USDA budget forecasts increasing hunger & increasing need for food stamps

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p class="MsoNormal" style="mso-margin-top-alt:auto;margin-bottom:6.0pt">USDA budget forecasts increasing hunger & increasing need for food stamps

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, March 18 - The U.S. economy may be recovering, but USDA forecasts show that the number of Americans relying on USDA food stamps and other feeding programs will continue to climb in 2011 from today's record levels.

In a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Thursday on the administration's proposed budget for USDA's Food & Nutrition Service, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services (FNCS) Kevin Concannon told members that the budget calls for a record $96 billion for FNCS “reflecting the President's and the [Agriculture] Secretary's commitment to combating food insecurity and poor nutrition among the nation's children and low-income households.” Of the $96 billion, $68.7 billion is for food stamps, $19.2 billion for school meals and other child nutrition programs, and $7.6 billion for the WIC (Women, Infants & Children) nutrition program.

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Pointing out that the record request is the result of a recession-driven surge in demand, Concannon explained that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the new name for the food stamp program, provided benefits to a record 39 million people last December, the most recently reported month. That's a 41% increase in two years. The school meals program is also at a record level, feeding 32 million children daily. Concannon added that USDA's WIC program “which serves half of all babies in this country, is now serving over 9 million persons a month, another historic level, and we expect that level to continue to grow.” He also noted that USDA is providing “unprecedented levels of commodities and administrative support to our partners in the food bank community.”

Concannon and other USDA officials said their forecasts show school lunch participation growing from 32.1 million this year to 32.6 billion in 2011, WIC participation climbing from 9 million this year to 10.1 million in 2011, and the SNAP food stamp program climbing from the recent 39 million to 43.3 million people each month during fiscal 2011. They explained that the numbers are increasing due to continued economic challenges, due to efforts to include more of the adults and children already eligible for benefits, and due to boosting participation by changing eligibility standards. Finally, they said costs will also be increased due to efforts to provide more nutritious foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, which are more expensive both to buy and to handle.

USDA Food & Nutrition Service Administrator Julia Paradis noted that “the nutrition programs now touch the lives of more than one in four Americans over the course of a year.” She also pointed out that food stamps feed not just hungry people but the economy as a whole: “Every time a family uses SNAP benefits to put healthy food on the table, it benefits the store and the employees where the purchase was made, the truck driver who delivered the food, and warehouses that stored it, the plant that processed it, and the farmer who produced the food in the first place.” She said “Through these kinds of mechanisms, every new $5 increase in SNAP benefits can yield up to $9.20 in total economic activity.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Chair of the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food & Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, voiced her determination to support the administration's request for an additional $10 billion over the next 10 years to improve USDA's school meals and other child nutrition programs. She said she's concerned that the Senate's proposal for reauthorizing child nutrition programs would provide less than half the requested $10 billion. (For coverage of the Senate's proposed legislation which would authorize $4.5 billion in new funding, see http://www.agri-pulse.com/20100317H6.asp.)

The Subcommittee's Ranking Member Jack Kingston (R-GA) said that while he's concerned about hunger in the U.S., he's also concerned about federal deficits. He acknowledged that getting Congress to spend less money will be difficult because “Nine out of ten of the visitors to my office come to ask for more spending.” But he suggested that instead of increasing spending on USDA's food programs, the first step should be to eliminate the $1 billion lost through payment errors each year.

Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) said that while he also wants to make sure that federal funds are spent carefully, his overall goal is “to feed more people” rather than restricting programs through over-zealous means testing. Kingston countered that some ineligible people may be getting food through the current programs.

DeLauro concluded the hearing by commenting that “government does have a moral responsibility . . . to provide food and good nutrition to the people of this country.”

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