Scrooge came early this year: Branstad vetoes state money for food banks

Friday before holiday weekend news dump, part 2: Governor Terry Branstad line-item vetoed a $500,000 appropriation for the Food Bank of Iowa Iowa Food Bank Association (see clarification below). It was a surprisingly heartless play by the politician who said in September 2011, "If we want to be the healthiest state in the nation, we have to confront the issue of hunger in our communities."

Over the weekend I looked into what an extra half million dollars might have meant to the growing number of Iowans who can't always buy enough food.  
Branstad went to Black Hawk County Friday for a public event to call attention to the mental health reform he signed into law. The same day, he signed about 15 other bills. In a classic pre-holiday maneuver, the governor's office released a bunch of signing statements and five veto letters in quick succession on Friday afternoon. One of those letters was devoted to Senate File 2336, the health and human services budget for fiscal year 2013. Branstad line-item vetoed 12 provisions in that appropriations bill. Here is the relevant paragraph from his message.

I am unable to approve the designated portion of the item designated as Section 7, amending 2011 Iowa Acts, chapter 129, section 119 inserting numbered paragraph 5. This item appropriates $500,000 to the Food Bank of Iowa. This is a new appropriation. The effect of this disapproval shall cause the $500,000 contained in this item to revert to the General Fund. I strongly support the Food Bank of Iowa and their important work to help needy Iowans. In fact, I started in the 1980's and annually lead a fund drive to help raise private donations for the Food Bank. I am proud of the generous contributions state of Iowa employees make to the Food Bank. I believe that private donations are the best way to support the Food Bank.

"Unable" to approve the budget item? No, Governor, you chose not to approve that funding. "Unable" means something different, as in this sample sentence: Jane Doe visits the food pantry when she is unable to buy enough groceries to keep her children from going to bed hungry.

Also, that is world-class chutzpah to brag about supporting the Food Bank's "important work" while axing a huge boost to their budget. CLARIFICATION: Although Branstad referred to the Food Bank of Iowa in his veto message, the $500,000 appropriation would have gone to the Iowa Food Bank Association to distribute among eight food banks around the state, including the Food Bank of Iowa.

The day after the Iowa House and Senate adjourned for the year, the Iowa Food Bank Association announced on Facebook,

HUNGER ADVOCATES: It looks like YOU did it. The State passed a Health and Human Services appropriations bill yesterday that included first ever funding for Iowa's food banks! As long as the Governor doesn't veto it, we have succeeded. Thank you for giving a voice to over 400,000 Iowans who struggle against hunger. If you took action, your voice truly made the difference!

You can't blame them for claiming victory. Food insecurity is rising in Iowa and other Midwestern states. It's affecting about one in five Iowa children (see Table B of this pdf file). Who'd have expected Branstad to veto this historic appropriation?

Background: Democratic State Senator Jeff Danielson spearheaded the effort to provide state funding for Iowa food banks. The original version of his bill would have provided $2 million during fiscal year 2013: $1.7 million for food purchases (spread across Iowa's eight food banks), $200,000 to help pay for food storage and distribution, and $100,000 for "nutrition education grants."

Linda Scheid, executive director of the Food Bank of Siouxland, told KTIV earlier this year, "it's not creating a whole new highway here this is something that 38 states are currently doing, they are funding emergency food purchases through their Food Banks."

Food banks are "a very efficient investment in dealing with a social problem," according to Bob Untiedt, Director of the HACAP Food Reservoir in Cedar Rapids.

"If you go to the grocery store and spend 13 dollars and 36 cents for food, we can get that same amount of food for one dollar. So the notion of 100 thousand dollars coming to us through this bill, would have an enormous impact," said Untiedt.

Sounds like a no-brainer to me, and apparently also to Iowa's senators. Danielson's bill passed the Senate unanimously in early April. It then died in an Iowa House Ways and Means subcommittee, so shame on House Republicans Tom Sands and Erik Helland.

Late in the legislative session, a smaller appropriation for the Food Bank of Iowa Iowa Food Bank Association made it into the health and human services budget. $500,000 is a far cry from $2 million but would have helped deliver a lot more food to a lot more Iowans. At the end of this post I enclose a two-page document the Iowa Food Bank Association prepared to explain the potential benefits of a State Emergency Food Program. These investments help people "in working poor households who might not qualify for other forms of government assistance."

Come on, desmoinesdem, Branstad never said we shouldn't feed hungry Iowans. He just said "private donations are the best way to support the Food Bank."

In theory, it would be nice if private donations alone could combat hunger in Iowa. Just like in theory, it would be nice if all parents could give their children enough to eat, eliminating the need for free meals at school.

Unfortunately, that's not how the world works. As you can see from the Food Bank of Iowa's 2010 and 2011 financial reports (pdf files), total revenue for the organization decreased from $1,739,345 in fiscal year 2010 to $1,339,30 in fiscal year 2011. The primary reason for that decline was a drop in contributions from about $1.2 million in 2010 to about $755,000 in 2011.

In other words, private donations are not keeping up with demands on food pantries. UPDATE: Speaking by telephone on May 29, Food Bank of Iowa communications specialist Lindsay Pingel confirmed that private donations to her organization have gone down. She attributed the decline to several factors, including the economy and higher gasoline prices.

The Food Bank's board chair, John Tymeson, and executive director Carey Miller wrote in a letter accompanying the 2011 financial report,

With your continued support, we were able to distribute 8,731,975 pounds of food to our partner agencies, a 14% increase over the previous year. [...]

Our programs continued to grow; the Backpack Buddies program hit a milestone by serving 1,520 children at 18 locations, while HUSH (Help Us Stop Hunger) provided 283,000 pounds of ground venison to Feeding America food banks throughout the state. [...] In FY2011, 875 volunteers donated 4,345 hours of their time sorting food donations, packing sacks for Backpack Buddies and assisting with administrative projects. By utilizing a sustained efficiency model, the Food Bank of Iowa provided 5 meals for every $1 donated to our organization. [...]

[...] Our partner agencies are experiencing a sustained 30% increase in demand. While we have strong programs in place, the need for assistance continues to grow. We will increase our offerings in 2012 with additional delivery routes, by establishing mobile pantries and through expansion of food sourcing programs.

Think how much the Food Bank of Iowa could have expanded services next year with an extra $500,000 to spend. CORRECTION: The Food Bank of Iowa would have received only a portion of the $500,000 appropriated to the Iowa Food Bank Association.

By the way, the Backpack Buddies program serves students at seven Des Moines area locations.

Backpack Buddies provides sacks of healthy, kid-friendly food to low-income children on weekends and school breaks, when they do not have access to the federal free and reduced price meal programs.

The contents of the sacks vary each week, but contain a variety of items such as pop-top meals or soup, 100% juice, single-serve cereal, fruit cups, peanut butter and shelf-stable 2% milk.

Bonus items, such as personal hygiene products, are included when available. Nutrition education materials, worksheets and games are included as well.

Cue indignant wail from Iowa House Republican Betty De Boef: "What's next? Are we going to give them a bath and put them to bed?"

But let's face it, De Boef's petty whining means nothing in the grand scheme of things. Branstad alone holds the power to strike appropriations.

Standing on the principle that private donations are better than government assistance, the governor made sure that $500,000 lawmakers intended to support food banks reverted back to Iowa's general fund. Hey, why not? We're going to close out fiscal year 2012 with only about $1 billion in cash and emergency reserves.

No, I'm not done ranting yet.

Branstad answered the call when lean, finely textured beef got some bad press this spring. He made time to take a road trip, send letters to every governor in the country and every Iowa school superintendent, and attend a public rally to promote the consumption of this particular food additive.

I understand why Branstad went on the warpath against "pink slime" critics. About 200 Iowa jobs were on the line, not to mention profits for a company owned by major donors to Iowa Republican candidates. But hundreds of thousands of Iowans rely on food pantries. State lawmakers set aside some money to help provide for them. These food-insecure Iowans didn't need Branstad to do any heavy lifting or even take an extra minute out of his day.

Branstad found himself "unable" to leave their appropriation alone. Next January, he'll be back at the statehouse asking for hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate tax cuts and tens of millions of dollars in business incentives.

I thought Branstad was cruel and foolish to line-item veto the earned income tax credit expansion last year, but that move was logical in one way: it preserved a bargaining chip to get commercial property tax cuts through the Iowa Senate. I don't see any comparable political advantage in blocking Food Bank money.

If you stole food intended for poor people, you'd be shunned in polite society. Branstad seems to think he should be congratulated for decades-old fundraising activities.

One more thing: on the same day Branstad vetoed the food bank appropriation, he signed a bill he considers a "first step toward improving the quality of education in Iowa." Short-changing food banks while calling for "world-class education" makes no sense. More Iowa children live in high-poverty neighborhoods. More Iowa children live in families that depend on food assistance programs. Those trends are directly linked to student performance:

Research indicates that hungry children do more poorly in school and have lower academic achievement because they are not well prepared for school and cannot concentrate.

Which makes perfect sense, when you think about how hard it is to concentrate while your stomach is growling or you are anxious about a big problem.

Since Branstad continually talks about jobs, here's another news flash:

Child Hunger is a Workforce and Job Readiness Problem

* Workers who experienced hunger as children are not as well prepared physically, mentally, emotionally or socially to perform effectively in the contemporary workforce.

* Workers who experienced hunger as children create a workforce pool that is less competitive, with lower levels of educational and technical skills, and seriously constrained human capital.

Rant complete. The floor is yours, Bleeding Heartland readers.

UPDATE: Speaking by telephone on May 29, Food Bank of Iowa communications specialist Lindsay Pingel confirmed that the organization had no advance knowledge about the governor's item veto. She referred me to the Iowa Food Bank Association, because contrary to the wording of the governor's veto message, the $500,000 appropriation was for that association.

Jordan Vernoy, state director for the Iowa Food Bank Association, told me that people involved with his organization had "no advance notice" about the veto and were "blindsided" on Friday. He learned the news by reading the letter on the governor's website. He explained that the Iowa Food Bank Association has a small budget and focuses on advocacy and fundraising for food banks around Iowa. The $500,000 appropriation "wasn't going to replace anyone's budget," according to Vernoy, only increase the food banks' ability to provide for hungry people. He added that the money would have purchased at least $1 million to $1.5 million worth of food, because food banks are able to procure food below retail prices.

Vernoy said that traditionally, manufacturers have provided a lot of what food banks distribute to those in need. But manufacturing companies have tightened their belts in recent years because of the economy. He said the Iowa Food Bank Association does solicit private funding, but food banks "can't rely on individual donors to supply all of the food" needed. Also, the appropriation Branstad vetoed would have helped food banks obtain nutritious food that is hard to get donated. Half of the state money would have been used for fruits and vegetables.

I asked Vernoy whether anyone from the governor's office had reached out to offer to raise private funds to replace the vetoed appropriation. He said, "We have not heard from the governor's office at all." In retrospect, Vernoy feels hunger advocates "should have spent more time" working with Branstad's staff to make sure the governor understood the need for emergency food funding. The Iowa Food Bank Association will work on that during next year's legislative session.

Anyone who wants to receive action alerts from the Iowa Food Bank Association can sign up through Feeding America's site

JUNE 3 UPDATE: The Sunday Des Moines Register defended Branstad's veto in an unsigned editorial, saying that providing state funding to food banks would "take the pressure off private donors" and "take the pressure off Congress." As if members of Congress will now say, "We can't cut food stamps--the governor of Iowa vetoed a state appropriation." There is a lot of momentum to push federal programs onto the states, and one line-item veto by one governor isn't going to stop that. I don't buy the "deter private donors" line either. The money Branstad vetoed would not have covered a major share of the distributions from Iowa's eight food banks to 1,000 agencies. Private donations are always going to be the biggest part of the picture. The state funding of the $500,000 would have helped compensate for shortfalls and would have helped distribute fresh food that is hard to get through ordinary private donations.

Food Bank document, page 1, Background piece on a State Emergency Food Program

Food Bank document, page 2, Backgrounder on the State Emergency Food Program

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