Food policy group tracks lawmakers’ votes on SNAP cuts, GMO labeling, more

December 11, 2013

On Tuesday, a national nonprofit group supported by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio announced that 87 members of Congress scored a perfect 100 on the 2013 National Food Policy Scorecard, which tracked lawmakers on 19 votes in the U.S. House and Senate during the most recent session.

Of those 87 members of Congress, only one was a Republican, noted Ken Cook, board chairman for Food Policy Action, which tabulated the scores for the second year in a row. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the lone Republican to make the organization’s “good food champions” list, a fact that underscores the country’s increasingly deep divide over food assistance to the poor, said Cook, who also serves as the president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group for public health and the environment.

“I think the big factor that swings this year’s scorecard . . . is the sheer number of votes that were basically attacks on hungry people and the programs that serve them,” Cook said during the scorecard announcement at Graffiato in Chinatown. He was referring to the contentious farm bill, which still divides House and Senate negotiators on how much to fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.

All 38 House and Senate members with the lowest scores — zero — were Republicans, the Food Policy Action chairman noted. They included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Incidentally, as speaker, Boehner voted on only two of the 13 House bills or amendments that were considered for the scorecard; senators were scored on just six votes.

Jeff Stier, senior fellow at the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research, said there’s a good reason for Republican lawmakers’ performance on the scorecard. “It does not, as FPA claims, ‘reflect the consensus of top food policy experts,’ ” he said. “Rather, it represents the narrow views of a select group of some of the nation’s most ideologically divisive activists.”

Stier called the scorecard a “sham,” saying it has all the validity of an “NRA scorecard on gun ownership. But they’re playing it off as otherwise, which I think is misleading.”

Republicans fared better away from the scorecard’s extremes, pointed out Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for Environmental Working Group.

“A number of Republicans also scored very well and scored, in many cases, better than their Democratic colleagues,” Faber said. “The real heroes are the Republican members who voted against their leadership, especially to defend the hungry.”

Among others, Faber singled out Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rep. Richard L. Hanna (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who scored 67, 62 and 69 points, respectively, on the scorecard.

“It’s really important that our legislators vote to ensure that food is produced in a way that’s consistent with our values — all our shared values, not a red value or a blue value,” said Colicchio, a Food Policy Action board member who has taken an active role in lobbying Congress.

“This country cannot call itself a strong country when one-sixth of our population, roughly 50 million Americans, are struggling to feed themselves,” Colicchio added. “That’s not the kind of country that we all want to grow up in. So we have to start talking about our shared values. We need to talk about what’s important to us as a country, not what is important as a person who is on one side of the aisle or the other.”

The organization’s second scorecard looked at such issues as food stamps, international food aid and genetically modified foods. Lawmakers were awarded points for voting “no” on cuts to SNAP, for instance, or “yes” for labeling on genetically modified foods; legislators who voted the other way were awarded no points. More lawmakers scored a perfect 100 this time — 87, compared with 50 last year — but 254 members of Congress also scored worse this year compared with the 2012 scorecard, Cook said. The chairman noted that 138 House and Senate members saw their scores increase this year.

Maryland’s U.S. senators, Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, both scored 83. Democrats Timothy M. Kaine and Mark R. Warner, Virginia’s members in the U.S. Senate, scored 50 and 40, respectively. You can see how the states’ U.S. lawmakers scored here.

Asked whether Food Policy Action would eventually campaign to unseat members of Congress who don’t support its goals, Cook said: “There is interest on the board . . . to take the organization to the level where we can begin making a difference by informing voters intensively around specific races. We have made no commitments to doing that yet.”

Then Colicchio walked back to the podium and said he would speak for himself, not the nonprofit group. He said he would like to see Food Policy Action actively campaign in congressional races. The “Top Chef” judge said he wants to “find people who have the same values to coalesce around all food issues, not just hunger.”

“I think that’s where we need to head, where people will go to a ballot box and will vote around that single issue,” Colicchio added. “I think once that happens, then we can start moving the needle.”

Stier from the National Center for Public Policy Research said he doesn’t put much stock in the scorecard or its potential to affect political races. “I think they are playing to their base,” he said.

Check the National Food Policy Scorecard online to see how the group rated each member of Congress.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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