by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: SNAP

May 13 2020

Now is the time to strengthen SNAP

Yesterday, I mentioned the commentary in the New York Times—Americans Are Lining Up for Food. What Is Team Trump Doing?—calling on the USDA to expand SNAP rather that transfer responsibility for food assistance to private food banks.  No matter how good they are—and many do fabulous work—volunteer charitable agencies cannot keep up with assistance demands.

SNAP can.

SNAP, as I explained recently, is the last vestige of what used to be a much stronger safety net for the poor.  It is demonstrably effective in raising families out of poverty and reducing levels of food insecurity.

SNAP’s great strength is that it is an entitlement.  We have more than 30 million people newly unemployed in the United States.  Many of them will qualify for SNAP and are entitled to program benefits.

SNAP ought to command widespread bipartisan support, but the program is instead a flashpoint for political battles.

The reality of so many Americans running out of food is an alarming reminder of the economic hardship the pandemic has inflicted. But…Republicans have balked at a long-term expansion of food stamps — a core feature of the safety net that once enjoyed broad support but is now a source of a highly partisan divide. Democrats want to raise food stamp benefits by 15 percent for the duration of the economic crisis, arguing that a similar move during the Great Recession reduced hunger and helped the economy. But Republicans have fought for years to shrink the program, saying that the earlier liberalization led to enduring caseload growth and a backdoor expansion of the welfare state…The Republican distrust of food stamps has now collided with a monumental crisis. Cars outside food banks have lined up for miles in places as different as San Antonio, Pittsburgh and Miami Beach.

Anti-hunger groups make a strong case for a 15 percent increase.  Feeding America is running ads to promote SNAP, for example, this one targeting North Dakota

In the meantime, we have relief funds..

If history teaches us anything, it is that private charity can never replace government policy.  Now, more than ever, we need government for the people.

May 12 2020

USDA gets its “harvest boxes” at long last

Remember “Harvest Boxes”?  This was USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s method for replacing SNAP benefits with boxes of food commodities (see my much earlier post on this).

The idea was widely ridiculed at the time (impractical, logistically expensive, condescending), but the Covid-19 pandemic has resuscitated the plan.

It won’t be called Harvest Boxes.  Instead, welcome to the $3 billion “Farmers to Families Food Box Program.”

Agricultural Marketing Service’s Commodity Procurement Program will procure an estimated $100 million per month in fresh fruits and vegetables, $100 million per month in a variety of dairy products, and $100 million per month in meat products. The distributors and wholesalers will then provide a pre-approved box of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need.

It comes with an Infographic.

How will this work?  USDA has an FAQ page.

Q. Please explain the goal of the government regarding execution of these contracts?

A.  The prime contractor receiving an award is responsible for all aspects of contract performance. The aspects of performance include but are not limited to sourcing product for inclusion in boxes, conducting all aspects of preparing the boxes, sourcing and communicating with non-profits and transportation and final delivery of boxes to the non-profit on a mutually agreeable, recurring schedule.

What does this mean?

Contractors will acquire dairy, meat, and/or produce, pack it in boxes, and deliver those boxes to food banks, which will then distribute the boxes to people seeking food.  This puts food banks—charitable organizations largely run by volunteers—on the front line of food assistance.

Should we be doing this?

I’m not the only one thinking this system is logistically absurd and just plain wrong.

Matt Russell, Robert Leonard and Beto O’Rourke, writing in the New York Times, say “Americans Are Lining Up for Food. What Is Team Trump Doing?”

Funding food banks while not expanding food stamps…is a solution driven by ideology rather than practicality. We have great respect for these organizations, but food banks aren’t up to feeding tens of millions of hungry Americans indefinitely.  We already have an amazingly efficient and effective program to do this. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, empowers Americans in literally hours and days to go to their local grocery store and get the food they need.

What’s supposed to be in the boxes?

The USDA explained in its solicitation document what it is expecting to get.

Who is getting the contracts?  Look them up here.  United Fresh, which represents fruit and vegetable growers, has questions about the selection process.   And farmers are asking: how is it possible for companies with no warehouses or storage capacity to prepare boxes?

But that’s not all. 

The USDA also announced an additional $470 million in food purchases for donation to food banks for delivery in July.

As for benefit for farmers, FERN’s AgInsider reports:

“USDA is working as quickly as possible to implement CFAP,” said the spokesperson. “Signup for the direct assistance is expected to begin by the end of May. USDA proposes to use a $125,000 payment limit per commodity, with an overall payment limit of $250,000 per individual/entity and a $900,000 adjusted gross income limit for individuals who do not derive 75 percent or more of their income from farming.”

I’m interested to see how this works, in practice.  We should know in a couple of weeks.

Dec 26 2018

The Farm Bill did not destroy SNAP, but USDA did an end run on work requirement waivers

As I noted earlier, Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill without gutting SNAP but President Trump exacted a price for signing it—making it harder for States to exempt participants from work requirements.

The USDA released its new work-requirement rules just as Congress was passing the bill (here is the USDA’s quick Infographic summary).

As Politico put it, USDA unveils crackdown on SNAP waivers.”

In his Orwellian press release, USDA Secretary Purdue said the new rules are:

intended to move more able-bodied recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to self-sufficiency through the dignity of work. The rule is meant to restore the system to what it was meant to be: assistance through difficult times, not lifelong dependency…Long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream.

In an even more Orwellian op-ed, Purdue said:

This restores the dignity of work to a sizeable segment of our population, while it is also respectful of the taxpayers who fund the program.

Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch. That is the commitment behind SNAP. But like other Federal welfare programs, it was never intended to be a way of life. A central theme of the Trump administration has been to expand prosperity for all Americans, which includes helping people lift themselves out of pervasive poverty.

Trump’s statement outdoes anything Orwell could have imagined:

Today’s action will help Americans transition from welfare to gainful employment, strengthening families and uplifting communities…That was a difficult thing to get done, but the farmers wanted it done. We all wanted it done. I think, in the end, it’s going to make a lot of people very happy.

Why Orwellian?

Farmers?  Strengthening families?  Uplifting communities?  Making people happy?  Trump has to be kidding.

The true purpose of the new requirements is to reduce SNAP enrollment, never mind that most people who participate in SNAP really need it.  The USDA says the new policy will 755,000 people out of the current 39 million.

Under current SNAP rules, adults who can work (able-bodied adults without dependents— ABAWDs) must work or be in training at least 80 hours per month.  Otherwise they are only allowed to get SNAP benefits for up to three months in a three-year period.

But states can apply for waivers of this time limit, and 36 states have done so.

One reality check: Because the USDA does not keep data on food stamp recipients who participate in state employment and training programs, or on whether such programs do anything useful to help SNAP recipients achieve self-sufficiency, there is no way to know whether the new requirements will do any good.

I’m not the only one saying so.  The Government Accountability Office has just issued a report making precisely this point.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains:

Taking essential benefits like food benefits away from those who are unemployed wouldn’t address the inequities in the labor market or the challenges that so many workers face. Instead of punishing struggling workers, policymakers should support them through ideas with bipartisan support, such as a higher minimum wage, a stronger Earned Income Tax Credit, and paid family leave.

Maybe someday.

Jun 27 2018

Changing SNAP for the better: the politics

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank whose slogan is “Working to find actionable solutions to the nation’s key challenges,” did a study on SNAP: “Leading with Nutrition: Leveraging Federal Programs for Better Health.”

The report extends and updates the SNAP to Health report I was involved with in 2012.

Like that report, this one recommends making nutrition a priority.

  • Make diet quality a core SNAP objective.
  • Eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages from the list of items that can be purchased with SNAP benefits.
  • Support healthy purchases by continuing and strengthening incentives for purchasing fruits and vegetables.
  • Authorize funds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct a range of evidence-based pilots to improve SNAP participants’ diets.
  • Consolidate USDA authority over the agency’s nutrition standards and nutrition-education efforts.
  • Authorize the USDA to collect and share store-level data on all products purchased with SNAP funds. 7. Strengthen SNAP retailer standards to improve the food environment for all shoppers.

Two of these recommendations jump right into SNAP politics: collecting data and eliminating sugary drinks.

A recent article analyzes issues related to the quality of diets purchased by SNAP participants.  Consistent with previous studies, it finds that the diets consumed by SNAP participants are nutritionally worse than those of people of equivalent low income who are not enrolled in SNAP.   Some evidence suggests that SNAP encourages participants to buy junk food.  It would be good to have better data.

Another recent article explains the politics in no uncertain terms.  Making any change in what SNAP participants can buy with their benefits is blocked by:

  • America’s culture of personal (not social) responsibility
  • Corporate lobbying by the beverage and food retail industries
  • Liberal attitudes defending SNAP as income support for the poor
  • Institutional inertia within USDA and Congress.

These last three constitute what these authors call the “iron triangle” of resistance to changing SNAP for the healthier.  Their advice: try different approaches.

If the Bipartisan Policy Center wants its recommendations followed, it has a lot of work to do.

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Jun 25 2018

Trump’s government reorganization plan: really?

The Trump Administration announced its new plan to reorganize government.  Obviously, this affects the agencies dealing with agriculture, food, and nutrition issues—USDA, FDA, and FDA’s parent agency, HHS.  Here is my translation of the major shifts being proposed:

  • Move most of USDA’s nutrition programs—SNAP, WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program—to HHS.
  • Move FDA’s food safety oversight to USDA, putting USDA in charge of all food safety.
  • Downsize the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Congress would have to vote on all this so there’s no point in going too deeply into the weeds at this point, but I have just a few comments:

  • Putting all food safety oversight in one agency is a good idea, but not if it’s USDA.  USDA’s principal purpose to to support agribusiness.  Holding agribusiness responsible for food safety puts USDA in conflict of interest.
  • Moving SNAP and WIC into HHS (or whatever its new name will be) would make sense if HHS weren’t already overwhelmed by everything else it has to deal with (more than a trillion dollars in spending).
  • The proposal still leaves school breakfasts and lunches and commodity programs in USDA, meaning that food assistance programs will still be split between USDA and HHS.
  • Downsizing the Commissioned Corps doesn’t make much sense either.  Public health needs all the health it can get.

Whatever happens with this is unlikely to happen quickly.  USDA will not be happy about losing SNAP’s $80 billion a year or WIC’s $6 billion budget.

Many other agencies are also affected by these proposals.  My prediction: Congress will have a lot of trouble coming to agreement on these ideas.

Maybe this is just another attempt to distract us from more pressing matters.

Law Professor Timothy Lytton, an expert on food regulatory policy, has plenty to say about why moving food safety to USDA won’t work (in my paraphrasing):

  • Congressional committees are unlikely to support any reorganization that would reduce their power.
  • Industry associations are unlikely to support a reorganization that would disrupt their influence with existing agencies.
  • The two agencies are different in jurisdiction, powers and expertise; a merger would require a complete overhaul of federal food safety laws and regulations, a task of extraordinary legal and political complexity.
  • A merger might create new forms of fragmentation.
  • Reorganization is expensive and will take years.  The payoff is unclear.

As I’ve explained before, plans for a single food safety agency have been in the works for years, but have encountered many barriers.  The Food Safety Modernization Act was meant to be step #1 in a three-step process:

  1. Pass and implement rules governing FDA’s oversight of pretty much all foods except meat and poultry (this is now done).
  2. Fix USDA’s food safety rules governing meat and poultry so they are consistent with FDA’s (in the talking stage, hopefully).
  3. Merge the food safety responsibilities in one agency.

These proposals, alas, ignore step #2.  Good luck with that.

May 1 2018

Amazon and SNAP: a taxpayer-supported alliance

The Intercept published an account last week pointing out that:

  • Amazon will soon accept grocery orders from SNAP (food stamp) participants
  • One third of Amazon employees are paid so little that they depend on SNAP for food
  • Taxpayers also subsidize Amazon with tax breaks, subsidies, and infrastructure improvements

Amazon pays its employeesmedian (half above, half below) annual salary of $28,466.

The New York Times  points out that critics

have produced studies that say Amazon’s warehouses — which employ more than 125,000 full-time workers in the United States — don’t increase total local employment because of losses in other sectors. They also question the wisdom of subsidies to attract them. The American Booksellers Association, which represents independent bookstores, recently published a similar report on Amazon’s economic impact.

Amazon generated nearly $178 billion in online sales in 2017, its income grew by 27.8%, and it made $3 billion in profit.

Now we know why.

Apr 25 2018

Interim federal spending for food programs

I am just getting to this (better late than never), but in March Congress passed the 2,232-page appropriations bill H.R. 1625 (115).  This continued funding for the federal government until the end of September.

Despite White House calls for deep cuts—this bill gave:

  • USDA and FDA $23.3 billion in discretionary funding, $2.4 billion above current levels.
  • USDA USDA Farm to School Grant Program $5 million
  • Food for Peace ,$1.7 billion
  • Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, $35 million, a 30% increase since last bill
  • USDA Economic Research Service, $86.75 million, above USDA’s request of $77 million.
  • USDA Agricultural Research Service, $1.2 billion, above the $993 million request
  • Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, $400 million, $25 million more than in 2017
  • USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, $981.1 million, $925 million more than current spending.
  • Child nutrition programs (school meals), $24.25 million, $2 million more than current levels.
  • Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), $6.175 billion in discretionary funding over two years
  • Commodity assistance programs (soup kitchens, food banks, farmer’s market nutrition programs and other emergency assistance programs), $322.1 million over two years, and above current $313 million

But then there’s SNAP, where the real money is: $74.01 billion.  This is a $4 billion cut from current levels, and “subject to any work registration or workfare requirements as may be required by law.”

Except for SNAP, these look good for the next few months.

But the Farm Bill can change all this and we have yet to see what Congress will do about it.

And, according to Politico, the White House is expected to ask for up to $60 billion in cuts.

Start lobbying now.

 

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Apr 16 2018

Recommendations for improving SNAP

While the farm bill is in play, it’s worth looking at what The Bipartisan Policy Center has to say about SNAP:

It provides evidence for a long list of recommendations for improving SNAP, among them:

  • Make diet quality a core SNAP objective
  • Eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages from SNAP eligibility
  • Provide incentives for purchases of fruits and vegetables
  • Authorize USDA to collect and share data on SNAP purchases

It also has recommendations for improving education of SNAP recipients, and no wonder.

This is an excellent follow-up to the 2012 SNAP to Health initiative in which I participated.  That report made similar recommendations.

Maybe now is the time?