Policy Tool: School Lunch

Policy Area:Food Assistance, Nutrition and Safety

What It Is: The school lunch program provides assistance to schools through direct commodity distribution, cash subsidies, and, at times, subsidies for the purchase of equipment. Over time this program has been expanded to encompass both breakfast and lunch. Free or subsidized meals are given to children from low-income households.

Objective: To improve the nutritional levels of school-age children and ensure that they have at least one nutritionally balanced meal on school days.

When Used: The school lunch program has been in existence since the 1930s. Over time it has gradually put increasing emphasis on cash as opposed to commodity distribution. Schools have had increasing impact on the specific commodities obtained under the program. In the early 1990s, the program annually fed nearly 25 million students at a federal cost of about $5 billion.

Experience: The school lunch program began as a depression measure to support prices and to improve nutritional levels for all school children. From its inception through much of the 1960s, emphasis was placed on distributing surplus commodities in a nutritionally balanced relationship. Schools, however, gradually wanted more to say about what was received. In addition, increasing costs of in- school food preparation, relative to institutional and fast-food preparation, led to increased pressure to provide a larger proportion of cash subsidies relative to commodities. The increasing cost of meals led to school lunch and breakfast subsidies being restricted to children from low-income households. One of the main problems with the program has been complaints about the quality of meals served. In 1992, the Secretary of Agriculture made a commitment to reduce the fat content of the meals to a level of 30 percent or less. This included a commitment to implement the Dietary Guidelines into the school lunch and breakfast program. Pressure always exists to provide a larger proportion of cash assistance.


Policy Tool:
Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program

Policy Area: Food Assistance, Nutrition and Safety

What It Is: The WIC program combines direct commodity distribution with nutrition education. Most WIC recipients probably are also on food stamps or aid to families with dependent children. Nutrition education programs teach the recipients how to combine commodities with food expenditure dollars most effectively to improve nutrition and family living standards.

Objectives: To provide low-income mothers with a complete assistance program designed to improve nutrition levels for the family as a whole.

When Used: WIC has experienced almost continual expansion since the program began on an experimental basis in the early 1960s. Program participation has a tendency to increase in times of recession and increased unemployment.

Experience: Many of the recipients are single mothers with low incomes and pre-school children. Although WIC has been criticized for its constituency of predominantly unwed mothers, studies indicate that it is one of the nation's most effective programs in improving nutritional levels. This results largely from the combination of monetary, commodity, and nutrition education assistance. Attempts to discontinue the WIC program (as a cost- reducing measure) have consistently failed under the weight of studies showing the positive impact on nutrition and the resulting broad-based "hunger lobby" support.


Policy Tool: Cashing Out, Welfare Reform

Policy Area: Food Assistance, Nutrition and Safety

What Is It: Cashing out would provide food assistance in cash rather than commodities or food stamps. All food and income assistance programs would be consolidated into a single cash payment.

Objective: To provide income assistance to low-income households.

When Used: While cash has not yet been substituted for food stamps, there has been a gradual but persistent movement in the direction of providing a larger proportion of cash assistance as opposed to commodity or food stamp assistance. Cash subsidies to schools and food stamps that have been substituted for direct commodity distribution have become increasingly important relative to commodities.

Experience: Cash has provided schools greater flexibility in the ultimate use of assistance. Also, some argue that cash donations result in a greater increase in satisfaction. The cost of running several programs, each having different eligibility standards, has become increasingly high. There are those who believe that such consumer-oriented policy changes have come to so dominate USDA that producer-oriented programs have taken a back seat.


Policy Tool:
Commodity Distribution

Policy Area: Food Assistance, Nutrition, and Safety

What It Is: Commodity distribution programs provide primarily staple food products direct from the government to needy households. These commodities are generally in surplus, although nonsurplus food has been provided in times of high unemployment. Commodities are distributed to school lunches, elderly feeding programs, and households that qualify according to specific eligibility standards (i.e., unemployment or participation in some welfare program).

Objective: To expand the demand for farm products, utilize surplus commodities, and improve nutrition.

When Used: Commodity distribution was a forerunner of the food stamp program. Such direct distribution programs date back to the Great Depression era. However, even after widespread adoption of the food stamp program in the 1960s, commodity distribution has resurfaced periodically to dispose of surplus government stocks or to deal with problems of unemployment and poverty. The special cheese and butter distribution programs that operated in the early to mid-1980s (Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, TEFAP) were an example of such surplus disposal efforts.

Experience: Commodity distribution programs are costly because of the necessary network of needs assessment, processing, storage, transportation and distribution systems. With the advent of food stamps in the 1960s, the direct distribution system was dismantled. In the 1980s when surpluses and unemployment reappeared, pressure grew to once again distribute commodities -- beginning with cheese. Rather than establishing a distribution system, the Reagan administration provided the commodities to volunteer welfare groups such as churches. It was found, however, that under this system, many unqualified recipients received the products. Subsequently, government appropriations were provided to pay for at least a portion of the costs of distribution. When surpluses disappeared in the late 1980s, it was found to be politically difficult to discontinue the program.


Policy Tool: Food Stamps

Policy Area: Food Assistance, Nutrition and Safety

What It Is: The food stamp program provides eligible recipients with stamps that have an equivalent cash value. Eligibility is determined on the basis of income levels in relation to established poverty guidelines. Level of assistance is based on a USDA "thrift food budget" covering the cost of commodities needed to achieve a balanced diet. Higher levels of assistance are provided for lower incomes and larger family sizes.

Objective: To provide income assistance for the purchase of food by low- income households and thereby expand the demand for food as well as improve nutritional levels of recipients.

When Used: The food stamp program, while first used in the 1930s, began in earnest as a long-term food assistance program in the early 1960s and mushroomed to a social program serving more than 23 million recipients and costing in the early 1990s about $15 billion annually. Food manufacturers and retailers actively supported the conversion from direct commodity distribution to food stamps because food stamps do not displace commercial sales (see Commodity Distribution).

Experience: The merits of the food stamp program have been extensively debated. Major concerns regarding the program involve who should be eligible, the level of assistance, the commodities allowed to be purchased with stamps, and the potential for program abuse. Among the advocates of change are some who would prefer going back to commodity distribution and others who would prefer giving recipients cash (referred to as "cashing out"). Some advocate moving food stamps out of USDA.


Policy Tool: Delaney Clause, Zero Tolerance

Policy Area: Food Assistance, Nutrition and Safety

What It Is: Delaney is a clause of the Food Additive Amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The clause states that there shall be no cancer-causing substances added to the food supply. The standard is zero tolerance, meaning that food additives must be completely devoid of carcinogens.

Objective: To protect the general public from carcinogens entering the food supply. The Delaney clause specifically relates to the elimination of cancer-causing substances.

When Used: The Delaney clause was enacted in 1958. Zero tolerance has ostensively been applied as a standard for food additives ever since. However, zero can only be measured in terms of the sensitivity of the instrument used to detect specific chemicals or other harmful substances. As the scientific instruments have become increasingly sensitive, more potentially harmful substances (residues) have been discovered in the food supply. As a result, FDA has applied a de minimus tolerance. This means extremely small risks (levels) can be ignored. FDA established the de minimus tolerance at one in 1 million, meaning that an additive or residue cannot cause more than one additional cancer death per million people.

Experience: Delaney has worked as a standard only because FDA has followed the de minimus tolerance. Otherwise, FDA would have been continuously banning additional substances as the detection instruments became more sensitive. While realizing the inconsistence in interpretation with the law, Congress has been unable to muster enough votes to change the Delaney standard, which has substantial public appeal and support. Recent Federal Court decisions have held that zero tolerance means exactly that. FDA must either enforce it or Congress must change it.


Policy Tool: Pesticides Regulation, Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA

Policy Area: Food Assistance, Nutrition and Safety

What It Is: FIFRA is legislation requiring registration of new pesticides before they can be sold. It requires the reregistration of existing chemicals by 1997.

Objective: To protect the public from hazardous chemical residue that might otherwise create health problems, primarily cancer.

When Used: Pesticide regulations were first adopted in 1910 regulating only the sale of adulterated or misbranded pesticides. FIFRA was enacted in 1947 to require the registration of pesticides. The requirements for registration include efficacy and safety. While the responsibility for proof rested initially on the government, it was shifted to the manufacturer in 1954. The standard for registration involves a balancing of risks and benefits. By 1997 all pesticides must be reregistered.

Experience: The registration process is lengthy, time consuming, and costly. Many chemicals, some for which there are no effective substitutes, have been banned. For some minor use chemicals, the manufacturers have decided that they cannot bear the cost of reregistration. The agriculture committees have maintained jurisdiction over FIFRA despite its move out of USDA in 1940 and to EPA in 1970.


Policy Tool: Nutrition Labeling

Policy Area: Food Assistance, Nutrition and Safety

What It Is: The National Labeling and Education Act of 1990 is designed to replace and update the nutritional labeling policy implemented in 1975. The former policy was mostly voluntary while the new act is mandatory, preempting all state regulations.

  • Standard serving size in an amount normally consumed.

  • Content of individual nutrients based on the standard serving size including calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates, sugar, fiber, protein, sodium, calcium, etc.

  • Dictionary of product descriptions such as low calorie, reduced calorie, low fat, etc.

  • Health chain relationships such as fat and cancer, fat and heart disease, calcium and osteoporosis, sodium and hypertension.

    The new labeling requirement covers virtually all manufactured food products. Fresh meats and produce items are excluded. Small food manufacturers will also be exempt.

    Objective: To provide consumers the information base for making improved nutrition decisions.

    When Used: The labeling law must be implemented by May 1994.

    Experience: The old law was voluntary except for fortified foods and instances in which a nutrition claim was made. It was used on an estimated 60 percent of manufactured products. Frequently, products with attractive nutritional properties were labeled. The new policy will cover some products with unattractive nutritional properties, especially products with high fat and sodium and low fiber.