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5 Secretaries of Ag Discuss Food Insecurities in the U.S.

There are very hungry people among us. But should we tell them what they can and can’t eat?

Five of the most recent U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture joined together October 16 in Des Moines, Iowa, for an insightful, bipartisan discussion on the food insecurities facing our country.

Secretary Tom Vilsack (2009-2017), Secretary Ed Shafer (2008-2009), Secretary Mike Johanns (2005-2007), Secretary Ann Veneman (2001-2005), and Secretary Dan Glickman (1995-2001) took part in the Iowa Hunger Summit, which was held in conjunction with The World Food Prize activities.

The U.S. has the most comprehensive food security programs in the world for low- and no-income residents. They include SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), and various summer and after-school programs. SNAP is the program formerly known as food stamps, and it’s predicted to be a point of discussion as policy-makers start sorting through what the 2018 farm bill will look like. Issues such as which purchases are allowed through SNAP are likely to be brought up.

Secretary Vilsack said when the SNAP program was put into place decades ago, the benefits were based on a thrifty food plan calculation. This assumes that recipients are cooking 1.5 hours per day, and it also presupposes that they’re consuming around 20 pounds of beans per week. 

“No one consumes 20 pounds of beans a week,” he laughs. “It begs to be reviewed.”

The WIC program has a prescribed food group, but SNAP does not. The goal of SNAP when created was to get calories in people’s stomachs. Over time, the sources of those calories have become calorie-dense foods that aren’t necessarily nutritious.

Secretary Glickman says if the evidence shows these people are more prone to diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, and it’s costing the taxpayers giant sums of money, then perhaps there should be limits on items such as sugar-sweetened beverages. He acknowledges it’s a problem because it involves judgment calls about what’s good for you and what isn’t. Secretary Schafer says prescribing individual food items is a difficult proposition that every agriculture secretary wrestles with.

There needs to be more education on what good food choices are, explains Secretary Johanns. He says usually the last thing you talk about in the budget process is if there is any money left over for pilot education programs. He says if there are any restrictions put on SNAP, there has to be an educational approach built in that teaches how to make good food choices for the family diet.

Many in the audience were associated with local food banks and food pantries. Secretary Johanns encouraged them to look at their job as more than just getting food to each family. There are underlying issues that also need to be addressed.

“I think there’s an enormously strong connection between substance abuse and hunger issues. Between mental health and hunger issues. Between homelessness and hunger issues,” says Johanns. “I hope one of the takeaways is to have the right people at the table and start looking as these issues in a systematic way. Don’t look at hunger in isolation. There are other things going on that are intersecting with that issue.”

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