U.S. Navy

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, seen in a 2006 Navy publicity photo, has been designated to head the Agriculture Department under the new president.

With the unpredictable President Trump in the White House, there’s uncertainty at every level regarding his administration’s approach to many issues, including food policy.

Even assuming Sonny Perdue, Trump’s choice to head the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is confirmed, questions will remain, since Trump has yet to name 17 more candidates for food policy-related positions. And then there’s the question of whether Perdue or someone else in the Trump orbit will call the shots on nutrition policy.

Food insecurity affects an estimated 1.37 million New Yorkers, and about 20 percent of people who rely on soup kitchens and food pantries here are working adults. “The high cost of living and food in New York City exacerbates the conditions around the country,” says Triada Stampas, vice president for research and public affairs at the non-profit Food Bank for New York City. “A lot of job growth since the recession has been in [lower paying] service sector jobs. And the money doesn’t go as far as it would somewhere else.”

Perdue’s record unclear

The Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, (SNAP, a.k.a. Food Stamps), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). These and other USDA programs help the food insecure, which the USDA defines as “limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

What does Perdue’s record—he was governor of Georgia from 2003-2011—suggest about his approach? From 2000-2002, an average of nearly 13 percent of Georgia households were food insecure, compared to just over 11 percent of all American households in 2002. Perdue’s governorship overlapped with the great recession, but by 2011, food insecurity in Georgia had reached 18.9 percent, a full three points higher than in America overall.

During Perdue’s tenure, “I think you will find generally the state was very restrictive with respect to safety net programs—[there was an effort to] limit dependency, and limit access,” notes Carolyn Bourdeaux, Director, Center for State and Local Finance and Associate Professor, Public Management and Policy at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. From 2007-2010 she served as Director of the Senate Budget and Evaluation Office.

But Perdue’s tight-fisted approach seems to have affected cash benefits (or “welfare”) more than food support: The number of adult households in Georgia receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) declined by 86 percent between 2003 and 2011. But SNAP participation in Georgia more than doubled between fiscal years 2004 and 2011. (New York City’s welfare and SNAP participation moved in similar directions.)

Perdue did create an anti-obesity program in his state. Aside from that, it’s hard to discern what his record as governor augers for federal food policy in the Trump administration.

The situation in New York

The New York State Department of Health’s Division of Nutrition oversees $1 billion in spending, comprising federal food programs as well as state initiatives such as the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP), which “provided $15.8 million in funding to NYC emergency food providers” in 2015-16.

“Ninety to 95 percent of the money spent on fighting hunger in New York City comes from the federal government,” especially SNAP, says Joel Berg, Executive Director of New York City-based non-profit Hunger Free America. SNAP provides about $3.2 billion in nutritional assistance to 1.7 million people in the city—approximately 20 percent of the population. Then there’s another estimated $75 million for emergency food programs, TANF, and food for seniors and children.

NYC’s budget for anti-hunger programs simply can’t compare: For instance, in financial year 2017, the city budgeted a total of $128 million for food security programs, which include SNAP administration, meal delivery to seniors, and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP). The latter is a major source of food for soup kitchens and food pantries; the financial year 2018 preliminary budget allocates it just over $8.2 million. (This constitutes a cut of almost $5 million since financial year 2017, and it comes at a time when 76 percent of local food pantries and soup kitchens need more food, according to the Food Bank for New York City.)

So changes at the federal level will likely have a serious effect here. Past budgets proposed by Congressional Republicans have included cuts to SNAP and its eventual restructuring from a program that provides benefits to all eligible applicants to one that awards block grants—meaning a set amount of money—to states. “They claim this is giving power to states, but this is a backdoor way of slashing budgets,” Berg explains. “The block grant money is overall much less than the amount currently distributed.” These changes would cost New York City an estimated $4.8 billion in SNAP benefits by 2026, according to Stampas.

Cuts in discretionary spending (funds allocated annually by Congress) and budget sequestration (the withholding of funds) are also possible, Berg says. These could slash the budget for WIC, which helps close to 440,000 New York state residents. In fiscal year 2013, sequestration led to $333 million in WIC cuts. One researcher estimated that sequestration denied WIC support to about 600,000 women and children nationwide.

The fight for food justice

Stampas—whose organization provides 62.5 million meals a year as well as services to more than 1,000 local food pantries, soup kitchens, and other organizations—says preserving SNAP is the top priority for local advocates.

“Should a proposal [to cut SNAP and turn it into block grants] get some traction in a federal government with alignment in the White House and both houses of Congress, it would be past the abilities of our state and local governments to replace support,” Stampas adds. “So priority number one at the federal level is [to ensure] that some of those proposals don’t find a comfortable path to adoption in this legislative session.”

Fortunately, “New York’s congressional delegation has been very supportive of efforts to strengthen the program.” In addition, New York “Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand is a member of the Senate Agricultural Committee; she is a strong champion of anti-hunger policy and programming.”

In the meantime, Food Bank For New York City urges New Yorkers to donate to anti-hunger organizations, advocate for those who need nutritional assistance—especially to congressional representatives and officials at City Hall—and volunteer.

But there are some possible local-level solutions. Food insecurity is a particular issue for New York City children, 19 percent of whom rely on soup kitchens and food pantries. New York City-based non-profit Community Food Advocates (and a group of more than 250 organizations and elected officials) think free school lunches for all public school students—which is currently available in multiple cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia—would be a very effective response to childhood hunger.

“NYC has the biggest public school system in the nation, with 1.1 million students, and 75 percent are eligible for free or reduced price lunch,” observes Liz Accles, Community Food Advocate’s executive director. In practice, reduced-price lunch means free lunch, since the city does not collect the fee. “But about one third, or 250,000, of those eligible children don’t participate; the poverty stigma associated with the program is too great. What this means is that children just sit out, and don’t eat.”

In addition, there are likely more students going hungry; “Many families above the cut-off [for eligibility, which is $37,000 a year for a family of three] are struggling significantly,” Accles points out.

Currently, free lunch for all students is available in stand-alone 6th-to-8th grade public middle schools, and while the mayor’s 2018 preliminary budget doesn’t provide for expansion, Accles remains hopeful. Since over 90 percent of the costs of the school food programs are covered by the federal government, Community Food Advocates estimates that universal free school lunch would cost the city a relatively inexpensive $20 million annually. Moreover, some of this money is already in the budget for the middle-school lunch program.

Properly publicized, “We think participation in the program would ultimately go up by an estimated 120,000 children every day, a 20 percent increase from where we are now,” she says. Accles also notes that unlike some nutrition support programs, students are eligible for school lunch regardless of their immigration status.

Unfortunately, the National School Lunch Program may also be vulnerable. Unlike some other mandatory spending programs, it is funded on an annual basis. Last year, the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved a bill that would turn the school meal programs into block grants in several states, while the Congressional Budget Office has proposed eliminating subsidies for meals served to children in households that are not eligible for free or reduced price meals, so the program’s future may be uncertain.

Expanding the universal free school lunch program to all public elementary schools would cost the city an extra $5 to $23 million, depending on the increase in the participation rate, according to the New York City Independent Budget Office. (The Department of Education is expected to spend close to $264 million on food for SchoolFood programs in financial year 2018.)

De Blasio administration officials said last fall that they were still considering whether to expand the lunch program.

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CityPlate, City Limits’ series on food policy, is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. City Limits is solely responsible for the content.