Deceptions in the Hunger Crusade, Part 3

Nutrition Education: Does it Work?

 

It would seem obvious that if food stamp recipients make deleterious food choices, what they need is education so that they might do better. This is so obvious that government funds numerous nutrition education programs. This author attended a summit on childhood hunger and picked up a brochure publicizing a menagerie of twenty-seven nutrition education programs:

 

SNAP-Ed for food stamp recipients, WIC education for recipients of Women, Infant and Children food program, Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program EFNEP, Nutrition and Physical Activity program NAPA, Montana Team Nutrition, Montana FoodCorps, Cooking in the Classroom, Cooking Matters, MSU Extension Food and Nutrition, MSU Extension 4-H, MSU Nutrition Education Program, Office of Public Instruction-School Nutrition Program, Office of Public Instruction-Family and Consumer Sciences, Office of Public Instruction –Agriculture Education, Office of Public Instruction- Agriculture Education Grades 7&8, Montana Action for Healthy Kids, Montana Rural Health Initiative, Eat Right Montana, Eat Smart, Learning by Nature, Gallatin Valley Farm to School, Farm to Cafeteria Network, Montana No Kid Hungry, Montana Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, 21st Century Learning Center, Coordinated Approach to Child Health, Child and Adult Care Food Program, Montana Agriculture in the Classroom.

 

But do the programs work? Measurable results are rare and spare. Holding classes and handing out certificates of completion does not indicate changes in buying or eating, the ostensible goals of the program. Programs excel at spending taxpayer money, a result that serves government employees and little else.

 

A worker in the EFNEP program said her program has completion data to verify its effectiveness, and that SNAP-Ed does not. The estimated cost for SNAP-Ed is $114 million a year. Even EFNEP’s way of quantifying success was unconvincing, amounting to counting numbers of attendees, “bottoms in seats.”

 

Many government programs have difficulty showing cost-effective results. Nutrition education has a similar famine of proof. Indeed, populations targeted by nutrition programs are going backwards on attaining healthy weights.

 

Food Aid Advocates: With or Against Agri-business?

 

Lori Silverbush, the co-director of the movie A Place at the Table, castigates large agricultural businesses saying “they lobby behind the scenes to defeat food policy.” She ignores how covetous ConAgra, Kraft, Nestle, PepsiCo and Frito-Lay are of school food and SNAP as markets for their products, and sources of profit.

 

Some of the largest of the large send emissaries to sit on the board of Feeding America, giving them a charitable cloak for lobbying Congress to plump food stamp spending. Around the boardroom table are ConAgra Foods, The Kroger Co., MARS Food, General Mills and Walmart.

 

It’s hard to imagine that Silverbush is unaware of the profit motive at work when ConAgra joins her in exaggerations of hunger. This makes her unkind words toward food corporations a smoke screen, a false front. ConAgra and ADM may have worked out a deal with her: You can whip us as long as you don’t reveal how reliant we are on wasteful government spending in food. The alliance of progressives with mega-corporations is a strange brew.

 

Matthew Yglesias, writing in Slate[1], calls a Republican effort to reform food stamps, a   “morally obscene plan to substantially cut food-stamp spending while leaving agricultural subsidized unscathed,” forgetting that food stamps are an agricultural subsidy.  Corn growers and high fructose corn syrup corporations rely mightily on food stamp spending and its sandy foundation of distorted hunger numbers.

 

 

Cost per Meal Contortions

 

Feeding America shows an icon on their website: $1=8 meals. The header reads: Your Gift Provides Great Impact. This would lead a person to conclude that donating a dollar provides the contents for eight meals; they can provide a meal for $.12. This person would be wrong.

 

USDA reimburses schools $3.03 for every school lunch they serve free. Is that the cost of a meal, or is Feeding America’s $.12 the real cost? A food stamp recipient gets $2.22 per meal, $200 for ninety meals in a month. Gallatin County, Montana, pays a private contractor $1.48[2] per meal served in the jail. Feeding America’s pitch lacks credibility.

 

This author spoke to the director of the Montana Food Bank Network (MFNB), about the meals-per-dollar figures they advertise. In past years they said $1=7 meals. Their method of computation is a complex absurdity. First they wrest a hypothetical number of meals from the number of pounds of food distributed by their statewide affiliates. They then divide by the number of dollars they receive in cash donations. But dollars coming in is not related to number of pounds or meals distributed. It is illogical to make a ratio of unrelated things and use it to infer relationship. The number of cash dollars contributed has no direct correlation to the number of pounds, hence hypothetically-derived meals, distributed.

 

MFNB has in recent months had to reduce the purported number of meals per dollar from seven to five and then to three. This pirouette casts doubt on the methodology. (Their new computations arrive at $1=3.37 meals; they round down the $1=3 for simplicity in marketing.)

 

If a person donated $10,000 to Feeding America or MFBN, the donor might expect that more meals would be provided. But MFNB would not guarantee it would buy food; the money would likely go to expenses such as marketing, wages and capital improvements. Food comes from donations, from grocery stores and food drives. The $10,000 would enlarge the numerator while the denominator, number of meals would remain the same. The ratio would fall, a perplexing, contrary outcome to that expected by the donor. They might say, “What do you mean, for every dollar I give fewer meals are provided?” This shows how contrived the $1=8 meals, or $1=3 meals, seductions are.

 

 

Food banks cannot provide a meal for $.12 or $.33; even this three-fold spread between Feeding America’s claim and MFNB’s claim alerts observers to mathematical chicanery. If twelve cents was enough to provide a meal, $200 monthly in food stamps is enough to provide 53 meals a day to a recipient. If food banks could provide meals for $.12, taxpayers should have them train the school lunch program so that $10 billion of the annual spending of $11 billion there could be saved.

 

The giving public is being conned by MFNB and Feeding America. This harms real efforts to ameliorate hunger.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Selling hunger is easy. But the numbers used in the sales pitch are wrong.

 

Good-hearted people deserve better information as to the number of people actually hungry, the causes of their hunger, and how best to help.

 

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