Statement of Kevin Concannon
Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services
Before the House Committee on Agriculture
Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight,
Nutrition and Forestry
April 14, 2010
Good morning, and thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Fortenberry, and
Members of the Committee, for the opportunity to discuss access to healthful
foods in the nutrition assistance programs.
As you know, USDA oversees 15 nutrition assistance programs, from the
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), in which benefits are provided
through electronic benefit cards used by participants to purchase foods at
authorized retail stores, to programs like the Commodity Supplemental Food
Program and Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, in which food is provided
directly to the participants.
Improving access to food, specifically healthy and nutritious food, is central
to the Department of Agriculture’s food and nutrition efforts. In each of our
nutrition assistance programs, it is important that we not only enroll as many
eligible people as possible, but also provide information to make sure that our
clients know how to make healthful, nutritious food choices and, in programs
like SNAP, ensure that retailers are available for recipients to redeem
Our most recent data shows that most American households--nearly 89 percent--are
food secure. But that leaves 11.1 percent, or 13 million households, who were
food insecure at some time during 2008. Of those, 4.7 million experienced very
low food security at some time during the year. And when I say food insecure,
make no mistake that I mean they are hungry.
At the same time, we face an obesity epidemic among not only adults but our
children as well. As unbelievable as it may seem, obesity and hunger do coexist.
Sixty-eight percent of adult Americans are considered obese or overweight, while
16.9 percent of children are obese and 31.7 percent are overweight. Nearly 10
percent of American health spending can be attributed to obesity. Clearly, these
are critical public health issues, with significant consequences for our
These data leave no doubt that the need for improved access to healthy foods is
evident every day across the country. At the same time, they underscore the need
for sound nutrition guidance to nutrition assistance program participants and
the general public. People must have the knowledge and the desire to make a
behavior change toward healthier lifestyles.
The reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Programs presents us with an historic
opportunity to combat child hunger and improve the health and nutrition of
children across the nation. The Obama Administration has proposed an investment
of $10 billion in additional funding over ten years to improve our Child
Nutrition Programs. This proposed investment would significantly reduce the
barriers that keep children from participating in school nutrition programs,
improve the quality of school meals and the health of the school environment,
and enhance program performance. This is a once in every five year opportunity
to modernize the core Child Nutrition Programs: the National School Lunch
Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), the Summer Food Service Program
(SFSP), the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), the Special Milk Program
(SMP), and WIC.
We can improve access to meals and explore new means of empowering communities
to reduce food insecurity and hunger, especially among our children. We can make
every school a place where nutrition and learning shape the food offered by
improving the quality of meals, eliminating foods that do not support healthful
choices, and expanding physical activity opportunities.
We can help pregnant women, new mothers, and the youngest children receive the
support they need for an optimally healthy start, and support working families
using child care, by providing nutritious food for their children, to help them
deal with the challenges of today’s economy. This is the power of these programs
– and the opportunity we share to harness that power for a better future.
The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs provide nutritious meals
to 31 million school children in over 101,000 schools throughout the nation.
Improving the food choices that children have, and that they actually make, at
school are central to our efforts to improve their diets and address the obesity
crisis. Work is already underway to improve the nutrition standards for the
school meals programs, based on recommendations we received from an Institute of
Medicine expert panel late last year that proposed more fruits, vegetables,
whole grains and low-fat dairy products in school menus. To complement this
effort, we are working with the Agricultural Marketing Service to examine ways
to improve Farm to School efforts across the county. Our team is learning from
successful school districts to see how they have matched local production with
the needs of the school meal programs. If we can increase farm income and at the
same time educate school children that food indeed comes from the farm and the
farmer, we will have accomplished two important objectives simultaneously.
To help people make wise dietary choices, USDA’s MyPyramid.gov provides dietary
guidance and educational materials that help Americans improve their diet and
become more physically active. MyPyramid helps Americans personalize their
approach to choosing a healthier lifestyle that balances nutrition and exercise.
It encourages them to improve their overall health significantly by making
modest improvements to their diet and by incorporating regular physical activity
into their daily lives. MyPyramid, which translates the recommendations of the
Dietary Guidelines for Americans into accessible and useful information for the
general public, continues to be a significant means of helping Americans take
“Steps to a Healthier You.”
Nutrition education is also provided in many of the nutrition assistance
programs. For example, the goal of SNAP nutrition education, or SNAP-Ed, is to
improve the likelihood that persons eligible for SNAP benefits will make healthy
food choices within a limited budget and choose physically active lifestyles
consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and My Pyramid. In
partnership with the 52 SNAP State agencies that provide SNAP-Ed, nearly 100
organizations such as Cooperative Extension Service outlets, nutrition networks,
health departments, and food banks, provide nutrition education through hundreds
of projects. A study is currently underway to identify models of effective
SNAP-Ed nutrition education and their impacts on nutrition related behaviors. In
addition, FNS provides free nutrition education resources including a recipe
finder with over 600 easy, tasty, and low cost recipes, materials designed for
Spanish speaking mothers, and materials designed for older adults.
Participants in programs like SNAP need not only need the EBT cards to purchase
healthy food and the knowledge to make healthy choices but they also need access
to stores where healthy foods are plentiful. As of September 30, 2009, there
were 193,754 firms authorized to participate in SNAP.
Currently, to be eligible to participate in SNAP, stores must sell food for home
preparation and consumption and meet one of the following criteria:
(A) Offer for sale, on a continuous
basis (any given day of operation), at least three varieties of qualifying
foods in each of the following four staple food groups, with perishable
foods in at least two of the categories: meat, poultry or fish; bread or
cereal; vegetables or fruits; or dairy products.
(B) More than 50 percent of the total dollar amount of all things (food,
nonfood, gas and services) sold in the store must be from the sale of
eligible staple foods.
Over the past six years, the number of authorized firms has increased 27
percent. Over 85 percent of all benefits are redeemed at 20 percent of
authorized stores, such as supermarkets and superstores that offer a substantial
variety of staple foods including fruits and vegetables. In the near future, we
expect to release a new tool that will help clients find the SNAP authorized
stores near their home or workplace, providing them with additional information
to help access healthy food options.
The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, also known as the 2008 Farm
Bill, authorized $20 million for projects to evaluate health and nutrition
promotion in SNAP to determine if incentives provided to SNAP recipients at the
point-of-sale increase the consumption of fruits, vegetables, or other healthful
foods. At USDA, we call this the Healthy Incentive Pilot project (HIP). The
legislation requires that “[the] independent evaluation…use rigorous
methodologies, particularly random assignment….” USDA will implement a
randomized control evaluation approach which will allow for comparison between
the groups that receive the incentive and those that don’t in order to determine
the impacts of HIP. This research design provides the rigor necessary to
attribute any changes in fruit and vegetable consumption to the incentive. The
evaluation will also assess HIP’s impacts on the State SNAP Agency and its
partners and describe the procedures involved in planning, implementing and
operating the pilot. The competitive solicitations for both the project
evaluator and the pilot sites were recently released.
Increasing the number of farmers’ market authorized to accept SNAP benefits is
another way to improve access to healthful foods. It is a top priority at USDA.
Farmers’ market participation in SNAP is a win-win situation for local farmers
who expand their customer base and for participants who gain access to healthy
produce. In fiscal year 2009, over 900 farmers and farmers’ markets were
authorized to accept SNAP benefits, an increase of 25 percent over the prior
year. FNS has a goal to authorize an additional 200 farmers’ markets each year.
To aid in this effort, the President’s Budget for 2011 includes a proposal for
$4 million to provide farmers markets with SNAP EBT equipment.
Our sister agency, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), offers the Farmers’
Market Promotion Program which provides grants that encourage and support
expansion of farmers markets. The authorizing statute requires at least 10
percent of grant funds to be directed towards projects to support the use of EBT
for federal nutrition programs at farmers markets. This program has helped many
markets overcome barriers to purchasing equipment and become SNAP authorized.
To further support FNS’s priority of increasing the number of SNAP authorized
farmers’ markets, we’ve recently made a number of improvements to streamline the
process for farmers’ markets seeking SNAP authorization. This new guidance
reduces administrative burdens on the State agencies while streamlining the
authorization process for farmers’ markets. This information is posted on our
web page. Farmers’ markets are often the center of the community and are an
excellent venue for outreach and nutrition education. Farmers’ markets offer a
place to educate potential clients about the benefits of participation in SNAP.
USDA encourages State SNAP officials to incorporate farmers’ markets in outreach
and nutrition education efforts.
Farmers’ market incentive programs also encourage healthy eating. Such projects
provide matching “bonus dollars” for purchases made with SNAP benefits. The
incentives, funded by private foundations, non-profit organizations and local
governments, improve the purchasing power of low-income SNAP participants at
farmers’ markets so they can buy more fruits and vegetables and other healthy
Farmers’ markets play a key role in access to healthy foods in the WIC Farmers’
Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) and in the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition
Program. During fiscal year 2008, 2.3 million WIC recipients and 964,000 seniors
received coupons redeemable at farmers’ markets. A variety of fresh, nutritious,
unprepared, locally grown fruits, vegetables and herbs may be purchased with
FMNP coupons. In addition, seniors can purchase honey.
While the growth in authorized retailers and farmers’ markets is a good sign
that most SNAP recipients have access to food retailers, there remain issues to
be addressed. First and foremost, we need to ask to what extent those stores
offer the healthy food choices that SNAP participants need and want. Second, we
need better information to determine whether areas with limited access have
inadequate access. Better measures of access, information on food prices, and
data on the relative availability of all food types, not just healthy food items
are needed to authoritatively describe food deserts. And, finally, how can we
encourage changes to make healthy food more readily available in such areas?
USDA stands ready to explore all of these areas through research, analysis, and
eventually, policy, if needed.
As I mentioned before, the Healthy Incentive Pilot is one effort that will
contribute greatly to our knowledge in this area. If the incentive does entice
more demand for healthful foods, it should increase the desire of retailers to
stock such items. It is too soon to speculate what effect this might have on
food deserts, but it is worth noting that such an incentive may well play a
The President’s fiscal year 2011 budget makes available over $400 million in
financial and technical assistance to bring grocery stores and other healthy
food retailers to food deserts. This effort is known as the Healthy Food
Financing Initiative and is a partnership between the Departments of Treasury,
Health and Human Services and Agriculture designed to eliminate food deserts
within the next seven years. The objectives of this effort are to increase
access to healthy and affordable food choices in underserved urban and rural
communities, help reduce the high incidence of diet related diseases, create
jobs and economic development, and establish market opportunities for farmers
and ranchers. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative will expand access to
nutritious foods by developing and equipping grocery stores and other healthy
food retailers in communities that currently lack these options.
At the same time, we look forward to the contributions of our partners in
private industry and the advocacy community and to learning more about their
creative approaches to addressing this problem. Improving access in the areas
where choice is limited is a challenge, but it is one we must undertake if we
are to solve our dual problems of food insecurity and obesity.
In the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Service mission area at USDA, our role is
also to make sure that all low income people who are eligible are enrolled in
the nutrition assistance programs to provide them with the supplement to their
food budget that enables the purchase of healthy foods. As such, access to the
Federal nutrition assistance programs remains a top priority
Despite record participation in SNAP, totaling more than 39 million participants
in January 2010, there remain underserved populations – while the participation
rate among all eligible was 66 percent in 2007, less than one third of eligible
elderly participate and only 56 percent of eligible Hispanics participate. And
this is why outreach remains a critical component of our access efforts. The
most common reason that eligible people don’t participate is because they don’t
know they are eligible. Therefore, in order to maximize participation in SNAP,
USDA conducts direct marketing activities, and provides funding, and outreach
materials as well as technical assistance to public organizations, including
State SNAP agencies, as well as neighborhood and faith based organizations that
conduct SNAP outreach and marketing efforts.
FNS has a multitude of free outreach materials, some designed specifically for
seniors, and most available in English and Spanish to help people recognize
their potential eligibility and raise awareness about the nutrition benefits of
SNAP. Materials include brochures, flyers, posters, and radio and television
public service announcements. An online pre-screening tool in English and
Spanish lets the user know if they might be eligible for benefits and how much
they might receive. FNS also operates a toll free number in English and Spanish
that provides callers with information about the program. Each year, FNS uses
radio advertising in English and Spanish, to reach low income people in
underserved areas. Finally, FNS has awarded outreach grants to neighborhood and
faith-based organizations to support development and implementation of promising
outreach strategies to reach low income seniors and Latinos.
At the same time, we need to make sure that we simplify the application process,
remove barriers to participation and provide the highest quality customer
service. In SNAP, States have a variety of policy options available to improve
access. Currently, 31 States use broad-based categorical eligibility to raise
the gross income limits and raise or eliminate asset tests in SNAP. Such efforts
make the program available to families with low incomes and modest assets as
well as those with high expenses but gross incomes slightly higher than the
normal gross income test. I strongly encourage all States to implement this
policy. States are also using telephone interviews in place of face to face
interview and tailoring the length of interviews to specific questions to reduce
the burdens on clients and state staff.
Through direct certification, children who are eligible for free meals because
their households are approved for SNAP benefits are identified. Annually, USDA
reports to Congress on direct certification and have gained insight into what
works best by talking to staff who manage direct certification in their state.
From the most recent report which was issued in October, 2009 we focused on
those states who had the greatest improvement in the percentages of children who
were directly certified and asked how they did it. We will be promoting these
best practices and others through the direct certification grants ($22 million)
provided through the FY 2010 Agriculture Appropriations Act.
USDA also works hard to improve what we offer directly to program participants
in the commodity programs. We have reduced the fat, sodium and sugar in the USDA
foods being offered and will continue to make improvements on an ongoing basis.
The WIC food packages were recently revised to reflect recommendations by the
Institute of Medicine (IOM) and more closely align with the 2005 Dietary
Guidelines for Americans and infant feeding guidelines of the American Academy
of Pediatrics. The changes, which promote healthier options for WIC participants
by adding fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and emphasizing low-fat milk,
may also benefit the larger community by increasing the availability of
nutritious food options in small grocery stores and corner stores.
In closing, the Obama Administration is committed to improving the Federal
nutrition assistance programs and to assuring that those in need have access to
program benefits, the knowledge to make wise food choices with those benefits,
and that retailers are accessible so that participants have access to healthy
foods in their communities. I would be happy to answer any questions you might
have and, again, thank you for the opportunity to speak on this issue today.