Tag Archives: Orwell

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.

RFP Absurdity and Responding to Narrative Questions

I’ve written about stylistically bad language from government RFPs, but more common than the outright bad is the silly, the coy, the euphemistic, and the ridiculous. Now comes a fine example: section 1.d. on page 30 of the California 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) – Elementary & Middle Schools narrative:

Explain how all organizations involved in your collaborative have experience or the promise of success in providing educational and related activities that will complement and enhance the academic performance, achievement, and positive youth development of students.

So you need either (1) experience or (2) the “promise of success.” In other words, your level of experience is irrelevant because you can have a lot or none. The RFP* could’ve just asked, “Are the organizations involved able to provide educational services and, if so, how?” RFPs, however, seldom use 13 easy-to-understand words when 36 words designed to obfuscate meaning are available.

The requirement quoted above is particularly egregious because it has only one answer. Is any applicant going to claim that their organizations don’t have the promise of success? Of course not! And what does “the promise of success” mean? To my mind, the answer is “nothing.” Orwell would be aghast at this and many other RFPs—in “Politics and the English Language” he finds examples where “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.” I’ve not read a better concise description of RFPs.

Still, you’re writing a proposal and thus your output can and perhaps even should reflect the document that guides your input. Unlike most forms of writing, where brevity is beautiful, (Write Right**: “If I were limited to one rule of style, Omit Unnecessary Words would be the hands down winner”) grant applications encourage bad writing because you (a) need to fill space and (b) need to answer obfuscated questions fully and completely. The best way to do so is by parroting back variations on what the application writer expects, and the best way to avoid irritating a reviewer is by filling your proposal with muck and jargon.

This peculiar kind of poor writing is similar to the peculiar kind of speciousness Isaac discussed in Writing Needs Assessments: How to Make It Seem Like the End of the World. You write a narrative by sending back what you get in the RFP, and when you get garbage in, you usually reflect garbage out. Most RFPs are merely asking you variations on who, what, where, when, why, and how, while most proposals are merely variations on the answers to those questions. Remember that when you’re writing and consider which aspect you should be addressing in the response to each RFP question. The apparently difficult sentence I quoted above from the 21st CCLC can be simplified further to “Who’s going to carry out the program?” There. Nothing to fear. Novice grant writers are often intimidated by the jargon in RFPs, but that’s often just an artifact of bad writing rather than an indication of actual difficulty.

In Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding, I wrote “Sometimes the funder will want agencies with long track records, sometimes new agencies.” Now I can say that sometimes funders want both, as long as you can somehow justify your experience or the virtue of not having any experience in a proposal. If you come across a narrative demand like the one above, play the RFP’s game. It’s the only way to win.


* Before I get irate e-mails from eagle-eyed readers, I’ll note that the 21st CCLC is a Request For Applications (RFA), but I just call them all RFPs for simplicity’s sake.** If I had to recommend just one book to aspiring writers, regardless of the kind of writing, it would be this one. It’s short, pithy, accurate, and will do more to improve most writers in less time than virtually any other book I know. If I had to recommend two, the second would be William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.