May 6, 2005

Prof Predicts Future of Food Policy

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Prof. Christine K. Ranney, applied economics and management, spoke yesterday evening at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs’ (CIPA) Spring 2005 Colloquium entitled “Broadening Horizons: The Changing Face of Public Policy in the New Millennium.” Ranney, a CIPA core faculty member, focused on the “U.S. Food Policy for Low-Income Households: Past, Present and Outlook for the Future.”

“U.S. [food] policy for low income households has sort of been my driving force for seeking my Ph.D, doing research for my Ph.D,” Ranney said. In her lecture, Ranney gave a general overview of the types of food assistance programs available in the U.S., and also highlighted important reforms and amendments that have been enacted with respect to these programs. She also spoke of how changes in the U.S. economy reflect the need for food assistance within the population.

Currently, there are five general categories of food assistance as defined by the federal government; these include Food Stamps; WIC, a food assistance program with a nutritional focus for women, infants, and children; the Nutritional School Lunch and Breakfast Program; and the Child/Adult Care Food Program, in which government subsidies provide food assistance to child and adult care centers.

Statistics indicate that one in five Americans is affected by at least one of these five food assistance programs, Ranney said.

“That’s 20 percent, not a small number at all,” she said. “You were touched by programs like the nutritional school lunch program when you were in the public school.” In addition, she added, at least 11 percent of the population currently utilizes food stamps.

Ranney gave a historical overview of the evolution of the food stamp and food assistance programs, which were first implemented by the U.S. government during the Great Depression of the 1930s. With regard to people in low-income households, the elderly and children, “there was a perception, especially during the Depression that these people ought to have enough to eat,” Ranney explained. In the early 30s, the government provided assistance to the huge number of unemployed individuals, most of whom did not have enough money to buy the surplus of food that was being produced. The form of assistance was through commodity distribution, in which the government purchased surplus foods from farmers and provided it at reduced or zero cost to the unemployed. In this way, the food assistance program also provides relief for farmers and those in the agriculture industry.

“I grew up in the Depression,” said Prof. Emeritus Jerome M. Ziegler, policy analysis and management.

“Food was distributed in churches, unions and distribution centers. There was plenty of cheese, oatmeal, peanut butter and day old bread, but no chicken,” he said.

The purchasing of commodities by the government also raised the question of “are we here to help agriculture or are we here to help people,” Ranney said, “and the debate has always been with us.”

Ranney also explained that retailers generally are unhappy when the government implements this type of assistance, simply because individuals will not purchase food and supplies from their stores, but would instead go to distribution centers.

World War II signified a shift in the food assistance program available in the U.S. During the war, surplus commodities were used to feed troops abroad, not the population at home. Economic resources used to purchase surplus commodities were being reallocated to arms and weapons manufacturing. Additionally, the wartime economy also lent to a decrease in unemployment, and most importantly, the food stamp program of the 30s “died.”

The end of the war, however, and the beginning of the Eisenhower administration, signaled a “push to put the food stamp program back in place,” Ranney said. After the war, the homeland situation stabilized and people realized that “there were still problems in schools, a lot of poverty out there.” The Republican administration authorized the implementation of food stamps in 1951. During the Johnson administration, the food stamp program was written into law.

There have been some major amendments to the food assistance program since then. Most importantly, the food stamp program is implemented nationwide.

“It doesn’t matter if you live in Alaska, or Hawaii or New York City. The food stamp program applies to everyone in the country,” Ranney said. As such, the food stamp program is also the only uniform safety net program in the United States. “Wherever you live in the country, you will get assistance,” Ranney explained.

In contrast, other food assistance programs and welfare programs are not simply entitlement based. The WIC program, for example, is strictly for those women, infants and children who come from low income households and who are identified by a licensed medical practitioner to be at nutritional risk. Infants who benefit from this program might have been born with a low birth weight, or the women might suffer from obesity. Statistics show that around half the children who are defined to be at nutritional risk are served by the WIC program. School lunch and breakfast assistance programs are targeted at specific states and districts, and are not universal.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a welfare reform proposal passed under the Clinton administration in 1996, further secured food stamps as the only remaining true safety net for needy individuals in the U.S. The 1996 welfare reform bill gave Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), in the form of monetary aid and food assistance, for a period no longer than five years. TANF does not serve as a permanent safety net. As Ranney spoke of the future of the food assistance programs, she noted that the country is approaching the time when those individuals who received welfare after 1996 are now reaching their five-year benefit limit. No longer eligible for TANF, Ranney hypothesized that “the food stamp program is going to grow.” Funding for the food stamp program has not grown as steadily as that for medical expenditures or Medicaid. Even though the economy is improving and the GDP is increasing, the median household income is decreasing, as unemployment and the number of food-insecure households increase. “The fact is that food stamps are the only place for people to go,” Ranney concluded. “My forecast is that the need for food stamps will grow relatively dramatically.”

Archived article by Samira Chandwani
Sun Staff Writer