strengthen accountability in the fight against malnutrition in the United States.

This is a contribution to the Global Nutrition Report, a project chaired by the Governments of Malawi and the UK as an outcome of the 2013 Nutrition for Growth Summit in London.

My comments are in response to this specific question:

Q.  How can citizens of the United States hold their government accountable for preventing and reversing malnutrition?

A.  This question has no easy answer.  To begin with, we see practically no cases of severe undernutrition among U.S. citizens, in the sense that it occurs in the developing world.  Only rarely, do adults or children exhibit overt clinical signs of vitamin or mineral deficiency, let along acute malnutrition.  Instead, in America we talk about “food insecurity,” defined by government agencies as consistent, dependable, legal access to enough food on a daily basis to support active healthy living.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) monitors the extent of food insecurity among the population in two ways.  It counts the number of individuals who apply and qualify for participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps), and it collects data from surveys and publishes the results in annual reports on Household Food Security.  By both measures, nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population is judged to be food insecure—one out of every six adults.  Nearly six percent of the population is considered to be severely food insecure and, therefore, at risk of malnutrition but not necessarily displaying clinical signs.

Americans who qualify as food insecure are more likely than average to be poor, single parents, African-American or Hispanic, and living either in large cities or in rural areas.  They also, paradoxically, are more likely to be overweight or obese.  An explanation for the lack of clinical signs of malnutrition and of overweight is that nearly 60 percent of those considered food insecure participate in one or more of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs (SNAP, the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC, and National School Lunch Program.  An unspecified percentage also obtains free food from privately run charitable food banks or soup kitchens. As the USDA likes to explain, its 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs “form a nutritional safety net for millions of children and low-income adults” and account for more than 70 percent of USDA’s annual budget.

What the USDA says less about is the quality of that food.  SNAP has minimal limitations on what can be purchased with benefits, and retailers lobby hard to make sure program participants can continue to buy cheap, high-calorie foods and beverages.  WIC, in contrast, permits purchase of a limited number of foods meeting certain nutrition standards.  Recently, school meals have been required to meet nutrition standards, but these too are under lobbying pressure by food companies.

Because of the high cost of these programs—SNAP alone costs taxpayers $80 billion a year—arguments about what to do about food insecurity come down to matters of money.  They only rarely focus on ways to ensure that even the poorest Americans get enough food to eat, let alone healthy food.  Accountability, therefore, must confront the views of many congressional representatives that assistance programs represent “nanny-state” government and induce dependence among recipients.

Given this situation, American anti-hunger advocates are limited in what they can expect to accomplish in the current political era.  As one sympathetic Congressman, Jim McGovern (Dem-MA) once explained, hunger does not resonate with Congress.  Because the government already monitors food insecurity, the next steps must aim to get it to do something about the problem.  This means reducing poverty and income inequities (which in part means reducing educational inequities, providing a stronger safety net for single parents and those living in cities and rural areas, and reaching out to the 40 percent of people who qualify as food insecure but receive no federal food or nutrition assistance benefits.  It also means bringing anti-hunger and anti-obesity together to support healthier food options for low-income Americans.

All of this will cost money at a time when the interest of Congress in food assistance is only as a means to cut benefits.  This, in turn, means that the only way to fix the hunger problem in the United States is to change election campaign laws so that individuals who care about such issues have a chance of being elected.   Recent decisions of the Supreme Court in Citizens United and in McCutcheon make it clear that it favors no or insignificant limits on campaign contributions for corporations or wealthy individuals.    The one bright spot is the national movement that has emerged to obtain a raise the minimum wage, especially for restaurant and farm workers.  Most recipients of federal food assistance are employed, but at wages too low to bring them out of poverty.  Paying living wages would solve most problems of food insecurity in America.


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