DES MOINES, Iowa, Oct. 16, 2017 –  Five former U.S. agriculture secretaries gathered to discuss a wide range of hunger-related issues today during the Iowa Hunger Summit, part of the World Food Prize events here this week.

It’s a fitting topic, given that Monday, Oct. 16, is World Food Day and in Iowa, it’s Norman Borlaug World Food Day, noted Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation. Borlaug was an Iowa native who is widely known as the “father of the Green Revolution” for his work on improving wheat varieties, crop management, and, ultimately, food production.

“I can’t think of a more noble goal than striving to address hunger,” said Quinn.

But hunger is also a complex topic that’s not easily understood by lawmakers, doctors and others, several of the panelists emphasized. As millions go hungry or are undernourished across America, there is also a growing problem with obesity, which can lead to health and disease issues.

Ann Veneman, who served as USDA chief from 2001 through 2004, noted that adult obesity rates have climbed steadily from 30.5 percent in 1999-2000 to 39.8 percent in 2015-2016, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report. Children’s rates of obesity rose from 13.9 percent to 18 percent in that same period.

“If people aren’t putting the right food in their bodies,” taxpayers are paying later in terms of treating diseases like heart disease and diabetes, she said. “If the government is going to be paying for programs like Medicaid, we should be talking a lot more about nutrition and not just hunger.”

Veneman pointed to the importance of providing not only more calories to those most in need, but good, nutritious calories through USDA’s Women’s Infants and Children program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and school lunch and breakfast programs.

“Brain development in that first 1,000 days can make such a difference in a child’s overall development” which pays off later in a child’s ability to learn, explained Veneman.

Drawing on his experiences living and working in Lincoln, Nebraska – where people convened an effort to better understand poverty and hunger – Mike Johanns recommended a community- or county-based approach to understanding local hunger issues and developing solutions.

“I think there is an enormously strong connection between drug abuse and hunger issues, mental health and hunger issues, homelessness and hunger issues,” said Johanns, who served as ag secretary under President George W. Bush. “Delivering food is only a piece of the problem.”

Tom Vilsack, USDA secretary under President Barack Obama, asked his fellow panelists whether it was a good idea to restrict certain foods in USDA’s SNAP program.

Dan Glickman, ag secretary under Bill Clinton, contended that “for every complicated problem there is a simple and probably wrong solution.” He explained that the SNAP program was started to get calories into stomachs. 

“Over the years, we see a lot of people eating a lot of calorie-dense foods, often advertised on TV in glorious ways,” Glickman said. “This is a really tough problem because it comes down to what’s good for you and what’s not.”

Johanns, who also served as a U.S. senator from Nebraska, said every agriculture secretary has “grappled with trying to define the right food. Then it comes down to issues of freedom.”

He recalled a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting when a fellow senator tried to insert language in a funding measure so that a specific food item would not be banned from the SNAP program. “So, all of a sudden, we appropriators are trying to decide the best food items…with absolutely no science.”

Johanns recommended adding an educational component to federal feeding programs, rather than trying to restrict choices.

“I think we can demonstrate that, if you give people good information about what they can do with their diets, they will make good decisions about what is best for them and their families.”

Veneman said she couldn’t agree more about the need for education.

“But one of the things that’s happened is that people don’t know how to cook anymore,” she said.

None of the secretaries expected major policy changes in the next farm bill, but several expect the debate over whether “able-bodied” individuals should receive SNAP benefits to be more controversial in the future.

Ed Schafer, ag secretary under George W. Bush, said he first worked on this topic in the 1990s when, as North Dakota governor, he was asked by President Bill Clinton to serve on a welfare reform task form. He described how the task force identified three distinct groups receiving government aid:

  • Able-bodied people who can work, but need training, time, or perhaps even rides to work so they can be gainfully employed;
  • Those who had temporary problems with health or lifestyle and needed time to transition to work;
  • People with some type of physical or mental illness who will always need government assistance.

“That helped us shape the reform effort” and led to a work requirement for some SNAP recipients, Schafer said, but those guidelines were relaxed in the Obama administration. “The task is to find those who are capable and find those who are not.”

Vilsack emphasized that SNAP benefit calculations need to be updated.

Benefits are based on a thrifty food calculation, he said, “which suggests that people spend one and a half hours preparing food. As Secretary Veneman said, that’s simply not the case.”

Vilsack said that same calculation assumes that people consume 20 pounds of beans per week.

“Nobody eats 20 pounds of beans per week. It begs to be reviewed.”

Vilsack also called for better coordination between a state’s workforce development efforts and food assistance efforts. He noted that there were 10 pilot programs in the last farm bill that should be reviewed to better design future changes.

He also asked his fellow secretaries for a quick answer on whether the “farm” and the “nutrition” sections of the farm bill should be split apart. All gave a forceful “no” in response.

“There are roughly 55 (House) members that come from rural or predominantly rural districts and 380 who don’t. So, it’s simply a matter of politics. You can’t get either side to pass unless you keep the two together,” Glickman said.


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