USDA under secretary touts food programs in Portland, asks Congress to resist cuts

PORTLAND, Maine – A top U.S. Department of Agriculture official on Wednesday morning touted local summer lunch programs for schoolchildren and urged Congress to resist proposed cuts to federal food subsidy programs.

Kevin Concannon – former commissioner of the Maine Department of Human Services and current USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services – was joined during a news conference by Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative Director Donna Yellen, AARP Maine State President Carol Kontos and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan.

Also speaking Wednesday were individuals who benefited from federal nutrition programs firsthand, including Riverton Park summer lunch site coordinator John Ochira, and working mothers and food supplement program beneficiaries Dee Clarke and Marguerite Brocard.

The Stone Street playground site was chosen for the event because it is one of 58 summer meal sites in Cumberland County. Yellen’s Maine Hunger Initiative supports 24 of those sites, including 12 new ones opened this summer as health officials emphasize the importance of filling the seasonal void left in the diets of children who no longer have daily access to school cafeterias.

Ochira said he serves an average of 90 children each day at his Riverton site, one of the most populated summer lunch programs in the city.

“As a site supervisor, I see so many smiles, so many happy parents and so many well-fed kids as a result of the summer lunch program,” Ochira said.

Wednesday’s event was held in an effort to draw attention to the diversity of people who benefit from federal food aid, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP. Brocard and Clarke each said she relies on the federal supplements to buy healthy groceries for their homes.

Both have held steady jobs in southern Maine, but each said her weekly paycheck wasn’t enough to cover fresh fruit and vegetables. Clarke said that if Congress doesn’t invest in healthy eating programs now for those who can’t afford to finance their own nutritional needs, taxpayers likely will have to pay for more expensive health care in the future.

“It’s more and more difficult to prevent illness, disabilities and early death when access to nutritious food and healthy meals is limited,” she told reporters.

Kontos said 7 percent of Mainers older than 50 “are threatened by hunger.”

Speakers on Wednesday used the variety of SNAP and other federal nutrition program beneficiaries to illustrate why they believe cuts to the programs included in the U.S. Farm Bill currently making its way through Congress are dangerous. The U.S. House is considering a bill that includes $16.5 billion in cuts to SNAP, formerly known as the federal food stamps program.

“We have grave concerns about the Farm Bill and proposals to weaken the food supplement programs and reduce access to nutritious food,” Yellen told reporters Wednesday.

She said that, in contrast to the cuts, if Congress increased funding for food supplement programs by 10 percent, Maine could cut its “food insecure” population from 200,000 to 100,000. A 41 percent increase in funding for the programs, she argued, would wipe out hunger in Maine completely, as measured by numbers of people considered “food insecure.”