Tag Archives: PEP

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.

Why Winning an Olympic Gold Medal is Not Like Getting a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Grant

A .0001 second difference can separate an Olympic Gold Medalist from a Silver Medalist for swimming, and a five minute difference may separate her and the hapless competitor from Lower Slabovia. The fastest swimmers win medals and the slowest swimmers get new Speedos. Think of the intrepid ski jumper, Eddie the Eagle, in the 1984 Winter Olympics. He didn’t come close to winning a medal, but he seemed to enjoy competing and falling off the ski jump.

Many grant applicants are under the delusion from years of watching the Olympics and similar sports competitions that, if their application receives the highest review score, the grant will automatically be awarded. But regardless of what is true in the real world,* the proposal world is different.

We recently completed a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) proposal for a small, rural Midwestern school district (or local education agency (LEA) in edu-speak). Our contact, the superintendent, was an amiable fellow with about 30 years of experience as a school superintendent and about 30 minutes of experience as a grant applicant. When chatting at the end of the assignment, he said something along the lines of, “I hope our application gets the highest number of points so that we get funded.” I put him on hold, opened up the RFP, and found this version of the bad news language I knew would be lurking somewhere (in this case on page 127 of 152, in Section 5506, “Administrative Provisions,” Subpart b, “Proportionality,” rather than “grant award procedures,” where one would expect it):

(b) PROPORTIONALITY- To the extent practicable, the Secretary shall ensure that grants awarded under this subpart shall be equitably distributed among local educational agencies and community-based organizations serving urban and rural areas.

I explained to our incredulous client that grant awards are often made for reasons other than high point totals. In example above, the Department of Education is reserving its right to use “proportionality” regarding “urban and rural areas” to divvy up the pot. I have no idea what “proportionality” means in this context, other than it can be used to make an award to any applicant the Department feels like funding.

There is a caveat: the applicant usually has to submit a technically correct proposal and reach the minimum score. After that, apparently, anything can go. Funding decisions are often made for all kinds of reasons: urban/rural (in the example cited above, I guess no suburban applicants will be funded, since suburbs are not mentioned as a possibility), politics (upcoming elections tend to grab the attention of federal decision makers), geography (Senator Foghorn Leghorn to Secretary Arne Duncan: “Tell me again, Mr. Secretary, why have no PEP grants have been awarded in Alabama in five years?”), perceived or stated target population (e.g., African American, Latino, children with special needs, etc.), experienced/inexperienced applicants, and who knows what else.

Our client was a bit crestfallen when I explained the above, but I told him to cheer up. We think we helped him submit a technically correct proposal, which is no small achievement given the fantastic complexity of the PEP RFP and spectacularly confusing directions. His district is also fairly representative of other small, rural school districts. If his application is one of only a few technically correct proposals from similar school districts in his state/region, the chances of funding will go up enormously. Since I know from decades of experience that many more urban districts are likely to apply for PEP than rural districts, and a lot of these are likely to screw up their applications, our client’s chances are probably pretty good. I’ll find out along with everyone else when the funding announcements are made in a few months, because, as I always tell callers, we’re grant writers, not fortune tellers.

In case you think I’m picking on PEP, here are a few other examples of the same weasel words from other recent federal and state RFPs selected at random for this post:

  • From the “Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools Grants for the Integration of Schools and Mental Health Systems” RFP: “Review and Selection Process: Additional factors we consider in selecting an application for an award are the equitable distribution of grants among the geographical regions of the United States and among urban, suburban, and rural populations.”
  • From the “Intellectual Property Enforcement Program: FY 2010 Competitive Grant Announcement:” “Absent explicit statutory authorization or written delegation of authority to the contrary, all final grant award decisions will be made by the Assistant Attorney General (AAG), who may also give consideration to factors including, but not limited to, underserved populations, geographic diversity, strategic priorities, past performance, and available funding when making awards.”
  • From the “Teen Pregnancy Prevention Community Challenge Grant (CCG) Program” from the California Department of Public Health: “Additionally, OFP will seek to achieve equitable and balanced funding via geographic distribution across California at its discretion.”

To try this exercise at home, put on safety glasses and a rubber apron, then search for the words “the secretary” or “geographical” in almost any federal RFP and you will find some version of the above.

This curious aspect of grant writing can play out in strange ways, as confirmed in this recent Wall Street Journal article by Jonathan Weisman and Alex P. Kellogg, “Obama Courts Stimulus Doubters”. Oddly, the relatively nondescript Holland, MI, is, according to this article, “a community awash in stimulus dollars.” Holland “has seen a big infusion of cash from the president’s economic stimulus plan: hundreds of millions of dollars for new automotive battery plants, tens of millions for schools, as well as millions more for housing, small businesses, university research and transportation.”

Pretty strange for a City with a population of about 20,000 in Ottawa County, which has around 250,000 residents. Call me cynical, but, unless there is a hidden nest of grant writers in Holland, the reason for this tsunami of stimulus dollars is likely because this region in Michigan used to have lots of automotive-related manufacturers, most of which have long since gone the way of the Studebaker. It would make a great story, particularly for the 2012 election, if a sprinkling of federal fairy dust in the form of stimulus grants caused green job industries to flourish.

While I have no way of confirming this, I suspect there are pin maps in various federal agencies with a bullseye on Holland and other charmed communities. As Bob Dylan put it in Idiot Wind, “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” It seems Holland is lucky and, while grant applicants can’t make their luck, they can work hard to submit compelling, technically correct proposals, ideally, with some aspect of program design that makes them stand out, and wait for that congrats phone call from their congresswoman letting them know that the Secretary of Whatever Federal Department has used “other factors” to shove their proposal to the top of the funding heap.

But this assumes their proposal is complete and technically correct. Until you get at least that far, you have virtually no chance at all.

EDIT: Also see our follow-up post, “True Tales of a Department of Education Grant Reviewer.”


* For an incredibly confusing take on the “real world” versus the “non-real world of dreams,” pack an overnight bag and go see the imaginative, but interminable Inception. Jake observed that none of the characters use computers or cell phones in this terminally hip film, while I noted that all the male actors wore suits and there was no swearing or sexual situations. It is like being in an IBM sales office circa 1970. Too bad Ross Perot didn’t have a cameo.