Ron Pollack, Founding Executive Director of FRAC
In this three-part blog series, FRAC’s Founding Executive Director, Ron Pollack, explores FRAC’s role in the expansion of three programs: WIC, SNAP, and school meals.
When the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) began its work 50 years ago, the political context and the programmatic infrastructure for ending hunger in America were significantly different. They contrast quite significantly with the situation today.
On the one hand, this was a period of significant political activism to combat domestic poverty. The so-called “War on Poverty” functioned as a separately funded federal agency. Senator Robert Kennedy led other senators on well-publicized trips to Mississippi and Appalachia that revealed abhorrent levels of hunger and poverty. CBS broadcast a searing documentary, “Hunger in America,” revealing widespread malnutrition in graphic detail. Distinguished physicians issued a Special Report about “Hungry Children.” Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” brought thousands of protestors to a six-week encampment on the Washington Mall.
On the other hand, the programmatic infrastructure for combating hunger was wholly inadequate. The paucity of public assistance for hungry and malnourished families at that time demonstrated the clear need for effective advocacy.
- In over 1,000 counties — one-third of the counties across the country— there were no food assistance programs at all for the poor. In those counties, there was neither a Food Stamp Program nor a Commodity Distribution Program.
- In the counties that did have a Food Stamp Program, most poor people found it impossible to participate. This was because eligible low-income families had to pay for their food stamps. For example, a family of four with a monthly income of $100 had to pay $44 to obtain $78 worth in food stamps, which, for many, was unaffordable.
- The school meals programs did not exist in many low-income communities. Even though the National School Lunch Act was adopted in 1946, the program did not exist in many inner-city and rural communities because outdated school physical plants had no cafeterias. Additionally, the provision of free and reduced-price lunches was only haphazardly implemented. Moreover, the School Breakfast Program operated on a tiny, pilot basis, serving a very small fraction of the children who needed help.
- The WIC program (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) did not exist.
During FRAC’s early years, all of these infrastructural problems were meaningfully addressed through litigation and legislative advocacy.
Securing the WIC Program’s Implementation
In 1972, Senator Hubert Humphrey secured the passage of a pilot program intended to offer high-nutrient foods to nutritionally vulnerable pregnant and nursing mothers as well as infants. Under the legislation, $20 million was to be made available for the program in fiscal year (FY) 1973, and another $20 million was to be provided for FY 1974.
The conservative Secretary of Agriculture at that time, Earl Butz, refused to implement the program. As FY 1973 was coming to a close, he expressed his intention to return the $20 million for FY 1973 to the U.S. Treasury. FRAC brought a suit against the Secretary, asking that the program be immediately initiated and that the $20 million for FY 1973 be carried over into the next fiscal year – thereby providing $40 million for the program in FY 1974. The federal judge granted our requests.
Five months into FY 1974, Secretary Butz still refused to implement the program. FRAC filed a motion to hold the Secretary in contempt of court, asking (as a remedy) that the $40 million be expended over the remaining portion of the year. The judge agreed. However, an incredible four months later, the Secretary continued his recalcitrance. Another motion by FRAC to hold the Secretary in contempt of court was filed, and the judge issued a much sterner order requiring immediate program implementation and that the $40 million be spent over the remaining three months of FY 1974.
Secretary Butz, finally, fully complied with the court orders. However, since the legislation only authorized the pilot program for FYs 1973 and 1974, new legislation was required to continue the program in the following year. Senator Humphrey asked FRAC to estimate how much money would be needed for FY 1975 to ensure all programs that had been initiated would continue, and FRAC’s good faith analysis suggested that $250 million would be needed. Armed with this estimate, Senator Humphrey secured a $250 million appropriation for WIC for FY 1975. Thus, as a result of FRAC’s litigation to remedy the Secretary’s unlawful inactions, WIC funding increased substantially, well beyond its initial authorization.
Today, the WIC program continues to serve millions of families. In 2018, the WIC program served 6.9 million women, infants, and children each month.
See FRAC’s latest WIC resources.