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SNAP in the Cross-Hairs

The tax bill likely to be passed by the Republican-led Congress and signed by Trump will add $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit. Once enacted, it will provide cover for the most aggressive dismantling of federal social welfare programs in a generation. As one of the largest federal benefit programs, SNAP is directly in the cross-hairs.

On December 5, 2017, USDA Secretary Purdue issued a press release promising “SNAP Flexibilities,” an Orwellian term that means cutbacks and the flexibility for states to kick more people off the program. In Purdue’s words,

“SNAP was created to provide people with the help they need to feed themselves and their families, but it was not intended to be a permanent lifestyle….  We want to provide the nutrition people need, but we also want to help them transition from government programs, back to work, and into lives of independence.”

This echoed a letter sent by USDA Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Brandon Lipps to state SNAP commissioners on November 30, 2017, pledging that these “flexibilities” would move people off SNAP benefits. Lipps stated:

“The American dream has never been to live on government benefits…. We must facilitate the transition for individuals and families to become independent….”

These efforts are championed by a little-known organization called the “Secretaries’ Innovation Group,” a collection of anti-government directors of state human service and workforce agencies. The group is led by Eloise Anderson, who runs Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Department of Children and Families, and Jason Turner, who was Rudy Giuliani’s Human Resources Administration Commissioner.

The group’s goal is to

“formulate options for waivers and other administrative vehicles for state freedom of action… and to consider and approve joint moves which advance the policies of limited government and state autonomy.”

These “options” include:

  • restricting the foods that SNAP participants can buy;
  • eliminating waivers that allow states to provide SNAP to unemployed adults and to offer categorical SNAP eligibility to those on other federal benefits;
  • preventing people living together who buy food and prepare meals separately (aka, “roommates”) from receiving individual SNAP benefits;
  • redirecting SNAP Education (SNAP-ED) funds, currently used to teach  nutrition and healthy eating, to job training programs; and
  • cutting SNAP benefits for immigrant households with children.

In the coming weeks and months, food justice and social welfare advocates need to be vigilant to ensure that SNAP is not eviscerated by these and other administrative changes made in the name of program flexibility and so-called independence.

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Which NYC schools benefit from Universal Free Lunch?

One of the most significant food policy initiatives this year was the decision by Mayor de Blasio to expand universal free school lunch to all public schools. This means that all 1.1 million public school students will be able to eat for free, eliminating the stigma that occurs when some children pay and others qualify for free lunch because of their low-income status. While approximately three-quarters of New York City’s public school students are poor enough to qualify for free lunch, approximately 200,000 students who did not qualify will benefit from the new policy. The estimated savings to their families, most of whom are low and moderate-income, is about $300 per year.

The following Google map shows the number of students per school who did not qualify for free lunch (based on 2015 data), but now will be able to partake in the lunch program for free. (Click on a specific school to see the underlying data.)

NYC Students Benefitting from Universal Free School Lunch by Public School

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Chicago City Council Passes Good Food Purchasing Resolution

The Chicago City Council adopted a Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP), a measure that will affect the criteria by which the city spends some $200 million on food. The GFPP requires agencies to prioritize five core values in making food purchases: (1) strengthen regional food economies to create new, good-paying jobs; (2) reduce the environmental impacts of food production; (3) promote fair treatment for food system workers; (4) ensure the humane treatment of animals; and (5) encourage healthy food procurement and preparation and a healthy food service environment.

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NYC Council’s Land Use Committee considers urban agriculture planning bill

The New York City Council’s Committee on Land Use held a hearing on October 26 on Int. No. 1661, legislation requiring the Department of City Planning to prepare a comprehensive urban agriculture plan. The bill was supported by commercial urban agriculture companies; community garden and non-profit farm organizations urged the Council to ensure that all forms of agriculture are supported by the proposed plan and stressed the need for a wide range of stakeholders to be involved in the planning process.

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NYC Pilots Meatless Mondays in 15 Schools

Fifteen NYC public schools in Brooklyn will participate in Meatless Mondays, all-vegetarian breakfast and lunch menus, in Spring 2018. The goal is to improve health by exposing students to vegetarian options while also reducing the environmental impacts of the school meal service. The pilot was championed by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who became vegetarian and has been able to overcome a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. DOE’s Office of SchoolFood will involve school districts across Brooklyn to finalize the fifteen participating school.

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Cutting Grants that Help Small Farms

Trump’s budget proposes eliminating the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program, a relatively small grant program that funds business planning and capital investments to enable small- and medium-size farms to produce value-added products. For farms using sustainable or innovative growing techniques, adding value is critical for long-term profitability, especially those farms too big for direct sales through farmers markets but too small to compete on price in commodity markets. The VAPG has been particularly helpful to farms in the NYC foodshed. In 2016, for example, the NYC-based urban farm Eden Works Inc. received $250,000 to launch a marketing campaign to increase sales of fresh salad greens grown in its hydroponic rooftop farms. Organic Indoors Gardens of Poughkeepsie got a grant of $49,000 to expand their sales of microgreen products. A $53,625 grant to Fishkill Farms, an historic apple orchard in Putnam County, paid for a feasibility study to create a cidery to make and sell hard cider. Eliminating the VAPG will make an imperceptible dent in the US budget but will make it more difficult for regional food systems, and the family farms within them, to thrive.

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Trump’s Threats to NYC’s Food System

Given the likelihood that the policies espoused by Donald Trump in areas like foreign policy, the economy, immigration, health care, the environment will have dramatic effects on our nation and the world, it may seem inconsequential by comparison to focus on how the incoming Trump administration might affect New York City’s food system. But it is important for food policy advocates to strategize about how to respond to a new political context that, without strong advocacy, is likely to stymie or roll back efforts to reduce hunger and food insecurity, improve nutrition and health, reduce health disparities, and ensure that our food system is fair, healthy, and sustainable.

SNAP benefits

The Republican platform calls for disconnecting SNAP from the Farm Bill. Since the origin of food stamps, the decision to include the program in the farm bill was a strategy to ensure support from legislators representing rural states in exchange for urban legislators supporting various farm subsidies. Removing SNAP will diminish political support and make it easier for lawmakers like House Majority Leader Paul Ryan, who has called for cutting SNAP by $23 billion,[1] to gut the program. Preventing such draconian cuts should be a policy priority.  Proposals to turn SNAP from an entitlement program that adjusts to economic need to a block grant program would result in ongoing political battles about providing sufficient funds.

Fear of entanglement with immigration officials deters many immigrants from applying for federal food benefits like SNAP. The anti-immigration rhetoric of the Trump campaign, and likely efforts to deport millions of immigrants, will further hamper efforts to get immigrants needed benefits that they qualify for and deserve. While recent commitments by the mayors of New York and Los Angeles to protect immigrants notwithstanding federal policies may quell some fears, the effects on SNAP use are likely to be significant, resulting in increased hunger, food insecurity, and malnourishment among immigrant communities. Devising efforts to reach out to immigrant communities, through religious institutions and other community-based organizations, will be critical to ensure their health and wellbeing.

School Food

Improving the nutritional quality of school food was a signature effort by the First Lady and Obama administration. The Trump administration is likely to try to roll back school food nutrition standards that limit fat, sugar, and sodium content. It is worrisome that Sid Miller, former Agriculture Commissioner of Texas, is on the short list for USDA Secretary, as he gained notoriety for repealing a state ban on deep fryers and soda machines in Texas schools.[2] Keeping those standards intact should be a priority of those working on school food issues.

Nutrition Policies

Pressure by the Obama administration on the food industry has been successful at getting the food industry to reduce sodium and added sugars. This has made it easier for cities like New York to exert additional pressure on food manufacturers to formulate healthier food and has created a market for healthier food that the city can procure for its feeding programs. Whether the incoming administration tries to roll back food standards and other measures like calorie labeling is uncertain, but it is unlikely that industry will face pressure to produce healthier products. Increased advocacy by public health and medical professionals and direct pressure on food manufacturers will be essential.

Health Care

Repealing most of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and cutting Medicaid and Medicare will result in the loss of basic health care for many New Yorkers. Without insurance, fewer New Yorkers will be identified as overweight or obese and thus will not get counseling to improve their nutrition. Fewer people will be treated for diet-related non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease, resulting in increased morbidity and mortality. These impacts will fall most heavily on communities of color that already suffer from rates of diet-related diseases that are higher than White communities. Food advocates must become ACA advocates.

Climate Change Vulnerabilities

An existential threat of Trump’s election is his denial of climate change, his pledge to withdraw support from climate change initiatives, and his plan to intensify fossil fuel production. Trump has appointed Myron Ebell, a climate denier who leads the Center for Energy and Environment at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute to lead the EPA transition.[3] The adverse effects of climate change on regional food systems, from changing pest populations to more erratic precipitation and changes in temperatures, is well established.[4] A failure to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions will also directly threaten coastal cities like New York. Anyone who lived through Hurricane Sandy knows firsthand the vulnerability of our food infrastructure, from flooding at the Hunts Point market to damage to food retail in low-income neighborhoods. In fact, New York City just completed a study of food infrastructure vulnerabilities, and will already need to spend billions to enable the food system to withstand storms and floods that will happen with increasing frequency as a result of climate change. Without curtailing emissions, these impacts will be much larger, putting the New York City food system at an even greater risk. Food advocates must forge stronger alliances with environmental advocates working to keep political pressure on the Administration to address greenhouse gas emissions.

Regional Agriculture

USDA programs to support small and mid-size farmers will likely be cut back, as will funds for infrastructure to support regional food systems. This will make it more expensive for cities like New York to source regional produce for municipal feeding programs and to sustain rural agricultural economies in its watershed. An additional threat will come from efforts to roll back regulations on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and other forms of domestic gas and oil extraction that will threaten agricultural regions. Currently, fracking is not permitted in New York State,[5] but New York City depends on a larger foodshed that includes agricultural areas that may be polluted as a result of incr

[1] http://www.rollcall.com/news/policy/gop-budget-plan-cut-23-billion-food-stamps

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/us/texas-deep-fryers-once-banned-by-state-are-allowed-to-return-to-public-schools.html

[3] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trump-picks-top-climate-skeptic-to-lead-epa-transition/#

[4] Rosenzweig, C., W. Solecki, A. DeGaetano, M. O’Grady, S. Hassol, P. Grabhorn (Eds.). 2011. Responding to Climate Change in New York State: The ClimAID Integrated Assessment for Effective Climate Change Adaptation. Technical Report. New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), Albany, New York.

[5] http://www.dec.ny.gov/press/102337.htmlgty_trump_eating_as_160425_4x3_992

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Illuminating the Hidden Food Policies of the de Blasio Administration

In response to growing attention to inequality, several progressive cities in the United States have adopted policies that seek to modify the differences in employment, education and housing conditions that are upstream drivers of the socioeconomic and racial/ethnic disparities in health that characterize our city and nation. Can these upstream interventions also contribute to reducing food injustice?  And how does their impact compare with that of more overtly food-focused programs such as cooking classes or supermarket incentives? A new food policy brief on the topic has been published by the  CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.

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USDA Charts the Growth of “Food Away from Home”

USDA data show that over the past 30 years, the food that Americans eat away from home (e.g., in restaurants and fast food chains) has grown substantially. In 1977 people obtained approximately 18% of their daily calories from food away from home, but the percentage jumped to 34% by 2012. Of this share of food away from home, the amount obtained from fast food climbed from less than 6% in 1977 to nearly 16% in 2012. The Great Recession of 2007-09 caused households to eat out less and cook at home more, and during this period the percentage of daily calories from restaurants dropped to 29%. But by 2011-12, the economic rebound caused a rebound in calories eaten away from home to 34%, with 16% attributed to fast food. The data also show that children have been getting an increasing amount of their daily calories from fast food. In 1977-78, fast food accounted for only 4% of children’s daily calories, half as much as from school lunches. By 2012, however, the percentage jumped to 14%, with the share of calories from school food dropping to less than 7%. Given that meals in restaurants and fast food establishments generally contain more calories, fat, and salt than home-cooked meals, these trends suggest that reducing diet-related chronic diseases will be more challenging in the coming years.

 

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Policies for Healthier Retail

ChangeLabSolutions released a Healthy Retail Playbook providing policy ideas to improve retail access to healthier food and to reduce access to alcohol and tobacco. Some examples include:

  • Discounting grocery permit fees for stores that stock nutritious products (mid-Ohio Valley (WV) Health Department)
  • Requiring stores with grocery licenses to carry staples in different food groups (Minneapolis)
  • Restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products near schools (Chicago) or banning the sale of other flavored tobacco products (NYC)
  • Restricting signage in windows and doors of retailers to limit tobacco and alcohol advertising (St. Paul)
  • Taxing non-nutritious foods and beverages (Navajo Nation)
  • Requiring minimum prices for tobacco products (NYC)
  • Offering incentives for SNAP recipients to buy fruits and vegetables (Michigan and other states)
  • Limiting density of retailers selling alcohol (Rohnert Park, CA)

 

These and other policies are starting points for public health advocates and policymakers to design and enact similar ordinances, zoning changes, or regulations in their communities.