SECRETARY of Agriculture John Block recently invited a few of his most vociferous critics to discuss policy with him and a few other top USDA officials, including Mary Jarratt, assistant secretary for Food and Consumer Services.
Predictably the consumer advocates, mostly from Washington-based organizations, criticized policy decisions in light of the recent and forthcoming budget cuts, and USDA officials reiterated support for the administration's budget cutting.
Block said the meeting was part of his policy "of having an exchange with all kinds of different groups that have an interest in the policies of the Department of Agriculture." Closed to the press, the hour-long meeting was intended to provide a forum for "dialogue" between consumer advocates and department representatives.
Chief among the advocates' concerns was the apparent paradox established by an overwhelming surplus of commodity foods on the one hand and a cut in funds for feeding programs on the other. The department is giving away surplus cheese as fast as it can, and yet, according to Block, last month "our accumulation has increased by 50 million pounds--an interesting tidbit that drives me out of my mind." The government arranges to buy excess food from certain producers in order to keep prices competitive, and lately a huge excess of stored cheese has come close to spoiling.
Marshall Matz, representing the School Food Service Association, suggested that the USDA use several of these commodities as "bonus" foods for school food services. This would mean additional foods, notably honey and wheat, would be provided at no cost to schools to extend their food budgets. Block said that "honey could" end up as a bonus food, "and wheat too, maybe," but that it's "probably a little more difficult to get a volume movement on wheat."
Relative to this large store of excess food, cutbacks in feeding programs appear especially ironic. One advocate was troubled by the combining of the cost-efficient Supplemental Feeding Program for "Women, Infants and Children" in a block grant with Maternal and Child Health, which effectively reduces money for the program. (One study, for instance, showed that for every $1 spent on WIC, $3 was saved in intensive health care for infants.)
"My problem," said Block, "and I really have a problem with the WIC program--I concede it's a good program--but that program is not fair. It provides assistance to just a few parts of the country . . . and there are people that are just as badly in need of that kind of program in other places and there is absolutely no inclination on the part of the federal government to totally fund everyone in the United States . . .
"That being the case," he continued, "suddenly you realize that the WIC program is more of a program that -- if it's going to be continued -- is going to be targeted to certain cities. And if that's the case, it certainly makes sense to me that it be block-granted."
Several consumer advocates were disturbed at what they called "illogical" reasoning--i.e., because every person eligible for WIC is not a participant in the program is no reason to cut funds.
Mary Jarratt, supporting the administration's stand on WIC, said that many of the USDA feeding programs overlap -- that WIC recipients may be on food stamps, for instance -- and that the administration has determined to give the food-stamp and school-lunch programs top priority in the hope of achieving more efficient spending.
"We are not making any of these cuts," she said, "because we feel feeding programs have not had some impact in this country. We have some pretty good evidence that the food-stamp program has had an impact on the nutrition intake of the families," but that "a legitimate argument can be made for keeping" all feeding programs, and the department must choose priorities among them.
Nancy Amidei, director of the the Food Research and Action Center, pointed out that WIC was started initially to supplement food stamps because there is no provision in the food-stamp diet for pregnant and nursing mothers--a group whose nutrition is critical. And now that food-stamp funds have been frozen, she said, those who can manage on them are more the exception than the rule. There is no duplication in funds, she maintained.