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The Politics of the Plate

When people went to the polls last week, perhaps they didn’t realize they were also voting on what appears on many American dinner tables. The new Republican majority in the House may have a fast and devastating impact on hunger in America. “It’s not a done deal yet, but budget cuts for food assistance programs are in the ether,” says Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In her official capacity, she tries to put a light gloss on her worry that the new, post-election conservative fever in Congress will make things even grimmer for the millions of hungry Americans who depend on WIC and SNAP to get the food and nutritional support they need, and also put a strain on assistance for the rural farmers who grow the food we eat. (WIC is the USDA food assistance program that supports Women, Infants and Children, and SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps.)

Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill

“To the extent that anybody has any energy left after last Tuesday’s election, this is a good time to write letters, lobby, do whatever you can to support programs that support food and farming assistance,” she said. She also told the audience to be alert for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill, the major federal legislation that determines school food policy and resources. It’s reauthorized only once every five years, and it’s currently being debated in Congress. “Nothing is more important than that” bill, Merrigan said.

Speaking last week at the fifth annual Friedman School Symposium at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Merrigan was frank. She explained that while need is rising in America, it’s likely that the dollar amounts available for all hunger and nutrition programs, including WIC and SNAP, will decline in the next federal budget cycle. “In 2006, SNAP programs had a budget of $34.4 billion and served 26.7 million Americans. In 2010 the budget increased to $68.7 billion and served 40.5 people,” says Merrigan. She understands the claim in a budgetary cycle that food aid “eats up resources” and that there is pressure to roll back the line item for WIC and SNAP to 2008 levels, which she explained, really means “2006 levels since we have been in a Continuing Resolution for much of the last several years. Either the new congress has to pass an appropriation or we are going back to 2006 levels of support.”

Merrigan was quick to explain that she agrees with the president and Congress that “we need to be leaner in delivering our programs, but our priorities are to continue to help people who are needy and to provide a safety net for farmers.” She also pointed out that actual demand for nutrition support service is underestimated, since “among other groups, less than 35 percent of eligible elderly take advantage of the SNAP programs.” Given that these programs are currently supported by discretionary dollars, she expects that the USDA will have to “lop off” $1.4 billion in WIC programs. “We are already in a situation where we will have to cut FY2012 budget by 5 percent. The magnitude of the budget problem we have to face is heart-stopping,” Merrigan said.

Mobile grocery stores’ initiative

Merrigan’s other concern is revitalizing the local farming system. “Food access is survival for farming communities, and right now the average age of farmers in the U.S. is 58,” she said. “Farming families are having difficulty convincing their children to come home and farm after college. The next generation asks, ‘Where is the health care? Where are there good schools for their kids in these communities?’ Right now, farming as a profession represents only 11 percent of the U.S. population.”

Merrigan believes that the root cause of obesity and hunger in this country stems from the same issue: access to good food. She said, “More than 23 million Americans live in food deserts where they are more than a reasonable distance from grocery stores.” One of her initiatives is to create a system of mobile grocery stores that can dive on a circuit and deliver food to areas lacking brick and mortar grocery stores. “USDA is very focused on providing incentives for people to eat better, and [is] very concerned by the fact that the average American consumes 35 percent of their calories from fat and sugar. But beyond the good food/bad food discussion, our primary focus right now is on the people who have no food at all.”

Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and founder of She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.

Photo: Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture.

Credit: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University; all images copyright 2010 Trustees of Tufts College

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and  the founder and CEO of Let's Talk About Food, an organization that engages the public around food issues in our world. Kasdon was the food editor for Stuff magazine and the contributing editor for food for the Boston Phoenix.  Winner of the MFK Fisher Award for Culinary Excellence, she has  written for Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, among others.