Food for thought: How the government shutdown impacts food
For the seventh straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by the restaurants of Potawatomi. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2013."
This week I tried to go online and get some business taken care of through the Internal Revenue Service web site. It never even occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to interact with a customer service agent from the IRS, due to the government shutdown.
Frustrating, sure. But, probably not the end of the world.
My business can wait a few weeks, or even a month, if needed. But, there are other areas where the government shutdown is impacting individuals in ways that aren't quite as easy to blow off.
Take government programs that impact our food supply, for instance.
During the shutdown, the Food and Drug Administration will be forced to cease most of its food-safety operations. That includes "routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making."
To give you a sense of what this means, 91 percent of seafood that Americans consume, which the U.S. imports, is not currently being inspected. The same goes for nearly half of the fruits and about 20 percent of vegetables imported from abroad. And though many inspections here in the U.S. are still being carried out through state and local agencies, reporting any problems encountered at the federal level could be difficult.
While I'm certainly not one to spread panic in situations like this – and I would encourage everyone not to overreact –the fact is, food safety is a fairly large concern. You've likely heard the reports about the listeria contamination found at Crave Brothers here in Waterloo. And, as recently as last week, Garden Fresh Foods of Milwaukee recalled 19,000 pounds of ready-to-eat chicken and ham products because of possible listeria contamination.
The fact is, there are probably only a dozen or so foodborne illness outbreaks each year that actually make the news, but there are actually dozens of illnesses tied to food at any given point in time for which investigators are assigned to find a cause.
According to FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, food borne illnesses kill almost 3,000 people each year.
Part of the problem is that the FDA is already underfunded, having lost $209 million as part of the $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that took place March 1 of this year, forcing the agency to complete 2,100 fewer inspections than in 2012.
A potentially larger issue lies with hunger initiatives in Milwaukee and beyond. Food pantries in the Milwaukee area, including Hunger Task Force, will be at the fore of the struggle. As will other government programs aiding women and children living at or below the poverty level.
Beginning Tuesday, Oct. 1, the government stopped funding the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which helps pregnant women and new moms buy healthy food and provides nutritional information and health care referrals to those who need it. The program aids some 9 million Americans.
Provision of formula for newborn babies is likely at the top of the WIC programs concerns, since formula can be expensive (a $15 can will last an average baby three days), and parents may need to make difficult choices about how to feed their children if they don't have the assistance they need.
But, according to Stephanie Marquis, Communications Director for the Wisconsin Department of Administration, which is working with state agencies related to the federal shutdown and any potential impact to Wisconsin, the office has not received any indications from Washington as to how long the shutdown may last.
She says that it's possible that the federal government would reimburse states for any administrative or program expenses incurred during a brief shutdown, but that is not guaranteed. And it becomes less likely the longer the shut-down lasts.
"We have asked state agencies to identify which federally-funded programs have appropriations in them and the balance," she says. "We can continue to draw down previously approved appropriations during a shutdown, but we need to understand how long that appropriation balance may last. DOA will be working with the agencies to gather the cost our state may incur if we are required to fund essential federal programs and services on our own, and how we minimize the impact to our taxpayers in the process."
At this time, Marquis reports that many programs have been communicating with their partners or local communities that business is operating as normal.
"I know that DHS has been working with local WIC programs to encourage families to keep their appointments at WIC offices and use their food checks at the store," Marques says. "They are not anticipating a delay or interruption in services at this time. Again, no decisions have been made – including for FoodShare or WIC."
In a notice from Hunger Task Force on Oct. 3, Sherrie Tussler, Hunger Task Force executive director also addressed some of the issues I was questioning:
"We received a memo from USDA Headquarters regarding the shutdown of the USDA. This is the agency responsible for all federal nutrition programs. The Chicago Regional Office is now closed and the USDA website is down. The memo outlines the future for the federal programs as follows:
"States will have enough resources to operate WIC for a week or two. The commodity programs HTF administers, CSFP (Stockbox) and TEFAP will have resources through the end of October.
"Summer Meals, Afterschool Meals and the Special Milk Program bill monthly after the fact so they will be OK through November. In November school meals and FoodShare will end."
According to Tussler, WIC clinics in Wisconsin will be able to stay open through the month of October, based on orders previously made that will be delivered.
However, since the Farm Bill lapsed on Monday night, the Senate and House have not yet caucused on the 36 billion dollar difference they have in funding the federal nutrition programs. Their largest difference is over FoodShare (called SNAP at the federal level).
"All of our FoodShare Outreach staff are federally funded," says Tussler. "If FoodShare is allowed to fail on Nov. 1, 827,000 Wisconsinites will not get their benefits. That's a lot of money and a lot of people."
Tussler says that it has taken hours of leadership time just to figure out what's going on.
"Our food bank administers two federal commodity programs," she says. "We now know that the food orders placed with these programs are good through December. This is because the contracts the USDA had are with private sector companies. We may have shortfalls later as the system gets reengaged after the government is back in business."
According to Tussler, approximately 40,000 people in the Milwaukee area use the emergency food pantry that Hunger Task Force supplies each month. Monthly commodity boxes are provided to 9,000 seniors, and there are 289,000 people using FoodShare, who are at risk of benefit loss next month.
Much uncertainty remains in the trenches. If FoodShare and WIC fail, Hunger Task Force anticipates they will be overwhelmed with additional requests. Ultimately, they'll have to make up the shortfall with donations and food that it purchases if the budget impasse in Washington isn't resolved soon.
At the same time, several hundred thousand civilian workers nationwide won't be getting their paycheck if the shutdown persists. Ultimately, that takes money out of the economy. Moody's Analytics estimates the impact on incomes at about $200 million per day nationwide.
So, if the shutdown lasted three or four weeks, Moody's estimates, economic growth would be cut in half during the fourth quarter of the year.
What can you do?
Keep tabs on the implications of the governmental shutdown, and look for ways to alleviate the shortages where you can. Why not make an early "end of the year" donation to one or more of the organizations that depend on government funding to keep them running?
It's food for thought.
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