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Federal Cuts Threaten Key Fresh Food Programs By ANGELA ROWEN

Friday August 20, 2004

The United States Department of Agriculture is proposing to cut funding for school gardens, farmers’ markets, and other programs that seek to expand low-income communities’ access to fresh fruits and vegetables and promote holistic nutrition as a way to prevent chronic disease. 

The cuts would come as a result of changes that the USDA wants to make in the way it allocates money from the agency’s Food Stamp Nutrition Education (FSNE) program, which seeks to improve the likelihood that food stamp recipients and applicants make healthy food choices. Since the FSNE was created in 1992, the amount of money approved for the program rose from $661,000 to $192 million in 2003. In recent years, as more attention has focused on obesity and its associated diseases, activists have succeeded in getting more of that money to go into farmers’ markets and outreach efforts that seek to change the eating habits of those who live in communities where a Big Mac and 40-ounce malt liquor are easier to come by than fresh produce. 

But the continued survival and growth of such programs might be undermined by the USDA’s proposal. Under the new policy, the USDA would no longer give money to groups doing outreach and education unless they target people who already receive or have applied for food stamps. The new rule would give priority to food-stamp recipients and applicants who are women with children. 

Projects likely to suffer include the Ecology Center’s Farm Fresh Choice program, which currently receives a yearly $30,000 grant to sell affordable organic produce in West and South Berkeley and increase nutrition awareness in low-income minority communities, which suffer disproportionately from diseases caused by dietary factors. The group’s “Five a Day” message, which urges eating five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, can be found on billboards, in cooking classes, and in brochures distributed at homeless shelters, food pantries and other social service agencies. 

Other programs targeting underserved communities that are likely to feel the squeeze are the Mandela Street Market in West Oakland and the Millsmont Farmer’s Market on Seminary Avenue in East Oakland, both of which get federal support. School districts will also suffer under the proposed rule change. In Berkeley, several of the district’s 16 school gardens receive money from the USDA. 

Farm Fresh Choice founder Joy Moore said the West and South Berkeley markets probably would never have gotten off the ground had the proposed new policy been in effect four years ago.  

“We are being successful, we are starting to change people’s habits, but the federal government wants to continue with the old ways,” Moore said. “And that’s because this is not just about getting people to eat healthy so we can deal with health care on the front end rather than on the back end, which is more expensive. It’s also about promoting local and sustainable agriculture, which relies more on human power than gasoline and which would conserve our energy resources. The work we are doing is really part of the larger environmental movement.” 

On its website, the USDA says its decision to focus on mothers with children stems from a growing concern that nutrition education is not reaching food stamp recipients, which total 19 million nationwide in an average month. It cites a report released this year by the Office of Management and Budget, which concluded that the food stamp nutrition education program “is better designed to reduce hunger and malnutrition related to inadequate income, than to achieve further incremental improvements in the dietary status of low-income people.” The USDA says it hopes that by focusing on women heads of households, who make most of the decisions regarding food, it will have more of an impact on low-income people. 

Jessica Bartholow is director of education, advocacy and outreach at the Alameda County Community Food Bank, which has received $40,000 from the USDA in over the past two years. She said the USDA’s proposed change contradicts the main goal of outreach. “The USDA’s own data show that only half of those eligible to receive food stamps actually participate in the program, so there is need to educate people about the program,” Bartholow said. “In the past year, we have educated 30,000 families about the food stamp program. We couldn’t have done that without (USDA) funding.” 

But what’s even more necessary, Bartholow says, is the work the Food Bank is doing in soup kitchens, shelters, senior centers and schools, where it holds cooking demonstrations and holds classes on nutrition, often focusing on how to adjust diet to deal with specific diseases, like diabetes and hypertension.  

The website says funds may go into nutrition education of other populations, such as seniors and single adults, “as resources allow,” and details circumstances where waivers may be granted to allow money to go into programs that target groups outside of the priority population of women with children. For example, the new guidelines would require schools seeking FSNE money to show that the majority of its students qualify for free lunch. 

Bartholow said this requirement would effectively exclude most schools from getting USDA funding, and said other such restrictions would significantly reduce the $80,000 per year that the state receives from the USDA. “What’s really disturbing is that all of these cuts are being done at an administrative level,” she said. “This should be decided upon by Congress, so that the public can debate it.” 

In early August, Bartholow and more than 1,000 other community-based organizations, church leaders, and public health offices sent letters to the USDA requesting that they reconsider implementing the new policy. And 24 representatives from California’s Congressional Delegation signed a letter circulated by Congressman Joe Baca (D-CA) opposing the new guidelines. 

The USDA plans to submit a final draft by the fall of 2004, and to phase in the new guidelines gradually, beginning in 2006.