by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

Jul 15 2022

Weekend reading: food assistance

The USDA has released its annual report on food assistance.

 

What Did This Study Find?

  • Spending on USDA’s domestic food and nutrition assistance programs reached a historic high of $182.5 billion. (it was $127.5 billion in 2020).
  • The increase was primarily driven by increases in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) spending.

Other findings:

  • On average, 41.5 million people participated in SNAP each month, 4 percent more than in the previous fiscal year.
  • A temporary benefit increase, the expansion of emergency allotments, and higher participation contributed to a historic high in Federal SNAP spending of $113.8 billion, 44 percent more than in FY 2020
  • On average, 6.2 million people participated in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) each month, nearly the same as the previous fiscal year; Total WIC spending was $5.0 billion, 1 percent more than in FY 2020.
  • Pandemic-related disruptions to child nutrition programs resulted in 8.4 billion total meals being served across the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), Child and Adult Care

And all that spending is one of the reasons why poverty rates went down.

Sep 14 2021

USDA’s Harvest Boxes: A GAO analysis

Remember USDA’s Harvest boxes?

I posted about them at least nine times since 2018.  For example:

I thought the program was ill conceived from the start.  Its idea was to collect food from farmers that could not otherwise be sold, and deliver it to private food banks for distribuiton.  There were three types of boxes: produce, dairy products, and meat products.

I worried, and for good reason, about:

  • The enormous expense
  • The complicated and burdensome logistics
  • The burden on food banks
  • Most of he money going to distributors rather than small farmers
  • The lack of choice for recipients
  • The unsustainable focus on charity

Now, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report on the program, “USDA Food Box Program: Key Information and Opportunities to Better Assess Performance,”

The program, it says,

  • Used 243 contractors
  • Delivered more than 176 million boxes of food
  • Reached 78% of US counties, and 89% of counties with more than 20% of the population in poverty

By those standards, I guess, it was a success.

Did it help farmers?  USDA did not collect data on this point so we don’t know, but I don’t think it did.

The report does provide data on several points.

The astronomical overall expense

The absurdly high cost of each of the boxes

The switch from lots of small farmers to a few big ones

From photographs of the contents of the boxes, it’s hard to believe they would cost more than $10 to $20 at a supermarket.  Since so few small farmers were helped by the program, it would have been much cheaper and more efficient to give people coupons for the food or increase SNAP benefits.

But the real purpose of the program was to undermine SNAP.  Fortunately, it did not succeed in that purpose.

Aug 17 2021

Splendid news! USDA updates Thrifty Food Plan and SNAP benefits

Yesterday, the USDA issued a press release: USDA Modernizes the Thrifty Food Plan, Updates SNAP Benefits

WASHINGTON, August 16, 2021 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today released a re-evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, used to calculate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

This is a miracle, an event long sought by anti-hunger advocates.

The Thrifty Food Plan is supposed to be “the cost of groceries needed to provide a healthy, budget-conscious diet for a family of four.”

  • It is the basis for establishing SNAP benefits.
  • It was created in 1962.
  • All subsequent updates (until now) only adjusted for inflation but were otherwise required to be cost-neutral.

No wonder SNAP benefits were so inadequate.

Hope for change came with the 2018 Farm Bill.

In January, President Biden issued an Executive Order to review the Thrifty Food Plan.  USDA moved quickly on this in order to increase pandemic benefits permanently.

In its re-evaluation, USDA did as directed by Congress.  It based its report on current food prices, food composition data, consumption patterns, and dietary guidance.

The New York Times has a graphic displaying these changes in greater detail, as well as the effects of these changes on benefits.

This may not seem like much of a difference, but it should help.

No surprise, some members of Congress have objected to the increased expenditures, estimated to amount to $20 billion a year.

SNAP expenditures have always been contentious.   But for now, those who need help will be getting a bit more.

Additional Resources

  • What is the TFP? (Blog)
  • The Thrifty Food Plan and SNAP Benefits (Website)
  • The TFP Re-Evaluation Process (Infographic)
  • Changes in Benefits by State (Tables)
  • TFP Listening Sessions (Summary) (Blog)
  • SNAP Participants’ Barriers to Healthy Eating (Infographic)
  • Barriers that Constrain the Adequacy of SNAP Allotments (Report)
  • SNAP FY 2022 Cost-of-Living Adjustments (Memo)
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!