Building Stronger, Healthier Communities

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is hard at work to better serve the American public by fighting hunger and encouraging healthy eating. Under President Obama’s leadership, we have undertaken a renewed commitment to ensure that all Americans have access to good, nutritious meals – while at the same time encouraging Congress to support a sensible and reliable nutrition assistance program and an immigration reform package that will strengthen food security.

Freedom from hunger is critical for Americans to lead healthy, active lives, and it is also essential to maintaining a strong, successful American workforce. Unfortunately, food insecurity is still a fact of life for too many. Over 17 million American households faced food insecurity sometime during 2012, and food insecurity remains a significant problem for the Latino community. At 23.3 percent, food insecurity in Latino households is significantly higher than the national average of 14.5 percent. Latino children, in particular, suffer from a higher rate of food-related issues, with almost 40 percent of Hispanic children considered obese or overweight.

USDA programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), are designed to help families provide the nutritious food that keeps them healthy and strong. These programs offer vital assistance that helps families put healthy food on the table.

Nearly half of all recipients are children whose families simply don’t make enough to make ends meet. USDA is working hard to make sure that all families, including those in the Latino community, have access to nutritious foods to help them stay healthy and active as they follow their dreams.

Right now in Washington, Congress is debating a new Farm Bill that will have a critical impact on the nutrition programs. The Farm Bill sets agricultural policy for our nation – but it also provides many other programs designed to create jobs, help rural communities, grow small business, and make sure that families get the nutrition they need. So, the Farm Bill is actually a Food, Farm, and Jobs bill that benefits every American. This is a critical piece of legislation that for decades has included nutrition assistance programs for Americans most in need.

The Obama Administration has advocated for a new Farm Bill that provides adequate nutrition assistance programs. In particular, we have been clear that this is not the time for cuts to the SNAP program, as proposed by some in Congress, that would disqualify millions. Simply put, it’s time for Congress to get its job done and pass a comprehensive new Farm Bill as soon as possible.

In addition to a new Farm Bill, USDA has emphasized the importance of commonsense immigration reform to our nation’s food security. The historic, bipartisan immigration reform bill passed by the Senate would provide an opportunity for millions of farm workers to earn U.S. citizenship. It would offer the certainty that farmers, ranchers and farm workers need to keep providing the abundant food supply we enjoy in the United States, ultimately strengthening our economy and our nation.

Since 2009, USDA has also worked with Americans from all walks of life to encourage physical activity and healthy nutrition. We have partnered with the Latino community, providing a number of nutritional resources for Spanish-speaking audiences. Parents and caregivers can use educational materials from MiPlato, available at, which serves as a simple reminder for Americans to make healthier food choices. You can also find healthy, low-cost versions of your favorite recipes on USDA’s Recipe Finder, available in English and Spanish.

Further, by helping to pass and implement the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, USDA has played an important role in making sure that school breakfast, lunch, and snacks served to millions of children each day are healthier than ever before. To complement this effort, we are striving to increase the availability of summer feeding programs for children who depend on school breakfast and lunch during the school year. In California, for example, preliminary data indicate that our efforts have led to an increase in participation by nearly ten percent this summer alone.

At USDA, we are committed to the health and well-being of all Americans, and we have made a concerted effort to offer tools that help families in the Latino community ensure healthy nutrition for their families. We also will continue to advocate for a sensible nutrition assistance program here in Washington, because too much is at stake for millions of families if Congress can’t get its work done.

Tom Vilsack is the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Latinos Left Out in the Cold

The failure of efforts by House Republicans to defund the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or “Obamacare” in the latest battle over the federal budget and debt ceiling has many Democrats breathing a sigh of relief. With implementation underway, many hope that the main provisions of the law, which is intended to expand access to insurance, increase consumer protections, emphasize prevention and wellness, and curb rising health care costs, will result in the expansion of health insurance coverage to about 32 million uninsured Americans.

 New evidence is emerging, however, that the law’s impact will fall far short of that goal. One of the key provisions intended to aid in the reduction of the number of uninsured is an expansion in Medicaid eligibility to 138% of the federal poverty level, making millions of low-income adults newly eligible for the program. While the Supreme Court’s ruling on the health care law last year upheld the law, it did rule that states could choose whether to participate in the Medicaid expansion. To date, 26 states, most controlled by Republican governors, have opted out of the Medicaid expansion, leaving poor uninsured workers in those states without coverage options.

 Recent analysis of census data found that Latinos and African Americans are disproportionately represented in the states rejecting expansion, many of which are Southern red states.

 Nearly one in three Latinos are currently uninsured and nearly six in ten uninsured Latinos have incomes below the Medicaid expansion limit, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Latinos have the highest rate of uninsured people of any ethnic group. More than half (57%) of all uninsured Latinos with incomes below the Medicaid expansion limit live in just three states: California (26%), Texas (22%) and Florida (9%).

 Of those states, only California has moved forward with the Medicaid expansion.  In Texas, Governor Rick Perry (R) and the Republican majority in the state legislature unanimously rejected the Medicaid expansion. Democrats have introduced a bill that would establish a strategy to expand Medicaid, but that bill is still pending in the House. In Florida, the legislature ended its session without voting on a compromise measure that would have authorized a Medicaid expansion.

 Glitches in the enrollment process for the new federal healthcare exchange have also impacted Latinos disproportionately. While the English-language site launched on October 1, the Spanish-language site was not slated to be operational until mid-October.  That deadline was missed and as of late October, no new date had been announced for the site. Visitors can access the home page of the Spanish-language site but cannot apply for insurance. It is unclear if the January deadline for insurance coverage will be extended for Spanish-speaking applicants.

 The success of the ACA among the Latino population will ultimately come down to a few key factors. Outreach to the Latino community that is designed to overcome language and literacy barriers will be critical, as will pressure on Republican-led states like Texas and Florida to allow Medicaid expansion to go forward.

 Perhaps an even more important consideration is how critical Latinos are to the success of the ACA. With more than 10 million Latinos eligible to buy coverage through the health insurance marketplaces, the largest of any minority group, enrollment of this segment of the population is paramount to achieving the numbers necessary to drive costs down. Also, since Latinos tend to be younger and healthier than the general U.S. population, Latino enrollment will help offset the costs of medical care for segments of the population who are less healthy.

 For all Americans, it’s time to set aside our differences on Obamacare and recognize that it is the law of the land, enacted by Congress, signed by the President and upheld by the Supreme Court. Let’s work together to achieve the common good of quality and affordable health care for all.

Mickey Ibarra is President of the Ibarra Strategy Group, Founder and Chairman of the Latino Leaders Network and former Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House for President Clinton.