by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

Jan 27 2014

The fight over white potatoes in WIC

Once again, Congress—under pressure from lobbyists—is micromanaging USDA’s food assistance programs.

This time it’s the WIC program (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children).

The lobbying is coming from the National Potato Council, which wants—no surprise—white potatoes to be included the list of foods approved for purchase with WIC benefits (the “WIC Package”).

I love potatoes but they don’t need to be in WIC.

Here’s what this is about.

The WIC Food Package

This is designed to meet the special nutritional needs of at-risk low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, infants and children up to five years of age.  Rules published in the Federal Register in 2007 aimed to promote long-term breastfeeding by providing WIC participants with a wider variety of foods including fruits and vegetables and whole grains (see summary here).

Although the rules allow states considerable flexibility, they specifically exclude white potatoes.

The New York State WIC package, for example, allows any variety of fresh vegetables and fruits except white potatoes (sweet potatoes and yams are allowed).

These rules are the result of an Institute of Medicine study released in 2005.  This study found that WIC participants already ate plenty of white potatoes.  The report said it would be better for WIC to encourage consumption of a wider variety of vegetables.

Potato industry lobbying

For the last five years, the potato industry has been lobbying to include white potatoes in the WIC package.

Potato lobbyists are active these days.

For example, the Maine potato lobby succeeded in getting Congress to tell the USDA that it could not set any limits on the number of times per week that white potatoes could be served in school lunches.  That ploy worked and this one may work too.

The National Potato Council lobbyists induced Congress to add a clause to the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill.  When President Obama signed that bill on January 17, he directed the USDA to allow all varieties of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables to be included.  Translation: white potatoes, and French fries at that.

If the USDA fails to comply, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack must submit a report to Congress explaining why not.

The National Potato Council makes this statement: “This action sends a clear message to USDA that it is obligated to base its nutritional policy on the latest nutritional science, which calls for an increase in starchy vegetable consumption for all Americans, including WIC mothers and children.”

It does?  I’m not aware of such science.

The Institute of Medicine is currently reviewing the WIC package and I seriously doubt that it will find a deficiency of starchy vegetables in American diets.

This is about getting potato growers a chunk of taxpayer money spent for the WIC program.

Why should anyone care?

If Congress caves in on white potatoes, it will open a Pandora’s box of pressures from lobbyists representing every food product currently excluded from the WIC package.

If lobbyists for white potatoes succeed, can those for “fruit”-flavored cereals and sports drinks be far behind?

The WIC program has always focused on encouraging recipients to consume foods that will best promote their own health and that of their children.

It would be better for WIC recipients—and a lot better for American democracy—if the potato industry stopped manipulating Congress and interfering with USDA nutrition programs.

Jan 14 2014

Congress releases its draft budget bill (sigh)

In the strange way the U.S. government works, Congress has produced the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014,” which authorizes payments for government services, including those related to agriculture.

This is not the farm bill.  It’s what Congress decides taxpayers will pay for in the farm bill as well as bills that cover other programs run by USDA.

The House summary of agriculture appropriations is a lot easier to read than the bill itself, although it contains its share of double speak.  Try this:

WIC – This program provides supplemental nutritional foods needed by pregnant and nursing mothers, babies and young children. The bill provides full funding for WIC at $6.7 billion – $153 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level…This level will ensure all eligible participants will be served.

Can someone please explain to me how a cut of $153 million will ensure service to everyone who is eligible?  WIC is not an entitlement; eligible people cannot be served once the money runs out.

The bill does provide full spending—$82.2 billion—for SNAP, but only because it has to.  SNAP is an entitlement and spending for it is mandatory.  Unless, of course, Congress ever passes the farm bill, which currently contains a $9 billion proposed cut.

And here’s more double speak.  “The legislation includes several provisions to reduce spending and increase oversight of taxpayer dollars.”  How?  By authorizing spending for:

  • Oversight and monitoring requirements for the WIC program, including a directive for the Secretary of Agriculture to increase oversight of vendors to help rein in food costs;
  • A provision requiring USDA to submit a plan for reducing high error rates and improper payments in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs;
  • Requirements for the Secretary of Agriculture to help weed out and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse in the SNAP program – including a directive to ban fraudulent vendors, and a prohibition on advertisements or outreach with foreign governments.

And why does the FDA’s budget still get decided by committees dealing with agricultural appropriations?

The FDA is a public health agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, which is funded by entirely different committees which you might think understand its mission a lot better than committees fussing about legislation that

restricts the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from implementing certain regulations that would allow harmful government interference in the private market for the livestock and poultry industry.

I can hardly wait to see what the farm bill will look like.

Sep 24 2013

Out today: the American edition of The Stop

Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis.  The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement.  Melville House, 2013.

This book is now available in the U.S.

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 report on how soup kitchens convey substantial benefits to servers as well as the served.

As I said in my blurb for it:

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.

I also used it in class last semester, where it stimulated much discussion and debate.  It ought to be available at bookstores everywhere.  Don’t miss this one.

Jul 12 2013

Congressional posturing: House Republicans (No Democrats) pass farm bill without food stamps

Ordinarily, writing about bills introduced and passed in either the House or the Senate isn’t worth the trouble because they are so likely to be changed later on in the legislative process.

But this one is over the top.  House Republicans, joined by not one Democrat, passed H.R. 2642 — New Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 — its version of the farm bill yesterday.  The shocker?  For the first time since the 1970’s, the farm bill is not linked to food stamps (SNAP), thereby breaking the deal between urban and rural America.

This bill now has to be reconciled with the one passed by the Senate last year, which does include food stamps.  This seems unlikely.  The President has already said he won’t sign it (see the Obama administration’s statement of policy on H.R. 2642).

So this is about politics, not governing the country.

The House bill:

  • Repeals the 1938 and 1949 permanent farm laws
  • Makes Title I — the commodity title — permanent law, if the bill can make it through conference and get President Barack Obama’s signature.
  • Allows virtually unlimited crop insurance subsidies and price guarantees.
  • Maintains the highly unpopular (with sugar users) sugar tariff program.
  • Authorizes about $200 billion to pay for all this over ten years.
  • Saves $12 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate (much less than the House claims).
  • Expands subsidies for crop insurance to cotton, rice, peanuts, and vegetables (well, at least that)
  • And, according to the New York Times, requires additional economic and scientific analyses before putting food safety laws into effect.

House Republicans know this bill isn’t going any further.  Hence: politics.  Their purpose?  Leaving food stamps vulnerable to severe restrictions and budget cutting.

Joel Berg of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger issued this statement:

Today’s vote is the latest smoking gun that the House Majority isn’t truly interested in deficit reduction, they’re interested in supporting special interest groups over hungry Americans. The Farm Bill passed by the House of Representatives today is a disgrace and an embarrassment to the American people…Recent Farm Bills have represented the worst of American politics. It’s time to pass a Farm Bill that represents the best.

Good luck with that.

Addition, July 13: Gail Collins’ column in the Times on this fiasco is the best I’ve seen.

So the farm bill got divided…As Ron Nixon reported in The Times, the rate of error and fraud in the agricultural crop insurance program is significantly higher than in the food stamp program. Also, the agriculture part has a lot of eyebrow-raising provisions, like the $147 million a year in reparations we send to Brazil to make up for the fact that it won a World Trade Organization complaint about the market-distorting effects of our cotton subsidies.

And while food stamps go to poor people, most of the farm aid goes to wealthy corporations.

Addition, July 16: I forgot to post the New York Times editorial on the topic.

Now that coalition has been sundered, and the future of food stamps is threatened. If the program is not returned to the five-year farm bill, it will have to be financed through annual appropriations, which puts it at the mercy of the Republicans’ usual debt-ceiling stunts and government shutdown threats. House leaders said they would submit a food stamp bill “later,” but that will probably include the right wing’s savage cuts andunprecedented incentives for states to shut out poor families. Neither will get past the Senate or the White House.

Jun 21 2013

Government in (in)action: House votes no on farm bill

Yesterday, the House rejected H.R. 1947, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, by a vote of 234 to 195.

Voting against the bill were:

  • Republicans who thought a $20 billion cut to SNAP (food stamps) and a $5 billion cut to farm supports were not nearly deep enough.
  • Democrats who were appalled by the cuts to SNAP and the addition of amendments requiring SNAP applicants to be tested for drugs, to be rejected if they had ever been found guilty of felonies, and to be required to work.

Unless Congress gets its act together, support for SNAP and agriculture revert to the provisions of the 2008 bill [Oops.  The 1949 bill].  Congress will have to deal with some of trauma that results from this.

My favorite comment on this situation comes from Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger:

We celebrate the failure of this horrific federal Farm Bill which would have slashed SNAP nutrition benefits by over $20 billion. Not only would this Farm Bill have taken food off the table of low-income children, veterans, working parents, and people with disabilities, it would have actually expanded corporate welfare for agri-businesses…It’s time to go back to the drawing board, and for both houses of Congress…to pass a Farm Bill that puts the interests of hungry Americans, consumers, family farmers, the environment, and taxpayers above those of corporate welfare.

Is any of this news?  Not page 1, apparently.  I’m in Los Angeles where the New York Times put the story on page 12.

Other comments worth reading:

Jun 18 2013

The Farm Bill farce: 227 amendments

The House of Representatives Rules Committee is dealing with the Farm Bill.  The Committee has posted the relevant documents on its website, so you can judge for yourself how our political system works these days.

It’s hard to know what to make of the amendments—all 227 of them—or which ones are worth attention.  Many deal with SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which the House wants cut to pieces.

The Rules Committee will decide this afternoon what to do about the amendments.  Discuss?  Invoke cloture and cut off discussion?  We will see.

In the meantime, here are some examples.

  • Repeals the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center.
  • Requires that at least 50 percent of the funds made available for the Farmers Market Nutrition Program be reserved for seniors.
  • Requires the Secretary of Agriculture to conduct a study on current USDA programs related to the Lesser Prairie Chicken to analyze the economic impact and effectiveness of these programs.
  • Facilitates cost-neutral purchasing of Kosher and Halal food within the Emergency Food Assistance Program and improve information provided to participating food banks on availability of Kosher and Halal food.
  • Allows states to conduct drug testing on SNAP applicants as a condition for receiving benefits.
  • Prohibits the availability of funds for China under the Food For Peace Act. 
  • Prohibits retaliatory actions against livestock producers and poultry growers when they express opinions about unfairness in the marketplace to public officials.
  • Prohibits the USDA from sending payments to the Brazil Cotton Institute.
  • Eliminates funding for Nutrition Education programs.
  • Establishes the sense of Congress that the Federal Government should increase financial support provided to urban community gardens and victory gardens to heighten awareness of nutrition and self-sufficiency.
  • Allows Skyview subdivision to meet the requirements of the USDA Rural Development grant for water and waste disposal.

You get the idea.  Think: lobbying.

The main issue is SNAP.  House Republicans don’t like it much (too expensive, too wasteful, too inducing of dependency and fraud).

You don’t believe this?  Here’s what the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas, R-Okla., produced to convince House members to vote for a farm bill with $20 billion cut from SNAP over the next 10 years.

farmbill

 

Addition: The White House says it will veto the farm bill if the $20 billion SNAP cut remains.

 

May 22 2013

Civics lesson: SNAP amendments to the farm bill

I know the mere words “farm bill” are enough to put any sane person into a coma, but what’s happening in Congress can be quite entertaining if you don’t care what happens.

For example, the bill is so big and covers so much territory that just about every legislator introduces amendments (these are tracked by FarmBillPrimer.org).

Because SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) takes up 80% of farm bill funding to the tune of about $80 billion a year, lots of amendments deal with further decreasing the budget allocation or restoring amounts that have been cut.  So far, none of these has passed.

But legislators have other things they want SNAP to do.  For example, Senator Tom Coburn MD (Rep-Oklahoma) has introduced several amendments pertaining to SNAP, among them:

Amendment 1000 – Junk Food Purchases with SNAP: Requires the Secretary of Agriculture to approve state demonstration projects that limit the purchase of junk food under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Additional information here

 

Energy drinks, candy bars, sodas, ice cream, potato chips, fancy bakery cakes and cookies are all eligible foods under the program, as defined by statute…Few people would qualify these goods as “nutritional assistance.”

Amendment 1001 – Food Stamps: Returns the title of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to its original name, the Food Stamp program. Additional information here.   

Congress renamed the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and made a name change to the underlying legislative bill governing food stamps. Given spending patterns and eligible purchases in the program, though, SNAP is anything but nutritious for recipients or the country as a whole. Instead of misleading the public as to its benefits, SNAP should be renamed its original title, the Food Stamp Program. This name…is also a reminder of the core goal of the program: to serve our nation’s most vulnerable.

Amendment 1002 – SNAP Promotion Limitation: Limits the amount of SNAP funding that may be used to promote increased participation and enrollment in the program to 1% of overall funds and prevents SNAP funding for soap operas and parties. Additional information here.

Giveaways, soap operas, and radio miniseries all may be solid advertising opportunities for private companies wishing to market a product. They are not, however, appropriate uses of taxpayer funds to advocate for greater enrollment in SNAP, which would even further drain the government’s already-depleted coffers.

 Want to take bets on whether the Senate, let alone the House, will pass any of these?
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.