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Vilsack, McGovern Call on Mayors to Help Save Vital Food, Nutrition Programs from Budget Cuts

By Crystal D. Swann
January 28, 2013

The meeting of the Food Policy Task Force, led by Vice Chair Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, featured presentations that echoed a similar theme—the presenters called on the nation’s mayors to help preserve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other federal feeding programs against potential drastic cuts in funding.

Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack outlined key priorities for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with a special emphasis on SNAP, as it is popularly known. SNAP is a perennial candidate for budget cuts—in part because, Vilsack suggested, it’s widely perceived as a program subject to significant fraud and abuse by participants. “I’m concerned about the rhetoric demonizing SNAP, as if it’s a fraudulent program, when it’s one of the most effectively run federal programs,” Vilsack said. He cited a report by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that SNAP has less than a three percent error rate when it comes to providing benefits to eligible households. Vilsack also dismissed the notion that SNAP is a cash welfare program—only eight percent of SNAP recipients receive cash welfare; the vast majorities, 92 percent (working families, senior citizens, and children), do not.

Vilsack also noted that, rather than being seen as a budget drain, the SNAP program is an extraordinary economic driver - every dollar spent on SNAP generates $1.79 in communities. Beyond this, the SNAP program is very important to the nation’s famers, Vilsack said, as they receive 15 to 16 cents of every food dollar spent.

Another priority mentioned by Vilsack was the National School Lunch Program—Congress has allowed the Administration to increase the level of reimbursement to schools. In addition, Vilsack noted, USDA is working to improve administrative efficiencies to streamline the qualification process, as well as to improve the healthiness and quality of the food served through the program. Vilsack equally stressed the importance of the Summer Food Service Program. “Thirty-one to 32 million children benefit from the School Lunch Program—but,” Vilsack asked, “what do they do when they’re out of school?” The program is targeted to low income areas where at least 50 percent of school children qualify for free-reduced lunch. Vilsack noted that USDA is forming partnerships with faith-based and community-based organizations to get meals through this program to the children who need them, and he encouraged Mayors to reach out to USDA and to work with local partners to establish summer feeding programs in their own communities.

Mayors to reach out to USDA and to work with local partners to establish summer feeding programs in their own communities.

Vilsack maintains that these programs can also be economic drivers and job creators in cities. He noted there is an array of federal grants designed to assist cities in creating food policy programs, which many cities, large and small, have already used to form their own summer feeding programs. Vilsack referred mayors to the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” section of the USDA website, which includes more information about these grant programs. Vilsack did note that city food policy officials would already be well aware of these programs; he encouraged mayors that do not have a food policy person to consider creating a position in their cities.

Congressman McGovern

U.S. House of Representatives Agricultural Committee Member Congressman McGovern echoed concerns about potential cuts in the SNAP program. “SNAP has become kind of an ATM machine in Congress to fund other programs,” McGovern said. Without concerted action by mayors and other stakeholders, McGovern maintains, SNAP benefits will be cut this fall. “There is a drumbeat in Congress” to cut this program, McGovern said. He noted that the farm bill considered in the last session of Congress (which included SNAP as well as other nutrition programs) cut $4.5 billion from SNAP in the version passed by the Senate, and roughly $16 billion in the version voted out of the House Agricultural Committee.

McGovern illustrated the importance of SNAP and similar programs by noting that hunger generates significant costs in America’s cities—such as increased emergency room visits by elderly persons forced to take their medications without food, and malnourished children. He also noted that hunger is a leading cause of obesity, how it relates to access to healthy food. McGovern also cited diminished capacity to learn, and lost workplace productivity, as additional costs of hunger.

MGovern stressed, “We know what works.” The goal must be to ensure that successful programs and initiatives to fight hunger are replicated across the country. McGovern said that the nation needs a national plan to deal with hunger, and called for a White House Conference on Food and Nutrition—something that has not been done, he maintains, since the Nixon Administration. He encouraged mayors to get behind the idea.

In the question and answer session that followed Vilsack’s and McGovern’s presentations, Vilsack noted that, like the SNAP program itself, the farm bill suffers from an image problem. “This is not just a farm bill. It’s a food bill, a nutrition bill, and a jobs bill,” Vilsack stressed. He called on mayors from cities large and small to make their voices heard, so that Congress understands that the bill impacts all sectors, not just rural communities.

Rounding out the SNAP and farm bill discussion were comments by independent policy consultant Kate Fitzgerald, who noted that SNAP received an extension as part of the recent “fiscal cliff” negotiations—but that many of the longer term programs apart from SNAP were not included in that extension. Fitzgerald stated that food will continue to ‘play second fiddle’ in Congress to other issues perceived as more pressing—while the farm bill may pass in the upcoming session, Fitzgerald believes that it will likely be attached to a larger initiative or piece of legislation. Given that, she suggested that the strategy should be to identify key stakeholders for key aspects of the farm bill, and engage them so that people can see that there can be a “both/and” situation instead of “either/or.”

Grant to Help Reverse Childhood Obesity Epidemic Awarded

In addition to these presentations, it was announced that the Conference of Mayors has received a grant of $300,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to support and enhance the work of The U.S. Conference of Mayors Food Policy Task Force in its efforts to increase access to high-quality, affordable healthy foods in cities and help expand the number of mayors with established citywide food access strategies. The grant was awarded through Leadership for Healthy Communities, an RWJF national program that assists state and local leaders in their efforts to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. In discussing the grant award during this session, Leadership for Healthy Communities Director Maya Rockeymoore-Cummings stressed the RWJF’s hope that will identify, highlight and disseminate best practices across the country. In addition, she offered the expertise of her staff to cities that might need additional technical assistance. “We’re doing this for our communities and for our children,” Rockeymoore-Cummings said.