by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

Jul 20 2012

SNAP to Health: A Fresh Approach to Strengthening SNAP

I’m on the advisory committee for SNAP to Health, a project of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, chaired by Dr. Susan Blumenthal.

The Commission released its report on Wednesday in Washington DC at a congressional briefing at which I (and several others) spoke.

The report, Snap to Health, is online at this link.  Its recommendations are here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The major points made at the briefing:

  • SNAP funding must be preserved; the program is a lifeline for 46 million Americans, half of them children.
  • SNAP, as Rep. Ron Wyden (Dem-OR) put it, “is a conveyor belt for calories.”  It would be better if the calories came from healthier foods.
  • The prevalence of obesity is high among low-income Americans and some evidence suggests that rates may be higher among SNAP participants.
  • Buying healthier foods with SNAP benefits is not easy.  There are problems with access, cost, and relentless marketing of junk foods to low-income groups in general and to EBT users in particular.

As I discussed in my remarks (which are also supposed to be posted on SnapToHealth.org soon), food companies and retailers specifically target marketing efforts to low-income groups and to SNAP participants.  No such efforts market healthier foods to EBT users.

Michele Simon’s recent report documents the extensive lobbying efforts of food companies to make sure that SNAP recipients can use EBT cards to buy their products.

The Snap to Health report is meant to start a national conversation about helping this program to address twenty-first century health challenges.

Let the conversation begin!

Jul 16 2012

The House version of the farm bill: dysfunction or posturing?

Is this the way to make law?

After a 13-hour mark-up session that lasted past midnight last week, the House Agriculture Committee approved, 35-11, its version of the 2012 Farm Bill.

The bill is so flawed that USDA Tom Vilsack felt compelled to issue a critical statement:

Americans deserve a farm and jobs bill that reforms the safety net for producers in times of need, promotes the bio-based economy, conserves our natural resources, strengthens rural communities,  promotes job growth in rural America, and supports food assistance to low-income families. 

Unfortunately, the bill produced by the House Agriculture Committee contains deep cuts in SNAP, including a provision that will deny much-needed food assistance to 3 million Americans, mostly low-income working families with children as well as seniors. The proposed cuts…wouldn’t just leave Americans hungry – they would stunt economic growth.  The bill also makes misguided reductions to critical energy and conservation program efforts.

For the politics of what the House Ag Committee is doing, Politico has a good summary.  According to its analysis, the problems with the bill are so enormous that it is unlikely that the House will ever get to it. 

The reality is that GOP leaders are worried about a messy floor fight over divisive regional policies months before voters head to the ballot boxes. Odd couples could abound: The far left and far right would likely vote against the bill on the floor, the former thinking the bill cuts too much from food stamps, the latter insisting cuts aren’t deep enough.

There’s also division over how much the government should be subsidizing the farm industry and whether it should control commodity prices. Arguing complex farm policy on the House floor in this political climate gives many Republican members pause.

If the House can’t pass a bill, then it would go into negotiations with the Senate with a weak negotiating stance.

…Now, they’ll likely have to grit their teeth and vote to extend current policy. And that will come only after rural lawmakers go home for all of August and face questions about why the bill hasn’t been debated on the House floor.

The Environmental Working Group gives ten reasons to reject the House bill:

  • Cuts Nutrition Assistance
  • Gives Big Farmers a Big Raise
  • Expands Crop Insurance by $9.5 billion
  • Cuts Conservation Programs by $6 billion
  • Lacks Protections for Prairies
  • Includes Anti-Environmental Riders
  • Has Few Incentives for Healthy Diets
  • Weakens Regulation of GMO Crops
  • Guts State Food and Farm Standards
  • Repeals Organic Certification Program

Fixing the farm bill is a formidable challenge. 

But aren’t lawmakers supposed to take on such challenges as part of what we elected them to do?

Jul 9 2012

House Ag Committee’s farm bill cuts SNAP, breaks deal, should be opposed

I’m in Europe trying to keep up with the farm bill from afar.  The House Ag Committee has come up with a a 557-page “discussion draft” of what it cutely calls the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act.

Its stated purposes are to (1) cut spending, (2) reduce the size of government, and (3) “make common-sense reforms to agricultural policy.”

The first two make the third goal an oxymoron.  I don’t see how #3 is possible, given #1 and #2.

Unlike the Senate version, the House bill:

  • Cuts current spending by $35 billion over 10 years (as compared to the Senate’s $23 billion or so).
  • Takes the difference out of SNAP (food stamps).  The proposed cut is $16 billion compared to $4.5 billion in the Senate version, an action that is ostensibly supposed to improve “program integrity and accountability.”

As Politico puts it, the House is

demanding deeper cuts from nutrition programs for the poor while embracing a greater government role in supporting farmers — something that won’t sit well with tea party conservatives.

Virtually all of that difference is explained by the much larger savings from food stamps — a $16 billion-plus package that triples what the Senate approved and imposes tougher income and asset tests that will disqualify hundreds of thousands of working-class households now getting aid.

The proposed deep cuts to SNAP are shocking for two reasons:

  • The harm they will do to low-income households
  • The breach in the long-standing deal that put SNAP in the farm bill in the first place

SNAP is in the farm bill because rural states needed the votes of urban states to pass subsidies and other supports for Big Ag producers of commodities.

This deal worked for states with large numbers of urban poor.  If their representatives voted for farm supports, farm-state representatives would vote for SNAP benefits.

This was classic logrolling.

Is the deal now breaking down?   Is Congress really willing to sacrifice benefits to the poor to maintain benefits for Big Ag?

According to The Hill, the House cuts are nothing but political posturing:

Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.), the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, agreed to the cuts as a pragmatic way of moving forward with legislation important to rural lawmakers.

In an interview with The Hill, he said much of the cuts would be restored in a conference with the Senate.

…Peterson said he would have made different reforms to food stamps, and had offered an alternative plan to the GOP that was rejected. He defended his decision to back the final product as both pragmatic and politically savvy.

“It is what had to be done in order to get through committee and through the House floor,” he said.

Pragmatic and politically savvvy?  Let’s hope he’s right.

Anti-hunger advocates, however, are taking no chances.  They gathered in Washington this week to oppose the cuts.

This is a critical time.  Add your voice!

Dec 31 2011

Looking ahead: food politics in 2012

My monthly Food Matters (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle takes out a crystal ball…

Q: What’s on the food politics agenda for 2012? Can we expect anything good to happen?

A: By “good,” I assume you mean actions that make our food system safer and healthier for consumers, farmers, farm workers and the planet.

Ordinarily, I am optimistic about such things. This year? Not so much. The crystal ball is cloudy, but seems to suggest:

Political leaders will avoid or postpone taking action on food issues that threaten corporate interests. Sometimes Congress acts in favor of public health, but 2012 is an election year. Expect calls for corporate freedom to take precedence over those for responsible regulations. Maybe next year.

Something will happen on the farm bill, but what? Last fall’s secret draft bill included at least some support for producing and marketing fruits and vegetables, and only minimal cuts to SNAP (food stamps). Once that process failed, Congress must now adopt that draft, start over from scratch or postpone the whole mess until after the election.

SNAP participation will increase, but so will pressure to cut benefits. With the economy depressed, wages low and unemployment high, demands on SNAP keep rising. In 2011, SNAP benefits cost $72 billion, by far the largest farm bill expenditure and a tempting target for budget cutters. While some advocates will be struggling to keep the program’s benefits intact, others will try to transform SNAP so it promotes purchases of more healthful foods. Both groups should expect strong opposition.

Childhood obesity will be the flash point for fights about limits on food marketing. The Lancet recently summarized the state of the science on successful obesity interventions: taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages, restrictions on marketing such items, traffic-light front-of-package food labels, and programs to discourage consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and television viewing. Expect the food industry to continue to get Congress to block such measures, as it did with U.S. Department of Agriculture school nutrition standards (hence: pizza counts as a vegetable).

The Federal Trade Commission will postpone release of nutrition standards for marketing to children. Although Congress asked for such standards in the first place – and the standards are entirely voluntary – it just inserted a section in the appropriations bill requiring a cost-benefit analysis before the FTC can release them. Why does the food industry care about voluntary restrictions? Because they might work (see previous prediction).

The Food and Drug Administration will delay issuing front-of-package labeling guidelines as long as it can. The FDA asked the Institute of Medicine for advice about such labels. The institute recommended labels listing only calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugars – all nutrients to avoid. Although the institute did not mention traffic-light labels, it did recommend check marks or stars, which come close. The food industry much prefers its own method, Facts Up Front, which emphasizes “good-for-you” nutrients. It is already using this system. Will the FDA try to turn the institute recommendations into regulations? Maybe later.

The FDA will (still) be playing catch-up on food safety. The FDA got through the 2011 appropriations process with an increase of about $50 million for its inspection needs. This is better than nothing but nowhere near what it needs to carry out its food safety mandates. The FDA currently inspects less than 2 percent of imported food shipments and 5 percent of domestic production facilities. The overwhelming nature of the task requires FDA to set priorities. Small producers think these priorities are misplaced. Is the FDA going after them because they are easier targets than industrial producers whose products have been responsible for some of the more deadly outbreaks? Time will tell.

On the bright side, the food movement will gather even more momentum. While the food industry digs in to fight public health regulations, the food movement will continue to attract support from those willing to promote a healthier and more sustainable food system. Watch for more young people going into farming (see Chronicle staff writer Amanda Gold’s Dec. 25 article) and more farmers’ markets, farm-to-school programs, school meal initiatives, and grassroots community efforts to implement food programs and legislate local reforms. There is plenty of hope for the future in local efforts to improve school meals, reduce childhood obesity, and make healthier food more available and affordable for all.

And on a personal note: In April, University of California Press will publish my co-authored book, “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.” I’m hoping it will inspire more thinking and action on how we can change our food system to one that is better for people and the planet.

Happy new year!

 

Sep 14 2011

Clarification of yesterday’s post on using SNAP for fast food

As many of you have pointed out, the use of SNAP benefits in fast food restaurants is a state decision but one that is supposed to be limited to the elderly, disabled, and homeless (whether those limitations are adhered to in practice is another question).

This morning I received further clarification from Aaron Lavallee, Communications Coordinator in the USDA Office of Communications. Mr. Lavallee, whom I don’t think I’ve met, writes:

Marion,

I just read your post in the Atlantic and wanted to follow up with you with some information that can clarify some of the misinformation posted and to help bring accuracy to parts that may be misleading for your readers.

You probably know most of this but Restaurant Meal Program has been an option for states – state run, state contracted, state administered – since the 1977 Food Stamp Act. The decision to establish a restaurant meal program is made entirely at the state level.

Most importantly, the ONLY people who qualify are the elderly, disabled, and homeless, as this provision is intended to assist people who are unable to prepare meals at home or in a traditional kitchen setting. This key fact and requirement of the law is mentioned nowhere in your article and we can both agree that with that clarification this story changes drastically.

Since 1977 the decision to establish a restaurant meal program has been made by only a handful of states and because of this participation is very low.

As noted in your article, California, Arizona, and Michigan are operating State administered restaurant programs serving their elderly, homeless, and disabled populations. Rhode Island began a limited pilot restaurant program on August 1, 2011. However you also mention Florida without providing the facts to your readers. In 2009, Florida began operating a pilot program in one county and has a total of only 14 restaurants participating. Furthermore in Florida this option is ONLY available to the homeless. To date Florida has not expanded that pilot.

The original emails to you from readers Robyn and Will were inaccurate – this is not an option for any SNAP beneficiary which is what they are thinking.

Additionally you close by drawing a false conclusion – “In June 2011 alone, according to USDA, 45 million Americans received an average of $133 in benefits at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $6 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend on fast food.” This can’t be spent on fast food because it is not an option for the 45 million Americans on SNAP.

Your voice has been and will continue to be an important one when it comes to nutrition in America. Your opinion continues to add to the healthy dialogue on critical issues ranging from MyPlate to the school meal programs. Your insight and knowledge on these topics is beneficial to everyone working to improve the health and wellbeing of Americans.

This is a critical opportunity for those of us with the ability to communicate to do so actively and accurately.

Because of that I ask that you add a clarifying note to your blog post highlighting the facts and clarifying for your readers you’re the truth about this program.

Please know that I am glad to help provide any information I can. Tim Laskawy at Grist hit the nail on the head with his piece.

I apologize for not making the restrictions clear in my original post and I thank all of you and Mr. Lavallee for taking the trouble to file corrections.

I also should have said that the billions of dollars in SNAP benefits could be a lot to spend on fast food. 

SNAP must look like a honey pot to fast food and other companies that cannot wait to get their hands on some of those benefits.  That’s what Yum! (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, etc) is trying to do.

But make no mistake.  Yum! is not a social service agency concerned about feeding the elderly, disabled, or homeless.  Yum! wants to attract low-income people with SNAP money to spend to its fast food restaurants.

Sep 13 2011

It’s OK to use food stamps to buy fast food? Better check for conflicts of interest

Readers Robyn and Will sent me a link to an ABC News story about Yum! Brands efforts to get more states to authorize the use of food stamp (SNAP) benefits in fast food restaurants.

Michigan, California, Arizona, and Florida already do this.  Yum!, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, wants it to go national.

They write:

We believe that food stamps should be used to buy nutritious food for kids and families, not junk food! This nonsense has to stop!  This is a government program–it should not be a means for corporations to sell products that will eventually lead to ever-increasing health problems–obesity, heart issues, diabetes, etc. What can we do to be heard?

USA Today did a story on this last week.  It elicited more than 1,000 comments.  I’m not surprised.

The issue thoroughly divides the food advocacy community.   Public health and anti-hunger advocates sharply disagree on this issue, as they do on the question of whether sodas should be taxed.

USA Today quoted Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s anti-obesity Rudd Center:

It’s preposterous that a company like Yum! Brands would even be considered for inclusion in a program meant for supplemental nutrition.

But then the article quoted Ed Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center and a long-time anti-hunger advocate:

They think going hungry is better?…I’m solidly behind what Yum! is doing.

Of course he is.  Want to take a guess at who funds the Congressional Hunger Center?

Yum! is listed as a “Sower,” meaning that its annual gift is in the range of $10,000.   I’m guessing Yum! is delighted that it is getting such good value at such low cost.

USA Today was negligent in not mentioning Mr. Cooney’s financial ties to Yum! and other food brands.  Such ties matter, and readers deserve to know about them.

But Mr. Cooney’s argument worries me on grounds beyond the evident conflict of interest.

For one thing, it smacks of elitism.  “Let them eat junk food” argues that it’s OK for the poor to eat unhealthfully.  I think the poor deserve to be treated better.

For another, promoting use of SNAP benefits for fast food and sodas makes it and other food assistance programs vulnerable to attack.

Rates of obesity are higher among low-income groups, including SNAP recipients, than in the general population.

Anti-hunger and public health advocates need to work a lot harder to find common ground if they want food assistance programs to continue to help low-income Americans.

Let’s be clear about what’s at stake here.  SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that anyone who qualifies can get benefits.

In June 2011 alone, according to USDA, 45 million Americans received an average of $133 in benefits at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $6 billion.

That’s a lot of money to spend on fast food.  Yum!’s interest in getting some of that money is understandable.

If you think low-income Americans deserve better:

  • Complain to Congress for permitting the legal loophole that allows this.
  • Insist to USDA that SNAP benefits be permitted only for real food.
  • Get your city to recruit farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and other sources of healthy food to low-income areas.
  • Let your congressional representatives know that you want a safety net for people who are out of work that enables people to eat healthfully.
  •  And tell the Congressional Hunger Center and similarly inclined anti-hunger groups that you think conflicts of interest interfere with their ability to help the clients they are supposedly trying to serve.
Aug 24 2011

SNAP soda ban? USDA says no!

Remember New York City’s idea to ban purchase of sodas with SNAP (food stamp) benefits?  I supported the proposal and explained why in posts on April 16, April 30, and May 1.

USDA has just sent a letter turning down the proposal.  Most of its grounds for denial are technical: too much, too soon, too big, too complex, too hard to evaluate.

Underlying these concerns is a philosophical issue:

USDA has a longstanding tradition of supporting and promoting incentive-based solutions to the obesity epidemic, especially among SNAP recipients. In fact, USDA is currently partnering with the State of Massachusetts in implementing the Healthy Incentives Pilot, which increases SNAP benefits when fruits and vegetables are purchased….We feel it would be imprudent to reverse policy at this time while the evaluation component of the Healthy Incentives Pilot is ongoing.

SNAP is USDA’s biggest program.  The latest figures on participation and cost indicate that SNAP serves nearly 46 million people at a cost of more than $68 billion annually.

Advocates for SNAP prefer positive incentives.  They strongly—and successfully—opposed the New York City proposal.

Indeed, the public health and anti-hunger advocacy communities are split on this issue.

I wish they would find common ground.  Rates of obesity are higher among the poor than they are in the general population.

That, after all, was the proposal’s purpose in the first place.  As Mayor Bloomberg put it:

We think our innovative pilot would have done more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything being proposed anywhere else in this country – and at little or no cost to taxpayers. We’re disappointed that the Federal Government didn’t agree..New York City will continue to pursue new and unconventional ways to combat the health problems that affect New Yorkers and all Americans.

Back to the drawing board.

 

 

Aug 12 2011

Q and A: global food security

Q. I’ve just been thinking about this in light of the current situation – the worst drought in 60 years. Do you think that there is more awareness of global food security, the global food system and ‘our responsibility’?…I find this a complex issue and I think it is incredibly important we don’t forget it as other news items are prioritized.

A. Your question arrived just as the New York Times put another one of those devastating photographs of a starving child on its front page, this time to illustrate the famine in Somalia.

Like all famines, this one is politically induced.  What’s going on in Somalia these days is a consequences of a lengthy colonial history.  A colleague and I wrote a controversial paper about such issues more than 15 years ago (see Nestle M, Dalton S. Food aid and international hungerr crises: the United States in Somalia. Agriculture and Human Values 1994;11(4):19-27)

At the time, I was struck by how often the history of humanitarian aid repeats itself.  We keep making the same mistakes. 

This is because it seems—and in the case of Somalia is—much easier to deal with the immediate demand for food aid than to address the underlying politics that caused the problem in the first place.   

But if we don’t deal with the underlying politics, the same tragedies occur again and again.  

More awareness? I don’t see it happening—just increasing feelings of helplessness in the face of so much human misery. 

What to do?  I have no answers.  Somalia is too dangerous for amateurs. 

Readers: Thoughts?  Suggestions for action?