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Obama's USDA: Undersecretary Kevin Concannon: No food stamp cut expected

SPECIAL REPORT


OBAMA’S USDA AT TWO YEARS:
Second of a series of interviews with Agriculture Department officials


By JERRY HAGSTROM

The Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services says he does not expect a funding challenge to the food stamp program, even though Congress and the Office of Management and Budget will be combing through the federal budget looking for cuts and a presidential commission said all programs had to be on the table in the attempt to balance the budget.

In this interview, Kevin Concannon says he believes members of Congress from both parties recognize that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — the new name for food stamps — is a vital program in the recession. He also says he still wants to convince some states to make it easier for hungry Americans to apply for SNAP benefits, and discusses proposed changes to make school meals healthier.

Concannon, who manages the SNAP, school meals and other nutrition programs that make up two-thirds of USDA’s budget, previously served as director of state health and human services departments in Maine, Oregon, and Iowa.

Following are edited excerpts of an interview conducted on January 14.

Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon
HAGSTROM: When Secretary Vilsack and you announced the school lunch rule, he said he hoped that people might see some changes in the schools by fall. Can you talk a little bit about how you see the practical aspects of implementing this? I know that you are taking comments until April.

CONCANNON: Let me back up a little. When we met with the secretary early this year, and shared with him [that] we had the recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, he said “I want this on as fast a track as can be.” He recognized the implications for American children.

So the fact we are able to publish that interim regulation [on January 13] is a record for something as large and as complex. It’s the first time in 15 years the meal pattern has been changed or proposed to be changed.

Those schools that are in what we call the “Healthier U.S. School Challenge” — about a thousand schools — it will be the most minimal change for them because they are already very focused on both the activity, the wellness aspects of this, as well as the healthier foods.

There are 101,000 American public schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program. That is 99 percent of all of K through 12 schools in the U.S., so we have huge numbers.

A number of schools [that didn’t qualify for the Healthier U.S. School Challenge] provide very healthy meals, but they, frankly, had trouble engaging the wellness policies and other aspects of the school environment because we require both. It is sort of a recognition: calories in, calories out. It is not just food itself.

We have said to schools, “Look, if you can proceed right now, you want to move in this direction, we certainly hope you are.” We will pay attention to the comments, and we expect to get thousands of comments between now and the middle of April, and then we will respond to those, reflect on those, work towards a final rule that would be promulgated late in this calendar year for impact in the 2012 school year.

We know there are schools that are already basically there. There are some challenges in the rule in the sense that it recommends more focused calorie levels for different age groups. Right now the school lunch program, the school breakfast program, kind of look at the same amount of calories for every child, and we know that very young kids don’t require as much as a teenager, so there will be some tailoring that will be necessary school by school across the country.

But we believe there are no surprises in this, in the sense that at its core, it is more fruits, more vegetables, less fat, milk that is 1 percent or skim milk, and whole grains. That’s the core of it.

We’re quite pleased that this is sort of the second major sweep in our feeding programs. A year ago, we implemented the WIC [special nutrition program for women, infants and children] new food package based on the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine.

Because of the way schools operate, you can’t introduce this or require it in the middle of a school year. The full launch will be the school year 2012.

HAGSTROM: When some farmers see the requirement for more fruits and vegetables, less fat, et cetera, they may worry that you won’t be buying as much of what they produce as buying what some other farmers produce.

CONCANNON: In the aggregate, I think farmers win in this. Collectively, farmers win because you probably can make the case that there will be more specialty crops that will benefit from this, certainly more local growers.

We have been promoting Farm to School, and we sent a team out this summer to look at school systems across the country that were purchasing locally, a phenomenon that’s only developed in the last few years. And that team interviewed farmers as well as the schools because we want to promote more of this. Why truck stuff from one end of the country to the other if you can grow crops in that area?

Net net, I think you are going to see more sales that will result in foods coming from farmers. If the food is healthy and fresh, more kids will eat it. We have seen that in those Healthy U.S. schools.

HAGSTROM: What about dairy purchases? The dairy farmers have had more troubles than anybody else recently.

CONCANNON: Dairy stays strong in all of this. It is just that the milk in dairy is 1 percent or skim milk. I have eaten lunch with a bunch of these little tykes when I have gone off to schools, and they all have milk. Some of them have flavored milk; others had white milk. We’re fine with a flavored milk, in fact, as long as it’s no-fat.

You can still have healthy foods made up of cheese as long as it’s low fat. You probably know this already. When they are purchasing cheese or doing cheese purchases, we are happy to do it, but lower fat cheese.

HAGSTROM: Some budget authority in the WIC program was used to pay for the settlement of the Pigford II case to provide aid to black farmers who had suffered discrimination. Why was it OK to use WIC budget authority for that purpose?

CONCANNON: I am glad you asked me about WIC. WIC is one of those discretionary funding programs, so lots of eyes and ears pay attention to WIC just on the budget side, let alone the program side.

WIC serves 49 percent of all [children] in the first year of life in the U.S. That is an astounding figure — the reach of their program. It is one of the best preventive health programs we have in the whole repertoire of how can you make an investment that converts into long-term health. We promote breast feeding. We have various incentives in that regard.

There is no threat to the WIC program in terms of our being faced with either waiting lists or inability to serve anyone who comes forward. WIC serves those moms and infants in their first year of life, and children up to their fifth birthday.

Here’s the basic reason why there are funds available to help pay for those programs as well as we’re assured that in the future we’re going to be OK. Most importantly, the birth rate has gone down [from] 2008 [through] 2010, right up through June. It went down 3 percent last year.

You say, “What’s going on?” Well, that’s reflecting a trend that’s been true in the country going back to the Great Depression. We’re going through an extended recession. The birth rate has gone down, and that is the principal reason why we have funds available. But we want to reassure public health people, pediatricians, anybody else out there, we don’t anticipate any need to either deflect or put people on waiting lists in WIC.

HAGSTROM: Food stamp participation has expanded dramatically. Since the beginning of the Obama administration, you are up to 43 million people on food stamps. You have had an easing of eligibility requirements and an increase in benefits, but some budget authority was used to pay for teacher salaries and some for child nutrition. Where do you see the food stamp program headed in the next few years? Do you see still rising participation, and will the benefits be adequate?

CONCANNON: The increase in the food stamp program preceded the administration. Over a three-year period, up to last October — October to October from 2007 — there has been a 60 percent increase in enrollment in [the supplemental nutrition assistance program] program or food stamps. There is no surprise for me in that regard, having been a state person administering this for many, many years. The SNAP program by design is intended to be responsive to what is going on in the economy. If you look at the unemployment rate, poverty rate — both of them have gone the wrong direction over a three-year-plus period.

But the good news in that challenging, dark picture is that the rate of hunger or food insecurity did not go up. We think the reason — not just our view but other groups have said — that the principal mitigating factor there was the existence of SNAP and its access.

We have been working with states on encouraging them to simplify access to the program, to work to make sure people are aware of it, and particularly so with the three groups of people that are underserved.

Seniors, lots of senior citizens who are living on very modest income in a difficult time when utilities are going up may think, “Hey, I’m on Social Security. I’m not eligible,” and we know that that’s the case. We only serve about a third of the eligible seniors in the U.S.

The second group of people are recently unemployed or under employed people, and in this economy, we know that there are many people who believe that the reality of unemployment may be understated because people either give up or they are working part time.

I was just in New York City and the New York City Human Resources Administration [is], now serving 1,800,000 people in New York City in SNAP or food stamps. They call it “food stamps” still. Of that number, more than 600,000 recent enrollees aren’t eligible for [Supplemental Security Income] or aren’t disabled or aren’t elderly. These are people coming out of the workforce. And the New York City people said to me, used the very same praise that I hear when I go to food banks or food pantries or talk with state people anywhere in the country, “We are now serving people who never envisioned in their lifetime finding themselves in a circumstance where they had to turn either a voluntary program or a state or a federal program.

[SNAP] is intended to be responsive to the environment. It is important for those individuals, but I can also tell you that I have had meetings with executives of supermarket chains, HEB down in Texas, Kroger, Wal-Mart, all of whom have spoken to the importance of SNAP in their business model. That we know from a couple of studies, one more recent done by [the USDA Economics Research Service] here, that for every $5 in benefits SNAP introduces into the economy, it generates $9 through the multiplier effect.

To the farmers or producers that may be reading your newsletter, this is a major investment because it has to be spent on food. You can’t use it on toilet paper, toothpaste, or other stuff. It all goes into the food supply.

The Census Bureau, just within the last 10 days, released a report, a mid-decennial report, saying that if it were not for the SNAP program, we would have 7 million more people under the poverty level in the U.S. So that wasn’t us. That’s Census. So we know it’s making a difference for people.

Now, we would love to find a number of people becoming ineligible for the SNAP program because their income was going up so much. Happy day!

HAGSTROM: In the next couple of years, it is likely that there will be budget pressures to either make eligibility more difficult or to reduce the benefits. Are you expecting that? How do you expect to react to it?

CONCANNON: I’m not at this point, because I know the SNAP program has had very strong bipartisan support.

I know that they will be looking at every program across the board, but SNAP, you know, touches every little hamlet, every large city, its people throughout the life course, and it has other implications, too.

We were talking about school programs earlier. Schools receive higher reimbursements from the USDA feeding programs based on the number of children, for example, who may be in households that are receiving SNAP benefits. You mentioned at the outset that some future SNAP money was used to pay for some of these programs.

The president has committed to work with Congress to restore those [cuts.] They are future cuts, anyway. They are proposed to become effective in November 2013, and so we have lots of time between now and then. In the meantime, the program has tremendous support and need.

HAGSTROM: How do you feel about what you have done in the first two years in this job, and what would you like to accomplish in the next two years?

CONCANNON: I feel very fortunate to have been here. These feeding programs have never been as urgently needed as they are right now. I feel extremely fortunate to be part of responding to people at this time, but in the future, we want to work with the states.

We have states in the country that embrace these programs that engage with their citizens, with their legislature. Some states make it so difficult. Even though it is a federally paid program, even though the rules should be commonly across the country, some states just put up barriers. They introduce elements in it that just make it difficult.

New York City fingerprints people. California, Arizona, and Texas fingerprint people. They like to call it “finger imaging.” It is fingerprinting, and that’s a barrier. If you are an older person, I’d say, “Hey, this can really help you,” and someone will say, “Well, fine. How do I go about it?” “Well, first we have to take your fingerprints.” I’d say, “Thank you very much. I’m out of here.” So they’re the only places in the country, thankfully, that do that, but those are examples. Those are examples of barriers that make it difficult for people.

In some states, when you move from one county to another, your benefits stop, you have to reapply all over again. They treat you as if you are moving from one state to another. The reality is, poor people in the U.S. move at higher rates than the rest of us. It’s just the nature of being poor.

In some of those what I call “underperforming states,” that serve a much smaller fraction of the people that are eligible by federal rules, they say, “Well, we don’t want any more people coming in the door because our workers are already struggling.”

To them, we have been saying the last two years, “Let us work with you to simplify your business process. Let us show you some states like Oregon and New Mexico and Utah and Idaho that have simplified their business process so that you don’t have all this personnel required. Florida has done a terrific job in that regard.”

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