by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

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..

Dec 1 2020

How retailers exploit Covid-19: high profits from low pay and food assistance for workers

Brookings has a new report: Windfall profits and deadly risks: How the biggest retail companies are compensating essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We find that while top retail companies’ profits have soared during the pandemic, pay for their frontline workers—in most cases—has not. In total, the top retail companies in our analysis earned on average an extra $16.9 billion in profit this year compared to last—a stunning 39% increase—while stock prices are up an average of 33%. And with few exceptions, frontline retail workers have seen little of this windfall. The 13 companies we studied raised pay for their frontline workers by an average of just $1.11 per hour since the pandemic began—a 10% increase on top of wages that are often too low to meet a family’s basic needs. On average, it has been 133 days since the retail workers in our analysis last received any hazard pay.

In a blog about this reportJudd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria summarize its findings in these headlines:

  • Bezos gets $73 billion; Amazon workers get 95 cents per hour
  • CVS profits increase 27%; CVS workers get 2% raise
  • Walton family adds $45 billion to its wealth; Walmart workers get 63 cents per hour
  • Kroger cancels “hero pay,” authorizes $1 billion stock repurchases

How are these workers getting by?  Federal food assistanc.  A new government report has the data.

The report is titled “FEDERAL SOCIAL SAFETY NET PROGRAMS: Millions of Full-Time Workers Rely on Federal Health Care and Food Assistance Programs.”

It finds that roughly half of Medicaid and SNAP enrollees work at least 35 hours a week, but make so little money that they qualify for these programs.

The employers of low-wage workers who get federal benefits are companies like Walmart, McDonald’s, Waffle House, Kroger, Burger King, and Wendy’s.

What this means is that taxpayers are making up the shortfall in wages, and that use of Medicaid and SNAP are externalized costs of these businesses, as these reports make clear.

Oct 7 2020

The USDA’s food boxes: the saga continues

I cannot believe there is anything further to say about the Farmers to Families food boxes, the $4 billion USDA program that pays distributors to pick up dairy, meat, and produce, put it in boxes, and deliver the boxes to food banks, which then hand them out to people who need food.  My most recent post on the inclusion of a personal letter from President Trump in the boxes is here.

The USDA now says it has distributed 100 million of these boxes.

Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich reports  that the USDA now requires the private companies that collect, pack, and deliver the boxes “to also stuff the Trump letters into the package — an expansion of the controversial letter policy with just…days until the presidential election.”

The Counter’s Jessica Fu (to whom I owe an apology for spelling her name incorrectly the last time I quoted her) writes that “Religious groups distributing Covid hunger-relief boxes are praying with recipients, taping Bible verses onto flaps, and soliciting donations. Some of these practices may violate federal regulations.”

The Hunger Task Force says that the program is discriminatory: “Wisconsin has been underrepresented in all rounds of the program while Wisconsin’s hungry line up by the carload for assistance that has now been completely severed.”

New York legislators are also complaining.  They wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue:

in the transition between the CFAP vendors selected for rounds two and three, miscommunication from USDA has left many food pantries in New York City suddenly without food, causing upheaval in the lives of those families who were relying on their local pantries for meals.  We understand that the new vendors selected for round three of this program were required to specify the counties or boroughs to which they would provide food. However, this has forced many nonprofits and food pantries who had relationships with vendors no longer serving their county or borough to scramble to find new partnerships, with no guidance from USDA, no overlap in service
provision, and nowhere to turn for help.

On the saga goes.  It would have made so much more sense—financially, logistically, and humanely—for the USDA to strengthen SNAP enrollments and benefits.  Some of this is happening anyway, but the long history of food banks tells us that they can never meet needs on an ongoing basis.  SNAP, imperfect as it is, still is a demonstrably better means of relieving food insecurity.

Aug 25 2020

Food insecurity is rising, especially among kids

The Wall Street Journal reports “More Americans Go Hungry Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Census Shows.

As of late last month, about 12.1% of adults lived in households that didn’t have enough to eat at some point in the previous week, up from 9.8% in early May, Census figures show. And almost 20% of Americans with kids at home couldn’t afford to give their children enough food, up from almost 17% in early June.

The most shocking revelation?  Try this.

What’s going on here?

If ever there was a need for policy, this is it.

Aug 19 2020

The latest on USDA’s food boxes: they now come with a personal note from Trump

I learned about this latest development in the ongoing sage of USDA’s food boxes from Maine Representative Chellie Pingree on Twitter.

Trump’s letter is here.

The letter from members of Congress to USDA is here.

It has a list of ten questions, among them my two favorites:

5. Identify the total amount of funding expended or obligated to plan, coordinate, draft, review, provide stakeholder or public notification, and disseminate the President’s letter. Include the specific regulatory or statutory authorities associated with such funding.

7. Explain the rationale for why the letter is signed by the President on White House letterhead rather than by the Secretary of Agriculture and/or the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Politico Morning Agriculture asks (“A new front in the food box fracas,” August 17):

So what’s the upshot? Besides heightened scrutiny of the ongoing effort, the new controversy could further motivate key lawmakers who are pushing to tighten restrictions on how the department spends any future farm relief funds — assuming Congress and the White House ever agree on a new stimulus package…

Jul 14 2020

Recent items on food insecurity

With millions of people out of work, food insecurity is becoming a bigger problem than it has been. Some recent items:

From Politico: “Stark racial disparities emerge as families struggle to get enough food”

The last time the government formally measured food insecurity nationally was in 2018. At that time, about 25 percent of Black households with children were food insecure. Today, the rate is about 39 percent, according to the latest analysis by the Northwestern economists, which is set to be published this week. For Hispanic households with kids, the rate was nearly 17 percent in 2018. Today, it is nearly 37 percent.

From Northwestern, a new report: “Food Insecurity During COVID-19 in Households with Children: Results by Racial and Ethnic Groups

Disparities in food insecurity across racial and ethnic groups are large. Across the eight weeks for which CHHPS microdata are available covering April 23–June 23, 41.1% of Black respondents’ households have experienced food insecurity in the prior week, as have 36.9% of Hispanic respondents’ households and 23.2% of White respondents’ households.

From the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project: “About 14 million children in America are not getting enough to eat”

Accounting for the number of children in these households, I find that 13.9 million children lived in a household characterized by child food insecurity in the third week in June, 5.6 times as many as in all of 2018 (2.5 million) and 2.7 times as many than did at the peak of the Great Recession in 2008 (5.1 million). During the week of June 19-23, 17.9 percent of children in the United States live in a household where an adult reported that the children are not getting enough to eat due to a lack of resources.

From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “Boosting SNAP: 5 Reasons Why Households Need More”

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act of March included much-needed measures to temporarily increase SNAP benefits for many households and let state SNAP agencies temporarily modify procedures…But these temporary benefits didn’t help everyone who needs them, and they aren’t enough to help families afford food, given the challenges that COVID-19 and the downturn have presented. Here are five reasons why the next relief package needs to include an additional boost in SNAP benefits:

From The Counter: “Covid-19 has increased online SNAP purchases twentyfold—and Amazon, Walmart have a lock on virtually all those sales”

The USDA has been pushing online food sales for SNAP recipients, and COVID-19 is accelerating the trend.  The Counter article explains that

more than 750,000 households had used food stamps benefits online as of late June. That’s up from just 35,000 in March….As of early July, 43 states are approved to accept SNAP benefits online, and 39 have the program up and running.

The Counter also notes:

One thing is certain: At this point, two big retailers stand to benefit from the explosion in online SNAP sales. In 34 of the 39 states, Amazon and Walmart are the only participating grocers. The reasons why are likely logistical.. Few independent grocers have the web infrastructure to display and update their inventory online, making Amazon and Walmart a kind of duopoly by default. Even fewer have enough staff to assemble complex orders and deliver them to people’s homes. By contrast, Amazon and Walmart have been investing heavily in grocery delivery for years.

Comment

No matter how useful they are, online deliveries cost more and SNAP does not pay delivery costs.  Online also requires a computer and broadband access.  Do SNAP participants have these things?

The 750,000 housaeholds using the online system constitute a small fraction of the 19 million households enrolled in SNAP.

We have a long way to go to solve problems of food insecurity in this country.