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Two for One: Where Grants Come From, Fast Food, and the Contradictory Nature of Government Programs

Have you ever wondered where grant programs come from, like a child asking about the nature of baby making? Programs often don’t start with legislators; they percolate up from the minds of journalists, academics, and bloggers who realize, “X would be a great idea!” You can see this process in Mark Bittman’s editorial “Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables:”

Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.

Notice how Bittman says he wants “a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans.” Such efforts, of course, already exist, like the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Program, almost all of which include a healthful eating component. And have you ever seen “MyPlate,” which is a revised version of the food pyramid?* The food pyramid was a federal effort too, albeit marred by politicking. But even if current programs didn’t exist already, the reality of how such a program would work on the ground differs from how Bittman imagines it would work while he’s writing. He’s envisioning an idealistic project pretty far from the boots-on-the-ground experience of Seliger + Associates and most nonprofits who know just how much gets lost in the space between dollars earmarked for a program that “encourages a sound diet” and some actual person receiving services.

Still, Bittman has an ear for the proposal world, as he shows when he includes this specious bit of proposal-ese: “Yet the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods.” I suspect the food industry is more than capable of marketing anything, but it focuses on marketing what sells; the problem is that more people want to eat Big Macs than broccoli, french fries than carrots. McDonald’s has introduced an endless number of “healthier” items over the years, but those healthier items still don’t sell like burgers and fries. So McDonald’s sells billions of burgers and fries and the occasional bag of apple slices.

Fundamentally, Bittman wants government help with healthful foods. On the flipside, Ricardo Lopez writes in the L.A. Times that California “seeks to educate food-stamp recipients about fast food.” It turns out that Los Angeles County now allows thousands of food stamp (or as the program is now termed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP))** recipients to use their vouchers at fast food restaurants. The article says that “Anna Harrald likes to eat at Taco Bell because the hard-shell tacos are ‘nice and cheap and good,'” which tells you a lot of what you need to know about healthier eating choices.

It used to be that fast food places didn’t want to accept food stamps, but the recession changes things for them, to the point where some will advertise:

At a Downey KFC, assistant manager Sam Chavez said a drop in business partly spurred the restaurant’s recent decision to accept public assistance benefits. A large poster hangs in the windows announcing, “We welcome EBT,” referring to the food-stamp debit cards dispersed to recipients.

One the one hand, parts of the government—like the parts that pay out Medicaid or fund Carol M. White—want you to eat better. On the other, like the parts of California that want to make sure you’re eating something, fast food is okay. That’s one of the realities a program like the one Bittman proposes will run into.

As a grant writer, if you were presented by these two facts—food stamps can be used for fast food but fast food makes people fat and decreases their overall health—how would you solve the problem? Leave your answers in the comments before you read the next paragraph.

I’d probably write something like this:

Area residents live in a food desert. It is simply not possible for many of them to access the kind of fresh vegetables and groceries they need to thrive. Although food stamps are supposed to be used solely for the purchase of nutritious foods, in recognition of the simple reality that such foods are often unavailable to targeted residents food stamps can be used at fast food joints, because of the rapacious food policies of large corporations that simply do not understand life in the target area. Part of the proposed project will involve a campaign to lure local vendors capable of selling fresh, unprocessed food to residents into the target area to help residents avoid the false lure of Taco Bell and their ilk.

Then I would describe how the proposed program will incorporate a component that will attempt to work with grocery stores and farmers’ markets to set up shop—in doing so, I might even cite Bittman’s editorial.

* As far as I can tell, this is another pointless exercise in random language change.

** Another random linguistic change like something out of Orwell. “Food stamps” at least vaguely describes what’s happening (you give a vendor stamps, you get food), while SNAP is just another pointless acronym.

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Change for Change’s Sake in Grant Proposals: When in Doubt, Claim Your Program is Innovative

Federal grant programs constantly demand “innovative” projects, even when the specific requirements of the program prevent any deviation from narrowly defined activities. Take two examples regarding how project services can be delivered:

  • No matter what the RFP for any human services program requires, there are only two basic ways to deliver human services: you can either bring someone to a location and do something to them (e.g. impart skills, get them off drugs, teach them Freshman Composition, etc.), which is often termed a “center-based model.” This is like high school, or a hospital: you gather a bunch of people in building. Alternatively, the service provider can go to them and do something (e.g. home visits, such as the Healthy Homes Demonstration Program), which is a “field-based model.” This is like at-home tutoring: you hire someone to come over and teach you algebra.*
  • You can either offer specific services (like those that are only required to get off of drugs) or “wrap-around supportive services,” which basically means that the program is going to get you off of drugs, make sure you get a GED, and maybe get you some job training so you’ll stay off of drugs. Usually those entail a case manager, which is fairly typical in today’s grant world but was less common previously. Case management was once considered paternalistic; now it’s de rigueur; tomorrow it will be anathema again. Isaac has talked a lot about how opposed many ’60s reformers were to case management and social workers, who are today a standard part of many programs. To some extent, following these trends is a case of surfing grant waves, even if the underlying structure of particular programs remain similar.

Who’s right in this battle over whether case management is right or wrong, or whether having a center-based or field-based program is better? The obvious answer is probably the right one—no one, since the success of any model depends on execution. A well-executed model in either example will probably minimize its weaknesses and maximize its strengths. A poorly executed model will do neither, and then lead to calls to shift program designs from one to the other. Some nonprofits or projects might naturally be better at one than the other. Nonetheless, you can bet that when one form becomes dominant, funding agencies will eventually decide to stress innovation by breaking toward the other side. Chic foundations of the sort with good PR departments and prospects for getting in the WSJ or New York Times might switch, and then send a blizzard of press releases touting their success.

There really aren’t a lot of variations on whether you do center-based or field-based projects, or whether or not you offer wraparound supportive services. Such approaches have been tried for decades. But federal programs will routinely demand that you show that your program is innovative, excellent, and so on, even though very, very few of the thousands of RFPs we’ve seen for any services that are genuinely innovative. Instead, RFPs and their underlying federal programs change more for the sake or appearance of change than real change. This kind of thing often comes about because an organization needs to somehow justify its existence and its donut budget, or some bright person enters an agency and thinks they’ve invented wraparound supportive service for the first time.

In other words, these switches from, say, center- to field-based models are often random, or close to random. But regardless of how you’ll deliver services, you should announce that your project is innovative, even in a field where there is no real innovation.

* If you want to be more specific, there are probably one or two less common models: a “circuit riding model,” in which someone promises to be at a specific time or place to offer advice or services, and an electronic model, in which you broadcast something (think tobacco public service announcements) or access services via the ‘net (get a Ph.D. in English Literature at home while sitting in your underwear without shoes on).