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Kingston, Kaptur suggest healthier eating initiatives


2012_0221_ObeseAdultsMap
SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Diabetes Surveillance System


By JERRY HAGSTROM

In a strong sign of the growing, broad political appeal of encouraging healthier eating, House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said last week that the Agriculture Department should conduct an experiment in a state with a high obesity level to encourage food stamp beneficiaries to buy healthier food, while Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, said she believes USDA should connect poor urban consumers with nutritious food produced by local farmers.

At a House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Friday, Kingston noted that grocery stores have become dependent on business from beneficiaries of food stamps, which are now known as supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits or SNAP, and that USDA had rejected a proposal from the city of New York to ban the use of food stamps for purchases of certain foods.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack replied that USDA had rejected the proposal because the Food, Nutrition and Consumer Service did not think that it would be practical to implement, but told New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the department would work with the city on how to help food stamp beneficiaries “making healthier and better choices” of foods.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.
“What would you say to a pilot program where we take an area and we try for a really nutrition-based SNAP menu?,” Kingston asked. “It appears to me if we are going to talk about nutrition, it is something we should be discussing.”

Vilsack noted that USDA is in the midst of a two-year study in Holyoke, Mass. of the impact of giving food stamp beneficiaries an incentive to buy fruits and vegetables by making the cost of those items lower at checkout than the price of items.

The grocer gets 100 percent of the purchase price, but the food stamp beneficiary’s electronic benefit transfer card is charged only 80 percent, Vilsack said. The “point of sale” incentives study will determine whether price matters in beneficiaries’ food selection, he said, noting it is “very research-based” and the results should be known at the end of this year.

“We may want to try it in states that have a higher rate of obesity [than Massachusetts], Kingston said.

Vilsack told Kingston that Holyoke had been chosen because it would be easy to monitor the pilot in that city, but that he would happy to work with the committee on other pilots.

(According to the Centers for Disease Control, 23 percent of people in Massachusetts were obese in 2010, one of the lower rates in the country, while 29.6 percent of people in Georgia were obese. Several southern states have obesity rates of more than 30 percent.)

Kingston’s interest is remarkable because some Republicans have called the changes in school meals to encourage healthier eating and proposals to restrict food stamp food choices an intrusion of the “nanny” state, but some conservatives have said that if the government is spending money increasing people’s food purchasing power it should not help them buy foods that make them unhealthy and ultimately cause higher government expenditures for health care.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio
Kaptur, a longtime member of the subcommittee who faces a tough primary challenge from Rep. Dennis Kucinch, D-Ohio, in a merged district, told Vilsack USDA should do more to connect local farmers with urban consumers. She noted that USDA is trying to increase the amount of SNAP benefits redeemed at farmers’ markets, but that 65 percent of local food sales are vegetables, fruits and nuts.

Kaptur said “it seems odd for someone who grew up in the civil rights era that production agriculture is doing well” while people on food stamps take their benefits to the store where “they sell you Doritos and cigarettes at 25 cents a piece.”

She added, “There is a real racial component to us. The new reality is that we have large numbers of unhealthy and resource-strapped people. It seems like a prejudice. I represent both rural and urban and it shouldn’t be this tough in urban areas. “

“Hollow calories,” Kaptur said, “are causing hospitals to deal with hypertension and diabetes” while the type of food offered in many schools is “disgusting.”

Vilsack said USDA is “working across the board to create local and regional food systems” and is connecting local producers with institutions that can buy their products.

Kaptur also wanted to know if USDA is trying to encourage “future farmers” in areas classified as food deserts and said, “we should be handing out seeds at food banks.”

Vilsack said that USDA has given a research grant to Cleveland to develop a community garden, but that USDA’s ability to use rural development money in urban areas is limited by the definitions of “rural” in that program. Other areas of urban agriculture, Vilsack noted, are aquaculture and the conversion of buildings in Detroit and Cleveland for hydroponics.

Kaptur asked Vilsack if he would help her form a task with mayors, county executives and the Cleveland Foundation “to figure out how to produce food close to nutrient-deficient populations in communities that have to transition to a new economic age.”

Vilsack replied that he believes USDA has done a lot of work in this area, but that he would be glad to accept her offer to meet with mayors and county executives in Ohio.

Kaptur also told Vilsack, “You and the first lady are leading us to a much better and healthier America.”