Friday, May 30, 2008

Fast Food Tax Breaks Conflict with City Health Initiatives

A 1976 New York City tax incentive program, designed to create jobs and support home-grown businesses amid the threat of suburban exodus, is now funneling funds from the nearly $410 million-a-year program to fast food restaurants and chain retailers. In a recent report of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, Manhattan borough President Scott Stringer argued that the subsidies are inconsistent with Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed health initiatives, and offer benefits to “businesses that simply do not deserve tax payer support.” Administered by the city’s Industrial and Commercial Incentive Program, the program limits some subsidies to businesses above 96th street, which may attract an uneven number of fast food and gas retailers to low-income areas with higher rates of diabetes, obesity and asthma. “If there was ever a picture of self-defeating government policy, this is it,” said Stringer, who has urged state legislators to reform the program when it expires in June. Last year, the budget of the incentive program exceeded spending on New York City Housing Authorities by nearly $20 million.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Economic Crisis Fuels Twin Threats of Hunger and Obesity

With economic downturn comes hunger, and with hunger comes obesity. Though this equation seems to counter the traditional logic of dieting, for families trying to survive on food stamps, buying low-cost high calorie-food is often the only solution for making limited allotments last into the second or third week of the month, prompting a cycle of serious weight gain. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that women in poverty were 50% more likely to be obese than women of higher economic status, while a 2006 University of Pennsylvania study found that poor 15 to 17 year olds were also 50% more likely to be overweight or obese than children from higher-income families. Derek Felton, a Philadelphia anti-hunger advocate who was raised in poverty, describes the cycle of hunger and weight gain that accompanies inadequate benefits levels: “I was the oldest of seven, with a lifetime of no breakfasts to eat. When we had the chance to eat, we ate white bread to feel full.” Tianna Gaines, a mother of three suffering from obesity, makes up for empty shelves at the end of the month by overeating when her benefits arrive. “You go without eating and then gorge,” she says. “Then you go to sleep with a full stomach. That’s how the weight picks up.” On the heels of these studies come reports that childhood obesity rates are leveling, though the health of low-income children in the wake of skyrocketing food prices remains to be seen. The newly-passed farm bill may provide some relief for food stamp recipients by indexing benefits to better account for inflation and raising the minimum standard deduction for calculating benefits levels. Though these measures may help families stretch their food stamp benefits, the data on obesity levels among low-income Americans points to a need to widen the scope of obesity prevention initiatives, to include an acknowledgement of the ways in which economic status forces many Americans to eat food that they know to be harmful. In order for obesity rates to undergo a truly significant change, we will need to further address not only behavioral causes of this disease, but also the underlying economic factors that make low-income Americans more susceptible to excessive weight gain.

Friday, May 23, 2008

What's At Stake

The future of the farm bill remains uncertain.

Here’s the good news: Yesterday the House
again approved the farm bill by 306 to 110 and the Senate quickly voted to support the bill by a majority of 82 to 13. Both of these votes were sufficient to override President Bush’s veto (Wednesday).

The problem is that this vote was to override Bush’s veto on the “original” farm bill – which suffered from an administrative glitch that failed to include a 34-page section on foreign aid, which accounts for only $200 million, or less than one percent, of farm bill spending.

Despite yesterday’s victory, therefore, some doubt the constitutionality of this vote and Senate will again have to vote on the bill. The question is: Will they vote on the bill in its entirety or only on the section that was previously omitted? Either way, Bush will also have another opportunity to veto the “new” bill after the Senate votes.

In the midst of this political squabbling, let us not forget that
66% of the funds allocated for the farm bill will provide additional funding to food stamps and other essential nutritional assistance programs that provide low-income Americans with the support they desperately need in these difficult economic times.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Congress Set to Re-Play Veto Override

Yesterday May 21, seemed to be a day of uncharacteristic swiftness for the nascent farm bill. As expected, President Bush vetoed the bill and the House responded with an override vote of 316 to 108, moving the bill one step closer to a final override vote in the Senate before the holiday recess.

However, an administrative blunder rendered both the veto and the vote moot and insured that the passage of the farm bill will be sluggish as were farm bill deliberations. The error concerned a 34-page section of the bill addressing foreign aid, which was omitted from the copy of the bill submitted to the President and subsequently vetoed.

The House must now approve the corrected farm bill, which it is expected to do today, and submit the bill for approval by the Senate before issuing it for another Presidential veto and a subsequent override by both houses. Though such errors have previously been rectified through mutual agreement of the President and lawmakers, thus circumventing this kind of legislative backtracking, House Republican leaders have chosen to enforce by-the-book standards in order to emphasize the mistake by Democratic leadership.

Meanwhile, food pantries are forced to ration supplies and families across the city are struggling to stretch their Food Stamp benefits under the insufficient provisions of the 2002 farm bill.

The New York City Coalition Against Hunger and more than 1,000 national, state and local organizations signed letters demanding that Members of Congress override President Bush’s veto of the Farm Bill (H.R. 2419).

Contact your representatives today to urge them to support the Farm Bill and to vote to override the veto of the 2008 Farm Bill Conference Report.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Hunger and Abundance

There are 64 billionaires in New York City and yet 1 in 5 children lives in a food-insecure household.

The recent economic crisis has further worsened the problem of hunger in the “land of plenty.”

“Downturn leaves food pantries bare” proclaimed a recent headline in Am-NY. The article highlighted the increased need and decreased supplies in food pantries throughout New York at the same time as state and local budgets cut funds to these programs.

As Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, explained, for food pantries: “It’s gone from bad to worse to worser.” Berg also stated that, as a result of the current situation, “[p]eople are suffering more.”

On the other hand, despite the increased need for food pantries and soup kitchens, the New York Times recently found that Americans waste an estimated 27 percent of the food available for consumption. This amounts to about a pound of food per American per day.

“We’re not talking about table scraps,” said Berg, explaining the extent of wasted food in the United States. “We’re talking about a pan of lasagna that was never served.”

Monday, May 19, 2008

Rising Food Costs Pose Increased Threat to Seniors, Students

Vulnerable populations, including low-income children and seniors, are the hardest hit by economic crisis.

Many seniors have recently found that Social Security is no longer enough to cover their food expenses. “It’s a damn shame,” said Mary Hood, 89, who relies on Haber House Senior Center in Coney Island for many of her meals. “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer…Sometimes I run out of money before the end of the month.” Conditions are similar for Clara Stock, 82, who receives $1,100 in social security a month, which she uses to pay rent, utilities, and $200 in medication through Medicare Part D. “I just want to tell the truth about what is going on,” said Stock. “The most I eat is here at Haber House. And only what I need very, very much, do I buy.” This frustration is compounded by recent strains on emergency food programs, which have forced many programs to scale back the number of meals they serve. Local chapters of Meals on Wheels, a free food delivery service for seniors, have been hit hard by both rising gas costs and food prices, forcing four out of ten local chapters to relegate new customers to waiting lists.

Rising food costs have also threatened the quality of school nutrition programs, as the cost of milk and eggs has outpaced even the overall rate of food inflation. For large school districts an increase of several cents on staple items is anything but trivial. "For every penny on a carton of milk, it costs me $30,000 a year," said Lynnelle Grumbles, food service director at Visalia Unified School District in central California. The federal government offers reimbursement for school meals based on conformity to nutrition guidelines and the income of students within the district. For students whose families earn less than $27,000, thus qualifying for free meals, the government reimbursement rate is $2.47 cents. But many school districts are reporting they are now losing money by serving free meals that comply with government standards. “The declining federal adjustment in school nutrition programs has made it harder and harder for schools to provide healthy and nutritious meals that children want to eat," said California Representative George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

The House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee will meet in July to discuss adjustments to federal school lunch reimbursements for the upcoming school year.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

House Passes Farm Bill With Veto Override in Sight

Yesterday, May 14, 2008, the House of Representatives voted 318 to 106 to pass the farm bill (The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008). The bipartisan vote surpassed the 2/3 required to override a presidential veto, making it more likely that the bill, which the House has debated for seven months, will be passed into law. Several legislators from both sides of the floor voiced concern about the bill’s lack of extensive farm policy reforms. However, many other representatives, like House Agriculture Committee ranking Republican Bob Goodlatte noted that, “only 17% of the farm bill spending is devoted to farm bill programs, while nearly 70% goes to the nutrition title alone.”

The mounting need for expanded food stamp access and emergency food funding helped fuel compromise on the bill, which will provide an additional $10.4 billion in funding for nutrition programs over the next ten years out of a total budget of $289 billion. As Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders stated, “This legislation is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. I also am pleased that this bill begins to address the alarming needs of local food shelves and that my colleagues included important provisions to give access to and education on fresh, healthy produce to school children.” The Senate is expected to pass the bill with a similarly strong margin as early as today, and to reach the President as soon as May 20. If vetoed, Congress will attempt an override before the Memorial Day recess.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

AG Secretary Fumbles on Farm Bill Nutrition Title

As Congress rallies for bipartisan votes to pass the Farm Bill and, if so, override of a Presidential veto, the Bush administration continues to display a fundamental misunderstanding of the bill’s nutrition title and the inefficiency of nutrition provisions under the 2002 Farm Bill. The current bill would increase nutrition spending by $10.3 billion over 10 years, while increasing the standard income deduction for food stamp eligibility to more fully account for current inflation for the first time since 1996. The bill would also index benefits to inflation rates and raise the minimum monthly benefit from $10 to $14. Despite these desperately-needed reforms, in a May 9 press conference, Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer questioned whether increased food stamp access was intended to make the government “feel good about taking care of people,” asking, “in a time when we have a fairly decent sized percentage of people who are eligible for the food stamp program and are not participating…why would we expand eligibility to the program?” Schafer fails to note that food stamp enrollment has increased in response to the flailing economy, but that the federal government still needs to address the administrative barriers to access that have prevented eligible families and individuals from receiving benefits. A successful veto could result in a two-year extension of the 2002 Farm Bill, which would accelerate the current food crisis and leave millions of Americans with insufficient benefits. It is extremely troubling that, as the food costs soar and the gap between rich and poor Americans increases daily, Schafer is asking “do we really have a problem here?”

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Executive Director Berg Calls on City to Increase Jobs and Wages, Not Pilot Programs

Testifying before a joint hearing of the New York City Council Committees on Civil Rights and Consumer Affairs, NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg exhorted city officials to take responsibility for combating rising hunger rates by committing to large-scale anti-poverty initiatives, citing the effectiveness of Great Society programs, which cut poverty rates in half in the 1960s and 1970s. Berg noted that poverty rates have risen during Mayor Bloomberg’s administration despite his avowed commitment to ending poverty, and in response to the implementation of small-scale anti-poverty pilot programs across the city, which have placed the onus for economic change upon poor individuals. “We cannot dramatically reduce poverty without significant new expenditures. Trying to reduce poverty without increasing the money available to low-income families is like trying to reduce drought without increasing the availability of water” said Berg, who also noted that, while poverty has increased, so too have tax breaks for large City Corporations. “The original investment in the City’s poverty initiative was only $150 per year million, which equals only $97 per person living in poverty. In contrast, Goldman Sachs is getting an average of $83,000 in government funding for each person who is going to work in the new headquarters,” he observed. To begin to combat these massive inequities, Berg called on city, state and federal officials to commit to enacting a living wage, increase EITC funding and make it easier for individuals and families to access government programs like food stamps, WIC, and subsidized health insurance.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Seven Months Later, Farm Bill Still Faces Veto

Following three extensions and seemingly interminable debate, the latest compromise farm bill has, like earlier versions, been met with the threat of Presidential veto. Congressional negotiators agreed to the $296 billion legislation, which increase funding for nutrition programs, including food stamps and emergency food programs, by $10 billion, while expanding an initiative to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables in school meals. President Bush has denounced the bill citing overspending and claiming that it offers no “real reform.” Farm subsidies have been a primary point of contention between the President and legislators, though subsidies account for only an estimated 16% of farm bill spending, according to House Agricultural Committee Chair Collin Peterson. NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg urged swift rectification of the most recent bill, noting that the absence of a new farm bill exacerbates the current hunger crisis. “The federal government has the resources and the scope to sole this problem,” said Berg. Congress may overturn a presidential veto with a two-thirds vote in each chamber of Congress. The July 2007 version of the bill passed by 231 votes in the House and 79 in the Senate; a two-thirds majority would require votes of 290 and 67, respectively.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Faced with Supermarket Shortages, City and Community Groups Fight Back

As food prices continue to rise, the steady loss of city supermarkets seems to add insult to injury for both consumers and supermarket employees. According to a study published by the New York City Department of City Planning on April 21, 3 million New Yorkers live in neighborhoods that require more accessible supermarkets, while many more could benefit from competing supermarkets where they live. Currently there are only 550 supermarkets over 10,000 square feet serving city residents, with fewer supermarkets per capita in low-income neighborhoods like Harlem, East New York and Jamaica. By implementing initiatives that have proven effective in Pennsylvania, the city plans to recoup the nearly $1 billion dollars in supermarket revenue that have been lost to the suburbs: a profit that the DOCP says will support 100 new city supermarkets. The study also noted the tendency of new supermarkets to attract complimentary businesses and to increase local property values, while improving the health of nearby residents. It’s a battle that Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union is fighting on another front, by working with community boards to ensure that commercial space is reserved for neighborhood supermarkets, even as many owners are forced to fold from rising rent costs. The UFCW and Bronx Community Board 9 are currently struggling to preserve a Key Foods on Bruckner Avenue and, with it, the jobs of 100 Key Foods employees. By applying combined local force on building owners Vornado Realty Trust, Enrique Vega, Chairman of Bronx Community Board 9, hopes to secure the supermarket’s centrality in his community, while combating exorbitant rent increases. Said Vega, “[Vornado] are in deep trouble if they think they are going to put another type of store there. They’ll need a variance or an agreement with the community board, and they are not going to get it. We want a supermarket.”

Friday, May 02, 2008

Court Mandates HRA Compliance with Food Stamp Processing Deadlines

Applying for food stamps in New York is what one frustrated applicant called “a full-time job;” one made more complicated by city inefficiency. Following reports of widespread processing delays, an April 16 U.S. District Court settlement requires immediate city compliance with legal time frames for benefits processing at non-cash assistance (NCA) food stamp offices, while mandating state and federal court oversight of city compliance for at least four years. State and federal law require food stamp applications to be processed within 30 days of the original application date, or five days for the most urgent applications. A report published at the beginning of the year found that the Human Resources Administration, which processes food stamp applications, was failing to comply with these deadlines in eight percent of cases. NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg compared the HRA’s irresponsibility in these cases to a fire department who refused to put out eight percent of local fires. Said Berg, “One in twelve people cannot get desperately needed help.” The HRA attributes non-compliance to recent changes in administrative procedure and an increase in the number of applicants who do not receive public assistance and thus rely directly on NCA offices for benefits processing. But despite increased reliance on NCA offices, the total caseload of food stamps recipients has not swelled to numbers worthy of the kind of delays experienced by applicants. Enrollment rates continue to hover around 1.1 million, while many qualifying New Yorkers do not currently receive benefits. As part of the settlement, food stamp centers will also be required to post signs informing applicants of their right to receive benefits within these legally established deadlines.