by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

May 16 2013

The farm bill’s nutrition efforts: practically irrelevant to SNAP

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is funded by Title IV in the farm bill, currently under consideration in Congress.   It accounts for about 80% of the total farm bill funding, and costs taxpayers about $80 billion a year.

SNAP is an entitlement, which means that everyone who qualifies gets benefits—unless Congress changes that.  So far, all it is doing is trying to cut budget.

Although SNAP is under the Nutrition title, little about the program is designed to improve the nutrition and health of participants.  But the farm bill has plenty to say about nutrition—just not for SNAP participants.

Much of the Senate version of the Nutrition Title is about continued funding for food assistance programs other than SNAP:

  • The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) which mainly works through food banks
  • The Department of Defense Fresh Program (fresh foods to schools and service institutions)
  • Agriculture Marketing Service pilot programs in states for to source local foods
  • The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (coupon exchange at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and community supported agriculture programs).
  • A new Pulse Products Program that encourages sampling of a variety of beans and peas for use in school meal programs (I suspect some lobbying here).
  • A Healthy Food Financing Initiative to administer loans and grants to improve access to healthy foods in “food deserts.”
  • The Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Program to provide free fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income elementary school children
  • Grants to eligible nonprofit organizations to improve community access to food through school gardens programs and urban greenhouse initiatives
  • A new Service and Learning program funded at $25 million in which members work in K-12 schools to engage children in experiential learning about agriculture, gardening, nutrition, cooking and where food comes from. [Wow!  This one reads as if written to support FoodCorps—wouldn’t that be terrific!]
  • Interagency taskforce to coordinate and direct programs that supply food to key nutrition programs like the Emergency Food Assistance Program and National School Lunch Program.

And here’s another one about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans of all things [whose bright idea was this?]:

  • Not later than the 2020 report [the Dietary Guidelines for Americans] and in each report thereafter, the Secretaries [of USDA and HHS] shall include national nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for pregnant women and children from birth.

The Senate bill does have one useful, if poorly funded, piece directed at the health of SNAP participants, and another aimed at retailers:

  • Grants to expand the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants through programs like “Double Up Food Bucks.”
  • Requires retailers who accept SNAP benefit payments to stock a wider range of healthful foods.

The House bill does more or less the same with the addition of:

  • Grants for eligible nonprofit organizations seeking and developing innovative ways to improve community access to healthy foods.
The costs of these changes are not specified except in just a few cases.
Budget cuts are the big issue.

Small-farm activist Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said the quarrel over SNAP could rupture a long-standing partnership of rural and urban lawmakers who supported farm programs on the one hand, and public nutrition programs on the other.

“Is this the end of the farm bill coalition?” Hoefner said.

Is it?  I wonder if we will ever have a Congress that puts a little vision into this bill and writes legislation to solve some of our country’s agriculture, poverty, and health problems, interconnected as they are.

May 15 2013

The Ag Committees’ Farm Bill Title IV (food stamps): Mean-Spirited

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-–Title IV in the Senate and the House farm bills—is the elephant in the room because it takes up roughly 80% of the bill’s total cost to taxpayers.   SNAP benefits cost roughly $80 billion per year for 47.5 million participants.

Yesterday, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed its version of the farm bill with no amendments to its draft of  the Title IV Nutrition section.  The committee proposes more than $4 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next 10 years.

Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger said of the vote:

Unfortunately…[the Senate Ag Committee] passed a bill that values foreign corporate welfare over feeding our children, seniors, and low-income working people. If this version of the Farm Bill becomes law, $4.1 billion in SNAP funding would be cut, and that would mean $90 less a month for 500,000 families already struggling to make ends meet.

For out-of-work American adults and their out-of-luck children, SNAP is a lifeline, the remaining survivor of the once effective safety net.

SNAP is an entitlement, which means that anyone who qualifies is eligible to receive benefits.  That’s how Congress set it up but with budget cuts the only issue of concern, the $80 billion annual cost of SNAP is a sitting duck.

That’s why these bills look so mean-spirited.

Apparently, Congress could not care less about making sure that the down-and-out have access to better and healthier food.

Instead, the emphasis is on reducing enrollments and preventing fraud.  Yes, fraud is a problem in SNAP, but a relatively small one.  And whether fraud is worth the time, energy, and hundreds of millions of dollars a year spent on its prevention is arguable.

But this is about politics, and it’s possible that the new anti-fraud measures may be a small price to pay for hanging onto the bulk of the benefits.

As the Senate summary puts it:

The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 strengthens the integrity and accountability of federal nutrition programs. The legislation ensures that every dollar be spent responsibly so that those who need help can get it. The bill cracks down on fraud and abuse, while strengthening efforts to get food assistance to those most in need.

The proposed bill:

  • Cracks down on trafficking (and allocates $12 million per year for that purpose)
  • Prevents lottery winners from receiving benefits
  • Prevents college students from misusing benefits
  • Limits SNAP eligibility for college students
  • Prevents utility allowances from influencing size of benefits

The House summary says: “FARRM makes common-sense reforms, closes program loopholes, and cracks down on waste,fraud, and abuse saving the American taxpayer over $20 billion.”

  • Ensures all households meet the asset and income tests stated in SNAP law before they can receive benefits.
  • Updates financial resource limits to more accurately reflect low-income households.
  • Restricts categorical eligibility to only those households receiving cash assistance from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or other state general assistance programs.
  • Stops states from giving recipients utility benefit payments that increase SNAP benefits.
  • Ends SNAP benefits for lottery or gambling winners.
  • Prevents traditional college students from receiving SNAP.
  • Requires states to verify SNAP benefits are not paid to deceased individuals.
  • Requires states to verify that beneficiaries are not receiving payments in more than one state.
  • Prevents SNAP benefits from being used to pay for substantial bottle deposits when contents are dumped and bottles returned for refunds..
  • Prohibits counting medical marijuana as an income deduction for SNAP benefits.
  • Ensures illegal Immigrants do not receive SNAP benefits.
  • Prevents USDA from promoting the SNAP program through outreach via television, radio and billboard advertisements.
  • Prohibits USDA from entering into agreements with foreign governments designed to promote SNAP benefits.
  • Requires states to report outcomes on education and training programs for SNAP recipients.

Yes, most of these sound reasonable, although eliminating outreach seems like a really bad idea.  But do they represent the most serious problems with SNAP?

Where is congressional will to meet the needs of the poorest members of our society?  This is about cost-cutting and power politics.  It is not about taking care of the most vulnerable members of society, among them 23 million children.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the useful parts of this legislation—those focused on improving the health of SNAP participants—and why SNAP benefits are so contentious in this Congress.

In the meantime, the House Ag Committee does its version of the farm bill starting at 10:00 this morning.

Apr 9 2013

Let’s Ask Marion: Who’s got the power to end hunger in America?

This is one of those occasional Q and A’s with Kerry Trueman, this time in solidarity with Food Bloggers Against Hunger.  It’s posted here.

Trueman: We produce more than enough food in the U.S. to feed every man, woman and child. In fact, we’ve got such a surplus that we throw away almost half of it. But more than 47 million Americans — including roughly 16 million kids — struggle with hunger.

And with budget cuts undermining our food stamp program, aka SNAP, this problem’s only getting worse. Who has the power to change this shameful state of affairs, and how?

Nestle: I’ve just seen A Place at the Table (a film in which I briefly appear), which lays out today’s hunger problem in a particularly poignant way. It was clear from the film that its low-income participants had to deal with what is now called “food insecurity,” meaning that they couldn’t count on a reliable supply of adequate food on a daily basis and sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. But they also had to deal with another problem: the food that they did get was mostly junk food. So the question really should be worded somewhat differently: How can we ensure that everyone in America can afford enough healthy food?

I’m guessing that the makers of A Place at the Table intended it to do for the 2013 version of food insecurity what the CBS television documentary, Hunger in America, did in 1968. That film showed footage of children so starved and listless that they might as well have come from countries at war or refugee camps.

What seems impossible to imagine in 2013 is the effect of that documentary. It shocked the nation. Viewers were outraged that American adults and children did not have enough to eat. Within that year, President Nixon called a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health to recommend programs and policies to end hunger, and Congress appointed the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs (the McGovern committee) to develop legislation. This worked. Food assistance and other programs reduced poverty and hunger. Our present-day WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and SNAP (food stamp) programs are the legacy of that outrage.

Where is that outrage today? Without it, Congress can ignore the millions of people who depend on SNAP benefits and view the nearly $80 billion cost of those benefits as an enticing target for budget cutting.

Who has the power to do something decent about hunger? In a word, Congress. Unlike the situation under presidents Nixon, Kennedy, and Johnson — all of whom took decisive action to help the poor — hunger in America today is nothing but a pawn in Washington power politics. We have come to value personal responsibility at the expense of social responsibility. It’s hard for many Americans to think that we must be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers when our own economic status feels at risk.

If we can’t count on Congress to do the right thing, we have to try to create our own local food security and engage communities in helping to care for one another. This means advocacy and coalition-building on two levels: national and local. On the national level, it means exercising democratic rights as citizens to lobby congressional representatives to address poverty and its consequences no matter how futile that may seem. On the local level, it means working with community residents to address their needs. It means engaging the media to get the word out.

That’s where Food Bloggers Against Hunger can help. Your job is to generate outrage and to encourage your readers to take 30 seconds and send a letter to Congress asking them to support anti-hunger legislation. Go for it!

Follow Kerry Trueman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kerrytrueman.  Marion Nestle is at www.twitter.com/marionnestle.

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Mar 26 2013

More on energy drinks

You have to love the marketing geniuses at Monster Energy Drink.

As I suggested in a previous post, it and similar products have become the new frontier for food advocacy, largely because of linkages, as yet unproven, between their high caffeine content and the deaths of several young people.

Now, Suffolk County has passed legislation that blocks companies from giving free samples and coupons to minors and selling the drinks in county parks.

In 2010, Suffolk Country introduced a previous version of the bill that proposed to ban sales of energy drinks to anyone 19 or younger.

How is Monster Energy responding to such assaults?

Clever: change its labels from Supplement Facts to Nutrition Facts.

Why would it do this?

As explained in the New York Times, Monster Beverage “will no longer be required to tell federal regulators about reports potentially linking its products to deaths and injuries” [doing so is required for supplements, but not foods].

A spokesman for Monster, Michael Sitrick, said the company had decided to market its products as beverages for several reasons. One was to stop what he described as “misguided criticism” that the company was selling its energy drinks as dietary supplements because of the belief that such products were more lightly regulated than beverages [Misguided? They are more lightly regulated].

Another consideration, he said, was that consumers can use government-subsidized food stamps to buy beverages [EBT-card benefits cannot be spent on supplements].

Let’s see if other places follow Suffolk County’s lead.

Mar 19 2013

Mini Book Review: The Stop

I’m teaching Food Advocacy at NYU this semester and am using a book that comes out today:

Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis.  The Stop: How the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement.  Random House Canada 2013.

Husband and wife team Saul and Curtis wrote this chronicle of Saul’s 15-year stint as the director of The Stop, a place that started out as a soup kitchen but ended up as much more.

This is an important book.  The Stop is no ordinary account of the substantial benefits of soup kitchens to servers and served.  It is an impassioned account of how to create food systems that foster independence and eliminate the indignities of charity.   Saul and Curtis put a human face on poverty.  If you want to know what today’s food movement is really about—and why it is anything but elitist–read this book.

Ordinarily, I hope that readers will order and buy books I mention at local, independent bookshops.  But this one is only available in Canada.  Here’s its link at Amazon Canada.

Oct 22 2012

Rest in peace George McGovern

Former Senator (D-SD) George McGovern died yesterday at age 90.

His accomplishments as a Senator and statesmen were legion, many of them strongly connected to food politics.

As I mentioned in 2009 when I gave the state department’s annual George McGovern lecture in Rome, he chaired the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs from 1968-1977.   This committee greatly expanded food assistance programs and then developed the first federal guidelines for chronic disease prevention: Dietary Goals for the U.S.

In Food Politics, I described the work of this strongly bipartisan committee (Bob Dole was its lead Republican member) and how it did so much to improve the lives of women and children living in poverty in the United States, and of poor people throughout the world.

The committee also broke new ground in shifting nutrition education from a focus on eating more of a variety of foods to eating less of foods that increased risks for chronic disease.

What’s shown here is the February 1977 version of this landmark report.  As the result of outraged protests by food producers affected by the “eat less” messages, the committee was forced to tone down its recommendations.  The committee issued a revised report in December that year.

That was the committee’s final act.  Congress disbanded it and McGovern lost his bid for reelection.

McGovern leaves an extraordinary legacy, one unimaginable in this era of partisan politics.

He was far ahead of his time, as this 1977 photo shows.  It is a fitting tribute.

Sep 4 2012

Some reflections on Labor Day, 2012

Economists tell us that we are in a recovery period.  Jobs, yes.  But money?  No.

According to the report in the New York Times, the employment statistics reflect substantial increases in low-wage jobs but losses in better paying jobs.

Lower-wage occupations, with median hourly wages of $7.69 to $13.83, accounted for 21 percent of job losses during the retraction. Since employment started expanding, they have accounted for 58 percent of all job growth.

The occupations with the fastest growth were retail sales (at a median wage of $10.97 an hour) and food preparation workers ($9.04 an hour). Each category has grown by more than 300,000 workers since June 2009.

Need a job?  Head for the kitchen.

But be careful.  According to another New York Times report, a new study finds that:

Low-wage workers are routinely denied proper overtime pay and are often paid less than the minimum wage…Of workers who receive tips, 12 percent said their employer had stolen some of the tips.

Wouldn’t unions help?  They might, but take a look at the Ithaca Journal’s analysis of union membership.  New York, it seems leads the nation in the percentage of its workers who belong to labor unions: 24.1% in 2011.

But, this percentage:

glosses over the fact that while union representation has increased in the state’s public sector, it has fallen off dramatically in the private sector.

Last year, according to the unionstats.com website, 72.2 percent of the state’s public work force was unionized…But in the private sector, the unionization rate last year was 13.5 percent.

The easy answer for the decline in the private sector, analysts say, is the state’s loss of job slots in the manufacturing sector — 908,400 in 1991 to 458,000 in 2011 — which has long been organized labor’s bread and butter.

But there are other reasons for the resistance to private sector unionization:

Part is based on employers’ imagined need to increase their profitability and part has to do with a tremendous growth in law firms and consultants that specialize in breaking private unions.

No wonder more than 46 million Americans qualify for and receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

The food service industry exists on low-wage jobs.  Such jobs should be entry-level, not permanent.  They are not a solution to America’s economic problems and they are not good for social stability or American democracy.

What is the solution?  Wish I knew.

Any ideas?

Aug 18 2012

Guest post: Paul Ryan’s Views on Food Politics

Daniel Green, a student at Cornell, asked whether I intended to write about Paul Ryan’s views on food politics.  He volunteered to put something together with his colleague, Dr. Margaret Yufera-Leitch.  Here are their thoughts:

Few Americans had heard of Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) until last week when he was announced as Presidential-hopeful Mitt Romney’s November running mate. A Janesville, Wisconsin native, former personal trainer and Oscar Mayer Weinermobile driver during his college days, Ryan is a strong advocate on the Hill for the P90x exercise routine and avoids eating fried foods and desserts (yes, even on the campaign trail).

But how do Mr. Ryan’s personal beliefs impact his voting on food politics related matters?

Obesity prevention

In the case of obesity, prevention has been shown repeatedly to be the best medicine. Of the $2.6 trillion spent on US health care in 2010, 95% went for disease treatment leaving only $421 per American per year for prevention—not even enough money for a 1-year gym membership in most states.

In an interview with Politico, Mr. Ryan admitted to maintaining 6-8% body fat with a healthy BMI of 21, admirable for any working professional. But Mr. Ryan, who has voted against every Affordable Care Act related bill, takes the stance that what you eat and what you weigh are both matters of personal responsibility. In 2005, he voted for H.R. 554 “The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act” also known as the cheeseburger bill, which aimed to ‘prohibit weight gain-related or obesity-related lawsuits from being brought in federal or state courts against the food industry.’ The bill was passed by the House but failed to even go up for vote in the Senate. The legislation was featured in the 2004 Morgan Spurlock documentary Super Size Me, where Marion Nestle also made her on-screen debut.

According to a recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, by 2020 Obesity will cost America $4.6 trillion dollars annually and healthcare costs related to obesity will consume 19.8% of U.S. GDP. The sudden rise of obesity is a clear sign that, as a country, we have fostered an obesogenic environment that will require commitments from both the public and private sectors to reform.

Given that 70% of Americans are overweight and obese, we have collectively demonstrated that public service announcements alone have not yet resulted in the significant population-wide behavior changes needed to reverse obesity and more importantly alleviate a strained U.S. Health Care system.

SNAP Benefits

One of the most important programs available to lower income Americans is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as Food Stamps, which provides access to fresh foods for low-income families. Given that increased fruit and vegetable consumption are cornerstone habits of the Preventative Medicine conversation, why has Mr. Ryan argued to cut SNAP by $33 billion over the next ten years?

Affordable Care Act

Paul Ryan’s choices to repeal $6.2 trillion dollars of support from the Affordable Care Act and obesity-related provisions, demonstrates a lesser degree of support for preventative care than his widely publicized exercise regime suggests.  Perhaps with unemployment still high and unsure economy, America has bigger fish to fry than fixing the food system and reversing obesity but at least for now, Paul Ryan will take his fish broiled.

 Paul Ryan Food Politics Fact Sheet

Favorite Exercise Program: P90x
BMI: 21 (Healthy)
Dietary Restrictions: Doesn’t eat desserts or fried foods
View on cause of Obesity Personal Responsibility
Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) For
Farm Bill Against
Food Safety Modernization Act Against
Healthcare Reform (Affordable Care Act/Obamacare) Strongly against
Menu Labeling No direct comment- but against Obamacare which includes it
Repealing the Prevention and Public Health Fund For
School Lunch Reform and Child Nutrition Reauthorization For
Soda Taxes No direct comment

 

References and source materials are available from the authors:

  • Daniel Green studies Applied Nutrition and Psychology at Cornell University.  dpg64@cornell.edu. You can follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/dgrreen.
  • Margaret Yufera-Leitch received her PhD in experimental psychology with a focus in eating behavior from the University of Sussex. She is currently a visiting assistant professor at the University of Calgary.   dr.leitch@impulsive-eating.com.  Her website is www.impulsive-eating.com.