Friedman Policy Corner: A Call to Action for Aspiring Food Activists

by Ayten Salahi (MS/RD-FPAN) and Marielle Hampton (MS-AFE)

On February 5, the Friedman Food Policy Action Council (FFPAC) convened its inaugural meeting. Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern stopped by to offer words of wisdom, encouragement, and a call to action.

Congressman Jim McGovern offers words of wisdom at the inaugural meeting of new Tufts advocacy group, Friedman Food Policy Action Council.

Congressman Jim McGovern offers words of wisdom at the inaugural meeting of new Tufts advocacy group, Friedman Food Policy Action Council.

Congressman Jim McGovern surprised Tufts students with an impromptu visit at the first meeting of the newly formed Friedman Food Policy Action Council (FFPAC) on February 5, one week before the Trump administration announced its budget request for fiscal year 2019. Congressman McGovern, champion of anti-hunger causes and ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Nutrition, was visiting the school to discuss his recently launched bipartisan Food is Medicine Working Group in the House Hunger Caucus.

During the meeting, Congressman McGovern expressed his appreciation for the student initiative to get involved in advocacy, since “academia doesn’t always translate into activism.” When FFPAC founding member Ayten Salahi requested words of wisdom for students looking to get involved in political action, McGovern chuckled. “This is the toughest year you could have picked to get started, but that’s why it’s so incredibly important.”

He urged students to remember that people in government are supposed to be working for them. Even in the current political climate, he said, “pressure works.”

So how can students and citizens help? “Every elected official has one thing in common: they want to get re-elected. These issues are important enough that these people need to know if they’re not with you, you’re not with them. There has to be consequences… Nobody would tell you they’re pro-hunger, but judgment should be based on actions.

The Congressman then offered a crucial piece of advice that he adopts in his professional and personal life: Correct misinformation and provide facts.

Even in Congress, falsehoods are repeated regularly. He makes a point to correct the record, whether at a family dinner or among colleagues. “The average SNAP benefit is only about $1.40 per person per meal and the majority of people on SNAP are kids and senior citizens or disabled,” he explained. “The majority of beneficiaries who can work, work. The majority of people on SNAP are white, despite misconceptions. The USDA has been very effective at cracking down on SNAP fraud.”

Congressman McGovern’s guidance to hold our elected officials accountable may prove especially important for food and nutrition advocates this year, with changes to the Farm Bill slotted for congressional review in March.

On Monday, February 12th, the Trump administration announced its budget request for fiscal year 2019, which included a plan to cut 30% – $214 billion – from the SNAP budget over the course of 10 years. The proposed “cost-savings” would result from a major shake-up in the program’s benefit structure. Among the proposed changes, one has received significant publicity: Instead of receiving monthly funds loaded into EBT cards as is currently done, SNAP beneficiaries receiving $90 or more per month would receive half of their benefits in the form of a “USDA Foods Package,” packed with predetermined food items specifically chosen for their long shelf life. The package would include cereals, pastas, canned foods, peanut butter, and shelf-stable milk. Notably, no fresh fruits and vegetables would be included. No one has seen if or how these changes would be reflected in the 2018 Farm Bill.

While the administration calls the proposal a “cost-effective, Blue-Apron-style approach” with “no loss in food benefits to participants,” stakeholders are skeptical that the proposed “Harvest Box” is anything more than a distraction from work underway behind the scenes to slash federal funding for food assistance programs. Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says, “I don’t think there’s really any support for their box plan. And, I worry that it’s a distraction from the budget’s proposal to cut SNAP by some 30 percent. That’s the real battle. But all anyone is talking about today are the boxes.” Ranking democrat on the agricultural committee Senator Debbie Stabenow also cautions that this “isn’t a serious proposal and is clearly meant to be a distraction.” Shortly following the release of the budget proposal, administration officials admitted that the food box plan had “virtually no chance of being implemented anytime soon,” rousing further suspicion around the administration’s motives in publicizing it so widely.

During his visit with FFPAC, Congressman McGovern expressed similar concerns, and emphasized how important it is that food policy activists and SNAP beneficiaries alike demand transparency from members of the House Committee on Agriculture on the drafting of the 2018 Farm Bill. Despite his role as Democratic ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Nutrition, Congressman McGovern shared that neither he nor his Republican counterpart has seen a single sentence of the updated Farm Bill, now under review with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). He cautioned this lack of transparency around the latest draft as “a sign that someone is hiding something.”

Though it remains to be seen, the bill is anticipated to reflect significant reductions in the federal SNAP budget, which will have a direct and jarring impact on the sustenance and economic freedom of nearly 46 million low-income Americans who depend on the program to nourish both themselves and their families.

In his closing remarks, Congressman McGovern issued a call to action for us at Friedman – and for all those invested in the protection of health equity, food security, and social welfare – to call our representatives, and to demand transparency around the content of the latest Farm Bill, and when it will be made available for review. In the coming months, FFPAC pledges to maintain a finger on the pulse of the upcoming Farm Bill and rally advocates to hold representatives accountable for votes that jeopardize SNAP program benefits.

Friedman Food Policy Action Council (FFPAC) is a student-run organization of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Our mission is to advance evidence-based nutrition and agricultural policies in support of public and environmental health, by equipping students with the skills and relationships necessary to impact policy through advocacy. For more information, or to join FFPAC, please contact friedmanfpac@gmail.com

Ayten Salahi is a first-year FPAN MS/RD candidate, co-founder of FFPAC, and is dedicated to the future of policy, programming, and clinical practice in sustainable diets and nutrition equity. Ayten came to Friedman after working as a molecular and clinical researcher in neuropharmacology and diabetes management for nearly 8 years.

Marielle Hampton is a first-year MS candidate in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program and a co-founder of FFPAC. Marielle began her studies at Friedman after spending five years working with small farmers on Hawai‘i Island.

Political Dissent with Burritos

by Mike Zastoupil

While thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to protest the Trump administration, these two guys have taken to…their kitchen. Learn how Feed the People is fueling the resistance in Boston with delicious burritos.

It was a bitterly cold day to be standing outside the bandstand at the Boston Common, but that didn’t stop a few hundred people from showing up to express their support for Planned Parenthood. There were women wearing handknit pink hats and an assortment of protest signs clutched between frozen mittens and gloves. Everyone was listening to the speeches from community advocates and Massachusetts congressmen pledging their commitment to fight for women’s health clinics in the face of impending federal budget cuts.

Many people would have left the protest feeling physically and emotionally drained, had they not encountered two young men giving away burritos. “Would you like a burrito? They have black beans and sweet potatoes. They’re free. Thanks for coming out and protesting today.” An older woman took one and said “Oh, you’re serious? Thank you!” while three teenagers said, “This is amazing! You totally made my day!” and ran away munching their burritos. One man stuffed three or four into his pockets, after timidly asking if he could do so. They all walked away with warm, full bellies and a feeling that the world isn’t so bad after all.

Meet Sean Pulsfort and Gideon Burdick, the two young men behind the not-for-profit burrito operation that they call Feed the People. Their motto is “Feed the People, Fuel the Resistance,” and making burritos is their way of expressing their political dissent with the Trump administration. Like many great ideas, they came up with Feed the People late one night over a couple of beers and lively conversation. The conversation had been about ways to meaningfully engage in politics and keep people’s spirits up after what many considered a disheartening presidential election. Sean said, “We can make burritos…maybe it will make people happy.”

Sean is a trained chef and works for a food service hiring company while Gideon works for a produce distributor, so they naturally turned to food as a way to connect with their community. They made a website and Facebook page, researched the laws around giving away free food and crowdsourcing money, and quickly raised a few hundred dollars from family and friends. The burritos are all made at their apartment in Jamaica Plain, where you can find them waking up as early as 5:00 AM to make the burritos from scratch. So far they have made a breakfast burrito with eggs, cheese, black beans, roasted potatoes and roasted poblano sauce, and a vegetarian burrito with beans, cheese, sweet potatoes and tomatillo sauce. They purchase all of the ingredients in bulk from a restaurant supply wholesaler, which allows them to keep costs low. Once the burritos are made, usually about 125 in total, they’re wrapped in foil and transported to the protest rallies in insulated delivery bags and coolers to keep them hot and ready to eat.

Sean and Gideon said they learned a lot from Food Not Bombs, another organization that has been giving away food to activists since the 1980’s and got its start nearby in Cambridge, MA. “We had to research laws regarding giving away free food to people,” said Sean. “There have been city ordinances in Florida and other places that have banned giving free food to people for various reasons.” The burritos they make for Feed the People are always vegetarian, which keeps costs down and reduces food safety risks, but also appeals to a wider audience.

So far, Feed the People has nourished protestors with burritos at a data rescue gathering at MIT and the Planned Parenthood Rally in the Boston Common. They plan on attending the March for Science in Boston on April 22, and any other protests and rallies that may occur in the future. When asked what their needs are to make more burritos in the future, they ask only for funding. “It costs about $1 to make each burrito,” Gideon says, and at this point they don’t really need volunteers because they can rely on friends if they need to. They intend to keep the burrito operation small and “grassroots” for now, but Gideon said he would “take a food truck” if they could afford it.

If you would like to learn more about Feed the People, you can visit their Facebook page or their website. The next time that you feel tired or frustrated with the state of politics in the country, remember that there are people out there making tasty burritos to fuel your battle.

Mike Zastoupil is finishing his Master’s in Agriculture, Food and Environment. He is a proud roommate to Sean and Gideon, and a supporter of Feed the People.