Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

Apr 15 2014

Congratulations WashPo: Pulitzer prize for food stamp series

The Washington Post won a couple of Pulitzer Prizes yesterday, among them one for Eli Saslow’s remarkable series on what it’s really like to depend on food stamps. The Post’s understated announcement about this one is because its other prize was for its Snowdon coverage:

The Post’s Eli Saslow also won a Pulitzer — newspaper journalism’s highest award — for a series of stories about the challenges of people living on food stamps. Saslow, 31, was cited in the explanatory-journalism category by the 19-member Pulitzer board in an announcement at Columbia University in New York, which administers the prizes.

If you didn’t get to read the prize-winning articles, here’s your chance.

 

Apr 11 2014

The secret life of food stamps: good for business

The writer Krissy Clark, in a collaboration between Marketplace and SLATE, has produced a remarkable series of articles (with audio and video) on business interests in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps.

Here are brief excerpts:

The secret life of a food stamp, April 1

At a private dinner Walmart held for market analysts last fall in Bentonville, Ark., a company vice president estimated Walmart takes in 18 percent of all food stamp spending in the U.S….Meaning, Walmart took in more than $13 billion in revenue, or about 4 percent of Walmart’s total sales in the U.S.

So Walmart is likely the biggest single corporate beneficiary of SNAP, but it’s not just Walmart. A growing number of stores have baked food stamp funding into their business models since the Great Recession. The tally of stores authorized to accept food stamps has more than doubled since the year 2000, from big-box stores like Target and Costco to 7-Elevens and dollar stores. It’s a paradox that the more people are struggling to get by, the more valuable food stamps become for business.

Save money, live better, April 2

Although there are no federal numbers on where employed SNAP participants work, the state of Ohio…does keep a list of the top 50 companies with the most workers and their family members on food stamps. Ohio’s list includes lots of fast food chains and discount and big-box stores: McDonald’s, Target, Kroger supermarket, Dollar General. At the very top is Walmart, which had an average of more than 14,500 workers and family members on food stamps last year. If you take into account the average size of a family on food stamps, as many as 7,000 individual Walmart employees were on food stamps last year—nearly 15 percent of the company’s workforce across Ohio.

That means the same company that brings in the most food stamp dollars in revenue—an estimated $13 billion last year—also likely has the most employees using food stamps.

 Hungry for savings, April 3  

Like many anti-hunger advocates who receive donations from corporate retailers known for low wages, Elchert is in a tricky spot when it comes to addressing the paradoxes of the food stamp economy. His group gets financial support from Walmart and other food retailers. “When we’re talking a lot with corporations,” he says, “it’s one of those situations where, well, let’s talk about this in some way where we’re not offending them.”

I’ve talked about this issue in previous posts.  Here are some additional resources on the issue:

 

Mar 27 2014

Is Walmart the biggest SNAP beneficiary?

Here’s are some things I’d really like to know:

  • How much food assistance money gets spent at Walmart?
  • How many Walmart “associates” get SNAP benefits?

The USDA does not collect data on how SNAP recipients spend their benefits but I’ve been interested in these questions since reading Michele Simon’s report, “Follow the Money: Are Corporations Profiting from Hungry Americans?”

Our research found that at least three powerful industry sectors benefit from SNAP:

1) major food manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Mars;

2) leading food retailers such as Walmart and Kroger; and

3) large banks, such as J.P. Morgan Chase, which contract with states to help administer SNAP benefits.

Now the Los Angeles Times is asking the same questions.  It points out that Walmart’s annual filing with the Security and Exchange Commission, which is required to list potential risks to profits, includes this mention among many others:

changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, (and) changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.

Translation: if Congress cuts SNAP and makes it harder for poor people to get benefits, Walmart loses money.  Three reasons:

  • People on food assistance spend a lot of their benefits in Walmart.
  • Walmart employees qualify for food assistance benefits.
  • Its business model will lose its taxpayer-supported subsidies.

The L.A. Times refers to other stories on the same topic

Maybe Congress would be kinder to SNAP benefits if it understood that big corporations benefit so much from them.

Walmart, by the way, sold $466 billion worth of goods in 2013, of which roughly half comes from groceries.

Mar 3 2014

Let’s Move! scores one more: No white potatoes in the WIC package

On Friday afternoon (that slow news moment), Let’s Move! and the USDA announced the release of the long-awaited Final Rules governing foods eligible for purchase by participants in WIC–The Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

These are the first such revisions since 1980.  The rules:

  • Increase the dollar amount for purchases of fruits and vegetables.
  • Expand whole grain options.
  • Allow for yogurt as a partial milk substitute.
  • Allow parents of older infants to buy fresh produce instead of jarred infant food
  • Give states and local WIC agencies more flexibility in meeting the nutritional and cultural needs of WIC participants.

These are good moves but the big news is that the USDA stood up to lobbyists for the potato industry who have pushed the White House and Congress to allow participants to buy white potatoes with their WIC funds.

As I noted in an earlier post, the exclusion of white potatoes follows recommendations of the Institute of Medicine based on observations that WIC mothers already buy plenty of them.

Potato lobbyists got Congress to insert language in the 2014 Agriculture Appropriations bill urging the USDA to allow white potatoes in the package.

The USDA responded by asking the Institute of Medicine to reexamine the WIC food package in time for reauthorization of child nutrition programs in 2015.  This is now underway.

Although WIC is a small program relative to SNAP, it still provides about $7 billion a year for its nearly 9 million participants.

Food companies fight fiercely to ensure that their products are eligible to be purchased with WIC funds.  The potato lobbyists got Congress to intervene in USDA rules on school meals.

They must have thought they could win this one too.

It’s encouraging when public health wins out over industry lobbying.

But this one is small potatoes.  How about a few wins against Big Food?

Jan 31 2014

Yes, the farm bill is politically corrupt. Veto it!

I’ve been hearing from readers challenging my disgusted comments about the politics of the farm bill.

The bill is so awful that the Washington Post says it deserves a veto:

Tipping the financial scales at $956 billion over 10 years, or just over $1 billion per page, the hideously complex bill is supposedly a compromise that reforms crop subsidy programs…what the bill takes from the ag lobby with one hand, it largely gives back with the other…the bill cuts $8.5 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the poor…attached to so much corporate welfare, it’s hard to swallow, especially when that corporate welfare isn’t rigorously means-tested.

The New York Times doesn’t go that far.  It supports the bill, but grudgingly: “The farm bill could have been worse:”

On balance, the bill is clearly worthy of support, particularly because it will prevent austerity fanatics in future Congresses from gutting food stamps for the next five years….But endorsing the bill also means acknowledging the low expectations for real progress in Washington…As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues, rejecting the farm bill means rolling the dice that the next Congress will do a better job. In today’s environment, that’s a tough bet.

Why is the farm bill politically corrupt?

  • It is indeed “hideously complex,” so much so that nobody can possibly make intelligent decisions about very much of it.
  • It is so difficult to read (because it refers to previously legislation) that all kinds of things can get into it without being noticed or discussed.
  • It is mired in “pork,” things put into it by members of agriculture committees to please particular groups of constituents or lobbyists.
  • It is not about what’s best for the American people, farmers, or the poor; it is about what’s best for getting legislators elected.
  • It represents a substantial transfer of taxpayer dollars to the wealthiest “farmers” (i.e., agribusiness) at the expense of the poor and, therefore, legislates further income inequity.

I’m with the Washington Post on this one.  If the Senate passes it and the president signs it, it’s only because they’ve given up on trying to govern the country from some rational perspective.

Jan 28 2014

A brief early comment on the (ugh) farm bill

It’s too soon for me to say much about the farm bill other than to express disgust for the entire process.

The House and Senate still have to vote on it, which leaves plenty more opportunity for last-minute amendments, the addition of even more pork, and even more welfare for the rich at the expense of the poor.

In the meantime, we have the

What can I say?  The farm bill is a mess—the worst example of the worst of food politics.

Every clause in those 949 pages exists as the result of special-interest lobbying.  Guess what: some special-interest groups have more money and power than others.

The result: an unattractive compromise.

If the bill is ever to pass, everyone has to compromise, but some groups have to compromise more than others.

How else to explain the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities’ statement that the SNAP cuts represent a reasonable compromise?

To be sure, the conference agreement does include $8.6 billion in SNAP cuts over the next decade. Yet it stands in sharp contrast to the nearly $40 billion in SNAP cuts in the House-passed bill of September, which contained an array of draconian provisions and would have thrown 3.8 million people off SNAP in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The conference agreement includes none of the draconian House provisions — and it removes virtually no low-income households from SNAP.

I am indebted to ProPoliticoAg for listing the winners: groups that want to retain Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL), the dairy manufacturers, organic producers (!), the U.S. catfish industry (USDA will inspect catfish, not FDA), and animal welfare groups (states can insist on standards),   The soybean and rice industries are also happy with the bill, as are groups that want more flexibility in food aid.

ProPoliticoAg’s losers:  meat packers and processors who wanted to get rid of COOL, dairy farmers who preferred a different program, the poultry industry (which will have to abide by state cage-size requirements), anti-hunger advocates (the SNAP cuts).

ProPoliticoAg also read the fine print (as I promise to do once the bill passes):

  • $20 million per year for emergency relief to producers of livestock, honey bees and farm raised fish (p. 131-132)
  • A USDA report on the federal standard for the identity of honey (p. 802)
  • A citrus disease subcommittee to advise on citrus research (p. 568-569)
  • A requirement for USDA to recognize feral swine risks (p. 890)
  • $2.25 million per year through 2019 for wool research and promotion (p. 928)
  • A go-ahead to create a Christmas tree promotion board and 15-cent tax on fresh-cut trees (p. 805).
Jan 27 2014

The fight over white potatoes in WIC

Once again, Congress—under pressure from lobbyists—is micromanaging USDA’s food assistance programs.

This time it’s the WIC program (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children).

The lobbying is coming from the National Potato Council, which wants—no surprise—white potatoes to be included the list of foods approved for purchase with WIC benefits (the “WIC Package”).

I love potatoes but they don’t need to be in WIC.

Here’s what this is about.

The WIC Food Package

This is designed to meet the special nutritional needs of at-risk low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, infants and children up to five years of age.  Rules published in the Federal Register in 2007 aimed to promote long-term breastfeeding by providing WIC participants with a wider variety of foods including fruits and vegetables and whole grains (see summary here).

Although the rules allow states considerable flexibility, they specifically exclude white potatoes.

The New York State WIC package, for example, allows any variety of fresh vegetables and fruits except white potatoes (sweet potatoes and yams are allowed).

These rules are the result of an Institute of Medicine study released in 2005.  This study found that WIC participants already ate plenty of white potatoes.  The report said it would be better for WIC to encourage consumption of a wider variety of vegetables.

Potato industry lobbying

For the last five years, the potato industry has been lobbying to include white potatoes in the WIC package.

Potato lobbyists are active these days.

For example, the Maine potato lobby succeeded in getting Congress to tell the USDA that it could not set any limits on the number of times per week that white potatoes could be served in school lunches.  That ploy worked and this one may work too.

The National Potato Council lobbyists induced Congress to add a clause to the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill.  When President Obama signed that bill on January 17, he directed the USDA to allow all varieties of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables to be included.  Translation: white potatoes, and French fries at that.

If the USDA fails to comply, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack must submit a report to Congress explaining why not.

The National Potato Council makes this statement: “This action sends a clear message to USDA that it is obligated to base its nutritional policy on the latest nutritional science, which calls for an increase in starchy vegetable consumption for all Americans, including WIC mothers and children.”

It does?  I’m not aware of such science.

The Institute of Medicine is currently reviewing the WIC package and I seriously doubt that it will find a deficiency of starchy vegetables in American diets.

This is about getting potato growers a chunk of taxpayer money spent for the WIC program.

Why should anyone care?

If Congress caves in on white potatoes, it will open a Pandora’s box of pressures from lobbyists representing every food product currently excluded from the WIC package.

If lobbyists for white potatoes succeed, can those for “fruit”-flavored cereals and sports drinks be far behind?

The WIC program has always focused on encouraging recipients to consume foods that will best promote their own health and that of their children.

It would be better for WIC recipients—and a lot better for American democracy—if the potato industry stopped manipulating Congress and interfering with USDA nutrition programs.

Jan 14 2014

Congress releases its draft budget bill (sigh)

In the strange way the U.S. government works, Congress has produced the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014,” which authorizes payments for government services, including those related to agriculture.

This is not the farm bill.  It’s what Congress decides taxpayers will pay for in the farm bill as well as bills that cover other programs run by USDA.

The House summary of agriculture appropriations is a lot easier to read than the bill itself, although it contains its share of double speak.  Try this:

WIC – This program provides supplemental nutritional foods needed by pregnant and nursing mothers, babies and young children. The bill provides full funding for WIC at $6.7 billion – $153 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level…This level will ensure all eligible participants will be served.

Can someone please explain to me how a cut of $153 million will ensure service to everyone who is eligible?  WIC is not an entitlement; eligible people cannot be served once the money runs out.

The bill does provide full spending—$82.2 billion—for SNAP, but only because it has to.  SNAP is an entitlement and spending for it is mandatory.  Unless, of course, Congress ever passes the farm bill, which currently contains a $9 billion proposed cut.

And here’s more double speak.  “The legislation includes several provisions to reduce spending and increase oversight of taxpayer dollars.”  How?  By authorizing spending for:

  • Oversight and monitoring requirements for the WIC program, including a directive for the Secretary of Agriculture to increase oversight of vendors to help rein in food costs;
  • A provision requiring USDA to submit a plan for reducing high error rates and improper payments in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs;
  • Requirements for the Secretary of Agriculture to help weed out and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse in the SNAP program – including a directive to ban fraudulent vendors, and a prohibition on advertisements or outreach with foreign governments.

And why does the FDA’s budget still get decided by committees dealing with agricultural appropriations?

The FDA is a public health agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, which is funded by entirely different committees which you might think understand its mission a lot better than committees fussing about legislation that

restricts the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from implementing certain regulations that would allow harmful government interference in the private market for the livestock and poultry industry.

I can hardly wait to see what the farm bill will look like.

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