By Katie Fisher, government relations intern, National Farmers Union

Last week was a busy week for the House Committee on Agriculture as they had two subcommittee meetings in two days. Wednesday morning, the Subcommittee on Nutrition, led by Chairwoman Jackie Walorski, met to discuss food incentive programs and how they can be improved. Five panelists were brought before the subcommittee to testify. In one case, a mom – a SNAP and WIC recipient from Maryland – discussed how she has been personally impacted by food incentive programs and wants to be active in making changes to the current guidelines, advertising and accessibility to these programs. The diversity of the panel members provided an insight into food incentive programs, how millions of recipients are already benefitting from them, and how there are millions more that don’t know about them.

Chairwoman Walorski began the hearing by summarizing the problems at large. “It’s easy to think of malnutrition only in terms of the quantity of food intake: Is someone eating enough? But there’s another crucial element that we can’t overlook when discussing malnutrition, and that’s the nutrition itself. What is the quality of what they’re eating? This is an especially important question as America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic…Government programs like SNAP or WIC aren’t going to end the obesity epidemic alone. Nor will getting rid of junk food. It requires proper nutrition and exercise, which at the end of the day is a much larger discussion. What we are here to do today is to ask, how can we incentivize and encourage people, particularly low-income families who are at a higher risk for malnutrition, to eat healthier?” The rest of the hearing was a compilation of the panel’s testimonies and remarks and questions from the subcommittee about how to improve food incentive programs.

The first testimony came from Dr. Oran Hesterman, president and CEO of Fair Food Network. Dr. Hesterman discussed Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks program, funded by FINI, that is available to the 1.7 million Michigan residents that receive SNAP benefits. He stated, “The design of Double Up is simple: for every dollar a SNAP customer spends on fresh Michigan-grown produce he or she receives an additional Double Up dollar to spend on more nutritious fruits and vegetables. So how do we know it works? In 2007, prior to the start of Double Up, annual SNAP sales at farmers markets were a mere $15,000. Preliminary 2015 data show that last season shoppers spent more than $1.5 million in combined SNAP and Double UP at participating farmers markets and an additional $200,000+ at participating grocery stores.”

Another FINI grant recipient, the San Antonio Food Bank, represented by its CEO Eric S. Cooper, has been able to improve the health and nutrition of members of the community by ensuring that low-income neighborhoods receive the nutritious food they need to live active, healthy, productive lives. Efforts to pair healthy food access with nutrition education has become another main goal of the San Antonio Food Bank, reiterating the importance of education from Tuesday’s blog post, found here. Linking common goals of many of the panelists, Eric S. Cooper spoke of the importance of forming partnerships that allow for a broader range of communication and increased funding for the food incentive programs.

Dr. Hesterman was the first to mention a common theme during the hearing: lack of communication of food incentive programs in general. Kathleen Kiley, a SNAP and WIC recipient, reiterated this by sharing her personal experiences with food incentive programs and that many families in her area do not know about the opportunities to gain access to healthy foods. Not only does she recognize this as being a main challenge, but she also confirmed Chairwoman Walorski’s concern about food assistance recipients not knowing how to prepare fresh foods once they have access to them. Kathleen Kiley responded to this problem by highlighting her area’s farmers markets live cooking demonstrations.

So what does this mean for farmers? Well, simply put, it opens up the market to more people who otherwise couldn’t afford food straight from the farm. Dr. Oran Hesterman, Dr. Wright, and Eric Cooper all mentioned the expanding market through the use of food incentive programs. Dr. Hesterman towards the end of his testimony, said, “Every federal dollar spent has an immediate return on investment in terms of reducing hunger, increasing produce consumption, and boosting farm income.” Food incentive programs are mostly operated at farmers markets, offering many benefits to both the farmers and consumers alike. Buying at farmers markets gives small family farms a better return for their produce and supports them in today’s globalized economy. It also helps with protecting the environment by eliminating large amounts of natural resources used in the shipping of food products. Dr. Hesterman spoke of Double Up’s economic impact by saying, “Double Up supports the proliferation of markets, expands their customer base, and increases direct spending by producers. This indicates that the program can support local economic development and job creation that can grow into a self-sustaining cycle of community self-help.”

It is clear that remarkably large efforts have been made to create food incentive programs that encourage recipients to consume healthier, fresher foods. However, despite all the steps that have been taken, they still aren’t enough to reach the 17.5 million U.S. households facing hunger, and the much bigger problem of improper nutrition. Through an increase in partnerships, funding, communication, and programs, the panel and Nutrition Subcommittee are both hopeful that hunger will start to diminish and the health of our country will make a comeback, all while strengthening the market for farmers.

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