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Latest from The Spokesman-Review

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits expanded at farmers’ markets

Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon announced expanded eligibility for USDA grants to improve access to fresh produce and healthy foods by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients at America’s farmers’ markets.

As a result of funding provided by Congress through the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2012, USDA last year announced the availability of $4 million in funding to expand the availability of wireless point-of-sale equipment in farmers markets not currently accepting SNAP benefits. Today’s action expands eligibility for grant funds to include direct marketing farmers, as well as farmers markets. Funds may be used to purchase or lease equipment or pay for wireless access. Funds are available to States through September 30, 2013.

“These grants increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables to SNAP customers and further encourage them to purchase and prepare healthy foods for their families using SNAP benefits,” said Concannon. “In general, research shows that about 20 cents of every SNAP dollar spent on food ends up in the pocket of American farmers. Installing wireless technology at farmers markets expands the customer base for markets and increases the share of the SNAP dollar that goes directly back to local farmers and into local economies.”

USDA has made expanding SNAP recipients’ access to fresh fruits and vegetables through farmers markets a priority in recent years. In 2008, about 750 farmers markets and direct marketing farmers accepted SNAP. In 2012, over 3,200 participated – a four-fold increase in markets, which was accompanied by a six-fold increase in redemptions at these outlets.

Expanded hours at WIC locations

Good news: Spokane Regional Health District’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program kicked off spring by extending its hours of operations in most of its clinic locations. The following sites will operate from 7:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday (with no closures for lunch):

Downtown – 1101 W. College Avenue, 324-1620
NECC – 4001 N Cook, 323-2828
Valley – 10814 E. Broadway Ave, 323-2800
North – 5901 N. Lidgerwood Street, Ste 224

"We want to be as flexible as we can in supporting Spokane’s nutritionally at-risk women, infants and children,” said Tiffany Schamber, WIC program manager. “Expanding our hours will improve access to our services, which is a win not only for our clients, but also our community. WIC is one of the nation’s most successful and cost-effective nutrition intervention programs.”

WIC provides families with nutrition as well as healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk and whole grains.

U.S. Senate backs unlimited spuds in school lunches

The U.S. Senate today voted to block an Obama Administration proposal to limit potatoes in school lunches to two servings a week; instead, the lawmakers voted to block the USDA from putting any limits on serving potatoes or other vegetables in school lunches. The amendment approved on a voice vote in the Senate today was proposed by GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, and co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, both potato-growing states. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Mary Clare Jalonick in D.C.

Gov. Otter: Potato getting a ‘bad rap’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is ripping the new Harvard University study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that finds a link between eating Idaho's most famous crop - the potato - and weight gain.  "News flash: Regularly eating ANYTHING in an irresponsible way contributes to weight gain and other health concerns!" Otter declares in an op-ed piece. He adds, "You might be interested to know that at age 69, besides being Governor I still actively work my ranch and compete in rodeo events – and I get my energy from regularly eating Idaho’s famous potatoes – Harvard, the New England Journal of Medicine and the Los Angeles Times notwithstanding." Click below to read his full.

Simpson hails demise of USDA’s ‘biased anti-potato rule’

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson says a proposed USDA rule to limit potatoes, corn, green peas and lima beans to one cup per week in school lunches was "senseless" and costly, and he's hailing the passage in the House today of the fiscal year 2012 agriculture appropriations bill, HR 2112, which includes language designed to head off the rule. “The USDA proposed rule would have been another completely unnecessary, unfunded mandate by the federal government,” Simpson said, extolling the nutritional benefits of potatoes. “A medium potato contains over 200 milligrams more potassium than a banana and has as much fiber as a similar serving of broccoli," the congressman said in a statement. Schools would have faced substantial increased costs to comply, he said; the approprations bill includes a clause directing the USDA to issue a new proposed rule that will not carry any increased costs for schools. You can read Simpson's full news release here.

WA think tank: rural residents have the hardest time getting fresh produce on the table…

This sounds counterintuitive, until you look at the price of a box of macaroni and cheese versus that of a handful of stir-fry vegetables:

According to the private Washington State Budget & Policy Center, shoppers in rural Washington have a harder time getting fresh fruits and vegetables on their tables. From the group’s report:

…For those living in poverty and struggling to keep food on the table, financial and geographic barriers make it harder to shop at grocery stores. As a result, they often turn to corner markets or gas-station mini-marts for food, where there are fewer healthy options.”

“Ironically, in the areas of our state where much of the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables are grown, families are having trouble finding them in the stores where they shop,” said Stacey Schultz, a policy analyst and author of the report.

She also cites an interesting recent study in Chicago that found that obesity rates increased as access to grocery stores decreased. It focused on the urban version of the problem, labeling vast stretches of the Chicago area “food deserts” (not desserts).

“While many of us take food options for granted, residents of the food desert
often cannot choose between eating an apple instead of a candy bar, a salad instead of french fries, or fresh skinless chicken instead of deep fried, high-fat chicken,” the Chicago study said.

Washington state’s government, as well as the feds, have helped by expanding eligibility and benefits for food stamps and paying for programs that focus on getting fruits and vegetables to children and seniors, she says. The state recently passed legislation that gives schools with a high number of low-income students more money to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. (I think the law also streamlined bidding rules to make it easier to buy the produce from area farms.) The Women, Infants and Children food program is also focusing more on fresh produce, and many farmers’ markets — including in Spokane — are starting to accept food stamps.

The Washington report (see page 4), includes a map that shows that across broad swaths of Eastern Washington and the Olympic Peninsula, the average drive to a grocery store is 15-38 miles. These are also often the areas of the state “with the highest poverty rates and high rates of food insecurity,” writes Schultz.

The report doesn’t however, try to gauge the impact of vegetable gardens, which poor, rural residents presumably are more likely to have.