New Peoria Grassroots Group Forms Wholesome Food Fund Gro
By Clare Howard
An examination of the federal food stamp program shows big national corporations may be the real beneficiaries of federal food assistance while people who depend on the program to eat may actually be the losers. Working to change that is a new, grassroots group in Peoria that looks at bunches of Chioggia beets, ears of bicolor sweet corn and heads of German hardneck garlic and sees a metric for economic, environmental and social benefit.
The Wholesome Food Group collaborated with Community Foundation of Central Illinois to form a new designated fund named the Wholesome Food Fund. All tax-deductible donations to Community Foundation earmarked for the Wholesome Food Fund are used to double the value of food stamp dollars spent on fresh local food at Peoria Riverfront Market.
About 45 million Americans receive help from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, formerly referred to as food stamps. The Congressional Budget Office calculates the program cost $78 billion in 2011.
Data at the Illinois Department of Human Services shows about 43,000 people in Peoria, Woodford and Tazewell counties are enrolled in the program. Kaiser Health News has calculated the average benefit for people living inIllinois is $139 a month. That’s nearly $6 million a month in new money coming into the Tri-County region.
Shifting even a portion of that $6 million to local farmers markets is a powerful economic stimulant. For each dollar spent at corporate chain stores, the local economic impact is about 20 cents, according to a former graduate student in economics at Illinois State University. For each dollar spent at farmers markets, the local economic impact is $1.34, his study found. That’s because of the multiplier effect.
The Wholesome Food Fund provides an incentive to shift spending from corporate chains to farmers markets by doubling the value of Link card/food stamp purchases at Peoria Riverfront Market. Since the market sells produce grown in Illinois, that means a reduction in emissions from shipping food thousands of miles. Since the market sells produce grown by the vendor, that means food is not coming from large corporate farms with huge mono-crop acreage requiring aerial and ground application of pesticides that create pesticide drift. In fact, much of what’s sold at the market is organic or chemical-free.
A look at the history of the federal food assistance program provides a more ominous picture. The program started following the Great Depression. It did not include soda, candy and processed food. Relatively few Americans were obese.
When the food stamp program began in 1964, corporations successfully lobbied Congress to include big money-making items like soda, candy and snack foods. Obesity rates began to skyrocket. Today, 68 percent of Americans are obese, creating a tsunami of chronic diseases undermining health, the economy and national security. Among 17- to 24-year-olds, 27 percent are too overweight for military service. Total economic costs associated with obesity in the United States are in excess of $215 billion a year.
Yet big food manufacturers spend millions lobbying Congress and state legislatures to keep SNAP money going to junk food. In Illinois, Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, proposed a ban on use of SNAP benefits for food with minimal nutritional value. Her proposal never made it out of committee.
Money for SNAP comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture which refuses to track and disclose how program dollars are spent. However, one researcher documented nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusettsreceived more than $33 million in SNAP money in one year. That’s four times the SNAP money spent at farmers markets nationwide. Another researcher reported that in a two-year period, Walmart stores in Oklahomareceived $500 million in SNAP money.
Another opaque area in the program are contracts with big banks and corporations that process the electronic benefits transfers. JP Morgan Chase holds the contracts for half of the states. In Illinois, Northrop Grumman operates EBT. How much they charge is not publicly disclosed.
At one time, poverty was linked to under-nutrition and thinness. Today, poverty is linked to obesity and chronic disease.
The Wholesome Food Group includes Golda Ewalt, director of the dietetic internship program at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center; Clare Howard, former Journal Star reporter; and Sharon Gramm, manager of Peoria Riverfront Market.
Rather than trying to fight the flood of corporate money going to keep junk food included in SNAP, the Wholesome Food Group is incentivizing the shift to fresh local food. To support this effort, tax-deductible contributions can be sent to Community Foundation of Central Illinois (earmarked for the Wholesome Food Fund), 331 Fulton St., Suite 310, Peoria, IL 61602. For more information on the foundation go to: http://www.communityfoundationci.org/
Contact Clare at: firstname.lastname@example.org