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Ag secretaries predict battles on nutrition in farm bill

Ag secretaries predict battles on nutrition in farm bill
Tom Vilsack, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture and past Iowa governor, hosted a discussion on nutrition issues and the farm bill with four other past USDA chiefs last week at the Iowa Hunger Summit in Des Moines.

Five former U.S. ag secretaries gathered at the Iowa Hunger Summit in Des Moines last week and said they expect a push for new limits on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the next farm bill.

The Iowa Hunger Summit, sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bur­eau and Farm Bureau Financial Services, hosted the panel of U.S. ag secretaries, which included former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Dan Glickman, Ann Veneman, Mike Johanns and Ed Schafer, to discuss food insecurity.

The ag secretaries all agreed that food and nutrition programs, which currently make up about 70 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) budget, should remain in next farm bill, along with farm programs.

“If you were to separate those, you could find it incredibly difficult to get a farm bill passed,” said Vilsack, who moderated the panel.

More than 1,000 people attended this year’s Hunger Summit, a record in the 11-year history of the event.

The Iowa Hunger Summit helps to raise awareness of and find solutions to the problem of food insecurity both here in Iowa and around the world. The annual event kicked off the week-long World Food Prize activities in Des Moines.

Glickman said the gathering of five U.S. ag secretaries, all from different administrations, shows that hunger is a bipartisan issue.

“Issues of food and agriculture are really the last bastion of nonpartisanship,” Glickman said.

Nutrition and health

During the panel discussion, the ag secretaries said they anticipate a debate over tighter restrictions in SNAP food assistance, formerly known as the food stamp program, in the next farm bill.

More people are asking for limits in the types of foods Americans can buy with SNAP, such as sugary soft drinks with no nutritional value, said Veneman.

In a report released earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimated that about 39.8 percent of Americans are now considered obese, up from 30.5 percent in 2000, Veneman noted.

She said Americans are paying for the higher obesity rates with rising costs for Medicaid and Medicare. Obesity raises the risk of many chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

“If the government is going to be paying Medicaid, shouldn’t we be looking at what we are putting into our bodies through SNAP?” Veneman asked.

“We should be talking much more about nutrition, and not just hunger, because nutrition is really the key word,” she added.

Work requirements

Johanns said he also expects to see pressure to put additional work or training requirements for SNAP recipients in the next farm bill.

However, he noted about 70 percent of SNAP participants are the elderly, disabled or families with young children, while only 30 percent of SNAP participants are able-bodied individuals.

Glickman said most of these Americans don’t want to be on food assistance programs, but they can’t find jobs that pay enough to support themselves or a family.

“It’s a general economic issue in America,” Glickman says. “It’s just really hard for a lot of people in the lower and middle-income areas to find the kind of work that will give them incentives to get off the program.”

Johanns said it will take a collaborative effort at the federal, state and local levels to address the many issues related to food insecurity, such as lack of jobs, substance abuse and mental health.

“We say to ourselves, if we can just get food into that family’s household, we will solve the problem, when in fact, it’s only a piece of the problem...,” Johanns said. “Don’t look at hunger in isolation ... try to take more of a holistic approach to how you are going to address this.”