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Published April 16, 2012, 09:49 AM

Nutrition programs debated

WASHINGTON — Healthy eating advocates and anti-hunger groups are mounting vigorous campaigns to maintain food stamp benefits and programs to increase access to fruits and vegetables and other nutritious foods in the farm bill, but they differ on whether quality of foods or benefit levels should be the highest priority.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Healthy eating advocates and anti-hunger groups are mounting vigorous campaigns to maintain food stamp benefits and programs to increase access to fruits and vegetables and other nutritious foods in the farm bill, but they differ on whether quality of foods or benefit levels should be the highest priority.

The nutrition groups’ success or failure could have a major affect on the farm bill in general, since nutrition programs make up about 75 percent of U.S. Department of Agriculture spending.

The draft farm bill that the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committee sent to the failed supercommittee on deficit reduction would have cut the food stamp program — now officially known as the supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP — by $4 billion over 10 years. All the nutrition groups oppose that cut, but it is tiny compared with the proposal by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to cap the SNAP budget and turn it into a block grant for the states.

The draft farm bill protected programs in the 2008 bill to help specialty crops and encourage healthy eating, and included an additional $100 million over 10 years to provide incentives to SNAP beneficiaries to eat healthier.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has said that the $100 million did not come out of the SNAP budget, but what offset was used for that program is unknown.

On April 9, more than 90 anti-hunger, nutrition, education, religious and public health groups organized by the United Fresh Produce Association issued a statement on their farm bill priorities. The statement said that the groups have agreed the farm bill nutrition programs must:

• Protect against hunger.

• Improve nutrition and health outcomes among vulnerable populations.

• Strengthen community-based initiatives that link farmers with consumers and increase access to healthy food.

But one prominent anti-hunger group, the Food Research and Action Center, was missing from the list. The reason, said FRAC President Jim Weill, is that his group is focusing on restoring a planned cut to SNAP and urging Congress to increase benefits beyond that level.

Separately, FRAC and the food industry are leading a campaign to oppose any restrictions on what SNAP beneficiaries can buy. USDA has rejected a proposal from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to stop SNAP beneficiaries from buying sugary foods as impractical, but some nutrition advocates have supported the restrictions and also want programs to encourage SNAP beneficiaries to buy locally.

Nutrition priorities

The groups that signed the April 9 statement, in addition to United Fresh, ranged from Feeding America, the nation’s largest organization of food banks, to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Farmers Union and the National Family Farm Coalition.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents those who prepare school lunches, Wholesome Wave, a group that distributes coupons to help SNAP beneficiaries buy more fruits and vegetables from farmers’ markets, and the Fair Food Network were also among the signators to the statement.

Lorelei DiSogra, vice president for nutrition and health at United Fresh, noted that the coalition had convinced Congress in the 2008 farm bill to add more programs for healthy eating, and has since grown bigger to include more public health groups.

Programs to encourage SNAP beneficiaries to eat healthier and buy locally have become increasingly popular at the local level.

At a recent briefing for congressional staff, Robert Lazaro Jr., a community affairs executive for Inova Fairfax Hospital, explained that Inova has started a double dollar program that matches the first $10 in SNAP purchases families make at farmers’ markets each month. Lazaro told the staffers Inova’s goal “is simple — to promote fresh, local foods as part of a healthy lifestyle.”

At the same briefing, a representative of Fair Food Network said its “Double Up Food Bucks” program in Stabenow’s home state of Michigan provides SNAP beneficiaries at farmers’ markets up to $20 in tokens to buy fresh Michigan-grown produce.

“Every bite of a Michigan apple returns a nickel to the Michigan economy. With Double Up Food Bucks, apples are an even greater value for families — and our growers benefit too,” Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, said in materials distributed at the briefing.

Kate Fitzgerald, a consultant to the Fair Food Network, said that the group would like a federal pilot program similar to double-up bucks that would restrict purchases to local purchases of healthy foods. That project would be a “kinder, gentler” way of achieving Bloomberg’s goal of shifting SNAP spending to healthier foods, she said.

The buy-local aspect could cause conflict within the food industry, however. DiSogra said United Fresh would support it, but Dennis Nuxoll, a lobbyist for Western Growers, the California- and Arizona-based producer of fruits and vegetables, declined to comment on the idea.

Despite their emphasis on healthy eating and innovations, the United Fresh-organized coalition lists as its No. 1 priority the current eligibility, benefit levels and program integrity of SNAP. After that comes maintenance of commodity distribution programs, fruit and vegetable distribution programs and programs to make it easier for low-income people to buy healthy foods from local farmers and vendors.

Anti-hunger priorities

But for FRAC, the issue of benefit levels is paramount. The Recovery Act increased SNAP benefit levels by 13.6 percent, with the expectation that the benefits would stay at those levels until inflation caused them to rise to the same level automatically.

However, food inflation was so low in the recession that Congress used the budget authority to give local governments money for teachers’ salaries and Medicaid at a value of $11.9 billion, and to finance the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act at a value of $2.5 billion. Under current law, benefit levels would go down in October 2013.

President Barack Obama proposed in his fiscal year 2013 budget to extend those benefits, and Weill said that after opposing any cuts to SNAP, the restoration is his top priority. The nutrition coalition did not mention the president’s initiative in its statement, Weill noted.

Lisa Davis, the vice president for policy at Feeding America, said the food bank group is working with both the nutrition coalition and FRAC, because its leaders think there is a strong correlation between diet and health and because SNAP beneficiaries go to food banks when they run out of SNAP purchasing power.

Both Weill and Sophie Millam, the Feeding America senior policy counsel, say they are mystified that Stabenow has concluded that the way states have combined eligibility for low-income heating assistance (LIHEAP) and SNAP eligibility to increase SNAP benefits amounts to a “loophole.”

Weill said the way states use LIHEAP to determine SNAP eligibility “recognizes the reality of people’s shelter costs. It helps them get by closer to the end of the month.”

Noting that the combination is used “by more than a dozen states including Michigan,” Weill said the $4 billion proposed cut in SNAP benefits “would have the effect of taking the food out of the refrigerators of hundreds of thousands of people.”

(Critics say the eligibility system allows people to improperly claim utility expenses and increase SNAP benefits.)

Both Weill and Millam said they are organizing supporters in the states to tell members of Congress not to go along with the Republican proposal to cut SNAP benefits by $133 billion over 10 years and turn the program into block grants. The $133 billion cut, Millam said, “is shocking, a way to rally the troops, something that lights a fire underneath them.”

Feeding America has also joined FRAC’s coalition in opposition to any provisions that would restrict SNAP beneficiaries’ choice in the foods they purchase.

That coalition includes a range of industry groups from the American Frozen Food Institute to the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Potato Council and the Snack Food Association. It also includes Bread for the World, the Center on Budget Priorities, the Coalition on Human Needs and the Congressional Hunger Center.

While industry groups have a self-interest in maintaining the ability of SNAP beneficiaries to buy their products, anti-hunger groups have said that restricting purchases would bring back the stigma that existed when food stamps were paper coupons rather than delivered as electronic benefit transfers, as they are now.

With so many issues on the table, both the nutrition and anti-hunger advocates have their work cut out for them. With markup before the Senate Agriculture Committee expected the last week of April, they have focused on members of that committee and on other senators in hopes of achieving “a pathway to 60” votes in favor of ending debate on the farm bill, DiSogra said.

But at the staff briefing, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said he is not sure whether a farm bill will be finished this year but said advocates need to talk soon to House members about the specifics of their proposals.

If the bill does move forward this year, action may be clearer.

“You may not have this long process of hearings and then a farm bill,” McGovern said.

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