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.

Friedman Policy Corner: Advocate for Sound Nutrition and Agricultural Policy This Spring … and Then Run for Office!

by Alana Davidson

This spring is the end of the 2017-2018 legislative session in the Massachusetts State House. Read about what this means in terms of advocacy and learn about Friedman’s new student-run organization, the Friedman Food Policy Action Council. Finally, consider if a life in public service is right for you and whether you should run for office!

 

It’s a new year and this spring marks the end of the 2017-2018 legislative session at the Massachusetts State House. State legislators have until February 7th, 2018 to rule on all bills in committee, unless they request an extension. That means legislators decide if a bill “ought to pass”, “ought not to pass” or “study order.” Bills that ought to pass continue on through the legislative process and are considered favorable. A study order means the bill needs to be reviewed further, but most bills that are marked this and bills ruled “ought not to pass” die in committee. Then, legislators have until July 31st, 2018 to pass any bills and get them signed into law by the Governor. These next six months are a crucial time for agriculture, food, and nutrition advocates to make their voices heard. There are currently 208 bills in the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, and over 6,000 bills filed in total. Many of these bills will not proceed forward and several bills have already passed out of committee. To explore the current bills, visit: https://malegislature.gov/Bills/Search.

 

Examples of bills to follow over the next six months:

S.442 An Act Promoting Agriculture in the Commonwealth

This bill establishes two funds: an Agricultural Resolve and Security Fund and a Massachusetts Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture Program Fund. The second fund will be used to provide competitive grants and loans to educate, train, and retain veterans working in the agriculture sector across the state of Massachusetts.

H.4050 An Act to Promote the Care and Wellbeing of Livestock

This bill establishes a 13 member Livestock Care and Standards Board, that would include a member from the Cummings’ School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. The board would advise the Commissioner of the Department of Agricultural Resources on humane treatment of animal livestock, including cattle, swine, and poultry. Based on the recommendations the Commissioner can issue any new regulations or voluntary guidance pertaining to the treatment of livestock. This may include comfort of animals, animal health, safety, and the financial impact on farms.

H.2131 An Act Relative to an Agricultural Healthy Incentives Program

This bill establishes a Massachusetts Healthy Incentives Fund administered by the Department of Transitional Assistance and the Department of Agricultural Resources. Through this fund, for every $1 of SNAP spent on fruits and vegetables a person will receive a matching dollar benefit redeemed on their SNAP EBT card.

 

With the current political climate, it is now more important than ever to make your voice heard. What are some ways you can do that this spring? Join Friedman’s new student run organization, the Friedman Food Policy Action Council (FFPAC). This organization is seeking to unite Friedman students interested in policy, advocacy, and research to develop skills in lobbying by investigating current legislative issues at the state and federal level, and advocating in support of sound nutrition and agricultural policies. The group will be meeting bimonthly on Mondays at noon and our first official meeting is February 5th, 2018. If you decide to join FFPAC, you will gain experience writing and publishing op-eds, calling and meeting with legislatures, and working with other advocacy organization across Massachusetts and the country. FFPAC will also be hosting bimonthly Policy Chats in partnership with Professor Jerry Mande this spring to discuss current food and nutrition policy issues. The next policy chats will be February 7th and February 21st 2018.

The only way we are going to make evidence-based nutrition and agricultural policies top priorities at the national and state levels is by having conversations with elected officials and by running for office ourselves. If this past year has inspired you or the recent marches have prompted you to think about your future, consider going into public service. If statements from our elected leaders that it’s time to end the SNAP program angers you, go knock on doors and make calls for candidates who will support these programs. If you are tired of hearing about “fake news” and “alternative facts,” speak out in support of science. As students at a policy-focused school, we gain the skills and knowledge to read and analyze policies. We each must ask ourselves, “If I was an elected official, what proposals would I put forward? What change would I want to see?” We are at a pivotal moment in our country’s history. At the federal level, we have welfare reform and the Farm Bill to look forward to within the next year, while at the same time school meal regulations are being rolled back by the USDA and the Secretary of Agriculture says the SNAP program needs more “state flexibility.” We have to decide what kind of world we want to live in: one in which the government helps provide food to those who cannot afford it, or one that leaves it to charity? One in which consolidated large corporations control the entire food system, from what seeds are planted to what products get the best placement on supermarkets shelves? We as agriculture, food, and nutrition policy students have a unique training that can enable us to be effective change makers in food systems and food justice work.

So to my colleagues, consider this your first ask to run for office! No matter if you start small by joining FFPAC or calling an elected official, or go large by volunteering on a campaign or running for office, there are numerous ways you can make a difference this year. So let’s roll up our sleeves, get to work, and make our voices heard.

 

Alana Davidson is a first year MS candidate in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program and one of the founding members of FFPAC. For the last three years she has interned in the anti-hunger field at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), Share Our Strength, and End Hunger Connecticut!. Her research and advocacy have centered on domestic food insecurity and nutrition-related issues.