The Next Front In The Food Stamp War

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The other day there was this guy in a chicken suit on Pennsylvania Avenue protesting outside the White House. Silly, but the reason the chicken and other demonstrators had crossed the avenue was to deliver a petition of more than half a million names, speaking out against new rules the US Department of Agriculture wants to put into effect bad rules that would transfer much of the work inspecting pork and chicken and turkey meat from trained government inspectors to the processing companies themselves. Talk about putting the fox in the henhouse! The revised regulations also call for a substantial speeding up of the disassembly line along which workers use sharp knives and often painful, repetitive hand motions to cut up and clean carcasses of dirt, blood and other contaminants that can cause infection and sickness. Not only will this increase in speed by 25 % or more raise the chance of injury, it makes it easier to miss anything wrong even deadly with the meat. To compensate for that, the rules also call for an increase in the use of antimicrobial chemicals sprayed on the meat but those sprays may actually damage the health of theworkers. Inspectors and meat packing employees report instances of asthma, burns, skin rashes, sinus trouble and other respiratory ailments, some of them severe. Whats more, when complaints were made about health or hygiene, the response from employers often came in the form of threats and reprimands. According to the Agriculture Department, their plan will increase food safety, but early last month, the Government Accountability Office the GAO reported on a years-old pilot program for some of these new rules and determined that the data on which they were based was, in the words ofThe Washington Post, incomplete and antiquated. One study used data that was more than twenty years old. The Agriculture Department says the new rules will save the Federal budget $30 million annually, but compared to the more than $256 million it will save the poultry industry every year, thats chickenfeed. In reality, as Tom Philpott, the food and agriculture correspondent forMother Jonesmagazine, succinctly put it: The Obama administration has been pushing a deregulatory sop to a powerful industry based on a shoddy analysis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year roughly one in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. Every state in the union has seen an outbreak in foodborne illness over the last decade; men, women and children made sick byE.coli, salmonella and other pathogens in everything from meat to produce, cereal, even peanut butter. The progressive website Truthout notes that Americans are 110 times more likely to die from contaminated food than terrorism at an annual cost to the economy of nearly $80 billion. And yet, when Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act almost three years ago, designed to toughen standards, the representatives of the food industry spending tens of millions in campaign contributions and lobbying money went after it with a vengeance, delaying and watering the final version down so much that the Food and Drug Administration can barely function, its own inspectors unable to fulfill their duties. (The situation was made even worse by the government shutdown.) In 2011, the FDA inspected only six percent of domestic food producers and less than half a percent of imported food and this at a time when more and more of our food including two thirds of our fresh fruits and vegetables is coming from overseas. Additional pressure on Congress and state legislatures comes from our old friend ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by Koch Industries and other corporations including, recently, Google and Facebook as well as conservative organizations, to draft legislation designed to benefit big business no matter the cost to the rest of us. In an introduction to its so-called agriculture principles, ALEC announced, The proper role of government involvement in agriculture is to limit and remove barriers for agricultural production, trade and consumption throughout our innovative food system. Safety restrictions should incorporate a least restrictive approach, it says, while at the same time ALEC encourages high tech, high yield farming and calls out against unnecessary additional restrictions on the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. ALEC boasts abut the safety and quality of our food system the highest in the world, it says but at the same time designs and pushes legislation designed to prosecute and crush journalists, whistleblowers and animal rights activists who would secretly infiltrate the food industry to expose shoddy practices and unsafe, unsanitary conditions that threaten the nations well-being.

Food stamps are pictured. | Reuters

And although the distribution includes bread, cereal and canned goods, there is increasing focus among church food banks to supply fresh vegetables and meat for the good health of those in need. Fresh food thats the key to lowering high blood pressure and diabetes, said Jeri Bailey, director of the food pantry at the Dupont Park Seventh-Day Adventist Church, who was at the food bank the same day as Nwaneri. We prepare bags for 130families a week that includes a meat, fresh greens, canned goods and other items, Bailey said. But the distribution of fresh food means extra attention must be paid to ensuring that the donated perishables dont spoil. Nearly 36 million tons of food were wasted nationally in 2011, said Nancy Roman, president of the Capital Area Food Bank. Roman recently helped organize a summit in Alexandria to address how local churches and organizations can reduce food spoilage. Participants included Ben Simon, founder of the Food Recovery Network at the University of Maryland; Elise H. Golan, director for sustainable development at the Department of Agriculture; Tom ODonnell, an environmental scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency; and Meghan Stasz, director of sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents such major brands as Kraft, General Mills and Nestle. Food waste is getting some attention from federal agencies, but [the summit] really connected it to people serving in the communities to begin a conversation that is needed in our region, Roman said in an interview. We are committed to fresh food and vegetables, but we have to pay attention to waste. As panelists talked about how more and more companies are allowed to give out food because of Good Samaritan donation laws, Gerri Magruder, coordinator of the food pantry at First Baptist Church of Capitol Heights , stood in frustration. I want real-life specifics. I would like to leave here with real solutions, said Magruder, who told the panel that there was a shortage of fresh produce when her volunteers recently went to the main food bank to pick up items for their weekly community giveaways. Marian Peele, senior director of partner relations and programs for the Capital Area Food Bank, said that although the system isnt perfect, the food bank has worked hard to improve the quality of what it distributes. Some people think that this entire system is antiquated and that we need to focus on the systemic problems of poverty: education and unemployment, Peele said. But having a strategy to combat hunger isnt going to help somebodys child that is hungry today. On Monday, Magruder was back at the food bank picking up items for her Tuesday and Thursday distributions.

They are demanding $40 billion be cut from the program over 10 years by denying benefits to those who are not working or in government job-training courses. Thats 10 times the comparably meager $4 billion in cuts included in the Senate farm bill. They point to the programs dramatic growth to $80 billion in 2012, up from to $35 billion in 2007. Whether significant cuts to SNAP are needed remains a hotly debated subject, but there is little argument over the need to reduce fraud in the program. Especially not after the USDAs report , released in August, found retailers willing to pay cash in return for the government food credit stole $858 million annually from government coffers from 2009 through 2011. Thats nearly triple the $330 million stolen annually from 2006 through 2008. Only about 15% of all the food stamps used by shoppers in the U.S. are spent at small stores, but they are also the source of 85% of the fraud, according to the USDAs report . The USDA report is essentially a follow up to a Government Accountability Office report released several years ago that told the USDA it needed to focus on small convenience and grocery stores in order to cut down on food stamp fraud. USDAhas good reason to see these small-scale, privately owned stores as a significance source of food stamp fraud. These stores are often short on the fresh fruit, vegetables and meat that SNAP vouchers are intended to purchase, the GAO report said. The USDA isnt waiting for further marching orders from Congress, having just wrapped up a five-city listening tour aimed at hearing the publics complaints and suggestions regarding SNAP fraud. The department also has issued what it calls a request for information in the Federal Register. The document, which is essentially a precursor to a new federal rule proposal, reveals that USDA is considering such measures as disqualifying smaller grocery stores and convenience stores from accepting food stamps if they sell large quantities of alcohol and tobacco or banning them from the government program if their primary business isnt selling food.