Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talks at Rural Health Journalism Workshop about boosting federal nutrition programs

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By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The Department of Agriculture is making sure children have enough to eat this summer, updating temporary food-assistance programs and evaluating federal formulas for food assistance, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a rural health journalism workshop Wednesday.

Vilsack said he hopes the one-year Summer Food Service Program, also called the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer Program, put in place because of the pandemic, will be continued permanently through the Biden administration’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan pending in Congress.

“We know these nutrition programs do make a difference in terms of health and educational outcomes,” said the former Iowa governor in his second stint as secretary. “And so it’s important for us to look at ways in which we can fill the gap between the 180 days of the school year and the summer months.”

$45 billion in the plan would extend what is called community eligibility, which determines whether a school district is qualified for free and reduced lunch, Vilsack said. During the pandemic, all schools have had access to free meals.

He said that for the first time in 45 years, USDA is looking at the calculations used to determine benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, because “There are significant gaps and barriers to accessing full and complete food security.”

Kentucky had 603,105 people enrolled in SNAP, or 13.5% of the state’s population, in May, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy SNAP data tracker.

A USDA study issued the same day, Barriers that Constrain the Adequacy of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Allotments, found that nearly nine out of 10 SNAP participants face barriers to providing their households a healthy diet for a full month.

The most common barrier, faced by 61% of households, was the cost of heathy food. Other barriers included a lack of time to prepare meals made from scratch (30%), the need for transportation to the grocery (19%) and no storage for fresh or cooked foods (14%), a USDA press release said.

Vilsack also spoke to the importance of continuing things that worked during the pandemic, such as the food-box program, encouraging producers to donate food, and ensuring that food banks have appropriate infrastructure to store their goods. USDA recently committed $1 billion toward this effort.

Vilsack noted at the workshop, sponsored by the Association of Health Care Journalists, that Congress will make the decisions on such changes ad the “onus is on us” to make the case for them.

“We know from studies that SNAP does reduce poverty. We know that it does improve health outcomes. We know that it reduces obesity rates among children of low income families. We know that it provides a better opportunity for these youngsters to be better learners, which results in higher graduation rates,” he said. “So I think there’s a return on investment that we need to remind Congress about so that as they look at the additional costs associated with these nutrition assistance programs, they understand we’re getting significant benefit in reduced healthcare costs over time, in better educational outcomes and better employment opportunities for these youngsters.” He added that SNAP benefits farmers and local rural economies.

Vilsack also hit on several other topics at the workshop, including issues around climate change, rural hospitals, and meat industry safety standards.

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