Any given recession, food assistance needs increase. In an inflationary environment where purchasing power declines, food assistance needs increase. During a pandemic, well you get the idea. What is lost in that narrative is that the foods available to the general public, are same available to food assistance beneficiaries. The only difference is the bank account that it’s draws through the debit card, and a few other stipulations like beer and cigarettes. Food assistance or SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program feeds roughly 40 million Americans, or over 10% of our population, and the numbers are rising, both in users and also costs.
The White House proposal is to label goods that are highly processed, contain excess sugars, and are generally unhealthy. Aside from this, there is a push for education, and the USDA has been pushing schools to establish gardens once again.
Firstly, slapping labels on a product does nothing to change consumer habits. We should have learned that a long time ago with cigarettes, a known carcinogen or murder sticks as some called them. Kurt Vonnegut tongue in cheek once stated that smoking was a “classy way to commit suicide”. The truth of decline in smoking tobacco was more societal pressure than it was the labeling campaign and governmental pressures and fines against Philip Morris. We saw a different outcome with parental advisory labels on musical albums. The interesting part there is Tipper Gore tried to make sure that every lewd or offensive music or fashion statement that otherwise contained strong language was labeled and shunned puritanically. The result was that more albums were sold that were labeled highly offensive such as NWA, Marilyn Manson, just a name a few. Labels don’t work.
Cory Booker, Senator from New Jersey who famously was also mayor of Newark, New Jersey during Superstorm Sandy and once tweeted out to a gentleman who was upset about general small scale flooding in the area during the storm, “I’ve got 99 problems but you’re ditch ain’t one”, was recently interviewed by NPR about the White House’s new push to label highly processed foods that are government subsidized through snap programs administered through the USDA. In his interview he explained that we’ve got a two-fold problem: an extremely obese population where the poorest of our community are stuck with subsidized food such as boxed prepackaged, warm it up in a microwave from the freezer, or just add water meals that have been freeze-dried and packaged, and contain the least healthy amount of empty calories that money can buy. The second issue is the poor health of the nation caused by it.
The USDA subsidizes high fructose and partially hydrogenated oils through the Farm Services Agency loans, grants and also crop insurance. Corn syrup, high fructose is found seemingly everywhere (loaves of bread!) most notably with sugary beverages like what’s found in Coca-Cola products and Pepsi company products. Hydrogenated soybean oils are also highly processed into products such as whipped cream, margarine (fake butter) and a multitude of prepackaged foods. These foods are then subsidized again through SNAP food assistance program administered by the USDA, as they are purchased by the qualifying public. Summary: the crops and products are subsidized twice, first to the grower and second to the consumer, with the manufacturer enjoying the government payday.
During the pandemic a very novel idea that actually came from farmers was put into place by the USDA. Farmers who had directly edible food asked the USDA to start a box program where we would fill the box with fresh produce and they would pay us for each box with each of those boxes going to food pantries and also individual consumers straight to their doorstep or at a convenient pickup location. Now much has been written about the direct to consumer model but it’s typically focused on suburban areas or any inner city areas that are mostly affluent and never to the poor communities or outskirts of major cities.
Now not all processing is bad. You have to understand the difference between highly processed and processed whereas processed could generally mean separating the curd and the whey of milk to make cheese. We can also say processed when boiling down pounds of tomatoes adding other ingredients to can for marinara, or pizza sauce. One thing that will be controversial with the vegan/vegetarian community specifically is the ultra high processed foods such as beyond burgers, and other plant-based meat substitutes that fall in the range of ultra highly processed.
Unfortunately we’ve seen this all before. In the ’80s and early 90s we had the Arnold fitness challenge where all elementary school kids would participate in physical activities to earn medals and rewards figureheaded by then action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger. We also had food gardens at the elementary schools as well that provided fresh produce that was grown on site by the teachers and kids collectively. Much like personal finance and home economics, the food gardens at the schools went to the wayside as schools jettisoned programs as costs grew due to burgeoning budgets coupled with lack of additional revenue. The core focus then realigned on math, science and other STEM categories for city school districts and vocational education for rural districts. Farming, and to a lesser extent gardening, were left to FFA and 4-H organizations that were done outside of the schools by independent third parties. Out of those organizations the majority of the students who participate in those meetings and also shows are primarily focused on kids that grow up in agricultural communities and families. The majority of the 4-H and FFA unfortunately focuses more on livestock shows, county fairs and specifically large tuition scholarship program such as the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. There is very little to do with actual produce farming or anything that’s direct edible by any consumer; there’s no focus on food anywhere in the education system other than school cafeterias which arguably have been hit or miss.
In Texas, following many other states, the Texas Department of Agriculture in conjunction with the USDA has set up a community supported agriculture with schools and governmental entities through the Farm Fresh Network, however we are having a hard time getting that off the ground. The unfortunate circumstance is that the schools have big needs and farms that have produce for the schools are few and far between. To grow produce, there are very few governmental programs or grants or subsidies to actually help a farmer establish a produce stand. Most small farms are built off of personal debt and completely private investment mostly by the farmer putting themselves and their family deep in debt to be able to establish a dream that usually does not work out. The work is hard but the economics are harder.
If the White House actually wanted to see change…noticeable change, the subsidies would be going to the smaller producers that have the capacity to build a directly edible farm to school program nationwide that the USDA could oversee and also subsidize. Providing crop insurance, food protection insurance, and a multitude of other tools that are government subsidized just like the big commercial agriculture producers would be a huge step forward. This would usher in new menu items for school cafeterias and also the ability for teachers and administrators to figure out how to integrate farms and food into the curriculums. This would also help the farmers establish robust farms and operations they could also support the public at large it would open up a marketplace for farmers who are first timers that want to get into farming. Reality however will not change the incentives by labeling certain foods as unhealthy or dangerous, or an attempt to nudge people in a direction such as Professor/Dr. Thaler in his book Nudge would suggest. The most likely outcome is that SNAP food assistance programs would no longer be used to purchase prepackaged highly processed box food just add water items and would double down on things like fresh produce, milk eggs, unprocessed cheeses and other food staples that would otherwise harken back 100 years ago before Kraft Heinz and Nestlé took to re-engineering food for a shelf life of 6 months.
Let’s face it, farmers are 1% of the population, and the subset of farmers that grow food directly for consumers is a small fraction of that. Politically that isn’t enough votes for politicians to really take notice. The media also is more focused on Biden’s gaffe, instead of the message. The message is good, however, and should be heard and supported. We need children today to know what a fresh garden carrot tastes like. Chicken has a taste. Egg yolks are orange. Basil, oregano, and rosemary are a gift from the gods. Cooking and then eating a meal with fresh ingredients from a garden box and not a cardboard one is the highlight of a day. Let’s get serious. It matters.