Hungry for answers
Des Moines – Why are able-bodied people who could be working receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)? What can be done to limit SNAP recipients’ consumption of unhealthy foods like sugar-laden beverages? Should nutrition programs be divided from the farm programs in the Farm Bill?
Controversial questions like these drove a panel discussion at the 2017 Iowa Hunger Summit in Des Moines on Oct. 16, where the five former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) secretaries shared their thoughts on timely food and ag policy issues. There were many candid – and often surprising – answers from Tom Vilsack (who served as USDA secretary from 2009-2017), Ed Schafer (2008-2009), Mike Johanns (2005-2007), Ann Veneman (2001-2005) and Dan Glickman (1995-2001).
“Solutions to food insecurity and hunger must be driven from the local level,” Vilsack emphasized during the Iowa Hunger Summit, which included nearly 1,000 registered participants. “Also, agriculture must be at the table during these conversations.”
The ag angle is relevant, since feeding programs comprise more than 70 percent of USDA’s budget. While the panelists didn’t concur on everything as they tackled tough food and ag policy topics on United Nations World Food Day, they unanimously agreed that dividing nutrition programs from the farm programs in the Farm Bill would be detrimental. “If you did this, it would be a lot harder to get a Farm Bill passed,” Vilsack said.
Taking a holistic approach
Policy issues regarding food and nutrition challenges go far beyond the Farm Bill, panelists said. Consider the obesity epidemic in America.
“In 1980, 15 percent of the U.S. population was obese,” Veneman said. “By 2000, it was 30.5 percent, and now it’s 39.8 percent.”
A host of non-communicable diseases, from diabetes to heart ailments, are associated with obesity and have become much more prevalent, she added. “We’re paying for this in the form of more Medicare and Medicaid.”
This begs the question of whether people receiving food benefits should face more restrictions on the food they can purchase. The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program has prescribed food groups, while the SNAP program has few restrictions on what foods recipients can and can’t buy.
“You get involved in issues of freedom when you start prescribing individual food items,” Johanns said. “It’s a very difficult proposition.”
Education must be part of the solution, he added. “We’re coming up short on educating people about good food choices.”
This extends to health care professionals, Glickman added. “The medical profession is absent without official leave regarding nutrition issues. Many don’t get much training regarding nutrition.”
Glickman has asked doctors whether they talk to their patients about the role of good nutrition in health. “They tell me they don’t, because they don’t have time for it, or it’s not in their bailiwick.”
Another challenge is that cooking is becoming a lost art. “People don’t know how to cook anymore,” Veneman said. “People not only don’t understand what good nutrition is, but they don’t know how to prepare it.”
She pointed to a pilot program focused on medical nutrition for people suffering from non-communicable diseases as a partial solution to this challenge. Collaborative efforts like this that cross multiple disciplines and organizations are a big step in the right direction, said Johanns, who added that these connections need to extend beyond food.
“I think there’s a tremendous link between hunger and challenges like mental health and substance abuse. All these factors are intertwined, so we need to take a more holistic approach.”
Solutions from the bottom up, not top down
Since healthier lifestyles and preventative care can help people get back in the workforce, there’s also a need for better coordination between state workforce development specialists, economic development leaders and human services agencies, said Vilsack, who reiterated the need for leadership at the local and state levels. “In my view, good ideas come from the bottom up, not the top down.”
This resonated with audience members like Sally Worley, executive director of Practical Farmers of Iowa. “Having the opportunity to listen to decades of experience from these ag secretaries was amazing,” she said. “They hit on a lot of big questions that need to be addressed.”
While there are many challenges ahead, America maintains the most comprehensive food security programs in the world, Glickman noted. “This is part of our culture, and it’s something to be proud of. I also contend that most people don’t want to be on programs like SNAP and want to get off them as soon as they can.”
Fighting hunger and alleviating human suffering are bipartisan goals that can unite people rather than divide them. “We have significant opportunities to bring people together at the local and county levels and address these complex issues,” Johanns said.
Ultimately, many of the solutions will depend on agriculture, said Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, who spoke at the Iowa Hunger Summit. “I can’t think of a more noble goal than striving to feed a hungry world. Let’s find a path towards progress. It all starts right here in Iowa.”
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