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Published May 17, 2010, 02:32 PM

A prescription for a healthier country

WASHINGTON — The nation’s nutrition programs now feed one in four Americans, but they need to eat more nutritious food, Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon said May 10 while a foundation suggested that the food stamp program should be changed to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The nation’s nutrition programs now feed one in four Americans, but they need to eat more nutritious food, Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon said May 10 while a foundation suggested that the food stamp program should be changed to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables.

At a conference sponsored by Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based foundation that promotes better nutrition, Concannon said the number of people who get food stamps rose to 39.7 million in February, the last month for which data is available, an increase of more than 7 million beneficiaries since February 2009. He also said that almost 32 million children eat school lunches and that 49 percent of infants are on the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC.

Concannon said the economy was responsible for much of the increase in food stamp, school lunch and WIC participation, but he also noted that USDA has been involved in a major effort to inform people about the programs. Concannon did not mention costs, but according to a USDA chart, the cost of the food stamp program was $5.3 billion in February, which would bring the annual cost to about $63 billion compared with $50 billion in 2009, $34.6 billion in 2008 and $30.3 billion in 2007.

Concannon praised Texas for improving its performance in serving people who apply for food stamps. He said Texas had a backlog of 60,000 applications in January, but that it has been reduced to 4,300. But Concannon said he still faults California, Texas, Arizona and New York for using finger imaging in the application process. Concannon added that he has sent all states a letter discouraging the use of finger imaging, which studies have shown makes some applicants feel like criminals.

Good investment

Federal spending on nutrition programs is “among the best investments” in health care, Concannon added, “but we need to get people to eat better.”

Wholesome Wave, which was founded with a grant from the Newman’s Own Foundation, doubles the value of food stamps when they are redeemed at farmers’ markets for fresh fruits and vegetables, and Concannon praised the farmers’ market advocates Wholesome Wave had brought to Washington.

“You help people get nutritious food,” he said.

Attendees discussed how they could use the 2012 farm bill and other programs to increase low-income people’s consumption of healthy, locally produced food. Sikha Anand, a Boston pediatrician, said that this summer using money from Wholesome Wave Boston pediatricians will give out prescriptions for fruits and vegetables to be purchased at farmers’ markets and that the beneficiaries will come back to be retested to judge the effect of increased fruit and vegetable consumption.

Michel Nischan, the president of Wholesome Wave, said farmers’ market advocates are considering proposing for the 2012 farm bill that 3 percent of food stamp money be used to encourage beneficiaries to buy fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets.

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