Two Important Food Policy Roadmaps

by Diana Winters

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the day the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 to be a global pandemic, and over this past year, the preexisting weaknesses, incapacities, and inequities of the national and global food system have been glaringly evident. From food and supply shortages, to disease outbreaks in meat production facilities, to the breakdown in school lunch distribution networks, to an enormous rise in food insecurity, the pandemic emergency brought the dangers of consolidation in the food system and shortsighted agricultural and nutrition policy to the forefront of public awareness.

Two recent reports, one by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, and one by the Center for Good Food Purchasing, have outlined roadmaps toward a stronger food system.

Food Forward NYC is organized around five goals supporting a framework to lead to a ore healthy, equitable, and sustainable food system in a decade’s time. These goals are: (1) All New Yorkers have multiple ways to access healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food; (2) New York City’s food economy drives economic opportunity and provides good jobs; (3) The supply chains that feed New York City are modern, efficient, and resilient; (4) New York City’s food is produced, distributed, and disposed of sustainably; and to (5) Support the systems and knowledge to implement the 10-year food policy plan. Each of these goals will require collaboration among multiple stakeholders, and the Office of Food Policy will issue a biennial report as to the City’s progress.

The Good Food Purchasing Program roadmap for the post-pandemic food system we need also posits a ten-year timeframe for the building of a stronger and better food system. The roadmap is built around five core values that support the Center for Good Food Purchasing’s program: Valued Workforce; Local Economies; Animal Welfare; Nutrition; and Environmental Sustainability, all of which are guided by equity, transparency, and accessibility. The roadmap is organized around three key pillars of success: (1) the power of partnerships; (2) shared goals and infrastructure, and; (3) transformational policies.

Both of these reports seek to utilize the observations and lessons drawn from the pandemic emergency’s impact on the food system so that as we rebuild, we recreate as well.

Op-ed: How to Feed America Better Post-Covid

By Veronica Goodman*

When teachers locked up their classrooms last March, few thought that a year later schools would still be shuttered and that millions of children would lack access to essential services, such as meals, and that millions of jobs would be lost, leaving many individuals and families struggling to put food on the table. America’s hunger crisis is now so acute that a recent analysis found that the number of children not getting enough to eat was ten times higher during the pandemic, while nearly 1 in 6 adults – or close to 24 million Americans – reported that their households did not have enough to eat sometimes or often in the past seven days.  

The sharp rise of hunger during the pandemic is yet another woeful legacy of the Trump administration’s mishandling of the Covid crisis, including trying to deny access to food relief by placing unnecessary bureaucratic barriers on states and even attempting to kick nearly 700,000 unemployed people off of food assistance in the midst of a once-in-a-century public health crisis. President Biden has thankfully made quick progress to address the hunger crisis through executive action and proposed legislation, but there is more work to be done to make our federal anti-hunger policy more resilient going forward for the next crisis, and to address the structural barriers to food affordability and access.

In his first week in office, President Biden signed an executive order that will help alleviate the hunger crisis by increasing benefits of the Pandemic-EBT program (P-EBT) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as calling for the Agriculture Department to modernize the Thrifty Food Plan to better reflect the cost of a market basket of foods upon which SNAP benefits are based. Biden’s American Rescue Plan will also significantly bolster food assistance programs around the country. Collectively, these changes should make food aid more generous and better targeted.

However, many anti-hunger innovations were born of necessity during the pandemic, and these should serve as lessons learned going forward to better prepare for a future crisis. The P-EBT program has been a success at bridging the gap in nutrition for low-income children who used to obtain meals through programs at their schools, but who could no longer do so with schools closed. This program should be studied to see if it can be converted to a Summer EBT option going forward. Furthermore, to stay ahead of a future crisis, researchers at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have suggested that Congress “leverage the P-EBT structure to create a permanent authorization for states to issue replacement benefits (similar to P-EBT, and perhaps renamed “emergency-” or E-EBT) in case of lengthy school or child care closures resulting from a future public health emergency or natural disaster.” This would make it easier for states to act quickly and not rely on Congressional action should schools need to close in the future. Finally, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici has introduced a bill that would more effectively allow schools to distribute free meals to students and other community members in need, and to extend meal service for afterschool meals and snack programs. These measures would make our systems nimbler and more responsive should a future disruption, national or local, occur.

America’s hunger crisis did not start with the pandemic, and policymakers should go further to address three key underlying causes and structural barriers to food access and affordability. First, the White House should focus on stricter antitrust enforcement in the food industry. The U.S. food and agriculture industry is concentrated, with a few large firms dominating many markets, which can drive up consumer prices on basic nutrition staples. Second, Congress should enact the HOPE Act, introduced by Reps. Joe Morelle and Jim McGovern and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) which would create online accounts that enable low-income families to apply once for all social programs they qualify for, rather than forcing them to run a bureaucratic gauntlet that makes it difficult for low-income Americans to get public assistance. Third, Congress should take up legislation, such as the bipartisan Healthy Food Access for All Americans (HFAAA) Act put forth by Sens. Mark R. Warner, Jerry Moran, Bob Casey, Shelley Moore Capito, that incentivizes food providers to set up shop in rural and hard-to-reach communities to improve food access for the estimated 40 million Americans living in “food deserts” that lack a nearby grocery store or food pantry or bank.

Food insecurity is not just a moral issue, it also has economic and social costs. Adults who go hungry are less productive and are more likely to suffer from chronic illness. Hungry children are more likely to get sick and fall behind in school. One in five Black and Hispanic households report they are unable to afford food. Poor nutrition and soaring rates of metabolic disease are a drag on the economy and contribute to rising healthcare costs and early deaths in minority and low-income families that are disproportionately more likely to experience poor nutrition and health as a result of food insecurity. And a boost in food assistance programs has even been found to speed economy recovery during a downturn and serve as an “automatic stabilizer”, an added bonus of fighting hunger during the Covid recession.

It’s time for a new national commitment to wiping out hunger and malnutrition in America. The pandemic and the associated hunger crisis have taught us valuable lessons that we should use so that we can be better prepared to face a future crisis and to curb hunger in America.

*Veronica Goodman is the Director of Social Policy at the Progressive Policy Institute. In her role, she develops and analyzes policies designed to help lift more Americans out of poverty and to strengthen the middle class, focusing on social mobility, inequality, labor, and modernizing social services. Veronica earned graduate degrees in economics and public management from Johns Hopkins University, and her undergraduate degree from The George Washington University.

You can find Goodman’s full paper on a comprehensive federal approach to the hunger crisis here.

2021 California Food Legislation

by Beth Kent*

            The California State Legislature is back in session, and legislators have introduced a number of bills related to food and agriculture. Many of these bills address food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. A number of bills focus on sustainable agriculture, including phasing out pesticides and protecting agricultural lands. Governor Newsom’s proposed Budget also includes funding for a new approach to pesticide regulation that aims to catalyze the transition to safe and sustainable agriculture.

This is the beginning of the legislative cycle, and bill text and budget priorities are subject to change, but it is exciting to see so many bills that address food and agricultural issues. You can track your bill priorities here, and we will provide an update at the end of the session that summarizes the bills that are passed by the Legislature and approved by the Governor.

Food and the Environment

  • AB-350 (Villapudua) would create a grant program to help landowners in the San Joaquin Valley’s “critically over-drafted basins” meet the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act’s water use reduction goals.
  • AB-352 (Rivas) proposes amendments to the California Farmland Conservancy Program to make the program more accessible to low-income, diverse, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
  • AB-391 (Villapudua) proposes appropriating $5 million from the Department of Food and Agriculture’s General Fund to provide technical assistance and grants to incentivize participation in state and federal conservation programs that integrate pollinator habitat and forage on working lands.
  • AB-567 (Bauer-Kahan) proposes expanding pesticide regulations to prohibit using neonicotinoids (a type of insecticide that is especially harmful to bees) on seeds and makes the use of neonicotinoids a misdemeanor.
  • AB-1086 (Aguiar-Curry) would require the California Natural Resources Agency to develop an implementation strategy to achieve the State’s organic waste, and related climate change and air quality, goals. The implementation strategy may include recommendations on policy and funding support for the beneficial reuse of organic waste.

Nutrition and Food Security

  • SB-364 (Skinner): Introduced by Senator Skinner and co-authored by Senators Eggman, Hertzberg, Laird, Limón, McGuire, Hueso, Newman, Wieckowski, and Wiener and Assembly Members Berman, Carrillo, Chiu, Cooley, Cooper, Cristina Garcia, Eduardo Garcia, Levine, Nazarian, Quirk-Silva, Reyes, Robert Rivas, Rodriguez, Santiago, Stone, and Villapudua, SB-364 proposes to establish a California Universal School Meal Program, which would continue to make school free breakfast and lunch programs available to all children beyond the COVID-19 public health crisis. It would also establish the Better Out of School Time (BOOST) Nutrition Program to prevent child hunger when schools are not in session.
  • AB-221 (Santiago, Chiu, and R. Rivas): Introduced by Assembly Members Santiago, Chiu, and Robert Rivas and co-authored by Assembly Members Burke, Carrillo, Cristina Garcia, Gipson, Grayson, Kamlager, Luz Rivas, Stone, and Villapudua and Senators Rubio, Dodd, Durazo, and Wiener, AB-221is an urgency statue that would make food assistance benefits available to low-income California residents across the State, regardless of their immigration status. The bill also commissions a study to identify permanent solutions for low-income food assistance programs to address food insecurity throughout the State.
  • SB-108 (Hurtado) would declare that every human being has the right to access sufficient healthy food and require state agencies to revise and adopt policies accordingly.
  • AB-941 (Bennett and R. Rivas): Introduced by Assembly Members Bennett and Robert Rivas and co-authored by Senators Limón and Dodd and Assembly Member Medina, AB-941would establish a grant program to create farmworker resources centers. Resource centers would provide farmworkers and their families information and access to services related to education, housing, payroll and wage rights, and health and human services.
  • AB-1009 (Bloom) would establish the Farm to School Food Hub Program, which would incentivize the creation and permanency of farm to school hubs. Hubs would function as nonprofit aggregators and supply chain intermediaries to distribute food products from farms or ranches to public institutions and nonprofit organizations. The goals of the program are promote food access and to increase the amount of agricultural products available to underserved communities and schools.
  • SB-20 (Dodd) would increase access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/CalFresh Benefits for low-income community college students by requiring the Student Aid Commission to notify students of their CalFresh eligibility. These requirements are intended to educate students about the availability of CalFresh benefits and to help address food insecurity among low-income community college students.
  • AB-543 (Davies): Introduced by Davies and coauthored by Dodd, AB-543 would require California universities to provide information about CalFresh to all incoming students as part of campus orientation.
  • AB-508 (L. Rivas and Lorena Gonzalez): Introduced by Assembly Members Luz Rivas and Lorena Gonzalez and coauthored by Assembly Members Kalra, Bauer-Kahan, Boerner Horvath, and Eduardo Garcia, AB-508 would expand school meal programs by requiring school districts and county superintendents to provide free meals for students who are eligible to receive reduced-priced meals.
  • AB-558 (Nazarian) would create the California School Plant-Based Food and Beverage Program, which would provide reimbursements to school districts that provide plant-based options as part of free and reduced-price school meal programs. This bill could have positive health and environmental benefits by increasing access to plant-based food.
  • AB-368 (Bonta): Introduced by Assembly Member Bonta and coauthored by Assembly Members Chiu and Wicks, AB-368 would establish a pilot program to provide prescriptions for medically supportive food. Eligible Medi-Cal beneficiaries could receive vouchers to redeem specific foods that can alleviate or treat medical conditions, such a diabetes and hypertension.

*Beth Kent is an Emmett/Frankel Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law for 2020-2022. She earned her J.D. from UCLA School of Law with a specialization in Public Interest Law & Policy from the Epstein Program, and she actively participated in UCLA Law’s environmental and food law programs.

Repast – A New Podcast Series from the Resnick Center

by Diana Winters

The Resnick Center is excited to share our new monthly podcast series, Repast, where we will interview a thought leader in the field of food law and policy to discuss past achievements, current developments, and future challenges.

In the first episode, Michael Roberts interviews Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) on his new book, Salt Wars: The Battle Over the Biggest Killer in the American Diet.  Salt Wars describes the long struggle to reduce the dangerous levels of sodium in the American diet, and explains how industry has fought efforts to regulate salt.  In this episode, Roberts and Jacobson discuss the harms of salt, government inaction, and the exceptional nature of food regulation in the United States.

You can listen to Repast here, and buy Salt Wars here.

P.S. My 12-year-old son, Ike wrote and performed the music for the podcast, so listen for that if nothing else. 🙂

Guide to Food-Based Pro Bono Activities

by Diana Winters

The Resnick Center is excited to share the publication of “Setting the Table for Food-Based Pro Bono Opportunities: A Resource Guide for Pro Bono Attorneys,” authored by Tommy Tobin, a member of the Resnick Center’s Advisory Board, and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. The guide is designed to facilitate connections between attorneys seeking meaningful pro bono work and anti-hunger organizations.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity in the United States, and the amount of resources needed to address the crisis is staggering. Attorneys seeking pro bono work can assist with direct client services, legislative research, and policy advocacy, among other things. This guide seeks to describe these opportunities and to assist in forming these partnerships.

We are grateful to Tommy Tobin, Mazon, and Perkins Coie LLP for their work on and support of the guide. The guide will be updated periodically.

Not labeled for retail sale, except during the coronavirus pandemic

By Daniel Pessar* (Guest Blogger)

This is the third in a series of occasional posts by Daniel Pessar on regulatory flexibility in the context of food law and the pandemic.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has led to health, economic, and political turmoil around the world. In response to this public health crisis, U.S. federal, state, and local governments have been seeking to contain the impact of the virus while minimizing the collateral economic impact. Although stay at home orders and social distancing rules have had the greatest impact on people, many laws, regulations, and rules have been suspended or relaxed in order to help individuals and organizations—especially those involved in the pandemic response—to be productive during these difficult times.

One agency relaxing regulatory measures is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which has been working to remove obstacles to the flow of essential goods throughout the economy. As supply chains have been disrupted and demand patterns have shifted, the FDA has worked to relax the enforcement of certain regulations which could slow the response of food manufacturers and distributers to the new food business landscape.

In March 2020, the FDA announced that it would relax the enforcement of certain labeling laws that are familiar to many shoppers who purchase packaged goods in bulk. These shoppers know that often the individual beverage containers or snack bags do not have the product’s nutrition information. Instead, they have a label which reads “This unit not labeled for individual sale” or some variation of that announcement. Labeling items within a multi-pack in this way gives manufacturers more flexibility in package aesthetics and design and can help a food business to better control the flow of products for retail sale. Retailers interested in selling these items individually would need to affix a compliant nutrition label on top of the manufacturer’s label to comply with federal law.

In addition to multi-unit packaged goods, FDA nutrition labeling regulations also provide exceptions for food served in most restaurants or in other establishments in which food is served for immediate human consumption (e.g., institutional food service establishments, such as schools, hospitals, and cafeterias; transportation carriers, such as trains and airplanes; bakeries, delicatessens, and retail confectionery stores where there are facilities for immediate consumption on the premises; food service vendors, such as lunch wagons, ice cream shops, mall cookie counters, vending machines, and sidewalk carts…)  21 CFR § 101.9(j)(2)(ii)

These exceptions do not give restaurants a blank check, however. Only food served for immediate human consumption may be served without the inclusion of the necessary nutrition information. Under normal circumstances, these regulations do not limit restaurants—they are in the business of serving food for immediate human consumption after all.

Yet all of the upheaval that has come with the coronavirus pandemic has turned this law into a costly obstacle to offloading excess ingredient inventory. Food establishments with extra meat, flour, or cheese—but fewer customers—might consider selling packages of supplies directly to customers in order to reduce the economic pressures they are facing. However, given that these supplies would not qualify as food for immediate human consumption, the restaurants would need to ensure that an appropriate label be designed and affixed to the food parcels. Further compounding this challenge is the fact that the large packages sent to the restaurants by manufacturers or distributers of food supplies often lack nutrition labeling as well—those companies qualify for a separate exception from nutrition labeling regulations (see 21 CFR § 101.9(j)(2)(v)).

Recognizing that this rule would hurt restaurants while reducing the amount of food being made available to consumers during the pandemic, the FDA stepped in to temporarily relax certain rules. In March 2020, The FDA issued a temporary policy to relax labeling requirements for restaurants seeking to sell these kinds of products. As long as the food was labeled with (1) statement of identity, (2) ingredient statement, (3) name and place of business of the food manufacturer, packer, or distributer, (4) net quantity of contents, and (5) allergen information, the FDA would not object to the product’s sale even if it lacked a Nutrition Facts label.

Other rules have not been suspended, however. Restaurants making nutrient content claims about these food products (“Low fat cheese” or “High fiber beans”) would face other labeling rules that have not been relaxed by the FDA’s temporary policy. In addition, the FDA guidance does not apply to any foods prepared by restaurants. Entrepreneurs interested in developing packaged foods to supplement their restaurant offerings during the pandemic will need to comply with the robust label requirements for packaged foods. But as long as the new guidance stays in effect, restaurants can more easily sell packaged foods—both perishable and non-perishable—from cooking oil and tomato sauce to snack packs and juice pouches.

As restaurants, bars, and bakeries see a dramatic slowdown in business, some are trying to capitalize on their supply chain to maintain some business activity. For example, Fort Defiance, a bar in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, New York, now sells a range of food supplies online including cheese, tofu, and raw chicken.  The FDA’s new stance facilitates this flexibility.

*Daniel Pessar is a third-year student at Harvard Law School. Before law school, he worked in the real estate investment industry for six years. He is the author of three books and numerous articles. He can be contacted at dpessar@jd20.law.harvard.edu

Learning and eating remotely

By Daniel Pessar* (Guest Blogger)

This is the second in a series of occasional posts by Daniel Pessar on regulatory flexibility in the context of food law and the pandemic.

School administrators across the country have their work cut out for them. The shift to remote instruction has improved compliance with social distancing mandates but has also created challenges for families and invited questions about the quality of online education. Modern schools, however, are more than just places of instruction—they are also hubs of support service activity for students. From providing guidance counselors and speech therapists to nurses and probation officers, schools are equipped to do much more than just teach. And many of the services offered by schools are less easily transferable to the web than classroom learning.

chairs classroom college desks
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Food provision programs are one such example. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers federal programs including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) which exist to bring nutritious food to school-age children. The Child Nutrition Programs, including the ones listed above, cost the United State over $20 billion each year—translating to well over 7 billion meals and snacks—and are administered with the help of a long list of laws and regulations.

But like many other school services, food programs are designed to provide meals on site and not remotely. For example, program sponsors (e.g., schools, camps, or governments) must agree, in writing, to numerous rules including to, Maintain children on site while meals are consumed.”  7 CFR § 225.6(e)(15)

To allow the food programs to continue despite the virus-related upheaval, the USDA has relaxed several rules, including the requirement to have students eat on site. Although some rule waivers are being issued on a state-by-state or case-by-case basis, the USDA issued an all-states waiver in this case:

[The law and regulations require that] child nutrition program meals must be served in a congregate setting and must be consumed by participants on site. However, FNS [USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service] recognizes that in this public health emergency, waiving the congregate meal requirements is vital to ensure appropriate safety measures for the purpose of providing meals and meal supplements.

COVID–19: Child Nutrition Response #2 (March 20, 2020), Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Another important rule waiver deals with the requirement that students be present for food pickup. Given the concerns about students having to leave home in the current environment of recommended isolation—especially those students who may not feel well—the USDA granted another all-state rule waiver:

[The law and regulations] envision Program operators providing meals directly to children, not to parents and guardians picking up meals at non-congregate meal sites on behalf of their children. However, FNS recognizes that in this public health emergency, continuing to require children to come to the meal site to pick up meals may not be practical and in keeping with the goal of providing meals while also taking appropriate safety measures.

COVID–19: Child Nutrition Response #5 (March 25, 2020), Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Questions remain:  Will these meals—designed to be healthy and produced with children in mind—actually get into the hands of the intended recipients? Even if they do, will students eat the food if they have unhealthy alternatives available? These and many other questions face school administrators and policymakers trying to navigate the new environment.

But at least food provisions can be handed to parents and guardians and sent home to students. The same cannot be said for counseling and therapy services, health services, and many other offerings. Without new avenues for connecting with students and distributing all resources, the pandemic disruption will continue to result in a dramatic decrease in support services to the students who need them most.

*Daniel Pessar is a third-year student at Harvard Law School. Before law school, he worked in the real estate investment industry for six years. He is the author of three books and numerous articles. He can be contacted at dpessar@jd20.law.harvard.edu

President Trump Signs Executive Order to Keep Meat Processing Plants Open

by Diana Winters

Thousands of workers at meat processing and packing plants have contracted coronavirus* and over 20 have died.  As of last week 13 plants had closed down for some period of time resulting in a significant reduction in the nation’s meat slaughter (pork and beef) capacity.

Yesterday, April 28, President Trump signed an Executive Order declaring meat plants “critical infrastructure” and directing the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, to ensure that processing plants remain open.

The Order requires that continued operations be in compliance with guidance from the CDC and OSHA regarding safety in plants, but because this guidance is voluntary, labor representatives fear that workers will continue to be put at risk by working in meat plants.  Moreover, some meat plant workers insist they will not be ordered to come to work.

Some scholars have speculated that the main purpose of the Order is to block local objections and potentially protect the meat processing and packing industry from liability for coronavirus contracted on the job.  The issue of tort liability is being discussed more broadly in relation to the gradual reopening of the economy, and certain representatives for business are asking the Trump administration to include a liability shield in any future relief legislation.

As we consider the effects of this Executive Order, perhaps this is a good time to remember that poor diet has been linked to worse outcomes from Covid-19, and that excess meat consumption has been linked to many diet-related diseases.  Maybe a (temporary) reduction in the meat supply can be tolerated?

 

*Many of the articles linked in this post, as well as many others, are linked in the Resnick Center’s UCLA Law LibGuide to Covid-19 and Food Law.

Forthcoming Scholarship: “A Palatable Option for Sugar-Coated Palates”

by Diana Winters

Some good news!  UCLA Law 2L Nicholas Miller’s article, “A Palatable Option for Sugar-Coated Palates: Labeling as the Libertarian Paternalism Intervention that American Consumers Need”, will be published in the University of Florida Journal of Law & Public Policy early in 2021.

Nicholas is a second year law student at UCLA, where he is involved in a range of activities including OUTLaw and the Dukeminier Awards Journal of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law. As the son of a caterer and a lawyer, he was naturally drawn to food law, which combines his love of food and his desire to understand the legal frameworks that protect society and guide behavior. He chose to write about labeling – specifically of sugar content – because it raises the issue of how to balance progressive public health policy and the historically American fear of paternalistic overreach by the government. He sees this dynamic of public health initiatives that impede on individual liberty at play now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, and hopes his analysis will help advance the dialogue on how best to guide people to make good decisions about their health.

Here is the abstract for the article:

Addressing nutritional health for Americans has proven uniquely challenging in a marketplace flooded with non-nutritious food products.  Compounding the issue, consumers consistently misjudge the contents of these processed foods and undervalue their pernicious effect.  At the same time, consumers are wary of overly intrusive or paternalistic government interventions, such as bans and portion limits.  This paper reflects on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of previous attempts by the FDA to combat public health threats.  Finally, the paper proposes a path forward, with growing political momentum, that builds on the innovative food labeling models being tested in markets around the world.

We can’t wait to see this in print.

*If you would like to have forthcoming food law scholarship featured in the blog, please contact Diana Winters.*

Feeding Children During the Pandemic – HER teleconference

by Diana Winters

There has been a recent spate of articles about several studies showing that a very high number of patients who ended up hospitalized with Covid-19 had underlying health conditions, with obesity being one of the most common.[1]  These studies are largely observational and preliminary, but have still garnered attention.  At the same time, concerns about supply chain disruption and increased economic insecurity have also highlighted the need to prepare for a rise in global hunger and malnutrition.  With this backdrop, as well as the announcements that many schools across the country will be closed for the rest of the school year, Healthy Eating Research (HER) held a teleconference for media on feeding children during the pandemic, which discussed availability, distribution, and nutritional content.  HER is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which supports research on policy, systems, and environmental strategies that promote healthy eating among children.  The call addressed many issues around feeding children during this crisis, including the following.

During a normal school year, schools across the country provide approximately 30 million children with free and reduced-price school meals.  These meals provide up to two-thirds of these children’ daily nutritional needs.  As of right now, however, 48 states have closed their schools because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and 30 states have announced that schools are closed until the fall.  The impact of this on the availability and quality of food for children is immense.

There has been significant federal legislation to address feeding children during the pandemic.  This legislation includes Pandemic EBT, where states can request waivers to provide SNAP benefits for the families of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, emergency benefits, where all SNAP beneficiaries can receive emergency benefits, funds to bolster new SNAP enrollees, and legislation to adapt the emergency feeding of children during school closures to encompass summer feeding nutritional standards.

All of these actions are taking place while the Trump administration is simultaneously trying to weaken nutritional standards for school lunches.  In mid-April, a federal court struck down a 2018 Agriculture Department rule that reversed nutrition standards for sodium and whole grains in school meal programs.

Moreover, the Trump administration has taken action to cut down on SNAP benefits.  The four major reforms the administration has pushed–including making it harder for states to request time limit waivers, restricting states’ ability to make families categorically eligible based on their eligibility for another program, standardizing the method for determining state allowances, and denying noncitizens citizenship or green cards if they participate in federal aid programs—are currently stalled during the pandemic.

Dr. Sara Bleich, Professor of Public Health Policy at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, estimates that the SNAP rolls will go up to higher numbers than during the 2008 recession because of the unprecedented unemployment figures.

More legislation is needed to protect children from food insecurity and the resulting health detriments, said Dr. Bleich.  Dr. Bleich explained that we should look for the government to increase the size of SNAP benefits, which is a proven policy intervention to stimulate the economy and improve health, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for food service staff, and to provide more funding for school districts impacted by the school year closures.

Elisabet Eppes, MPH, Program Innovation Director at the National WIC Association, spoke about how the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program is adapting to the pandemic.  WIC is a special supplemental nutrition program for pregnant and postpartum women, and their infants and small children.  It is a federal program, administered and run by states, that provides nutrition education, health care referrals, breast feeding support, and nutrition funding.  It is provided through paper vouchers and electronic benefit cards.

The WIC program is facing steep challenges during the pandemic.  Many WIC office are closed as the staff helps with other pandemic-related tasks.  WIC participants are having trouble acquiring WIC food because of food supply problems at grocery stores.  At the same time, more families need WIC right now because of increased unemployment.  WIC agencies are adapting to the pandemic, and legislation has been passed and is pending to provide the program with extra money and to ease administrative requirements.  Moreover, states are exploring possibilities for online orders and curbside pickups.

The impact of the pandemic on feeding children is immense, and its effects will be felt for years to come, on our nation’s public health and on its economy.  These issues are of critical importance.

 

[1] The articles here can be found linked on the Resnick Center’s guide to food law and Covid-19 resources, found here.

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