by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

Nov 7 2018

Trump’s “public charge” proposal: just say no

The Trump Administration’s “public charge” proposal is now open for public comment.

This ungenerous and unwelcoming idea is to use participation in benefits for the poor—food assistance programs among them—as a way to deny residency or citizenship to those coming to live or work here.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)…proposes to require all aliens seeking an extension of stay or change of status to demonstrate that they have not received, are not currently receiving, nor are likely to receive, public benefits as defined in the proposed rule.

Why is DHS doing this?  Ostensibly, because it

seeks to better ensure that applicants for admission to the United States and applicants for adjustment of status to lawful permanent resident who are subject to the public charge ground of inadmissibility are self-sufficient, i.e., do not depend on public resources to meet their needs, but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their family, sponsor, and private organizations.

What programs constitute a public charge?

  • Any grant, contract, loan, professional license, or commercial license provided by an agency of the United States or by appropriated funds of the United States; and
  • Any retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, postsecondary education, food assistance, unemployment benefit, or any other similar benefit for which payments or assistance are provided to an individual, household, or family eligibility unit by an agency of the United States or by appropriated funds of the United States.

Brilliant move.  It kills two birds with one stone: it discourages immigration, and saves money (those tax cuts for the wealthy make this necessary).

As Jan Poppendieck explains, this proposal revises the promise of the Statue of Liberty to read “don’t give me your tired and your poor.”

The proposal is open for public comment until December 10.

I hope it gets lots.

Oct 16 2018

Connecting the dots: The trade war with China and feeding America’s poor

I was struck last week by an article in the Wall Street Journal with this intriguing title: “Food Banks Reap Unexpected Bounty From Trade Disputes.”

I thought this was an especially poignant example of food politics from a food systems perspective—looking at the big picture context of what we eat, from production to consumption to waste.

Image result for food systems

Our current trade war with China is having a series of effects:

  • China has retaliated by putting import tariffs on US food products, reducing their sales in that country.
  • Because we greatly overproduce food, and depend on exports to sell it, we now have a glut of products that can’t be sold—soybeans mainly, but also pork, apples, cheese, figs, peanut butter, orange juice, and others.
  • The Trump Administration says it will help farmers hurt by the trade dispute by buying their products to the tune of $1.2 billion so far.
  • Food banks have no idea how they can handle all of what will be dumped on them—950 million pounds on top of the 700 million pounds they usually get—because they do not have the money to process and store the donations (one organization says this costs 23 cents per pound of food).
  • The food bank trade association, Feeding America, is calling for $200 to $300 million to pay for distributing the excess burden of food donations.

None of this makes sense to me.

Wouldn’t it be a whole lot better to

  • Prevent or end this trade dispute?
  • Ensure that food banks are unnecessary?
May 1 2018

Amazon and SNAP: a taxpayer-supported alliance

The Intercept published an account last week pointing out that:

  • Amazon will soon accept grocery orders from SNAP (food stamp) participants
  • One third of Amazon employees are paid so little that they depend on SNAP for food
  • Taxpayers also subsidize Amazon with tax breaks, subsidies, and infrastructure improvements

Amazon pays its employeesmedian (half above, half below) annual salary of $28,466.

The New York Times  points out that critics

have produced studies that say Amazon’s warehouses — which employ more than 125,000 full-time workers in the United States — don’t increase total local employment because of losses in other sectors. They also question the wisdom of subsidies to attract them. The American Booksellers Association, which represents independent bookstores, recently published a similar report on Amazon’s economic impact.

Amazon generated nearly $178 billion in online sales in 2017, its income grew by 27.8%, and it made $3 billion in profit.

Now we know why.

Apr 16 2018

Recommendations for improving SNAP

While the farm bill is in play, it’s worth looking at what The Bipartisan Policy Center has to say about SNAP:

It provides evidence for a long list of recommendations for improving SNAP, among them:

  • Make diet quality a core SNAP objective
  • Eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages from SNAP eligibility
  • Provide incentives for purchases of fruits and vegetables
  • Authorize USDA to collect and share data on SNAP purchases

It also has recommendations for improving education of SNAP recipients, and no wonder.

This is an excellent follow-up to the 2012 SNAP to Health initiative in which I participated.  That report made similar recommendations.

Maybe now is the time?

Apr 10 2018

Home-delivered meals save health care costs!

It’s always seemed obvious to me that feeding hungry people would prevent nutritional deficiencies, and that feeding healthy diets to people who needed them would make them healthier.

We now have evidence.

The study appeared in Health Affairs:

For the people who received medically-tailored home-delivered meals, the net savings in medical costs was $220 per person per month.

For those just getting home-delivered meals, the savings was $10 per month per person.

These results are spectacular—nutrition programs hardly ever show effect sizes this large.

As the L.A. Times puts it,

The new study offers some clear evidence that even costly nutrition programs can pay handsome dividends when they are focused on low-income Americans who tend to have especially complex medical problems.

It quoted me:

New York University food and nutrition expert Marion Nestle, who was not involved with the study, called the savings almost too large to be real.  “If it were that simple: you just have to give people meals to keep them out of hospitals?” Nestle said. “Wow! I’m for it!”

I sure am.  Healthy home-delivered meals look like a great way to promote health and reduce health-care costs.  A win-win.

Apr 2 2018

US Food Assistance, 2018 Overview

USDA has just published its latest overview of US food assistance.

Here’s what this is about:

These percentages apply to total USDA spending on 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs: $98.6 billion in FY 2017.

The bottom line: expenditures are down and have been declining for the past 4 years.  $98.6 billion is 4% less than in 2016 and nearly 10% less than the all-time high of $109.2 billion set in FY 2013.

How come?

Note: The prevalence of food insecurity has not changed.

Although USDA attributes the drop to improvements in the economy, the prevalence of food insecurity has not changed.

Therefore, we have to ask: Could tougher eligibility requirements and application procedures have anything to do with this?

Mar 1 2018

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations: A prototype for the Harvest Box? Not exactly.

Last week I discussed my skepticism about the Trump Administration’s plan to replace some SNAP benefits with boxes of 100% American-grown commodities.

NPR’s The Salt is skeptical for a different reason: the experience of Native Americans with the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).

Since 1977, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has bought nonperishable foods to distribute on Indian reservations and nearby rural areas as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. The program was designed as an alternative to SNAP for low-income Native Americans living in remote areas without easy access to grocery stores. The food boxes delivered were filled with canned, shelf-stable foods like peanut butter, canned meats and vegetables, powdered eggs and milk.

It’s consequences?  A high prevalence of overweight and type-2 diabetes on Indian researvations.  As The Salt quotes:

“There’s even a name for it – it’s called ‘commod bod.’ That’s what we call it because it makes you look a certain way when you eat these foods.”

As it happens, I was in Albuquerque last week speaking at the Native American Healthy Beverage Summit sponsored by the Notah Begay III Foundation (I got to meet Notah Begay III when he introduced my talk).

I asked everyone I could about experiences with FDPIR.  Those who grew up in households participating in the program cited several issues:

  • Culturally inappropriate
  • Poor quality
  • Induced dependency
  • Undermined traditional diets
  • Part of barter/trade economy (unwanted items were bartered, traded, sold, or fed to pets)

Justin Huenemann, the CEO of the Foundation, took me to an FDPIR distribution center on a reservation near Bernalillo.

This was a big surprise.  It was clean, well stocked with fresh produce, frozen meats and fish (bison, salmon), and canned and packaged foods, all of them reasonably healthy.  Ordered items are delivered by truck to people who cannot come into the center.

The USDA has worked hard to improve the program (see fact sheets and evaluations).  Participants can choose from a long list of eligible foods.

But: the program serves only about 90,000 participants at a cost of $151 million in 2017.  Scaling it up to 40 million SNAP participants—and nearly $70 billion in benefits, seems unlikely.  Even scaling it up to the 16.7 million households promised by USDA seems iffy.

In any case FDPIR is NOT the prototype for the Harvest Box.

The prototype is the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) for low-income elderly.  This program, serving 600,000 seniors with a $236 million budget in 2017, offers a more limited selection of food options, none fresh.  It distributes the boxes through food banks and other nonprofits who then do the actual deliveries.  CSFP raises many if not all of the issues mentioned by my informants.

I still think this is a smokescreen to distract attention from budget cuts to SNAP but I was grateful for the opportunity to see the FDPIR in action.  The quality of the foods looked pretty good to me—an oasis in a area where healthy foods are not readily available.

Feb 20 2018

Trump’s “Blue Apron” plan for SNAP: real or a smokescreen?

I vote for smokescreen.

Let’s take this one step at a time, starting with the FY 2019 Budget announced last week.  In this administration’s usual Orwell-speak:

The Budget proposes a bold new approach to administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that combines traditional SNAP benefits with 100-percent American grown foods provided directly to households and focuses administrative reforms on outcome-based employment strategies. The Budget expands on previous SNAP proposals to strengthen expec­tations for work among able-bodied adults, pre­serves benefits for those most in need….

Translation: work requirements and budget cuts.  These are emphasized in the FY 2019 Budget Addendum.  This proposes a $17 billion cut in funding ($213 billion over the next decade).  In more Orwell-speak, it is

designed to improve nutrition and target benefits to those who need them while ensuring careful stewardship of taxpayers’ money. This  suite of proposals includes a new approach to nutrition assistance that combines retail-based SNAP benefits with a package of nutritious, 100 percent American-grown food. The Budget also encourages States to innovate in helping participants move to self-sufficiency and improving employment outcomes.

This language comes directly from USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s Big Idea: America’s Harvest Box, specified as containing:

Shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat-cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables.

The box would account for roughly half the benefits; the other half would come from using EBT cards, as in the past.

What got all the attention was a statement from White House OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, as reported in the Washington Post:

What we do is propose that for folks who are on food stamps, part — not all, part — of their benefits come in the actual sort of, and I don’t want to steal somebody’s copyright, but a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash,” Mulvaney said. “It lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices] whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food. So we’re pretty excited about that.

Blue Apron, in case you haven’t been keeping up with this, is a meal-delivery service that has had some fiscal problems lately.

The budget plan includes some “add-back” requests for additional funds for special purposes.  One such request is for $30 million to test whether the Harvest Box plan works.

Under this proposal grants would be made to a small number of states to design, implement, and evaluate the provision of a package of USDA Foods in combination with the traditional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) electronic benefits used at approved retailers. This supports early implementation and evaluation of the related 2019 Budget proposal, which calls for this program structure nationwide and is estimated to save over $12 billion in 2019, and $129 billion over ten years. These grants would provide important policy and administrative lessons to inform efficient and effective nationwide implementation.

What are we to make of all this?  My favorite reaction comes from Politico: “Trump’s Food Stamp Idea Is Like Blue Apron Had a Socialist Hangover.”

It is hardly pro-market to displace the private sector and build a parallel, state-run distribution system, no matter how many times you name-check Blue Apron. This is the sort of thing you find in countries still recovering from socialist hangovers…No, the “Harvest Box” approach to hunger policy makes sense only in the context of hunger politics. And hunger politics have always been as much about the welfare of agribusiness as about the welfare of the poor…. It is generally more expensive than either buying food locally and distributing it or simply giving the recipients cash or vouchers to purchase their own food. Rigorous experimental testing has shown that it does not even produce systematically better nutritional outcomes than giving out money.

I particularly enjoyed Andy Fisher’s comments.  Fisher is author of Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups (see my Weekend Reading post on this book).  “Comrade Trump, he says, might just be on to something.”  SNAP, he points out,

is an accomplice to our need for cheap food with the accompanying externalities caused to public health. It reinforces the ills of the marketplace rather than seeks to transform them.”

His suggestion?  Nationalize the grocery industry.

The NY Times pointed out that even Trump administration officials don’t think this is a serious proposal:

administration officials on Tuesday admitted that the food-box plan…had virtually no chance of being implemented anytime soon.  Instead, the idea…was a political gambit by fiscal hawks in the administration aimed at outraging liberals and stirring up members of the president’s own party working on the latest version of the farm bill.  The move, they said, was intended to lay down a marker that the administration is serious about pressing for about $85 billion in other cuts to food assistance programs that will be achieved, in part, by imposing strict new work requirements on recipients.

Let’s be clear what this about: Cuts to SNAP.  As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities analyzes the situation, the plan intends to cut SNAP benefits as well as:

  • Expand government bureaucracy
  • Shift costs to states and nonprofits
  • Increase costs for participants
  • Restrict access to fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Increase stigma for low-income households
  • Negatively impact retailers

Let me add a couple of other points:

The bottom line:  pay attention to the budget cuts.