Biden administration focuses on short-term food relief, long-term programs
The Biden administration’s first priority is to implement food assistance to address COVID-19 hunger problems, but officials are also examining whether programs provide enough benefits for low-income people to be able to afford a healthy diet, Stacy Dean, the Agriculture deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said today.
Speaking to the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, Dean, who was previously at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said that when she joined the administration she was immediately struck by the administration’s sense of “deep urgency for action” to address the coronavirus pandemic.
The same day that the Senate passed the American Rescue Plan, which includes several increases in nutrition programs, the White House “pressed” her on implementation plans for the provisions, she said.
“People are living on the edge,” she said. “We have a huge problem; it is not equally borne.”
Dean described her goals as falling into four buckets:
▪ Immediate relief from previous coronavirus aid packages;
▪ New authorities under the American Rescue Plan;
▪ Long-term, post-COVID food relief programs with an eye toward racial justice; and
▪ Building a better Food, Nutrition, Consumer Services (FNCS) division at USDA.
On the Pandemic-EBT program, which provides purchasing power to families with children who are not receiving their usual school meals, Dean said that 25 states have approved plans and 15 states have plans under review. Dean urged advocates to lobby the state governments that have not yet submitted applications for P-EBT.
Dean noted the Food and Nutrition Service Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion is examining USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, which is used to determine what it costs to eat a healthy diet. In addition to the work of researchers and economists, Dean said, USDA wants to talk to doctors and retailers about the content and cost of a healthy diet.
“The Thrifty Food Plan is just too thrifty,” Dean said. “It is not enough to buy a healthy diet, particularly as we learn more about a healthy diet.” An increase in the Thrifty Food Plan should lead to an increase in SNAP benefits, she said.
About one-third of SNAP households receive the maximum SNAP benefit, which means that they did not get any increase in benefits during the pandemic, she said.
“It is a distorted policy,” she said. “It is problematic design. We are looking at every possible avenue to make an adjustment.”
On the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Dean said the current level of participation – slightly more than half of eligible participants – is “unacceptable” and that the administration is looking at ways to strengthen WIC and increase participation.
She praised the decision by the Health and Human Services Department to rescind the Trump administration’s public charge rule, which some advocates have said has led to a decline in WIC participation because immigrants feared participation would interfere with their legal status.
“Anyone going hungry is unacceptable, but my blood really boils when I think about an infant or a toddler,” she said.
While Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has said that she hopes to bring up reauthorization of child nutrition programs soon, Dean said her first priority in that area is a “comprehensive set of policies” about school meals that will support school reopenings while still addressing the schools’ difficulties in providing both meals in school and for children who are not in the classroom.
Anti-hunger advocates are campaigning for permanent, universal free school meals, but Dean did not take a position on that issue.
Dean praised the FNCS staff for its performance during the past year but pointed out that FNCS is “white-led and has a white power structure.” The Biden administration is determined to increase racial diversity within the agency and also to be more diverse in who it consults on its programs, she said.
Dean noted that FNCS is “down several hundred” employees and will be “looking for diversity, passion and a commitment to ending hunger.” She urged the advocates attending the online conference to apply.
Asked how she would judge success in 2024, Dean said she views hunger as “a downstream problem” and that “a fairer, more progressive economy” would mean fewer hungry people and allow USDA to focus on emergency needs and nutritional quality.
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