Food Research & Action Center President James Weill delivered remarks in honor of Kevin Concannon, former Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, celebrating his achievements and his response to the Great Recession over the last nine years.

I am honored to have been asked to speak here today about our friend, Kevin Concannon. I — and all of us at FRAC and in the advocacy community — have deep respect and affection for Kevin. Throughout his seven-and-a-half years as Under Secretary, Kevin has been a tireless and effective champion for struggling people in this country and for the programs that are so essential to them. He approaches this work with a total commitment to meeting people’s needs, with integrity, straightforwardness, great energy (constantly traveling to meet with beneficiaries, advocates, and providers as well as state agencies), and a robust sense of humor. As someone from an advocacy group, I always appreciate Kevin’s openness to listening to those of us whose job is to advocate in strong and occasionally — though this may be hard to believe — even annoying ways.

Kevin has many important accomplishments at USDA — those of you from FNS can enumerate them much more thoroughly than I can. Rather than try to review them, I want to focus on one key set of events, and that is the response to the Great Recession.

Kevin took office at a time when millions of Americans had lost their jobs over a period of just a few months and, when he started in July 2009, hundreds of thousands of additional jobs were still being eliminated every month.

It was the most cataclysmic economic event since the 1930s.

As Jason Furman, chair of The Council of Economic Advisers, said in an exit memo: “By a number of measures — including household wealth [and] employment … the first year of the Great Recession … saw declines that were as large as or larger than at the outset of the Great Depression in 1929-30.”

I think our memories may already be fading as to how terrible and scary the situation was when Kevin took office. But it is crucial that we not forget what a huge difference the surge in Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) coverage and benefits, and the surge in other nutrition programs, made to the tens of millions harmed by the recession, as well as the difference the programs made to the economy and country as a whole.

With leadership from key members of Congress, President Obama, Secretary Vilsack, and Kevin, the nutrition programs responded quickly, effectively, and massively. This required heroic effort from Kevin and USDA. The number of people receiving SNAP, for example, rose from 27 million in an average month in FY 2008 to 44 million three years later. Benefits were increased, rules regarding able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) rules relaxed, outreach increased and states were urged to — and helped to — improve access and eligibility. The result was profoundly positive.

This was totally different from the early years of the Depression. By 1931–32, hunger marches and small food riots were common throughout the nation.

In 2009, 2010, 2011, and beyond, by contrast, millions more people were helped by SNAP, school meals, and other programs. There was great pain in the nation, but magnitudes less than in the Depression. Much of the difference is due to FNS and to Kevin Concannon, and for that all Americans should be profoundly grateful.

I am honored to be able to thank you today, Kevin, and tell you how much all of us admire you.