by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

Jun 29 2021

Guess what: USDA finds barriers to SNAP

Let’s hear it for USDA.  It’s asking tough questions about its programs and paying attention to what it’s finding out.

It has just issues a report on barriers to eating healthfully on SNAP (formerly, Food Stamps).

The press release summarizes the report.

The study, Barriers that Constrain the Adequacy of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Allotments, conducted in 2018, finds that 88% of participants report encountering some type of hurdle to a healthy diet. The most common, reported by 61% of SNAP participants, is the cost of healthy foods. Participants who reported struggling to afford nutritious foods were more than twice as likely to experience food insecurity. Other barriers range from a lack of time to prepare meals from scratch (30%) to the need for transportation to the grocery store (19%) to no storage for fresh or cooked foods (14%).

An infographic displays this information.

The report comes in three parts:

From the interviews (page 52)

Overview

More broadly, processed foods—both those purchased at stores for home consumption and those eaten out—were seen as cheaper than healthier options…This perception was the same whether participants lived in urban or rural areas, had children or elderly in the household, or spoke Spanish or English.

Two interview excerpts

Just kind of life circumstances and it makes no sense to me that it is terribly cheap to eat like crap. Eating at [fast food ] every day is going to cost me $5 today and I would eat every day $5 a day but if I tried to go to [store] or some place that had good food and buy good food for a day, even just for myself, for $5, not going to happen. It’s going to be triple that or quadruple that or 10 times that depending on where you go.

Oh, just not processed. Not processed, not frozen. And I don’t really think carbs are very healthy myself, like breads and pastas, I don’t find necessary really. That’s mostly what you can afford, is the cheapest, for some stupid reason in stores, you know?

Policy options seem pretty obvious.  I hope USDA gives them a try.

Apr 23 2021

Weekend reading: Turning food banks into a community resource

Katie S. Martin.  Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries: New Tools to End Hunger.  Island Press, 2021.

After Janet Poppendieck’s Sweet Charity?, and Andy Fisher’s Big HungerI didn’t think there was anything new to say about private charitable food handouts in the U.S., but this book surprised me.

Reinventing is a how-to manual for people working in the food banking and food pantry system.  Katie Martin’s goal is to make this system more dignified, healthier, and politically focused for participants.

Martin recognizes that a volunteer-run system for distributing charitable food is unsustainable.  She wrote this book to encourage longer term solutions to food and nutrition insecurity.

What if our success is measured not simply by the pounds of food we distribute but by the reduction in people who need our services?  Or the number of people who are connected to additional services?  Or the number of people who make fewer trade-off decisions between paying for food, rent, or medicine.  Or the number of people who have improved health outcomes based on the food and services they receive? (p. 26)

The book provides step-by-step guides to talking about hunger in policy rather than individual terms, to making food pantries more hospitable and better connected to social resources, to providing participants with choices, to training volunteers, to evaluating how programs work, and to dealing with systems change.

Every chapter ends with actions steps and encouragement to take one step, make one change.

Yes!

Apr 20 2021

R.I.P. USDA’s food boxes

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced the end of the Farmers to Families food box program.  As reported by The Counter,

The reality is the food box program was set up to respond to Covid. There were a lot of problems with it, a lot of problems,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a congressional hearing on Wednesday. Over the last year, we’ve reported on many of those problems—namely high prices, uneven distribution, and lack of oversight.

This program, which has cost at least $5.5 billion to date, was ostensibly supposed to help farmers by buying their produce and provide food to people who needed it by distributing it through food banks and pantries.

I say “ostensibly” because its real purpose was to undermine SNAP.

Food boxes were one of three ways the Trump Administration acted to reduce SNAP enrollments and expenditures (the other two were enforcement of work requirements and invocation of the public charge rule denying residency and citizenship to people who used public benefits, even benefits to which all residents are entitled).

To review the history of this program:   In 2018, Trump’s Budget proposed to replace some of SNAP benefits with “Harvest Boxes”—along the lines of those provided by Blue Apron, apparently.   The proposal provided few details.  It was immediately criticized for its lack of information about logistics, composition of the boxes, fresh foods, and choice.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue did not give up on the idea, however.  The Coronavirus pandemic gave him the excuse he needed to start the program, now called Farmers to Families.

This seemed reasonable in theory.  Distributors would collect unsold produce from farmers, pack it in boxes, and deliver the boxes to food banks.  Farmers would have income for what they produced; this would help people who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

In practice, small farmers were quickly dropped from the program, Black farmers were excluded, and people who got the boxes got whatever was in them—not always what was supposed to be in them.

Here’s what the USDA says the program delivered:

To date USDA contractors have delivered 157,996,398 of fresh produce, milk, dairy and cooked meats to disadvantaged Americans across the country

35.7 million food boxes invoiced in round one (May 15-June 30)

50.8 million food boxes invoiced in round two (July 1-August 31)

15.2 million food boxes invoiced in round two extensions (September 1 – September 18)

18.8 million food boxes invoiced in BOA Contracts (September 22 – October 31)

12.4 million food boxes invoiced in round four (November 1 – December 31)

25.1 million food boxes invoiced in round five (January 19 – April 30)

I say R.I.P.  The Biden Administration’s shoring up of SNAP is better policy for food assistance.

Assistance to small farmers is another matter entirely, and one that needs immediate attention.

 

Apr 1 2021

How’s this for an idea: April Food Day

If you, like me, are not in the mood for jokes that won’t seem funny today, here’s an idea for an alternative.

Mar 16 2021

What does the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill do for the food system?

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, otherwise known as the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill has lots of bits and pieces to strengthen elements of the food system.

This bill:

  • Extends the 15% increase in SNAP benefits through September 30, 2021
  • Makes more SNAP benefits available to Puerto Rico, Samoa, Marianas
  • Increases support for WIC, especially for fruit and vegetable purchases
  • Continues Pandemic-EBT (free meals for school children excluded from schools)
  • Provides funds for debt relief and outreach for socially disadvantaged farmers
  • Establishes a new grant program for restaurants and bars to meet payroll and other expenses
  • Expands income support for families with children through tax credits for child care and earned income

In addition, the Biden Administrration has done some other things to reduce food insecurity

What’s still needed:

  • A comprehensive plan for creating a food system that promotes health and sustainability
  • Universal school meals
  • Universal Basic Income

Some of these new measures are steps in that direction.  They just need to be continued.  Advocate!

Feb 12 2021

Weekend reading: Lancet Commission Report on Public Policy and Health in the Trump Era

Yesterday, the Lancet Commission on Public Policy and Health in the Trump Era published the report of its four-year investigations.  I was a member of the Commission, so have a special interest in this report.

The Executive Summary  

Convened shortly after President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the Lancet Commission on public policy and health in the Trump era, offers the first comprehensive assessment of the detrimental legislation and executive actions during Trump’s presidency with devastating effects on every aspect of health in the USA. The Lancet Commission traces the decades of policy failures that preceded and fueled Trump’s ascent and left the USA lagging behind other high-income nations on life expectancy. The report warns that a return to pre-Trump era policies is not enough to protect health. Instead, sweeping reforms are needed to redress long-standing racism, weakened social and health safety nets that have deepened inequality, and calls on the important role of health professionals in advocating for health care reform in the USA.

The bottom line (as stated by Dr. Kevin Grumbach in the announcement video): “Trump committed medical malpractice.”

The Commission’s process

Commission members were appointed in 2017, met in Atlanta soon after, held a conference at Boston University in 2018, and met again early in 2019.  I drafted the section on food and nutrition, no surprise, and also worked on the box on what happened in Puerto Rico, in which I have a particular interest (I taught a class there in 2003 with the anthropologist, Sidney Mintz, who wrote Sweetness and Power).  Other members drafted other parts.  The co-chairs, Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein, pulled it all together and established its direction and voice.  Food politics is a small part of this report (see section 6), but I was happy to get it included.  It gave me a chance to complain, once again, about the forced move of the USDA’s Economic Research Service to Kansas City, something I consider to be a national tragedy, and to talk about how the Trump Administration attempted to destroy SNAP and undermine school meal standards.

The report, associated documents, and announcement video are on this Lancet website 

It got a lot of press—news accounts and opinion pieces (the full list as of February 27 is here)

Jan 26 2021

Some good news—and about time—for food assistance

I’ll start with a déjà vu, thanks to Daniel Bowman Simon, who reminds me that President John F. Kennedy’s first executive orderwas to expand food distribution programs that both helped farmers and fed the poor.

President Biden is taking steps in the same direction On January 22, the USDA announced:

  • P-EBT Benefit Increase: “the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) connects low-income families with kids with food dollars equivalent to the value of the meals missed due to COVID-related school and childcare closures….USDA will increase the current daily benefit amount by approximately 15% to tackle the serious problem of child food insecurity during this school year when need is greatest.”  This is great but the big problem with this program has been delays.  Let’s hope those get fixed too.
  • SNAP Emergency Allotments to States: USDA wants to “allow states to provide extra SNAP benefits through Emergency Allotments to the lowest-income households.”  This is because the increases to SNAP authorized by Congress were set up in such a way that they did not go to the lowest-income households (37% of SNAP households) most in need.
  • Revising the Thrifty Food Plan Per 2018 Farm Bill:  This plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits, is decades old, out of date, and unrealistic for SNAP households.  USDA needs to revise it.

In addition, Biden is calling for More Congressional Action:  

  • Extend the 15% SNAP benefit increase
  • Invest another $3 billion through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
  • Look for creative ways to support restaurants as a critical link in the food supply chain to help feed families in need
  • Provide U.S. Territories with $1 billion in additional nutrition assistance funding

OK.  This does not go far enough and who knows what this Congress will do.  But it’s a start, and a good one.

But that’s not all: Biden has appointed Stacy Dean as deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, the piece of USDA responsible for food assistance.  This puts her in charge of all this.

I consider this a superb appointment.  Nobody knows more about food assistance programs.  I learned this when I was editing a set of papers about SNAP for the American Journal of Public Health in 2019.  She and colleagues at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities wrote the basic article for the series.

So: our job now is to loudly and strongly support everything USDA is doing to improve and expand food assistance, and to encourage the agency to take even bigger steps.  Make sure Stacy gets all the support she needs to really do sometime to improve food security for the millions of American adults and children who need it badly. 

 

 

 

Jan 6 2021

Trump’s Covid stimulus bill: how it affects food and nutrition

I’m trying to make sense of the new $900 billion stimulus bill signed by President Trump a week or so ago.  This is not easy to do; it’s 5500 pages of government-speak.

The bill has $26 billion for food and nutrition, of which half goes to Big Ag (sigh) and the other half to food assistance (good, but not enough).

Why the sigh for farm aid?  Here’s what the accounting looks like:

Big Agriculture: $13 billion on top of what else it got in 2020

  • $32 billion from the initial CARES Act
  • $4 billion as compensation for the trade war with China
  • $16 billion from the normal Farm Bill subsidies
  • $13 billion from the new stimulus package ($1.5 billion is for buying food products, including seafood)

Small Ag:  $225 million (not billion) for growers of specialty crops like fruits, nuts and vegetables.

SNAP: a 15% expansion through June 2021.  This will mean a lot to recipients, but it’s still not enough.

SNAP Fruit and vegetable incentives: $75 million (not billion) for the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program,

Pandemic-EBT: this authorizes extra benefits for families who have kids normally getting subsidized school meals (but this has been delayed)

Food banks: $400 million (not billion) for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, $400 million (not billion) for milk,

Disadvantaged, veteran, and beginning farmers: $75 million (not billion)

International Food Assistance: $1.74 billion for Food for Peace grants and $230 million for the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition program (note that this is the most the US has ever spent for these programs.

Pet foods: By congressional directive:

FDA is directed to provide an update on the investigation it is undertaking regarding canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and the manner in which it has released information to the public. The update shall include: the case definition FDA uses to include or exclude cases and the scientific work ongoing at the agency and with collaborating partners for identifying a causation of DCM; how FDA distinguishes cases of DCM due to genetic predisposition in certain breeds; how the agency plans to work with pet food companies and the veterinary cardiology community during the investigation; and the timing and nature of any future public reporting.

PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl) chemicals in food packaging: “directs FDA to review any new scientific information pertaining to PF AS chemicals and determine whether food packaging continues to meet the safety standards of a reasonable certainty of no harm under intended conditions of use.”

Restaurants: they get whatever they can out of the $284 billion Paycheck Protection Program.  The trade association for independent restaurants points out that this is nowhere near enough.  Even the Wall Street Journal says restaurants need help; their situation is bleak.

Business lunches: the full cost can now be deducted as a business expense, but nobody expects this to help restaurants much.

There is undoubtedly more, but that’s enough for now.

Politico has done a great job of covering these provisions, but is behind a paywall.  The Counter also has an especially good summary..