Consumer advocate named to oversee food stamp program

April 07, 1993|By McClatchy News Service

WASHINGTON -- One of the Agriculture Department's most durable critics has been named by President Clinton to oversee food stamp and nutrition programs.

The nomination of consumer advocate Ellen Haas to be assistant secretary for food and consumer services, which had been fought by some farm groups, suggests a possible new direction for one of the government's largest undertakings.

If confirmed by the Senate, Ms. Haas would be responsible for federal nutrition education, school lunch and breakfast programs and the periodically troubled food stamp system. For the past decade, Ms. Haas has lobbied for reform in each of these areas as executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy.

"I look forward to . . . ensuring that our food and nutrition programs serve the interests of all Americans, particularly those who need them the most," she said.

But the reforms sought by Ms. Haas as a private consumer advocate have often been resisted by the Agriculture Department's traditional farm constituency.

In recent years, she has blasted school lunches as being stuffed with high-fat foods, and complained that the food industry has tried "to pull the wool over consumers' eyes and to anesthetize the public into thinking no problem exists in the food supply." She also criticized the U.S. sugar industry for its political clout and characterized food stamp benefits for the rural poor as inadequate.

"In certain quarters, she is regarded as the devil incarnate," said one congressional staffer closely involved with agriculture issues, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The concern about Ms. Haas became apparent backstage during the last few months, as she lined up key congressional support while some farm groups maneuvered against her. The farm groups were particularly unhappy with the possibility that she might oversee a newly combined agency with responsibility for both food stamps and food inspection services.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy ultimately decided not to combine the nutrition and inspection agencies; that diminished but did not eliminate the grumbling among some farm groups. One of the groups that reportedly tried to block her nomination, the National Broiler Council, declined comment on the nomination that the White House made official late Friday.

But at the American Meat Institute, spokeswoman Janet Riley said Ms. Haas has matured into a responsible and effective advocate with whom it is possible to do business.

"We haven't always agreed with [her], but we've always had an ongoing dialogue," Ms. Riley said yesterday. "We've worked with her on a number of issues, and we look forward to working with her in the future."

Ms. Haas, a 1961 graduate of the University of Michigan and the mother of two, is a former president of the Consumer Federation of America and is active in Democratic Party politics.

The government spends more than $24 billion a year on its food stamp program, which makes it by far the most expensive component of the Agriculture Department. There has been both a steady increase in the number of people receiving food stamps, to 26.8 million people nationwide in January, and a drumbeat of internal and external criticism about how the program is administered.

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