Millions of Americans receive assistance to put food on the table. How much and what kind was part of a discussion in an Iowa gathering of the five most recent Secretaries of Agriculture.

John Torpy shows us the differing views still surrounding aid. 

With experience spanning three administrations and three decades, five former U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture gathered in Des Moines, Iowa this week to discuss solutions for food insecurity at The World Food Prize sponsored Iowa Hunger Summit.  

Secretary Dan Glickman, USDA (1995-2001),” Because I still contend most people don't want to be on these programs. Most people want to get off of them as fast as they can.”

The biggest talking points surrounded the program with the biggest budget in the USDA, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. Starting as Food Stamps when Henry Wallace was Agriculture Secretary, the program has evolved into a system helping those with food insecurities, providing job training and to assist people gain self-sufficiency. In 2016, The USDA Food and Nutrition Service notes SNAP served 44.2 million people per month at an annual price tag of almost $67 billion.

Critics of the program say the unlimited food choices in SNAP have led to a system of dependency on the federal government. The ability for participants to purchase almost whatever food they want has made SNAP a public enemy when it comes to the problem of obesity in the country. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than one third of adults have obesity.

Ann Veneman, who was President George W. Bush’s first Ag Secretary, called for restricting food choices in SNAP to focus on healthier selections. These actions could help curb government spending on healthcare related issues in the future. 

Secretary Ann Veneman, USDA (2001-2005)  “We're paying for this as taxpayers in Medicaid and Medicare for if people aren't putting the right food in their bodies we're paying it in diseases such as heart disease, diabetes all of the non-communicable diseases are much more prevalent where we have greater obesity./We've changed it to the supplemental underscore nutrition assistance program. We should be talking much more about nutrition and not just hunger because nutrition is really the key word.”

Secretary Mike Johanns, who also served under President Goerge W. Bush, warned restrictions in SNAP benefits aren’t going to fix the problem completely.

Secretary Mike Johanns, USDA (2005-2007), “I tend to be of the school that says look a certain amount of of restriction, yeah it's appropriate but if you think you're going to solve this problem with with a total restriction approach you’re not. You have to build in an educational approach that has a broader base to it than what we're doing today and actually give people good information on how to make good decisions about family diet. But here's the problem you you have people who are able body and can they make it all work on minimum wage and the answer that is probably not.”

Individuals receiving SNAP ballooned 42 percent in President Obama’s first four years in office before shrinking seven percent in his last four. Tom Vilsack was Secretary during that entire time and adds an update is in order.

Secretary Tom Vilsack, USDA (2009-2017) “It also presupposes that people who are receiving snap consume around 20 lb of beans a week. No one consumes 20 pounds of beans a week. It begs to be reviewed, and I think if it were to be reviewed and aligned with food prices as they are today you would probably see the need for not fewer dollars but more dollars in the program.”

President George W. Bush’s third Ag Secretary and former North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer praised efforts at the local level such as food pantry’s and farmers markets for food education and that ongoing research can be a crucial tool.

Secretary Ed Schafer, USDA (2008-2009) “I mean there's a lot of research going on that we need to fund and continue to support in in changing the Americans diet.”

Despite differences in how federal assistance programs should work, one point the five Secretaries agreed on is if The Farm Bill and the SNAP Program were pulled into two separate bills, neither would pass on Capitol Hill.

Secretary Tom Vilsack, USDA (2009-2017), “Do you think it's a good idea to divide and separate the nutrition programs from the farm support programs yes or no. No, no, no, no. Okay that's unanimous.”

For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy.