December 2013 Hunger in the News Simple Carbohydrates, Complex Policy Issues In 2010 New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, requested permission from

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December 2013

Hunger in the News

Simple Carbohydrates, Complex Policy Issues

In 2010 New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, requested permission from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to place a ban on the purchase of sugar sweetened beverages and snacks using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) within New York City. The ban’s intention was to address the public health crisis of obesity and diet related illness. Mayor Bloomberg’s request was denied by the USDA in August of 2011 for several reasons, including the USDA’s belief that the ban was “too large and complex” to implement and would increase stigma associated with participating in SNAP. This judgment was reflective of the variety of opinions surrounding these suggested limitations. This issue is complex and has broader implications than simply ensuring that government funded nutrition assistance programs aren’t contributing to the poor health of Americans.

Since the 2010 New York City proposal similar bans have been proposed in the Florida, California, and Wisconsin state legislatures. This June 18, 2013 letter to the House of Representatives from the Mayors of 18 cities has requested that the Farm Bill, which funds SNAP, include language to restrict the purchase of unhealthy foods and beverages. These proposals are inspiring great debate and reversing the polarity of groups that typically align, or are at odds, on issues related to poverty and food insecurity. For example, anti-poverty and anti-hunger advocates who protest the excessive marketing of unhealthy foods to low income communities and the American Beverage Association (ABA) being on the same side of an issue is unusual. However, their motivations are quite different. The ABA is looking out for its members' big profit margin while advocates for the poor and the USDA are concerned for the less obvious consequences these bans may have for SNAP participants. Some anti-hunger organizations, like the New York City Hunger Coalition, would prefer to focus on empowering SNAP recipients to increase the nutrition content of their diets through education and incentives for purchasing fresh produce and shopping at Farmers’ Markets.

On the converse, the American Medical Association (AMA) and food activist Marion Nestle who share the same goals as food banks, anti-hunger, and anti-poverty organizations of making nutritious food affordable to all, are in support of these bans. And their reasoning is valid. There is mounting evidence that consumption of sugar sweetened beverages is associated with an increased risk of obesity and diet related illness. The above commentary from the AMA sites an estimated $4 billion in SNAP is spent on sugary beverages each year. What better way to combat diet related illness and thwart the influence of sugary beverage manufacturers than this ban? Well, it just isn’t that simple.

Joel Berg of the New York City Hunger Coalition begs the question of defining “junk food “for these bans. These bans focus on sugary beverages, but in truth are written to exclude foods that exceed set limitations on the food or beverage’s content of sugar, fats, and calories. Exactly who is responsible for monitoring this, the retailers? How are the thousands of new products introduced into the market place each year to be managed? How often will a SNAP customer be told at the checkout line that they can’t get this or that? Current guidelines make choosing SNAP allowable purchases pretty clear; it must be a food item or beverage, no alcohol, no tobacco, and no hot, prepared foods. The confusion and perceived scrutiny that could result from this policy may reverse years of effort by the USDA, states, counties, and community based organizations to reduce the stigma that prevents eligible people from participating in SNAP. As pointed out by the Food Research and Action Center there is a strong association between improved nutritional quality in the diet of SNAP participants compared to those not participating in the program. That bolsters the argument that these proposals are blaming low income Americans for a problem that is perpetuated by people in all economic situations.

The subsidization of particular crops in the same Farm Bill that funds SNAP has created a global food market in which foods high in carbohydrates and starch, but low in nutrients, are more abundant, accessible, and often cheaper than “specialty crops” (aka fresh produce) that do offer good nutrition. And if one lives in a food desert, fresh produce is not available at all. Nutrition content based regulation of SNAP purchases fail to address the wide gap between living at or below 130% of the Federal Poverty Level (the guideline for SNAP eligibility) and economic self sufficiency . What are the food budgets and diets like for the millions of people whose income renders them ineligible for food assistance programs like SNAP, but still far from economic self sufficiency?

Calorie for calorie, cheap carbohydrates and starches go further in satiating hunger than fresh produce. That is the trade off that is faced, with or without the option to purchase junk food, when stretched food budgets can not afford enough of both. The time needed to plan, shop, and prepare low-cost healthy meals is inhibited by the time demands of work (often more than one job), school, transportation, caring for a person with a disability, and other demands. Low income Americans actually pay more in cost and time for basic goods and services than those with higher incomes. These are important issues to consider when talking about the quality of diets for SNAP recipients and all Americans. There is a reason “convenience foods” are so popular; they save a lot of time. But “convenient” is often unhealthy and overpriced when compared to cooking at home.

The USDA just announced new nutrition standards for the snacks and beverages sold at schools in a la carte lines and vending machines. This is policy in action that will encourage healthy food choices for kids of all income levels. The USDA has also released a report of the results from the Healthy Incentives Pilot program that actually increased SNAP benefits when used to purchase fruits and vegetables. What if similar policies were voluntarily adopted at food service establishments and workplace cafeterias? Americans didn’t consume the amounts of sugars and fats that they currently do until it became more affordable and accessible than healthier foods. It has created a false notion that this is what we “demand” and thus continues to drive the market for unhealthy foods and the subsidization of the crops that fuel it. The rapid growth of Farmers' Markets and backyard or urban gardens in the last decade demonstrates the desire to incorporate more fresh produce into our diets. Educating the public at large about the benefits of these foods and how to prepare them might have a more positive and long-term impact on the obesity epidemic than regulating the diets of those who struggle to afford any food at all.

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Humboldt County's 2013 Food Insecurity Profile

California Food Policy Advocates have released the 2013 Food Insecurity Profiles for the the state and each County. Profile data was collected in 2011-2012. Statistics for Humboldt County include:

22% of Humboldt County residents are living at or below the Federal Poverty Line (FPL)
28% of children under 18 are living at or below the FPL.
40% of adults in low income households are food insecure.

Lower Income and Shorter Life Expectancy

Low income people are more at risk for food insecurity and often have little or no access to regular, adequate healthcare. It may come as no surprise that people with lower incomes have a shorter life expectancy than those with higher incomes. This Washington Post article sites research from the University of Washington that compared two neighboring Florida counties that were polar opposites in job opportunities, available health care, and the effect this has on life expectancy. The story also sites a recent Social Security Administration study that found "life expectancy of male workers retiring at 65 had risen six years in the top half of the income distribution but only 1.3 years in the bottom half over the previous three decades."

In 2027 the official retirement age will rise from 65 to 67 years of age to be eligible to receive Social Security benefits, but there are calls in Washington D.C. of a need to raise it even higher to address the coming influx of Baby Boomers and our nation's budget woes. Research like this is necessary to inform this type of policy decision because adjusting the retirement age will unfairly impact the low income Americans who rely on these benefits the most. Maya Rockeymoore, president and chief executive of Global Policy Solutions, a public policy consultancy said this of raising the retirement age; “People who are shorter-lived tend to make less, which means that if you raise the retirement age, low-income populations would be subsidizing the lives of higher-income people. Whenever I hear a policymaker say people are living longer as a justification for raising the retirement age, I immediately think they don’t understand the research or, worse, they are willfully ignoring what the data say.”

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Food Insecurity in Households With Children

The United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service has released its new report; Food Insecurity in Households With Children: Prevalence, Severity, and Household Characteristics, 2010-11. Notable trends from the report include :

• Children in about 70 percent of low-income households with food-insecure children received free or reduced price school meals in 2010-11, about 42 percent of low-income households with food-insecure children received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and about 25 percent received Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits. Many households received assistance from multiple programs, although about 31 percent reported receiving only free or reduced-price school meals.

• Federal food and nutrition assistance programs provided benefits to 84 percent of low-income households with food-insecure children (low-income households are those with incomes below 185 percent of the Federal poverty line).

• Children were food insecure in about 20 percent of households that included an adult who was out of the labor force because of disability, compared with about 9 percent of households in which no working-age adult had a disability.

• For households headed by an adult with less than a high school diploma, the prevalence of food insecurity among children was six and a half times as high as for households headed by an adult with at least a 4-year college degree.

• Food insecurity among children was more likely for households that had left SNAP during the previous year than for those currently receiving benefits. This finding suggests that some households left the program even though their economic resources were not yet adequate to meet their food needs.

Calendar of Events & Local Happenings

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Food for People's Monthly Cooking Class

Each month, Food for People organizes a free cooking class for low-income households in Humboldt County. Taught by volunteer chef and College of the Redwoods instructor, Anne Harris, this class teaches basic culinary skills, food and kitchen safety, and how to make nutritious and delicious dishes using commodity foods and fresh produce.

For more information, please contact Ciel Hoyt at Food for People (contact information below).

For more information on Food for People, to refer someone for assistance with CalFresh, to schedule a CalFresh training or application clinic, Hunger 101 presentation, or nutrition education activity for your organization, please contact:
Heidi McHugh
Community Education & Outreach Coordinator
(707) 445-3166 ext. 308 /
Michael Quintana
CalFresh Application Assistor
Ciel Hoyt
Nutrition Education Coordinator
ext. 305 /

*Images in this issue are provided by: Food for People, Chris Wisner, the USDA, Stuart Miles, Paul, Danilo Rizzuti, Ambro, healingdream, Master isolated images, Salvatore Vuono,,, Michelle Meiklejohn, and chawalitpix of, Participant Media