Friday, March 28, 2008

Courts to Weigh In on Calorie-Posting Measure

The City Health Department has postponed a measure that would require chain restaurants to post calorie data for their menu items. The law, which was scheduled to take effect on Monday, March 31, will be tabled until April 15 to allow city courts time to rule on the plan’s legality. The New York State Restaurant Association sued the city in an attempt to stop the law’s passage, marking the second time in which the NYSRA has responded to proposed calorie-listing laws with judicial action. A Manhattan District Court scrapped a similar law in June of last year after the Restaurant Association cited the Food and Drug Administration's 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which exempted restaurants from labeling requirements applied to food manufacturers. City Health Commissioner Thomas Freidan has called the latest lawsuit, “a sad commentary on some restaurants’ business practices.”

Monday, March 24, 2008

Weathering the “Perfect Storm”

The current emergency food crisis has resulted from what America’s Second Harvest President Vicki Escarra calls “a perfect storm of hardship.” A rapidly declining economy coupled with drastic cuts in federal commodities since the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill has bred a sharp increase in the price of food. The inflation of food costs has made it harder for emergency food programs to obtain the food they need, while simultaneously increasing the demand on kitchens and pantries from individuals and families who have also been hit hard by the current economic downturn. With the price of staples like milk and eggs rising as much as 25% in the last year, many middle-class consumers are having to choose between groceries and mortgages; fuel or food. Farm bill provisions for food stamps should serve as a primary defense against growing hunger rates, but the farm bill, which also promised emergency food providers a possible financial port in the storm, has been stalled again as President Bush has promised to veto any bill that would rely on an increase in taxes. Current farm bill provisions have been extended to April 18th, and Bush has called on Congress to extend the old farm bill for one year if a new bill has not been agreed upon by that date. Said Escarra, “A one year extension to the Farm Bill would be catastrophic for food banks and those they serve. The charitable sector does not have the capacity to meet dramatically increasing requests for food assistance. It is critical for Congress to show leadership by passing a Farm Bill, and for the President to show compassion by signing it.” The latest version of the farm bill allocates $250 million a year for state emergency food assistance, an increase from $140 million in the 2002 bill.

Questioning The Money Issue

In his March 23 response to the New York Times Magazine’s Money Issue, NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg questioned the wisdom of promoting philanthropy without thinking critically about the ways in which our society addresses social problems. The Money Issue profiled young philanthropists and celebrity donors, while emphasizing the ways in which business strategies and donors’ interests inform modern giving practices. In response, Berg contrasted American acceptance of unchecked wealth with the European strategy of channeling surplus wealth towards those social causes that society as a whole, rather than individual donors, deem most appropriate. As Berg observes, “such countries have stronger social safety nets and less homelessness and poverty than America.”

Friday, March 21, 2008

Michigan Misses the Mark with Push for Twice-Monthly Food Stamp Distribution

The Michigan Senate has approved a bill that could make it the first state to issue food stamps twice each month. Food stamp recipients generally receive disbursements at the beginning of each month and many run out of funds within two weeks. Michigan retailers report that 80% of their food stamp sales occur in the first ten days of the month. By disbursing food stamps twice a month, Michigan would ease retailers of the “first of the month crunch,” but would limit the spending freedom of food stamp recipients. “The problem isn’t food stamp’s recipients’ spending; the problem is that their benefits are too low,” said NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg. The national average food stamp benefit is equal to $21 a week, or $1 per person per meal. Like food stamp benefits, the future of the Michigan legislation is entangled in the fate of the farm bill, which could limit the ability of states to modify food stamp regulations.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Little Knowledge, A Lot of Calories

Following the city’s successful ban on the use of trans fats in restaurants, the Board of Health voted in January to require all city restaurant chains to prominently display calorie information for their menu items. The vote was met with strong opposition from the New York State Restaurant Association who is suing the Board of Health for violations of free speech. The Restaurant Association has a history of successfully blocking calorie-posting measures issued by the Board of Health and has stalled the implementation of such measures since the early 1990s. The most recent regulation would require chains to list calories as prominently as item prices by March 31, 2008. Board of Health official Susan Baronberg stated: “about three-quarters of consumers say they look at calorie information on packaged food in supermarkets, and about half say that nutrition information affects what they choose to buy.” The Board hopes that the practice of informed deliberation will lead customers to make healthier decisions at chain restaurants.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Proposed Budget Cuts for Overburdened Emergency Food Programs

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed city budget includes a $3.2 million cut in emergency food aid as part of a $235 million reduction in the funding for the Human Resources Administration. Bloomberg cites state and federal aid cutbacks as the impetus for these reductions. Councilman Bill de Blasio questioned the prudence of pulling funding from already-strained emergency food programs while the declining economy promises a future influx of more food pantry customers. The proposed cuts add insult to injury as the city continues to enforce finger-imaging requirements for food stamp applicants; a policy, which the state has allowed despite its recent waiver of finger-imaging requirements for working families, and which complicates the application process. Both the finger-imaging policy and the proposed cuts could further erode support networks for food insecure households.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Bringing Everyone to the Table: Increasing the Accessibility of Free School Meals

Only 29% of New York City public school students who are eligible for free lunch also receive free breakfast, compared to nearly 98% in Portland, Oregon and 93% in Newark. Participation has risen from 20.3% in the 2006-2007 school year, as NYCCAH has joined with city officials to increase awareness of this disparity. Research has repeatedly shown the positive effect of eating breakfast on school performance, and recent studies have shown that adolescents who eat breakfast regularly have a lower risk of obesity. Researchers stress the importance of teaching teens to eat breakfast, but for many, the accessibility of free school breakfast is marred by the stigma of accepting free meals, which affects the participation rates of free school meals programs nationwide. Said one San Francisco high school student, “kids who wear nice shoes and nice clothes don’t want to be associated with food that says ‘I’m not able to provide for myself.’” The Coalition has repeatedly stressed the importance of serving breakfast in the classroom so that participants do not have to be separated from their peers. Similar policies have been linked to rising participation rates in other urban school districts. This makes sense not only for students, but also for the city budget: “If only 70-percent of the children eligible for breakfast got them, that would bring 49-million-dollars more in federal funding to New York City because every single free and reduced priced breakfast is reimbursed by the federal government” said NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg.

Fight Over Funds Causes Farm Bill Deadlock

Congress has extended the farm bill deadline to April 18, allowing themselves more time to forestall President Bush’s threat of a veto. Though the $286 billion bill passed both houses of Congress, Bush has stated that he will not sign the current bill, as it relies on an increase in taxes to find its nutrition, crop and biofuels spending. Congress will spend the next two weeks trying to allocate funds for these spending increases, while drafting a baseline bill that would satisfy presidential demands. At stake in this compromise is the future level of funding for food stamps and the potential for an increase in individual food stamp benefits. Legislators from the House Agricultural Committee have stated that funds may be shifted in order to protect spending for nutrition programs, including food stamps. This is the second extension since the 2002 farm bill expired in September 2007. If a compromise is not reached by April 18, the President has asked congress to issue a one-year extension of the current bill.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Pantries and Kitchens Struggle to Serve as Rich Get Richer

As with many food pantries and soup kitchens across the city, the food program at St. Ann’s Church in the Bronx has experienced a dramatic increase in customers, and are stretching resources to meet the needs of over 500 people a week. As reported in NYCCAH’s 2007 Hunger Survey, over 88% of responding agencies in the Bronx reported feeding an increased number of customers in the last 12 months. As wages have been outpaced by inflation, more and more New Yorkers find themselves dependent on programs like St, Ann’s, who fail to receive the federal support to sustain their growing customer base. This influx comes at a time when wealthy New Yorkers are enjoying unprecedented prosperity. Said Coalition Executive Director Joel Berg, “when billionaires are able to dramatically increase their wealth because of massive federal tax cuts targeted to them, this drains revenues away from the government that could have otherwise been used to pay for programs that fight hunger.” In a city where the 64 wealthiest citizens have a greater combined wealth than the 1.7 million poorest, emergency feeding programs will continue to be stretched to their limits without immediate and direct federal intervention.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Consumer Pays Highest Price for Farm Penalties

Farmer Jack Hedin argues in a recent New York Times editorial that “consumers…will be dismayed to learn that the federal government works deliberately and forcefully to prevent the local food movement from expanding.” A vegetable farmer from Rushford Minnesota, Hedin was forced to pay federal fines and give up his federal subsidy after growing fruits and vegetables for a local natural food store on land that the government had allocated for corn. This federal backlash, Hedin argues, is an attempt to insulate produce giants in California, Florida and Texas from outside competition, leaving consumers either paying higher prices for lower-quality produce or stranded in produce “deserts” where they have little or no access to any fresh produce, as is increasingly the case in city neighborhoods.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Compromise Farm Bill Could Have Significant Effects on Hunger

Debate surrounding the reauthorization of the 2007 farm bill has drawn attention from hunger advocates to city planners, who acknowledge that much more than the livelihood of farmers and agricultural companies is bound up in this vote. For 25 million struggling families, the farm-bill reforms could launch the first increase in benefits since 1996, thus raising the average benefit above the current average of $1 per person per meal. The 2007 bill, which expires on March 15, has been subject to a central disagreement between congressional parties who have argued for increased funding, and the President, who has clearly stated that he will veto the bill if it requires a raise in taxes. All potential benefits for food stamp recipients rely on the ability of Congress and the President to reach a reasonable compromise.