Learning From the Past to Build a Better Future

Learning From the Past to Build a Better Future
Jennifer Roe

Farm to Freezer could have written the following passage from A Place at the Table, a newly released book and documentary that examines the problem of hunger and food insecurity in America while also providing possible solutions.
“The approach was: since we have an agricultural surplus and it is imperative to help farmers get by, we might as well make sure that surplus gets to the families who are hungry. It was the perfect combination of good intentions and good sense, or empathy  and economics.”

IMG_3166(1)While this passage from Chapter 6 entitled, “Food Stamps: Once We Had It Right”, sums up Farm to Freezer’s social mission, it actually describes the very first food assistance program in the late 1930s, known as the Food Stamp Program (FSP).  It lasted four years and it would be another 18 years before  President John F. Kennedy approved another Food Stamp Program pilot.  The food stamp program finally became permanent in 1964.

The Chapter’s authors, Gus Schumacher and Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave , and Daniel Bowman, SNAP Gardens explain, “We have basically created a kind of secondary food system for the poor…50 million Americans rely on charitable food programs to meet some part of their basic food needs.” They lament how “at one point in time, we had the Food Stamp Program right.”  So now we have to ask ourselves, what were the original objectives of the government food assistance programs?  Where are these programs now? If we had it right, how can we return to a successful program?

Today, a record number of American individuals and families rely on national food assistance programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formally known as food stamps).  The book refers to the USDA’s FY 2012 Annual Report that documents SNAP participation was at an all-time high that year, averaging 46.6 million people per month.  Along with SNAP, other Federal food assistance programs include: the National School Lunch program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).

The earliest Food Stamp program was initiated with the primary goal to support farmers and to make nutrient-rich food affordable for the poor by giving hungry families and individuals access to surplus produce.  The program has been restructured and redefined throughout the years, causing it to move away from its original intent and failing to meet its mission.

As participation in programs such as SNAP increase, so do obesity rates.  A large part of the problem is due to the fact that these stamps are not limited to perishables like fresh fruit and vegetables so people can buy just about any food.  Participants have shifted their purchasing habits towards low-nutrient snack foods and sugar-heavy soft drinks, products that were once considered luxuries.  They have become the new basic foods because they are cheaper compared to good, nutritious foods.  Additionally, the majority of the benefits no longer end up in the hands of farmers as they were intended to however, they benefit the major food processing and distribution corporations.

In recent years, there have been a number of organizations striving to make healthier, local, fresh food more accessible to at-risk communities with high percentages of SNAP and WIC participants.  In 1987, the Takoma Park’s Crossroads Farmers Market piloted “Double Dollars”, where private funding leverages the purchasing power of low-income households who use federal nutrition assistance. A Double Dollars coupon makes food assistance vouchers worth twice its value when used at local farmers markets, providing an incentive for participants to buy fresh, local and healthier food.

Today, about 500 markets across the country replicate this model under names such as Fresh Checks, Baltimore Bucks, Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupons, and the Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks. “More than 87% of low-income shoppers felt that having Baltimore Bucks was an important factor in choosing to buy at the farmer’s market”, according to a recent survey conducted by Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future. The survey also revealed that 81% of shoppers said that their fruit and vegetable consumption increased because they shopped at the farmers’  market. Unfortunately, so far only five of Montgomery County’s 22 farmers markets offer a form of this successful initiative.

Farm to Freezer’s mission is directly in line with the goals of the 1930s Food Stamp Program, as it aims to improve at-risk families and individuals access to nutritious, fresh, local food by redirecting farmers’ surplus to the hungry.  The number of citizens relying on these programs is growing, from a USDA-estimated 29 million monthly SNAP participation in 2008 to 46.6 million in 2012. With these growing numbers, it is important to get it right.  New ideas like Double Value coupons and programs such as Farm to Freezer recognize the need and create a new opportunities that fit in today’s economy.  And sometimes, the best new ideas are old.

You can rent the movie ‘A Place at the Table’ on iTunes or purchase A Place at the Table “Participant Guide” book edited by Peter Pringle (2013).

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