by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

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.

 

May 13 2014

It’s back at last: Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat

Janet Poppendieck.  Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression.  University of California Press, 2014.

I wrote the Foreword to this updated and expanded edition of Jan Poppendieck’s 1986 classic.

What a gift to have this new edition of Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat, too long out of print, and badly missed…Food assistance is what this book is about.  Breadlines tells the story of how the U.S. government, confronted with destitution during the Great Depression of the 1930s, first became involved in feeding the hungry.

Government agencies attempted to resolve two pressing social and political problems with one stroke:  breadlines, the unemployment-induced poverty that forced great masses of people to line up for handouts of free food, and knee-deep in wheat, shorthand for the great bounty of American agriculture that was available at the time, but unaffordable and allowed to rot or intentionally destroyed.

The solution: distribute surplus commodities to the poor while also—and politically far more important—providing farmers with a paying outlet for what they produced.   The earlier chapters of Breadlines focus on the politics—as played out in disputes between members of the Roosevelt administration—that led to a critical shift in the focus of food distribution programs.  Once aimed at hunger relief, the programs ended up aimed at protecting the income of farmers.

As a result, the hunger problem remained unsolved…. Breadlines has much to teach us about the historical basis of today’s politics of hunger, welfare, and agriculture policy.

Janet Poppendieck deserves much praise for writing this book and bringing it up to date, and so does University of California Press for producing this most welcome new edition.

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?

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