Nutrition Education in the 2018 Farm Bill

by Julia McCarthy

 

The House Committee on Agriculture recently failed to pass its version of the farm bill, legislation that sets farm and food policy every five years. Despite obesity rates looming at all-time highs, H.R. 2 Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 proposed to weaken the very programs we know improve diets—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), SNAP Education (SNAP-Ed), and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Assistance Program (EFNEP).[1] The changes H.R. 2 proposed would have disrupted local nutrition education services, affecting already vulnerable individuals. Understanding how these changes would have harmed public health and public health infrastructure could prevent the Senate from including these misguided provisions in its version of the farm bill.

Protecting SNAP is and should be advocates’ priority. Preserving programs that enhance food assistance and promote healthy eating is also crucial to our nation’s health. Program participants, media, and advocates have articulately denounced cuts to SNAP.[2] Less has been written about the concerning changes being proposed to our nation’s largest nutrition education program. Below, I explain what the term “nutrition education” means, how the farm bill affects nutrition education, and why the proposed changes are problematic. I also suggest several ways to provide stronger, more effective support for nutrition education.

What is Nutrition Education?

Nutrition promotion; obesity prevention; consumer education; food literacy; food policy, systems, and environmental change—these are just a few of the many names people use to describe nutrition education. Nutrition education has so many names because, as the widely-accepted definition for the term explains, it involves “any combination of educational strategies accompanied by environmental supports” that provide people with the motivation, skills, and knowledge to eat well.[3] Cooking demonstrations, gardening lessons, school wellness policy support, healthy retail projects, and recipe distribution are all examples of nutrition education for which the farm bill provides funding.[4]

In fact, there are at least 26 initiatives that can support nutrition education included in the farm bill. For some initiatives, nutrition education is both the main focus and required. SNAP-Ed, which funds direct education for low-income individuals as well as policy, systems, and environment changes in schools, stores, and other community locations, is an example.[5]

Other initiatives have a main focus distinct from nutrition education, such as providing food, but still require such education. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which provides low-income seniors food and resources such as recipes, is an example of this second type of initiative.[6]

Others still have a broader main focus—such as increasing fruit and vegetable sales—and allow, but do not require nutrition education. The Specialty Crop Block Grant, which states have used to support farm to school programs, is an example of this third kind of initiative.[7] See Table 1 below for a full list of nutrition education initiatives in the farm bill.

Table 1: Nutrition Education in the Farm Bill[8]

McCarthy.table

How the 2018 House Bill Would Have Affected Nutrition Education

The House Bill would have altered the structure of many of these initiatives, but most importantly, it would have combined the two largest nutrition education programs, SNAP-Ed and EFNEP. To combine the programs, H.R. 2 reallocated responsibility for SNAP-Ed from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the agency currently responsible for EFNEP. The bill repealed EFNEP, but maintained funding for the combined program at a level similar to current funding and added $65 million in annual discretionary funding.

At the state level, H.R. 2 shifted primary administrative responsibilities for SNAP-Ed away from state agencies to land grant universities (LGUs). The bill also altered states’ funding formula, basing future funding only on a jurisdiction’s current SNAP population, and not in any part on historical funding levels. Ultimately, merging SNAP-Ed and EFNEP as proposed would have created potential problems while failing to measurably improve either program:

  • Taking SNAP out of SNAP-Ed—Naming NIFA, rather than FNS as the administering agency for SNAP-Ed, would decouple the program from SNAP and other FNS low-income nutrition education programs. At the federal level and through regional offices, FNS coordinates numerous nutrition education initiatives such as SNAP-Ed, Team Nutrition, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Moving SNAP-Ed to NIFA, a research focused sub-agency, would create inefficiencies, not improve coordination.
  • Shifting Administrative Responsibilities to Land Grand UniversitiesGiving LGUs primary administrative responsibility for SNAP-Ed is also problematic. LGUs are one of several important agencies that administer SNAP-Ed; health departments and community-based nonprofits also administer the program. If LGUs were solely responsible for administering SNAP-Ed funds, they could choose not to share funds with other agencies, impacting the diversity and reach of organizations that implement the program.

Even if LGUs were to share funding, sub-contracting would be difficult; LGUs typically do not have contract managers the way state social services and health departments do. Many LGUs would need to create new administrative systems to manage SNAP-Ed, though this infrastructure already exists in other state agencies. And, realistically, LGUs would have trouble spending less than 10% of grant funds on administration, as the bill required.

  • Altering SNAP-Ed’s Funding Formula—R. 2 did maintain mandatory funding for the proposed, combined program, but too abruptly changed how states provide SNAP-Ed. The proposed changes to the funding formula could leave many struggling to provide public health services. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act established a stepped-down formula that considers a state’s funding history and incrementally introduces pro rata distribution based on its current SNAP population.[9] A sudden shift that considers only current SNAP participation would hurt states with a strong record of matching federal funds, as well as less-populated states. Changes to SNAP-Ed funding, when paired with recent cuts to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grants for diet-related disease control, would leave some states reeling with very little funding for nutrition education and obesity prevention.

Nutrition Education Recommendations for the 2018 Farm Bill

Nutrition education helps to prevent obesity and encourages individuals to eat healthy foods American farmers grow.[10] The 2018 Farm Bill should ensure not only that these programs receive adequate funding, but that they are structured to succeed. The Senate bill should:

  • Preserve SNAP-Ed and EFNEP’s Strengths—Combining SNAP-Ed and EFNEP, as the House Bill proposed, may be politically inevitable. Whatever form farm bill nutrition education takes should maintain the funding and flexibility of SNAP-Ed and the efficacy and peer-education emphasis of EFNEP.

With SNAP-Ed, state agencies receive more than $414 million a year to contract with land grant universities, local health departments, and community-based organizations.[11] These groups empower people to eat well through social marketing, direct education, and policy, systems, and environment changes consistent with current public health practices.

EFNEP, though funded at only $67 million a year, has a great return on investment; for every $1 spent, EFNEP saves $10 in future health care costs.[12] EFNEP also has the advantage of hiring peer educators.[13] The program not only provides low-income community members with jobs, but its instructors understand the challenges and strengths of the communities in which they work.

  • Maintain FNS as the SNAP-Ed Administrator—FNS’s structure ensures that people can access and afford nutrition assistance programs, driving demand for nutritious foods through nutrition education. FNS should consult with NIFA on program administration and maintain control of SNAP-Ed.
  • Gradually Adjust SNAP-Ed Funding Based on States’ SNAP Population—Currently, USDA allocates 50% of a state’s funding based on its SNAP population, and 50% based on historical match.[14] Instead of immediately altering states’ funding, USDA should adjust funding by 10% each year until 100% of funding is based on SNAP populations. This will allow states to better plan for the program going forward.

 

[1] 7 U.S.C. §§ 2011 et seq.; §§ 2036a et seq.; §§ 3175 et seq.

[2] See e.g. Ed Bolen et al., House Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill Would Increase Food Insecurity and Hardship, Center on Budget & Pol’y Priorities (April 25, 2018), https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/house-agriculture-committees-farm-bill-would-increase-food-insecurity-and.

[3] Isobel Contento, Nutrition Education: Linking Research, Theory and Practice (3rd ed., Jones & Bartlett 2015).

[4] Julia McCarthy, Claire Uno, Pam Koch, & Isobel Contento, Empowered Eaters: A Road Map for Stronger New York State Nutrition Education Policies and Programs, 31 (Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Educ. & Pol’y, Program in Nutrition at Tchr. College, Columbia U. 2018), http://www.tc.columbia.edu/media/media-library-2014/centers/tisch-center/Empowered-Eaters-STATE-FINAL.pdf.

[5] 7 U.S.C. §§ 2036a et seq.

[6] 7 U.S.C. §§ 612c et seq.

[7] 7 C.F.R. §§ 1291 et seq.

[8] McCarthy, supra note 4.

[9] Pub. L. 111-296 § 241(d) codified in 7 U.S.C. § 2036a(d)(2).

[10] See e.g. M. Vine et al. Expanding the Role of Primary Care in the Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity: A Review of Clinic and Community-Based Recommendations and Interventions, J. Obesity (2013);

  1. Prelip et al., Evaluation of a School-Based Multicomponent Nutrition Education Program to Improve Young Children’s Fruit and Vegetable Consumption, 44(4) J. Nutrition Educ. & Behav. 310-318 (2012).

[11] U.S. Dep’t Agric., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) Budget Allocation for Fiscal Year 1992 to 2017 (2017), available at https://snaped.fns.usda.gov/snap/Guidance/SNAP-EdBudgetAllocationFY1992-2017.pdf.

[12] U.S. Dep’t Agric., Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) FY 2018 Request for Applications, (Aug. 8, 2018), available at https://nifa.usda.gov/sites/default/files/resources/FY18-EFNEP-Modification-882017.pdf; Jamie Dollahite et al., An Economic Evaluation of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, 40 J. Nutrition Educ. & Behav. 134-143 (2008).

[13] 7 U.S.C. § 3175(c).

[14] 7 U.S.C. § 2036a(d)(2).

 

Julia McCarthy is a Senior Nutrition Policy Associate at CSPI, focusing on healthy retail policies. Prior to joining CSPI, she was a policy analyst at the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy. McCarthy has worked as a legal fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Public Interest Research Group. She attended Georgetown University and has a law degree from New York University where she was a Root-Tilden-Kern scholar.

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