The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


Concannon: Food stamp food restrictions unlikely

The Obama administration does not believe that the government should determine the types of food people buy with food stamps, but will consider experiments and pilot projects to encourage healthier eating, a key Agriculture Department official said today in response to intense questioning from Republican members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

Asked by Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., whether the rules on food purchases under food stamps “should be more prescriptive,” Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Consumer and Nutrition Services Kevin Concannon said, “I personally don’t think so.”

Concannon said that making decisions about what could and could not be purchased at a grocery store would be difficult. There could be agreement on fewer potato chips, he said, but noted Congress has already told him he cannot limit potatoes in the school lunch program.
Kevin Concannon

Kevin Concannon
“As Americans we eat too much processed food,” he said, adding that “to the extent we can,” USDA encourages the eating of basic, healthy foods. If USDA were to make decisions among what foods beneficiaries of food stamps — now formally known as the supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP — “imagine the lobbying if we say pancake mix is out and ice cream is in,” he said.

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston, R-Ga., also told Concannon that he believes universal product codes could be used to track what food stamp beneficiaries are buying. Citing the example of an Oregon woman who bought a Frappucino and pumpkin bread at a Starbucks within a grocery store, Kingston said he did not believe such food is nutritious and that such purchases “hurt the program.”

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.

Rep. Jack Kingston
Kingston said his father was raised “in Flatbush, Brooklyn” and that he would never have bought coffee at Starbucks prices.

“It is a total luxury,” Kingston said. “When people are struggling should we be buying Frappucino for other people?,” he asked.

Concannon said, “I am not going to defend purchases of Frappucino. Definitely not.” (USDA officials have previously said that the coffee drink could be purchased with food stamps only because it was a cold beverage.)

But Concannon also noted that the purchases with food stamps can only be made at Starbucks if it is within the grocery store, not at an independent location.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.

Rep. Sam Farr
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Sam Farr, D-Calif., noted that the Oregon woman was taken to Starbucks by a reporter and that he considered the situation “a set up.”

But Farr also said he believes Americans must eat healthier food. Noting that he himself has had trouble dieting because “it’s difficult to change habits,” Farr said, “Do we scare the hell out of people — tell people in a county how many people are going to die of diabetes?”

Kingston also told Concannon he does not consider a pilot project in Massachusetts under which food stamp beneficiaries can buy fruits and vegetables cheaper to be “applicable to the entire nation” — a point he also made to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week.

Kingston brought up USDA’s rejection of a proposal from New York City Michael Bloomberg to restrict food stamp purchases to healthier foods. Concannon said that the New York proposal “was not adequately controlled,” but that USDA has not given up on doing some kind of experiment or pilot project in New York.

“We are open to consideration of experiments that are rigorously controlled,” Concannon said.

In an interview Monday, Concannon also said that he does not believe the 2012 farm bill should try to limit the foods that SNAP beneficiaries buy because the Massachusetts pilot project, which is intended to determine whether lower prices will result in the purchase of healthier foods, only started last November and will not be completed until the end of 2013.

In the interview, Concannon also noted that Vilsack has notified appropriators that USDA is moving $400 million from the SNAP reserve account to the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC because there is not enough money in that program to handle all applications.

Concannon said in the interview that the percentage of infants who qualify for WIC has increased from 51 to 53 percent, while food costs have risen.

In a letter to the appropriators, Vilsack noted that the WIC appropriation is $6.6 billion, but that several states have reported anticipated shortfalls: California ($77 million), Georgia ($30 million), New York ($24 million), Florida ($15 million), New Jersey ($13 million), and Texas ($12 million).

Concannon said that states were cutting back hours for taking WIC applications and telling USDA officials that they intended to put expectant mothers on waiting lists.

Congress does not need to act on the secretary’s decision to move the money from one account or another but under the fiscal year 2012 Agriculture appropriations bill, Vilsack was required to notify them of the decision.

In a speech Monday to an anti-hunger conference sponsored by the Food Research & Action Center, Feeding America and other groups, Concannon also said that the Obama administration will announce this spring that it will use its authority under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act to issue new standards for sales of food in school vending machines and other venues outside the cafeteria line.

This rule will determine “the whole food environment” at schools, Concannon said, but will not — contrary to rumor — ban cupcakes for birthday parties or bake sales.