WASHINGTON – The worsening economic crunch is causing the tab for food assistance programs to balloon, and with the rising costs has come an intensifying debate over whether – and how – the U.S. government can tackle simultaneously the paradoxically linked problems of hunger and obesity.
The statistics spell out the dilemma. The number of Americans on food stamps topped 31.5 million in September, a record high. Obesity, too, is at epidemic levels: In 30 states, at least 25 percent of the population is dangerously overweight. Nationally, 31.9 percent of children are considered overweight or obese.
For decades, the government has treated hunger and obesity as unrelated phenomena. But at a news conference last week in Chicago, Tom Vilsack, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for agriculture secretary, said that he would put “nutrition at the center of all food assistance programs,” a signal that he will get involved next year when Congress moves to reauthorize nutrition programs that support school breakfasts and lunches and summer food for children.
“For a long time, we’ve looked at hunger and obesity separately,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the committee that will draft the legislation. “It’s not a zero-sum game.”
Public health advocates have long hoped to link food assistance to good nutrition. To the anti-hunger lobby, however, mandating what kind of food needy people should eat is impractical and smacks of paternalism. It would be impossible, they say, to determine which of the 50,000-plus products in the grocery store should be classified as healthful.
Would Diet Coke pass the test? What about the juice drink Sunny Delight? In 2004, the Agriculture Department rejected a request from the Minnesota Department of Human Services to ban the purchase of candy and soft drinks with food stamps.
More important, anti-hunger advocates say low-income people often choose higher-calorie snacks and fast-food because such fare is cheaper and more readily available where they live than nutritious fruits and vegetables.
“If there are areas in cities where there isn’t an apple for sale within a mile radius, restricting food stamps goes beyond paternalism to a form of abuse,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Coalition, a Washington D.C.-based anti-hunger policy organization.
But with hunger and obesity both reaching unprecedented levels, some anti-hunger activists are beginning to soften their stance. According to a report by the Partnership for America’s Economic Success, toddlers whose families have gone hungry are three to four times as likely to be obese. If the current recession resembles past downturns, the independent Center for Budget and Policy Priorities predicts, the number of Americans in poverty could rise by as many as 10 million, driving up obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“It was a very slow and difficult transition for me and my organization,” said Kenneth Hecht, executive director of California Food Policy Advocates, a Los Angeles-based anti-hunger organization. “What we wanted to do was get more calories to people. Now we find it isn’t more calories. It’s more of the right calories.”
To that end, the California organization lobbied for a bill that would create incentives for recipients of food stamps to purchase healthful food. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law in 2006, but the program never received funding.
The debate in California attracted national attention, however. In the 2008 farm bill, Congress allocated $20 million for a pilot program to explore how to create incentives to purchase fruits, vegetables or other healthful foods in order to improve the diets of food stamp recipients and potentially reduce obesity. Several nonprofit groups and foundations are experimenting with similar incentives.
One is the Wholesome Wave Foundation, an organization that works to make locally grown food more widely available. This spring, it launched a program that doubles the value of food stamps and fruit and vegetable vouchers of low-income mothers and seniors who use them at farmers markets in Connecticut, Massachusetts and California.
The Wholesome Wave matching grants were an instant hit at the City Heights market in San Diego. On the first day matching funds became available, sales using government-issued electronic benefit cards soared by more than 200 percent. In subsequent weeks, the line to receive matching vouchers formed at 7:30 a.m. and the available funds were exhausted by 9:30 a.m., just 30 minutes after the market opened.
“We’re not taking away your benefits because you spend them on Twinkies,” said Michel Nischan, a Connecticut chef and president of Wholesome Wave. “But if you decide you want to spend it on fresh tomatoes, you’ll get double your money.”