Lions chef lobbies Congress for healthier food aid

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The Detroit Lions’ executive chef told members of Congress on Wednesday that continued support for education on nutrition and cooking is essential to helping food stamp recipients eat healthier and get the most out of their benefits.

For three years, Joe Nader has volunteered for the Cooking Matters program teaching basic cooking skills and nutrition to low-income families in Detroit through the Gleaners Community Food Bank.

Nader recalled periods during his childhood in the 1970s and ’80s when the auto industry was struggling, and his family relied on free school lunches and food stamps to help feed him.

“I feel very strongly that my success in life and my career is directly correlated with the fact that I had nutrition assistance early in my life,” Nadler said.

“As I look back, I realize the fact that my family had the cooking skills in place to stretch the few dollars that we had for food enabled us to maximize our (food) benefits.”

Nader, wearing a white chef’s coat, testified before a subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee, along with several experts on food insecurity and federal nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

SNAP is the nation’s largest food assistance program, which provided more than $74 billion in benefits last year to an average of 46 million people a month.

Witnesses told the committee that, with 18 programs, the domestic food assistance system demonstrates signs of programs overlapping, which can create unnecessary work and waste administrative and financial resources.

For instance, some programs provide comparable benefits to similar populations but are managed separately, said Kay E. Brown, director of education, workforce and income security for the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The fragmented network emerged piecemeal over time to meet specific needs but would now benefit from a streamlined structure, she said.

“Combining programs could reduce administrative expenses by eliminating duplicative efforts, such as eligibility determination and data reporting,” Brown said.

Angela K. Rachidi, who researches poverty at the nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute, said the decentralized setup and lack of coordination among programs results in lost opportunities to educate families about the benefits available to them.

For instance, workers who determine a family’s eligibility for SNAP in New York City often know little about programs outside of theirs such as school breakfast and lunch programs.

“The extent to which we can limit the burden on staff and on families by better consolidating and coordinating food assistance programs, the better these families will be served and the better the government’s money will be spent,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, said there must be a more efficient way for a family to apply for all the programs at once.

“It seems there should be a more holistic approach to how we help people,” he said. “I think that’s where we could be helpful.”

U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, asked about the role of the private sector and the faith-based community in supporting the hungry.

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee, said her organization relies in part on corporate donors and collects 59 percent of its food from the local community via food drives.

“I don’t think the efforts of those people could in any way shape or form replace the effect of the SNAP program in the community,” Tussler said. “If we dismantle SNAP and push people to charity, we’re going to break charity.”

While federal programs serve certain populations well, “they fall short of their intent due to limits of funding or regulation,” she said, calling funding “wholly inadequate.”

Nader was concerned last year when Congress nearly eliminated funding for nutritional education programs such as his, which gives participants hands-on lessons in preparing and shopping for recipes.

Nader said most participants in Cooking Matters are working but not making enough money to feed their families.

He highlighted earlier testimony that a family of four with no other sources of income would typically qualify for $650 a month in food stamps.

“If you do some quick math, it breaks down to $1.40 per meal, per day, per person,” said Nader, who oversees food service and catering at Ford Field and the Lions’ training facility.

“I work with food budgets on a daily basis on a very high level. Even with my expertise, it would be very difficult to administer a budget of that kind of nature.

“What I love about the program is we’re teaching these basic skills, so that folks can then empower themselves to make the right decisions and provide for their families.”

While in town, Nader met with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Benishek.

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