Outside Influences

The “Calories vs. Nutrients” Debate

Should recipients of food stamps be steered toward healthier choices? The discussion is already under way ahead of the next farm bill.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Jerry Hagstrom
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Jerry Hagstrom
March 15, 2016, 8 p.m.

The stage is be­ing set for ma­jor de­bates over hun­ger and nu­tri­tion in the 2018 farm bill.

The latest sig­nal came Tues­day when Farm Cred­it, the na­tion­al as­so­ci­ation of co-op banks that lend to farm­ers and ag­ribusi­nesses, in­vited Al­lis­on Boyd, a former county ex­ten­sion agent in North Car­o­lina who now works for the Farm Al­li­ance of Bal­timore, to be a speak­er at its Na­tion­al Ag­Day event at the Na­tion­al Press Club.

The Farm Al­li­ance helps mostly Afric­an-Amer­ic­an res­id­ents in in­ner-city Bal­timore turn va­cant land in­to small farms that pro­duce and sell fruits and ve­get­ables in the neigh­bor­hoods and to res­taur­ants. Farm Cred­it, which is cel­eb­rat­ing its 100th an­niversary, picked the al­li­ance as one of its 100 in­sti­tu­tions and people of­fer­ing “fresh per­spect­ives” for a vi­brant ag­ri­cul­tur­al and rur­al fu­ture.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and anti-hun­ger act­iv­ists have de­scribed urb­an neigh­bor­hoods as “food deserts” be­cause they lack big gro­cery stores, but Boyd said she sees the situ­ation dif­fer­ently.

“In Bal­timore one in four people live in a food desert, but I don’t like that term. I prefer to call it a nu­tri­ent desert,” Boyd said. There’s lots of “food” avail­able in the in­ner city, she ad­ded, re­fer­ring to the con­veni­ence stores and oth­er out­lets that sell plenty of soda pop and snack foods. It’s just not healthy.

Sonny Ramaswamy, dir­ect­or of the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment’s Na­tion­al In­sti­tute of Food and Ag­ri­cul­ture and the event’s fea­tured speak­er, picked up on Boyd’s theme. Ramaswamy, who is in charge of mak­ing USDA’s grants for ag­ri­cul­tur­al re­search, said that “nu­tri­tion­al se­cur­ity” is “an ex­ist­en­tial threat.” One in sev­en Amer­ic­ans haven’t got enough to eat while one in six Amer­ic­ans must take med­ic­a­tions for heart dis­ease, dia­betes, and oth­er ill­nesses “be­cause of the ex­cess­ive amount of cal­or­ies we con­sume,” Ramaswamy said.

This theme of cal­or­ies vs. nu­tri­ents is be­gin­ning to dom­in­ate dis­cus­sions of food and hun­ger as groups pre­pare for the 2018 farm bill.

The House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee has held 12 hear­ings on the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram, the new name for food stamps. Those hear­ings make Demo­crats and anti-hun­ger ad­voc­ates nervous be­cause they fear that the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House wants to cut be­ne­fits or turn SNAP in­to block grants to the states. But those hear­ings have provided a for­um for dis­cus­sion, in­clud­ing pro­pos­als to make it cheap­er for SNAP be­ne­fi­ciar­ies to buy fruits and ve­get­ables and to use food and bet­ter di­ets in­stead of medi­cine to im­prove health.

Un­der cur­rent rules, SNAP be­ne­fi­ciar­ies can buy any food ex­cept hot food, a policy that the food in­dustry and anti-hun­ger act­iv­ists have de­fen­ded on the grounds that low-in­come people should have the same choices as oth­er Amer­ic­ans.

But the bi­par­tis­an Na­tion­al Com­mis­sion on Hun­ger, which was set up in the 2014 farm bill, re­cently re­com­men­ded that Con­gress “en­act le­gis­la­tion to re­strict the pur­chase of a care­fully defined list of sug­ar-sweetened bever­ages.” The chairs of the com­mis­sion, Mari­ana Chilton of Drexel Uni­versity, and former New York City Hu­man Re­sources Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mis­sion­er Robert Doar, told Na­tion­al Journ­al that put­ting re­stric­tions on the sale of sweetened bever­ages was not con­tro­ver­sial among the com­mis­sion­ers.

“In the broad sense, the Amer­ic­an people want SNAP to pro­mote nu­tri­tion and healthy eat­ing. When we have a product that is con­trib­ut­ing to a prob­lem as ser­i­ous as obesity, it is something that should be ad­dressed,” said Doar, who served un­der former New York May­or Mi­chael Bloomberg.

But des­pite the fo­cus on the qual­ity of food, the com­mis­sion also noted that 5.6 per­cent of the Amer­ic­an people still ex­per­i­ence real hun­ger—not just won­der­ing where their next meal will come from—and said that prob­lem should be ad­dressed, es­pe­cially among the eld­erly, single-par­ent fam­il­ies with young chil­dren, dia­bet­ics, vet­er­ans and act­ive-duty mil­it­ary, Amer­ic­an In­di­ans, former pris­on­ers, and im­mig­rants. The com­mis­sion also re­com­men­ded that con­tinu­ing SNAP be­ne­fits for a time after be­ne­fi­ciar­ies find work might make them more eager to find jobs.

At a Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter event on food and nu­tri­tion last week, former Ag­ri­cul­ture Sec­ret­ary Ann Vene­man noted that there have been sug­ges­tions that the SNAP pro­gram be made more like the Spe­cial Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram for Wo­men, In­fants and Chil­dren, which lim­its foods to those re­com­men­ded by di­eti­cians and med­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als.

At that same event, however, Ag­ri­cul­ture Sec­ret­ary Tom Vil­sack poin­ted out that de­cid­ing what foods to elim­in­ate un­der SNAP would be an enorm­ous un­der­tak­ing that would be sub­ject to lob­by­ing.

The Amer­ic­an Farm Bur­eau Fed­er­a­tion and oth­er farm groups say the first goal for 2018 should be to keep SNAP in the farm bill be­cause Her­it­age Ac­tion and oth­er con­ser­vat­ive groups want to split farm pro­grams and SNAP in or­der to des­troy both. Their con­cerns are un­der­stand­able. But every­one in­volved in farm and ag­ri­cul­tur­al policy should also be pre­pared for a de­tailed de­bate on the im­plic­a­tions of fed­er­al policy for cal­or­ies vs. nu­tri­ents.

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