Monday, April 2, 2012

Lobbying for a Strong Nutrition Safety Net

If you’ve been following our travels, you know that we have visited 41 states and over 65 anti-hunger programs so far.  One area we’ve studied is the federal nutrition safety net and the valuable role these programs play in helping struggling Americans obtain nutritious food.  Most of these programs, such as SNAP (formerly food stamps) and the distribution of surplus commodity foods, are reauthorized each 5 years as part of the Farm Bill.  The farm bill in effect today is the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.  The 2012 Farm Bill is currently being drafted by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry (Senate Ag Committee).  Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan is the current chairwoman.

Carolyn and Betsy with Senator Stabenow, 2010
We visited Senator Stabenow back in September of 2010 near the beginning of Facing Hunger in America, and she asked us to be sure to get back to her at the end of the project.  Now we wanted to understand the changes being considered in the Farm Bill and to contribute our experiences to the process of drafting the new Farm Bill.  So we arranged a meeting in Grand Rapids, MI, with Mary Judnich, Regional Manager for Senator Stabenow.  Also, teleconferenced into the meeting from Washington, DC, was Jacqlyn Schneider, Member of the Senior Professional Staff of the Senate Ag Committee. 

To make sure we made the best use of our brief meeting, we had a list of questions we wanted to ask about how the Ag Committee operates and the state of the mark-up of the Farm Bill.  We also had prepared a talk-sheet of the points we wanted to cover, based on our Facing Hunger experiences.  We emailed this document ahead of the meeting.  Let us know if you’d like to see a full copy of what we presented, but the main points concerned SNAP, healthy eating, and government commodity foods. 
Everywhere we have been for Facing Hunger in America, people appreciate the good job that SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) does in feeding Americans who are food insecure.  Virtually all local, regional, and national anti-hunger organizations such as the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Bread for the World regard SNAP as the strongest and most effective program to help feed hungry Americans. 
  • SNAP ensures that the neediest Americans can feed their families.   
  • Now that SNAP benefits are delivered through an electronic benefit card (like a debit card), the program experiences remarkably little fraud, very low administrative costs, and a high degree of dignity and anonymity for recipients.
  • Benefits are scaled by need, so when families are doing better, the amount that the government spends on SNAP correspondingly decreases.
  • SNAP provides local economic stimulus, since SNAP benefits are typically spent very quickly in local grocery stores.
  • SNAP participants are your neighbors.  According to the USDA, “In fiscal year 2010, 76 percent of all SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled nonelderly person. These households received 84 percent of all SNAP benefits.” (page 16)  Adults who can work are required to do so (or be actively looking or training for a job); over 40% of all SNAP participants live in households that have some earnings, but these earnings are not enough to cover their expenses for food.
We have heard concerns that up to 1/3 of eligible people are not receiving the SNAP benefits to which they are entitled (and that number is far higher for seniors).  Also, we have heard that SNAP benefits run out far before the month is over. 

As wonderful as the nation’s food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens are, they can feed only a tiny fraction of those who are food insecure in this country.  We need SNAP.
Therefore, the most important point we made in our meeting with Senator Stabenow’s aides was our strong support for maintaining and strengthening SNAP.   Our recommendations included:
  • Fully funding SNAP.  We do not support any efforts to turn SNAP into a block grant program, as that would arbitrarily cap SNAP at an amount that would not fluctuate with need.  The result would be reduced or denied benefits in times of economic hardship.
  • Continuing SNAP Outreach, particularly to seniors, so a larger percent of those eligible participate. 
  • Scaling benefits based on the regional cost of food.  Food prices vary greatly across the country.
  • Increasing benefits, so they are less likely to run out before the month is over.
Healthy Eating 
A second area we addressed was our observations that the fresh, organic, local food movement is vibrant everywhere, and people are working to overcome obesity and related health problems through healthier eating.  But low income people often feel left out of this movement due to higher costs of many healthier foods. We also have seen many people with insufficient food preparation and nutrition knowledge.  Therefore, we supported:
  • Giving a fresh fruit and vegetable bonus to SNAP recipients as a way to promote healthy purchases.  We are not in favor of limiting the use of SNAP benefits to only certain foods.  Because there are no standards for good and bad foods, such classification would be difficult.
  • Encouraging healthy food stores in food deserts.  (The above SNAP bonus could help.)
  • Expanding programs that enable farmers’ markets and CSAs to accept SNAP.
  • Supporting nutrition programs such as SNAP-Ed, especially targeting groups most in need, such as teenagers, men, African Americans, Native Americans, and people with very low food security.
  • Funding research on a universally-recognizable nutritional quality index on every food item.  Such an index could be used in SNAP bonuses, in food banks to assess quality of distributed food, and by the general public to guide purchase of healthier foods.
Commodity Foods
We have heard consistently about the importance of commodity foods (TEFAP).  Not only are they vital for school meals and the commodity distribution programs such as CSFP and FDPIR, but they account for about 30% of the food supplied by food banks. 
Food banks we visited consistently told us that they have difficulty sourcing enough food to meet the needs of their client food pantries and soup kitchens, so they distribute any food they can get.  We noticed, however, that food sourced through commodities did not always supply a well-balanced diet. 
Because the commodities program prevents food that the government purchases from going to waste, we support distributing that food to people in need.  But since commodity programs are also meant to improve the nutrition of recipients, we supported:
  • Tying the level of TEFAP commodities purchased by the USDA to a measure of need, such as unemployment rates, so that food banks are appropriately stocked.
  • Continuing FDPIR.  We found this small program to be vital for those who need it in remote places such as Indian reservations and native villages in Alaska.
  • Including fresh produce with CSFP and simplifying it to be specific to seniors only.    Today the program also covers mothers and young children, but that population is already served by the WIC Program.
  • Assisting food banks and pantries in sourcing and distributing more fresh produce and frozen meats.  Consider programs such as grants for refrigeration, or substituting cash for the purchase of produce instead of commodities.
In addition to the above areas, we also expressed our views on child nutrition and summer feeding programs (most recently reauthorized in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010), government crop subsidies, and farmworker conditions.

What was the reception to our recommendations?  We received clear indications that many of our ideas were consistent with the direction Senator Stabenow and the Ag Committee were taking.  Others we were told “would be difficult.”  Overall, we were assured that the Senator would receive a report of our meeting and that our recommendations would be taken into consideration along with all the other input received.  We acknowledge the difficult political climate, and we hope that the compromises that may be necessary going forward will continue to protect the most vulnerable among us.  We believe that is what a caring nation owes its citizens and what all major religious traditions demand. 

We also learned that the House lags the Senate in the development of their version of the Farm Bill, and that we should be sure to communicate our ideas to the House Committee on Agriculture.  The recent passage in the House of the FY2013 Budget, which is hugely damaging to programs such as SNAP and WIC, suggests that anti-hunger programs are not likely to fare well in the House version of the Farm Bill.

What can you do?  Please let your senators and representatives know that you expect them to protect SNAP, WIC, and the other programs within the federal nutrition safety net in the upcoming Farm Bill.  The well-being of millions of American children, seniors, disabled people, and adults of limited means depends on it!

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