Currently browsing posts about: Food-stamps

Aug 1 2013

Front page news: fast food workers need better pay

Fast food workers striking for higher pay are on the front page of the New York Times today.   And about time too.

The salient quotes:

  • Our union’s members think that economic inequality is the No. 1 problem our nation needs to solve. We think it’s important to back low-wage workers…to make the case that the economy is creating jobs that people can’t support their families on.
  • In a lot of low-income neighborhoods, probably the largest employer is the fast-food industry, and we’re not going to reduce the level of poverty in those neighborhoods unless we try to get that industry to provide jobs that pay a living wage.
  • One Taco Bell worker…has about $900 a month to feed and clothe her three children. They receive food stamps.

Food stamps?  If fast food and restaurant workers need—and qualify for—food stamps to feed their families, this means that American taxpayers are subsidizing the profits of these industries.

And if you want a terrific introduction to what this issue is about, take a look at Saru Jayaraman’s  Behind the Kitchen Door (ILR Press/Cornell, 2013).

Jan 10 2013

Predictions for 2013 in food politics

For my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle, I devote the one in January every year to predictions.  Last year I got them all pretty much on target.  It didn’t take much genius to figure out that election-year politics would bring things to a standstill.  This year’s column was much harder to do, not least because the FDA was releasing blocked initiatives right up to the printing deadline.

 Q: I just looked at your 2012 crystal ball column. Your predictions were spot on. But what about 2013? Any possibility for good news in food politics?

A: Food issues are invariably controversial and anyone could see that nothing would get done about them during an election year. With the election over, the big question is whether and when the stalled actions will be released.

The Food and Drug Administration has already unblocked one pending decision. In December, it released the draft environmental assessment on genetically modified salmon – dated May 4, 2012. Here comes my first prediction:

The FDA will approve production of genetically modified salmon: Because these salmon are raised in Canada and Panama with safeguards against escape, the FDA finds they have no environmental impact on the United States. The decision is now open for public comment. Unless responses force the FDA to seek further delays, expect to see genetically modified salmon in production by the end of the year.

Pressures to label genetically modified foods will increase: If approval of the genetically modified salmon does nothing else, it will intensify efforts to push states and the FDA to require GM labeling.

Whatever Congress does with the farm bill will reflect no fundamental change in policy: Unwilling to stand up to Southern farm lobbies, Congress extended the worst parts of the 2008 farm bill until September. Don’t count on this Congress to do what’s most needed in 2013: restructure agricultural policy to promote health and sustainability.

The FDA will start the formal rule-making process for more effective food safety regulations: President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act in January 2011. Two years later, despite the FDA’s best efforts, its regulations – held up by the White House – have just been released for public comment. Lives are at stake on this one.

The FDA will issue rules for menu labels: The Affordable Care Act of 2010 required calorie information to be posted by fast-food and chain restaurants and vending machines. The FDA’s draft applied to foods served by movie theaters, lunch wagons, bowling alleys, trains and airlines, but lobbying led the FDA to propose rules that no longer covered those venues. Will its final rules at least apply to movie theaters? Fingers crossed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will delay issuing nutrition standards for competitive foods: When the USDA issued nutrition standards for school meals in January 2012, the rules elicited unexpected levels of opposition. Congress intervened and forced the tomato sauce on pizza to count as a vegetable serving. The USDA, reeling, agreed to give schools greater flexibility. Still to come are nutrition standards for snacks and sodas sold in competition with school meals. Unhappy prediction: an uproar from food companies defending their “right” to sell junk foods to kids in schools and more congressional micromanagement.

The FDA will delay revising food labels: Late in 2009, the FDA began research on the understanding of food labels and listed more relevant labels as a goal in its strategic plan for 2012-16. Although the Institute of Medicine produced two reports on how to deal with front-of-package labeling and advised the FDA to allow only four items – calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugars – in such labels, food companies jumped the gun. They started using Facts Up Front labels that include “good” nutrients as well as “bad.”

Will the FDA insist on labels that actually help consumers make better choices? Will it require added sugars to be listed, define “natural” or clarify rules for whole-grain claims? I’m not holding my breath.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participation will increase, but so will pressure to cut benefits: Demands on Snap – food stamps – reached record levels in 2012 and show no sign of decline. Antihunger advocates will be working hard to retain the program’s benefits, while antiobesity advocates work to transform the benefits to promote purchases of healthier foods. My dream: The groups will join forces to do both.

Sugar-sweetened beverages will continue to be the flash point for efforts to counter childhood obesity: The defeat of soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte (Los Angeles County) will inspire other communities to try their own versions of soda tax and size-cap initiatives. As research increasingly links sugary drinks to poor diets and health, soda companies will find it difficult to oppose such initiatives.

Grassroots efforts will have greater impact: Because so little progress can be expected from government these days, I’m predicting bigger and noisier grassroots efforts to create systems of food production and consumption that are healthier for people and the planet. Much work needs to be done. This is the year to do it.

And a personal note: In 2013, I’m looking forward to publication of the 10th anniversary edition of “Food Politics” and, in September, my new editorial cartoon book with Rodale Press: “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.”

Jun 22 2012

The Senate passed its version of the farm bill. Now what?

It’s difficult to know what to say about a 1010-page bill that affects literally hundreds of programs, some big, some small, at such astronomical cost—an expected $97 billion per year.  The bill is so big and so complex that it is unreasonable to expect legislators to understand it well enough to vote on it intelligently.  Think of it as a prime example of special interests in action.

I’ve been collecting e-mailed responses from various groups.  From these, it’s seems that the food movement scored a few wins along with plenty of losses.

First the wins.  The United Fresh produce association is happy that the bill provides for:

  • Specialty Crop Block Grants funded at $70 million per year
  • Specialty Crop Research Initiative funded at $25 million in FY13; $30 million in FY14-15; $65 million in FY16; $50 million in FY17
  • Plant Pest and Disease Program funded at $60 million in FY13-16 and $65 million in FY17
  • Market Access Program and Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Hunger-Free Communities Grant Program for fruit and vegetable SNAP incentives
  • Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program
  • Section 32 specialty crop purchases funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • DoD Fresh program fully funded at $50 million per year consistent with 2008 levels

Oxfam likes two things:

  • It converts the 2008 pilot program to study the effectiveness of purchasing food aid locally and regionally to a full program funded at $40 million per year.
  • It tries to reduce dumping of food aid on developing country markets.

Everyone else is mixed or skeptical:

  • From Food and Water Watch: “Today, the U.S. Senate passed a farm bill that left the largest agribusiness and food processing companies firmly in control of America’s food system.”
  • From the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: “While the bill includes historic commodity payment limit reforms and renewed investments in a variety of sustainable farm and food programs…[it] would benefit greatly from more agriculture reform, a greater local and regional food focus, and a much greater commitment to economic development and jobs…We are also disappointed with the $3.7 billion cut to conservation programs on working farms and ranches.”
  • From the Environmental Working Group: “While we do not support this bill, we applaud the provisions that require farmers who receive crop insurance subsidies to carry out basic environmental protections on their farms and to reduce insurance subsidies for the largest and most successful agribusinesses.”

The debates over the farm bill hold some interesting lessons.

  • The historic “logrolling” alliance between rural states favoring commodity support and urban states protecting food assistance programs (SNAP, food stamps) may soon come to an end.  Senator Ron Johnson’s (Rep-WI) motion to separate SNAP benefits from farm supports was allowed four minutes of discussion.  It failed on a vote of 59 to 40 (all Republicans).  Forty?  That seems like a lot.
  • Labeling of genetically engineered foods remains an issue in American politics and not likely to go away.  The Senate voted down an amendment to allow states to decide for themselves whether to label such foods.  How will this affect the California “lets label it” initiative?
  • Crop insurance will be the new focus of consumer advocacy.  As Politico puts it, “the bill reflects a major shift of resources to crop insurance, which emerges as a new political powerhouse for agriculture — and what’s left of the safety net promised farmers. Midwest corn and soybean producers — riding high with good prices and a federal ethanol mandate — helped drive this change. But the result is a real and lasting split with Southern rice, peanuts and wheat growers reflected in the final vote.”
  • The food movement has to get its act together. Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group said “When conservationists stood our ground and fought, we won against the supposedly invincible crop insurance industry. Too many in the conservation community didn’t fight at all…As a consequence, conservation funding took the largest proportionate hit in this bill. For the “food movement”, the Senate farm bill has been another, rather sobering reminder that until we develop political muscle to match our passion for a sustainable food system, we’ll continue to see billions of dollars misspent on industrial agriculture.”

This is a call to action.  The House is about to take up its version in the coming weeks.  Advocates: get to work!

Jun 21 2012

The Senate roll-call votes on farm bill amendments

In the vote-a-rama of the last couple of days, the Senate passed these farm bill amendments with roll-call votes (other amendments were passed or rejected by voice votes):

  • No. 2439; To limit the amount of premium subsidy provided by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation on behalf of any person or legal entity with an average adjusted gross income in excess of $750,000 with a delayed application of the limitation until completion of a study on the effects of the limitation.
  • No. 2438; To establish highly erodible land and wetland conservation compliance requirements for the Federal crop insurance program.
  • No. 2363 As Modified; To ensure that extras in film and television who bring personal, common domesticated household pets do not face unnecessary regulations and to prohibit attendance at an animal fighting venture.
  • No. 2295; To increase the amounts authorized to be appropriated for the designation of treatment areas.
  •  No. 2454; To prohibit assistance to North Korea under title II of the Food for Peace Act unless the President issues a national interest waiver.
  •  No. 2293; To limit subsidies for millionaires.
  • No. 2382; To require the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation to provide crop insurance for organic crops under similar terms and conditions to crop insurance provided for other crops.
  • No. 2309; To require a study into the feasibility of an insurance product that covers food safety recalls. No. 2238; To require more frequent dairy reporting.
  • No. 2370; To encourage the purchase of pulse crop products for school meals programs.
  • No. 2445; To strengthen rural communities and foster the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
  • No. 2167; To provide payment limitations for marketing loan gains and loan deficiency payments.
  • No. 2190 As Modified; To require Federal milk marketing order reform.

I won’t go through all of the rejected amendments, but did notice this one:

  • No. 2289; To reduce funding for the market access program and to prohibit the use of funds for reality television shows, wine tastings, animal spa products, and cat or dog food.

Now why would the Senate vote to retain market access program funds for such things?   Taxpayer support of promotion of cat and dog food?  How did we miss that one when when my co-author and I were writing Feed Your Pet Right, our analysis of the pet food industry.

And wine tastings, anyone?

But to get to a more important rejection: Senator Gillibrand’s amendment to protect SNAP from budget cuts:

  • No. 2156 As Modified; To strike a reduction in the supplemental nutrition assistance program and increase funding for the fresh fruit and vegetable program, with an offset that limits crop insurance reimbursements to providers.

The rejection of this proposal gets us into issues related to the cozy arrangement between anti-hunger advocates and pro-commodity advocates to vote for each other’s funding (translation: logrolling).   Does this rejection mean that the arrangement is breaking down under budget-cutting pressures?  Or does it simply reflect an agreement that a reduction in SNAP is the quid pro quo for removing direct payments and setting some caps on commodity benefits?

Senator Ron Johnson (Rep-Wisconsin) has an interesting take on the logrolling questions.  He filed a motion to send the farm bill back to committee to divide it into two separate bills, one for food assistance and the other for farm supports.

When Congress debates legislation to spend nearly $1 trillion, we need to be honest with the American people about what we’re doing. This isn’t a farm bill. It’s a welfare bill…We should be clear about how much we are spending and why we are spending it – and we ought to give Senators the opportunity for a straight up or down vote on two different proposals that have little in common.

…If Senators want to spend $800 billion on Food Stamps, or nearly $200 billion on farm programs, let them say so with a clean vote – rather than combining them into an all-or-nothing package that passes with a minimum of debate and scrutiny.

Want to take bets on how far his motion gets? [Not far: the Senate rejected the motion this morning, 59 to 40]

The Senate is voting on more amendments today.  More to come.

Jun 20 2012

Farm Bill Amendment Scorecard

I’m trying to keep track of the Senate votes on the farm bill amendments, with help from Michael Bulger, Senate Floor Monitor @SenGOP_Floor, @ObamaFoodorama, and the  Senate’s official list online.

The list below comes from Farm Bill Primer, where you can read the details of the amendments.

The heartbreak: the defeat yesterday of Senator Gillibrand’s amendment to restore full funding for SNAP.

Senate Amendments for Vote 6-19-12

  • Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii #2440 (highly fractionated tribal lands);  PASSED
  • Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii #2396 (tribal relations office); PASSED
  • Max Baucus, D-Mont., #2429 (livestock); PASSED
  • Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., #2364 (multi-state aquifers); WITHDRAWN
  • Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, #2445 (rural development); PASSED
  • Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., #2370 (pulse pilot); PASSED
  • Robert Casey, D-Pa., #2238 (technical/study -federal milk marketing) PASSED
  • Christopher Coons, D-Del., #2426 (poultry insurance study); PASSED
  • Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., #2422 (conservation innovation grants); PASSED
  • Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Feinstein #2309 (insurance recall); PASSED
  • Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., #2156 (SNAP); DEFEATED
  • Kay Hagan, D-N.C., #2366 (crop insurance plain language); PASSED
  • John Kerry, D-Mass., #2187 (commercial fishermen); PASSED
  • Mary Landrieu, D-La., #2321 (rural development loans); PASSED
  • Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, #2190 (milk marketing order reform); PASSED
  • Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., #2192 (value added grants); DEFEATED
  • Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, #2167 (pay cap marketing loans); PASSED
  • Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., #2174 (SNAP); DEFEATED
  • Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., #2172 (SNAP); DEFEATED
  • Rand Paul, R-Ky., #2181 ($250,000 income limit); DEFEATED
  • Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., #2191 (wind loans); DEFEATED
  • John McCain, R-Ariz., #2199 (catfish); PASSED
  • Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., #2217 (organic/AMA); DEFEATED
  • Jim DeMint, R-S.C., #2263 (broadband funding); DEFEATED
  • Jim DeMint, R-S.C., #2262 (SoS Free MKT); PASSED
  • Jim DeMint, R-S.C., #2276 (checkoffs); DEFEATED

For what’s happening today, see the Senate list for June 20.

At some point, I’ll try to make sense of all this.  For the moment, it’s food politics happening in real time.

 

Jun 13 2012

Who benefits most from food stamps? Follow the money!

While Congress is fussing over the farm bill, Michele Simon’s new report, Food Stamps: Follow the Money, identifies the businesses that most stand to gain from the $72 billion spent last year on SNAP.  This program, formerly known as food stamps, gave 46 million Americans an average of  $134 per month to spend on food in late 2011.

Just as health and anti-obesity advocates are working to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy by getting the farm bill to promote production of healthier foods, they also are looking at ways to encourage SNAP recipients to make healthier food choices.  At present, SNAP recipients have few restrictions on what they can buy with their benefit cards.

In contrast, participants in the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), which is not a farm bill program, can only use their benefits to buy foods of high nutritional value.  The idea of requiring SNAP recipients to do the same has split the advocacy community.

Anti-hunger advocates fear that any move to restrict benefits to healthier foods, or even to evaluate the current food choices of SNAP recipients, will make the program vulnerable to attacks and budget cuts.  They strongly oppose such suggestions.

Follow the Money explains some of the politics behind efforts to maintain the status quo:

  • Food industry groups such as the American Beverage Association and the Snack Food Association teamed up with anti-hunger groups to oppose health-oriented improvements to SNAP.
  • Companies such as Cargill, PepsiCo, and Kroger lobbied Congress on SNAP, while also donating money to America’s top anti- hunger organizations.
  • At least 9 states have proposed bills  to make health-oriented improvements to SNAP, but  none have passed, in part  due to opposition from the food industry.
  • Coca-Cola, the Corn Refiners of America, and Kraft Foods  all lobbied against a Florida bill that aimed  to disallow SNAP purchases for soda and junk food.
  • Nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars in one year.
  • Walmart received about half of the billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma over a 2-year period.
  • J.P. Morgan Chase holds contracts in 24 states to administer SNAP benefits.
  • Banks and other private contractors are reaping significant windfalls from the economic downturn and increasing SNAP participation.

The point here is that banks that administer SNAP have a vested interest in keeping SNAP enrollments high and makers of junk foods have a vested interest in making sure that there are no restrictions on use of benefits.

Another point: data on use of SNAP benefits exist but are either proprietary or not made available.

The report concludes with these recommendations:

  • Congress should maintain SNAP funding in this time of need for millions of Americans;
  • Congress should require collection and disclosure of SNAP product purchase data, retailer redemptions, and national data on bank fees;
  • USDA should evaluate state EBT contracts to determine if banks are taking undue advantage of taxpayer funds.

I’ve not seen this kind of analysis before and this report deserves attention.  At the very least I hope that it will encourage Congress to make sure that the poor get their fair share of SNAP benefits.

Sep 13 2011

It’s OK to use food stamps to buy fast food? Better check for conflicts of interest

Readers Robyn and Will sent me a link to an ABC News story about Yum! Brands efforts to get more states to authorize the use of food stamp (SNAP) benefits in fast food restaurants.

Michigan, California, Arizona, and Florida already do this.  Yum!, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, wants it to go national.

They write:

We believe that food stamps should be used to buy nutritious food for kids and families, not junk food! This nonsense has to stop!  This is a government program–it should not be a means for corporations to sell products that will eventually lead to ever-increasing health problems–obesity, heart issues, diabetes, etc. What can we do to be heard?

USA Today did a story on this last week.  It elicited more than 1,000 comments.  I’m not surprised.

The issue thoroughly divides the food advocacy community.   Public health and anti-hunger advocates sharply disagree on this issue, as they do on the question of whether sodas should be taxed.

USA Today quoted Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s anti-obesity Rudd Center:

It’s preposterous that a company like Yum! Brands would even be considered for inclusion in a program meant for supplemental nutrition.

But then the article quoted Ed Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center and a long-time anti-hunger advocate:

They think going hungry is better?…I’m solidly behind what Yum! is doing.

Of course he is.  Want to take a guess at who funds the Congressional Hunger Center?

Yum! is listed as a “Sower,” meaning that its annual gift is in the range of $10,000.   I’m guessing Yum! is delighted that it is getting such good value at such low cost.

USA Today was negligent in not mentioning Mr. Cooney’s financial ties to Yum! and other food brands.  Such ties matter, and readers deserve to know about them.

But Mr. Cooney’s argument worries me on grounds beyond the evident conflict of interest.

For one thing, it smacks of elitism.  “Let them eat junk food” argues that it’s OK for the poor to eat unhealthfully.  I think the poor deserve to be treated better.

For another, promoting use of SNAP benefits for fast food and sodas makes it and other food assistance programs vulnerable to attack.

Rates of obesity are higher among low-income groups, including SNAP recipients, than in the general population.

Anti-hunger and public health advocates need to work a lot harder to find common ground if they want food assistance programs to continue to help low-income Americans.

Let’s be clear about what’s at stake here.  SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that anyone who qualifies can get benefits.

In June 2011 alone, according to USDA, 45 million Americans received an average of $133 in benefits at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $6 billion.

That’s a lot of money to spend on fast food.  Yum!’s interest in getting some of that money is understandable.

If you think low-income Americans deserve better:

  • Complain to Congress for permitting the legal loophole that allows this.
  • Insist to USDA that SNAP benefits be permitted only for real food.
  • Get your city to recruit farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and other sources of healthy food to low-income areas.
  • Let your congressional representatives know that you want a safety net for people who are out of work that enables people to eat healthfully.
  •  And tell the Congressional Hunger Center and similarly inclined anti-hunger groups that you think conflicts of interest interfere with their ability to help the clients they are supposedly trying to serve.
May 15 2011

Foods with benefits? Oh, please.

Sunday’s New York Times has not one but two articles about “functional foods,” those with something added over and above what’s in the food in the first place.

A front-page story, “Dessert, laid-back and legal,” describes brownies.  No, not brownies laced with marijuana.  This time they contain the sleep-inducing drug melatonin.

The brownies, according to the Times, contain just as much melatonin as are found in drug pills but are cheaper and can be purchased with food stamps (another reason for taking a look at the whole question of SNAP benefits?).

Since melatonin is a drug and not an approved food additive, the makers of these products are trying to get around the annoying FDA restrictions by marketing the brownies as “dietary supplements.”  Supplements, by order of Congress when it passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, do not have to meet FDA’s rigorous scientific criteria for safety or efficacy.

DSHEA applied to supplements, not foods, but the FDA has chosen to regulate foods containing such additives by the weaker rules applying to supplements and to deal with them as a regulatory gray area.   Is melatonin a drug, a supplement, or in brownie from a food?  The FDA is going to have to decide this, and fast.

A much longer story in the business section, “Foods with benefits, or so they say” (in which I am quoted) focuses on the entire point of functional foods: the ability to put something in a product that allows you to market it using health and wellness claims.  Health claims sell food products.  People like buying products with a “health aura,” no matter how poorly the health claim is supported by science.  Science is irrelevant here.  Marketing is what’s relevant.

As I discuss in my book, Food Politics, until the early 1990s, the FDA did not allow health claims on food products.  Claiming a specific health benefit for a food, said the FDA, meant that the food was being marketed as a drug.  If a food was being marketed as a drug, it needed to prove safety and efficacy, something no food maker wanted to do.

When Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act in 1990, it struck a deal with the food industry.  The industry was objecting that because Nutrition Facts labels required them to say what was bad about their products, they ought to be allowed to say what was good about them.  Congress agreed, and forced the FDA to review the science linking certain food ingredients to health benefits as a basis for permitting health claims.

The FDA approved some claims but rejected others.  The rejected companies took the FDA to court, and the courts mostly ruled in favor of the companies on the grounds of the First Amendment.  The FDA stopped trying to control unsupported health claims and only recently has taken then on again.

But as sales soar, federal regulators worry that some packaged foods that scream healthy on their labels are in fact no healthier than many ordinary brands. Federal Trade Commission officials have been cracking down on products that, in their view, make dubious or exaggerated claims. Overwhelmed regulators concede that they are struggling to police this booming market, despite recent settlements with makers of brands like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Dannon’s Activia, which the authorities say oversold their health benefits.

To the distress of international food marketers, the U.S. currently has much looser regulations about health claims than are available in Europe.  The European Food Safety Authority has been reviewing thousands of petitions for health claims on food products and turning most of them down as scientifically unsubstantiated.  That doesn’t stop American food makers from loading on the claims.

From the ivory tower in which I sit, the remedy is easy: don’t allow health claims on processed foods at all.  The claims are all inherently misleading, as would be obvious if you gave it a minute’s thought.

But if they aren’t worth much to you, they are worth plenty to the marketers of processed foods.  And that’s what this is really about.

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