by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

Apr 16 2011

Some thoughts on not using food stamps for sodas

This morning I received an e-mail query from Jan Poppendieck, author of three truly outstanding books that I often use in classes:

Q.  I am collecting opinions on the proposal to ban use of SNAP (food stamp) funds for buying sodas.  What do you think of that idea?

A.  I started out deeply uncomfortable with the idea of the soda ban but I now support it.   The discomfort came from my general discomfort with telling people what I think they should be eating. I never comment on what individuals eat (and I hope you won’t comment on what I eat). My work deals with nutrition for populations, not necessarily individuals. So banning sodas at first seemed to me to be too personal an approach.

But I changed my mind for several reasons:

  • The increasingly strong evidence that sugary drinks predispose to obesity
  • The disproportionately higher rates of obesity among the poor
  • The suggestive evidence that sugars in liquid form are especially predisposing to obesity
  • The comparison of the SNAP approach (the benefits can be used for most any food) with that of WIC (the benefits only work for a restricted number of foods)
  • The focus of soda companies on marketing to children and youth in low-income areas
  • The lack of grocery stores in low-income areas
  • The intense marketing of sodas to children and youth in developing countries
  • The increasingly successful efforts of soda companies to co-opt health professional groups with partnerships, alliances, and grants
  • The astonishing amount of money and effort used by beverage companies and associations to fight soda taxes and, no doubt, this idea as well

Soft drink companies have gotten a free ride for years.  They moved into schools and created an environment that makes it socially acceptable for children to drink sodas all day long.  If sodas are now under scrutiny for their role in obesity, it is because soda companies are reaping what they have sown.

 

 

Mar 22 2011

Who is responsible for dealing with poverty?

I don’t often respond to comments but this one about the political division caused by obesity is worth further discussion.

I truly resent your statement that Republicans don’t want to have an education, access to health care or access to nutritious food. Such statements not only undermine your credibility but contribute nothing to the discussion.

For the record, Republicans as just as committed to these things as the Democrats. The difference is that the Republicans don’t believe that it is the taxpayers responsibility to provide them.

If not taxpayers, who?  The writer does not say.

I thought of this question when I read the new report released by the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity. The center was established in 2006 by Mayor Bloomberg to seek evidence-based ways to reduce poverty in the city.

As the New York Times explains:

Without a flood of food stamps and tax benefits for low-income families, about 250,000 more New Yorkers would have slipped into poverty at the height of the recession…The center concluded that the poverty rate would have been three percentage points higher without federal tax programs passed in 2009 for low-income families and an aggressive city program to enroll New Yorkers who were not receiving public assistance but were eligible for food stamps, coupled with higher food stamp benefits.

Beyond personal damage, poverty is demonstrably bad for the health of cities.  Poor people do not buy much.  They cause social unrest.  They drain public resources.  Getting people out of poverty is sensible public policy and has been throughout history.

History also tells us that private charity is never adequate to meet the needs of the poor.

That’s why U.S. taxpayers support food stamp and other food assistance programs to the tune of close to $100 billion a year, as can be seen in the USDA’s budget figures.

The “aggressive city program” paid off.  At a time of economic crisis, poverty levels throughout America increased.  New York City’s did not.

Isn’t dealing with poverty a core function of government?  Isn’t some reasonable level of income equity a core feature of democratic society?

I think so, but await your opinions.

Dec 14 2010

President signs healthy, hunger-free kids act, at last!

Yesterday, President Obama signed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (how do they name these things?)

White House, Pete Souza

The fact sheet on the bill lists what it will do with the additional $4.5 billion in funding (over 10 years), among other actions:

  • Gives USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day, including vending machines, the “a la carte” lunch lines, and school stores.
  • Provides additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for federally-subsidized lunches [this is the six cents per meal increase].
  • Helps communities establish local farm to school networks, create school gardens, and ensures that more local foods are used in the school setting.
  • Expands access to drinking water in schools, particularly during meal times.
  • Sets basic standards for school wellness policies including goals for nutrition promotion and education and physical activity.
  • Increases the number of eligible children enrolled in school meal programs by approximately 115,000 students…Helps certify an average additional 4,500 students per year to receive school meals.
  • Allows more universal meal access for eligible students in high poverty communities.

The sticking point is the funding.  It is to be “borrowed” from an authorized increase in funding for SNAP (food stamps).   As I discussed yesterday, enrollment in SNAP is rising rapidly, and so are its costs so the loss of this increase will hurt.

In his signing speech, President Obama explained:

It’s also important to note that while this bill is fully paid for, it won’t add a dime to the deficit, some of the funding comes from rolling back a temporary increase in food stamp benefits –- or SNAP as it’s now called -– starting in the fall of 2013.  I know a number of members of Congress have expressed concerns about this offset being included in the bill, and I’m committed to working with them to restore these funds in the future.

He also said:

Not only am I very proud of the bill, but had I not been able to get this passed, I would be sleeping on the couch.

Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move campaign inspired this bill and her leadership had much to do with its enactment.  Cheers for this, at last!

Dec 11 2010

Food stamp use and cost up sharply since 2008

The USDA has just posted shocking increases in the use and cost of food stamps (now called the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP just within the last two years.  The USDA data & statistics web pages provide data for SNAP participation and costs from 1969-2010.

Here’s what’s happened in the last three years:

  • 2008: 28.2 million participants received an average benefit of $102 per month for a total cost of $37.6 billion.
  • 2009: 33.5 million participants received an average benefit of $125 per month for a total cost of $53.6 billion.
  • 2010: 40.3 million participants received an average benefit of $134 per month for a total cost of $68.2 billion.

Caroline Scott-Thomas of FoodNavigator.com points out that in 2009 eligible people were signing up for SNAP benefits at an average rate of 20,000 a day.  This year, the rate increased to 22,000 a day.

What, she asked, did I think of all this?

Nutrition professor Dr. Marion Nestle told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “Pretty obviously, this is a sign that the economy is still in bad shape, especially at the lower income ends. Wall Street may still be giving bonuses, but more and more Americans don’t have places to live or food to eat”….Nestle added that funding for this level of food stamp use could prove unsustainable in the current economy. “Some funding has already been cannibalized to fund the Child Nutrition Reauthorization,” she said. “The more expensive it gets, the more the program will be a target for lawmakers looking for moveable cash.”

With an estimated one-eighth of the population on food stamps each month, and no improvement to the economy in sight, it seems like there is plenty to worry about.

Nov 11 2010

Three reports: eat more fruits and vegetables

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has just published a review and assessment of the nutritional needs of the populations served by the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), with recommendations for revising the program’s meal requirements.

CACFP supports the nutrition and health of the nation’s most vulnerable individuals—more than 3 million infants and children and more than 114,000 impaired or older adults, primarily from low-income households. CACFP meals must meet regulations designed to ensure that participants receive high-quality, nutritious foods.

The IOM says that USDA should:

  • Fix the meal requirements to promote eating more fruits and vegetables,  whole grains, and foods that are lower in fat, sugar, and salt.
  • Offer training and technical assistance to providers.
  • Review and update the Meal Requirements to maintain consistency with current dietary guidance.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation, the non-profit educational arm of the fruit and vegetables industries, recently issued its 2010 State of the Plate Report.  The major findings:

  • Only 6% of individuals achieve their recommended target for vegetables; 8% achieve their recommended target for fruit in an average day.
  • Vegetable achievement levels (vs. targeted levels) follow a standard bell-shaped curve, with half of individuals consuming between 40-70% of their target. The picture is less favorable for fruit, however, as two-thirds don’t even consume half of their recommended number of cups of fruit.
  • Children under the age of 12 and females 55 and older are most likely to achieve their fruit target. Males ages 55 and older, teens, and children under the age of 6 are most likely to achieve their vegetable target.The average person consumes 1.8 cups of fruits and vegetables per day or about 660 cups annually. Vegetables account for 60% of this average, while fruit represents 40%.
  • Per capita fruit and vegetable consumption (in cups) has remained fairly stable overall during the past 5 years….Berries, apple juice, and bananas have all shown growth since 2004.
  • Several groups have increased their fruit consumption by at least 5% since 2004. These include children ages 2-12, males 18-34, and females 18-54.
  • Older adults are eating fewer fruits and vegetables compared to just 5 years ago. Men and women aged 65 and over have decreased their intake nearly 10% vs. 2004 levels.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation’s 2010 GAP Analysis,  correlates the gap between consumption and recommendations to the ways in which USDA funding priorities ignore fruits and vegetables.  The report is hard to read and goes on and on, but its thrust is understandable.

The Foundation wants the USDA to spend a greater proportion of its dollars on fruits and vegetables, rather than on meat and dairy foods. USDA’s current allocations for subsidies look like this:

  • Meat: 54.7%
  • Grains (which mostly go to feed animals): 18.0%
  • Dairy (non-butter): 11.4%
  • Fats and oils: 6.2%
  • Fruits and vegetables: 9.8%

These reports aim to align agricultural policy with health policy, and about time too.

Jun 18 2010

Anti-hunger programs: recent research

The Government Accountability Office has analyzed the current status of food assistance programs in a recent report, “Domestic Food Assistance: Complex System Benefits Millions, but Additional Efforts Could Address Potential Inefficiency and Overlap among Smaller Programs” (GAO-10-346, April 15, 2010).

The GAO says that the prevalence of food insecurity rose to nearly 15 percent (or about 17 million households) in 2008, and that the federal government spent more than $62.5 billion on 18 different food and nutrition assistance programs that year.

Although the programs are poorly coordinated and often overlap, streamlining them is not easy and involves trade offs.  The GAO recommends that USDA:

identify and develop methods for addressing potential inefficiencies among food assistance programs and reducing unnecessary overlap among the smaller programs while ensuring that those who are eligible receive the assistance they need. Approaches may include conducting a study; convening a group of experts…considering which of the lesser-studied programs need further research; or piloting proposed changes.

More research needed!

Fortunately, we have some.  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has studied the question of whether food insecurity is linked to obesity.  Past research suggested that it is.

Foundation researchers reviewed studies examining a possible relationship between food insecurity and obesity, and those examining links between federal nutrition assistance programs and an increased risk of obesity.

The report, “Food Insecurity and Risk for Obesity Among Children and Families: Is There a Relationship?, finds no evidence of a direct relationship between food insecurity and obesity.  It also does not find a direct relationship of use of food assistance to obesity.

Food insecurity is linked to a host of physical and mental health problems and it is difficult to distinguish the effects of lack of reliable food from those due to the lack of money, education, transportation, stable housing, and health care also common among low-income households.

Jan 1 2010

What’s up with food and nutrition in 2010?

My San Francisco Chronicle column, now appearing in print on the first Sunday of the month, is also online.

Its title:  “Hot food issues ready to boil over this year.”

Q: What do you think will happen with food and nutrition in 2010?

A: I wish I could read the leaves while I drink tea, but the best I can do is tell you which issues I’m going to be watching closely this year.

Hunter Public Relations recently asked 1,000 Americans which food-related issues they thought were most important in 2009. The top three? Food safety, hunger and food prices. For the decade, the winner was childhood obesity.

I have my own top 10 list of hot-button issues for 2010, and here they are:

  • Hunger: More than 35 million Americans get benefits to which they are entitled under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly, food stamps). The economy may be improving, but not quickly enough for millions who have lost jobs, health care and housing. Will Congress do anything this year to strengthen the safety net for the poor? It needs to.
  • Childhood obesity: Rates of childhood obesity may have stabilized, but we all want to figure out how to prevent kids from gaining so much weight that they develop adult chronic diseases. I expect to see more efforts to improve school food and make neighborhoods more conducive to walking to school, riding bikes and playing outside.
  • Food safety regulation: Congress is sitting on a bill to give the Food and Drug Administration some real authority for food safety. The bill does not do what is most needed – establish a single food-safety agency – but is a reasonable step in the right direction. Let’s hope Congress gets to it soon.
  • Food advertising and labels: The long-dormant FDA and Federal Trade Commission are getting busy at last. In the wake of the Smart Choices fiasco, the FDA is working to make package labels less misleading and easier to understand. The agencies have proposed nutrition standards for products marketed to children. These voluntary standards fall far short of my preference – an outright ban on marketing junk foods to kids – but puts food companies on notice that their products are under scrutiny. The FDA is also working on designs for front-of-package labels. I’m hoping it chooses a “traffic-light” system that marks foods with a green (any time), yellow (sometimes) or red (hardly ever) dot. Expect plenty of opposition from the makers of red-dotted products.
  • Meat: The meat industry has been under fire for raising food animals under inhumane conditions, using unnecessary hormones and antibiotics, mistreating immigrant labor, and polluting soil and water. Now it is also under fire for contributing to climate change. Recent films like “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh” and books such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” are encouraging people to become vegetarians or to eat less meat to promote the health of people and the planet. I’ll bet the meat industry pushes back hard on this one.
  • Sustainable agriculture: The back-to-the land movement has loads of people buying local food, choosing foods produced under more sustainable conditions and growing their own food. The number of small farms in America increased last year for the first time in a century. Seed companies cannot keep up with the demand. It will be fun to follow what happens with this trend.
  • Genetically modified (GM) foods: My book, “Safe Food,” comes out in a new edition this year, so I am paying especially close attention to debates about GM foods. The FDA’s 1994 decision to prohibit labeling of GM foods continues to haunt the food biotechnology industry. By now, nearly all American soybeans and sugar beets (95 percent) are GM, as is most corn (60 percent). But when the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved GM sugar beets in 2005, it neglected to perform the required environmental impact assessment. On that basis, environmental groups want to ban further planting of GM sugar beets. The dispute is now in the courts.
  • Chemical contaminants: The FDA has yet to release its report on the safety of bisphenol A, the plastic chemical that acts as an endocrine disrupter. Shouldn’t it be banned? The bottling industry says no. Watch for fierce arguments over this one.
  • Salt: Nutrition standards allow 480 mg sodium (the equivalent of more than 1 gram of salt) per serving. A half cup of canned soup provides that much. A whole cup gives you 4 grams and the whole can gives you 8 grams – much more than anyone needs. Nearly 80 percent of salt in American diets comes from processed and restaurant foods. Companies are under pressure to cut down on salt. Will they? Only if they have to.
  • Dietary advice: The new edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which the government publishes every five years, is due this year. What will it say? I can’t wait to find out.

Those are the issues I am tracking these days. My one crystal-ball prediction? We will be hearing a lot more about them this year.

Happy new year!

Dec 2 2009

An improving economy? Ask people on Food Stamps!

I keep reading that the economy is getting better but I think anyone who says this must be talking about fat cats on Wall Street.   As for everyone else, take a look at the shocking piece about the Food Stamp program that the New York Times ran on its front page on Sunday.

More than 36 million Americans qualify for and get Food Stamps, an increase of 30% or so in just the last two years.  The Food Stamp program, says the Times, helps feed nearly 13% of American adults and 25% of children.

The Food Stamp program, now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is one of several food assistance programs run by the USDA.  SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that anyone who meets income eligibility requirements can get benefits.  Even so, only two-thirds of people eligible for the program apply for and get the benefits.  What recipients get is a credit card to use at grocery stores.  The cards were worth an average of $101 per month in 2008 for individuals, and $227 for households.

SNAP participants can use the money to buy foods, seeds, and food plants.  They cannot use the cards for alcohol, tobacco, pet food, supplements, paper goods, or hot prepared foods.

So what’s going on?  Nearly 15% of American households, up a couple of percentage points this year, are considered “food insecure,” meaning that they cannot count on a reliable, legally obtained source of food from one day to the next.  Surprise!  The uptick in SNAP participation exactly parallels the uptick in jobs lost.

What do you have to do to qualify for Food Stamps?  For a family of four, your household must make less than $2,389 per month gross, or $1,838 net and meet certain other requirements.  An individual can’t make more than about $1,000 a month.   These days, 36 million Americans make less than that or otherwise qualify for food assistance, and their numbers are rising rapidly.

This doesn’t look like an improving economy to me.  Or am I missing something?