Hello! Thank you for reading Food Fix. I’m coming to you today from Savannah, Ga., where I’m attending a meeting hosted by the American Public Human Services Association, a group that represents state health and human services agencies.
Yesterday, I moderated a discussion with folks across the food insecurity/aid spectrum, including USDA, Feeding America, the Walmart Foundation and the Los Angeles County Food Equity Roundtable. A common theme among the panelists was that Covid-19 food aid and other hunger response efforts are complex, and it really takes multi-sector engagement to make a dent. I’ll write more about what I’ve learned here later this week. (P.S. If you are here in Savannah, reply to this email – would love to meet more state leaders.)
One of the most common requests I’ve gotten from all of you – thank you so much for writing! – is that you want to see more local and state coverage woven into the federal policy coverage. I’m going to work more of that in. Stay tuned.
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Alright, let’s get to it –
Today, in Food Fix:
– A conversation with House Approps Chair Rosa DeLauro
– SNAP goes increasingly online
– Dr. Oz goes grocery shopping
– White House set to review WIC food package update
– Jessica Shahin honored for FNS service
DeLauro mulls infant formula fixes — and what to do about FDA
House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro is fired up, not just about FDA’s failings on the food front, but also about what might be done to make the infant formula market less concentrated in the wake of the ongoing shortage.
In a recent interview with Food Fix, DeLauro laid out her thinking as she works on another formula bill – and reflected on what ails FDA, a key food safety agency.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Food at FDA is under a microscope now in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time. I’m sure you’ve seen that the agency has now commissioned an outside review of its foods program by the Reagan-Udall Foundation. Some folks see this as punting difficult decisions on the issue. Where do you see FDA right now in terms of changing or listening to all of this outside criticism?
I was opposed to the Reagan-Udall Foundation from its inception. Why were we engaging in this effort? What was their mission? What were they about? What are they going to do? I still have that view. They are so cozy with industry. And they get budget from ag approps. [The group receives federal funding from FDA through the annual food and agriculture spending bill.] This is incestuous. The idea that they could provide an independent, outside review – it defies imagination.
In an ideal world, what do you want FDA to do? There is a really strong consensus here that something has to change, but what do you want to see happen?
Historically, the FDA has not paid attention to food safety the way that they should. I believe food safety ought to be an independent agency. I’m not foolish or Pollyanna in viewing that as a slam dunk. This is an institution that is consumed with turf. No one wants to give up an iota of turf. I went around to everyone (on the Hill) and I couldn’t get people to agree to do this.
In the short term, we need a deputy commissioner of food safety, somebody who is confirmed by the Senate, somebody who has credentials in food safety. Food safety is low on the food chain, it really is. Who is the person responsible?
Turning to the infant formula shortage: The agency has moved toward enforcement discretion to allow more imports for now. Where do you see that heading next?
How are we monitoring the product as it comes in? How many people do we have inspecting that product as it comes in, testing it, seeing if it’s safe? I asked the inspector general – and they agreed to take on – the question of what the FDA and officials from the company did in the lead up to the recall. I recently asked the inspector general for (an inquiry) on this enforcement discretion. I’m concerned.
There are some experts who think that WIC has helped keep the infant formula market highly concentrated. How are you thinking about this right now? There seems to be less appetite on the Hill to look at sole-source contracting.
We’ve got to force them to do it. That’s a tougher road. Imagine a sole-source contract. Abbott has 43 percent of the WIC market. That is unconscionable. In that instance, we’re putting our most vulnerable population at risk. Some 50 to 66 percent of all infant formula in the U.S. is purchased through WIC. What are we doing to cultivate other domestic manufacturers?
They are feeling a little left out right now.
The consolidation piece – I’m going to introduce a bill that will be out in September that focuses on the infant formula market, but I’m going to look more generally at consolidation, and that’s a tough road.
Well, some of the opposition comes from anti-hunger groups who are nervous that opening up contracting could make WIC more vulnerable politically and/or more costly generally.
Yes. They don’t want to open it up, especially if it costs more. But the apple cart was upended when this one company with 43 percent of the market failed and put all of these people at risk. We had to get USDA involved. I want to compliment Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on what he was able to do, of looking at the waivers, etc. Abbott not having a contingency plan? My god. How could we be put in this position?
I want to pivot to the White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health – still a lot of outstanding questions, but folks are excited about this event. What are your hopes for that?
What we can do to end hunger. How can we increase healthy eating? What are the diet-related diseases we can look at? I’m looking for the same kind of results out of this one as the groundbreaking efforts of the 1969 [White House food conference]. I also want to see discussion of the safety of food that we’re eating. I’m going to fight to make sure food safety is a part of this.
Circling back to FDA, it’s going to be really interesting to see what this review finds – and how FDA handles it. There’s a lot of pressure to shake things up over there.
Maybe I’m too cynical and skeptical. I think it’s going to be a cover-up. All they are going to say is, “We’re going to need more money.” I don’t know how they would want to address their structural issues, it’s going to be about revenue.
Content note: The above is just a portion of my lengthy conversation with the chairwoman recently on food policy issues. Are you interested in reading more in-depth Q&As with lawmakers? The newsletter format is more suited to content that keeps moving, but I will explore sharing longer-format content if folks are interested. Let me know. email@example.com
SNAP goes increasingly online
Pre-Covid-19, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was moving slowly with a pilot program to test online SNAP purchasing. Then, the pandemic massively accelerated the trend and took the online option nationwide. Stacy Dean, deputy under secretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, shared an update on the status of online purchases during a panel discussion I moderated at the APHSA meeting in Savannah on Monday.
In March 2020, there were 35,000 households redeeming benefits online, she said. By June 2022, it was 3 million households. (You could hear gasps in the room. That’s a big jump!)
“It’s pretty extraordinary,” Dean said, adding: “We’re pivoting to focusing on helping small stores, small independents who may not have online payments.”
Context: There are more than 21 million households utilizing SNAP, per the latest USDA figures. Back of envelope, this suggests that roughly one in seven SNAP households is redeeming benefits online – a very fast uptake at scale. Of course, the likes of Walmart and Amazon are also major beneficiaries of this move… and there’s a lot of sensitivity about spreading those sales around to smaller players.
What’s next: “SNAP participants should have all of the same shopping opportunities that a non-participant does – and we can’t be viewing that as something that’s out six or seven years in the future,” Dean said. “WIC is our next big challenge.”
Dr. Oz is back on the food beat
If you aren’t closely watching Twitter ruthlessly troll Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, a.k.a. Dr. Oz, for a clueless grocery store video of him lamenting the high price of crudités – no really, this happened – well, you are mostly just proving you are not on Twitter.
The video is actually from April, but for whatever reason it’s going viral now (with more than 9 million views as of this morning). At one point, chef José Andrés got involved. The clip shows Oz cluelessly shopping for vegetables at “Wegners” (which, folks theorize, is a mashup of Redner’s and Wegmans). The whole episode only fuels the narrative that Oz, a longtime New Jersey resident, isn’t really a Pennsylanian.
For what it’s worth, Oz appears to be trailing his Democratic opponent John Fetterman by a significant margin. Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, responded to the controversy by noting that folks in his state don’t exactly use the term “crudité,” they just call it a “veggie tray.”
United Farm Workers responded Monday night with a thread about how the various vegetables are hand harvested.
WIC food package update heads to White House for review
A proposed rule to update the food packages for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, a.k.a. WIC, was sent to the White House in late July – and there are already a handful of meetings scheduled to discuss the proposal later this month.
Groups that have meetings on the books include the National WIC Association, National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, the juice industry and Kellogg Company.
Shahin honored for FNS service
Jessica Shahin, who is retiring from her post as Associate Administrator for SNAP at USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, was honored Monday at the APHSA meeting with a legacy award for her long service at the department. I can confirm, after talking to several state leaders here, that she is widely respected and beloved.
“What I feel most is gratitude,” Shahin said in emotional remarks, to a standing ovation at the gathering. “Gratitude for having had the opportunity to work for the most extraordinary agency, the most extraordinary program and with the most extraordinary people.”
What I’m reading
More formula providers lobby up (POLITICO Influence). When the shortage first hit, POLITICO Influence noted that infant formula makers weren’t exactly lobbying powerhouses. But the industry has ramped up its efforts in recent months, this report notes. Perrigo Company, which makes a lot of private-label products, Nestlé USA and Enfamil have made recent hires. The Infant Nutrition Council of America, for example, brought on former Senate Agriculture Chair Blanche Lincoln and her firm, Lincoln Policy Group.
How Local Farms Can Feed Families Amid High Inflation (Bloomberg). A look at how a farm to food bank program in Illinois is working as food banks struggle to keep up with sustained high demand while food prices are high.
UK Investor Coalition Calls for Stricter Food Industry Standards (Food Tank). An investor coalition led by Rathbone Greenbank Investments recently called on the UK government to “enforce stricter health and sustainability standards on the food industry.” The coalition includes 23 investors that have trillions in assets, the report notes.The coalition’s letter is here.
Lillie Zeng is stepping down from her role as press secretary for the Senate Agriculture Committee’s Democratic majority.
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