Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Rethink Food Stamps? A Concept Worth Considering

Mark Winne has long advocated a  more fair and sustainable food system for our country.  He  often speaks out against overwhelming corporate control of the food chain, supporting instead community-based systems that would provide more nutritious and inexpensive food items. Winne, a resident of Santa Fe, has also  been a strong supporter of  safety-net programs.

So, in this context, he sees the recent move in Congress to separate the nutrition title from the Farm Bill as an opportunity to create the structural changes that could make safety-net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) more more responsive to the actual needs of users.
 -Anti-hunger advocates will say that any meaningful examination of the food stamp program opens a Pandora’s Box that allows Tea Party-ites to wield their machetes, but that process is underway already; better to get out front with new ideas and positive energy.  -Mark Winne
In the latest post on his Food Policy Blog,, Winne argues, among other things, that SNAP's links to corporate agriculture have resulted in a program that is less responsive to the needs of recipients.  Here are some excerpts from a recent blog post.

The anti-hunger orthodoxy that SNAP is a vital part of the nation’s safety net and must never be altered goes unchallenged. Whenever an innovation is proposed, e.g. [New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg]’s request to prohibit the use of food stamps to purchase sugary soft drinks, the program’s pit bull defenders bare their teeth threatening to rip the limbs off heretics who might modify even one of SNAP’s holy sacraments.

With overweight and obesity affecting 65 percent of the population and eclipsing hunger as America’s number one diet-related health problem, food stamps do little to encourage healthy eating and less to discourage unhealthy eating.\

Imagine a corporation or major private institution that did not conduct research and development, kept the same product line for generations, and never engaged in strategic thinking. That enterprise would be out of business (or subsidized by the federal government). While a nation’s social policy is albeit more complicated and subject to a host of conflicting winds, it cannot go unexamined by those who genuinely care about people and their communities. Anti-hunger advocates will say that any meaningful examination of the food stamp program opens a Pandora’s Box that allows Tea Party-ites to wield their machetes, but that process is underway already; better to get out front with new ideas and positive energy.   Read full blog post

A Point of Agreement and Discussion
So what do I think?  I would be cautious about making drastic changes that would leave people vulnerable to hunger. So the proposal gives me some pause.  Beyond that, I agree with the premise that we should take a look at whether safety-net programs are best serving those who need them.

The one big drawback that I see in separating the nutrition programs from the Farm Bill is that we lose the direct connection between the huge subsidies that are provided to corporate agriculture and their impact on the food chain.  Subsidies have to be increased for production of  fruits and vegetables and reduced for  commodities like corn and soybeans.  With farming and nutrition considered in separate measures, it would be hard to make the connection.  (On the other hand, even with the connection in past Farm Bills, we haven't been able to reduce corporate subsidies.  And subsidies for production of  healthy products are still non-existent)

Other advocates agree that reform might be overdue, perhaps in the manner similar to the approach on foreign aid. 
  • "I think it makes sense to separate SNAP from the much debated Farm Bill. It would be wise to take advantage of a situation that we initially opposed and make SNAP better in the process," said one anti-hunger advocate from a Southern state, citing proposals advanced by the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN).
  • "We have a spider web of programs that no longer do the job they were created to do. They are difficult to navigate & easy to attack. Only WIC has been updated in a significant way & not without attack from special interest groups like the potato growers," said another advocate from a Western state. "The anti-hunger community is so tied to battling for the current program that the very mention of reform gives them vapors. I think one of the basic problems is that we have a "Farm" bill focused on mostly big ag not a "Food" bill focused on a healthy food supply.
  • "I think we should be open to reforming SNAP (or any other program). A question I have been wrestling with is what reforms would you make? We had a big review here with some of our more conservative members of  [our state's] Hunger Network and we did not identify anything major that made sense to change. What reforms make sense?" asks a Midwest advocate.
The bottom line is that the discussion on reforming SNAP and other nutrition programs is overdue, and we have an opportunity with the action in Congress.  But we should proceed very carefully to ensure that the programs continue to provide a safety net that keeps a large segment of our population from going hungry.

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