Kevin Concannon is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. He’s also a native of Portland who spends time in Maine whenever he can get away from Washington; his official residence is in Scarborough.

Having served as director of state health and human services departments in Oregon, Iowa and Maine, Concannon knows a lot about health and poverty.

We had an opportunity to speak with him last week about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) just as the department was announcing up to $16.7 million in competitive grant funding aimed at helping SNAP-dependent families eat more fruits and vegetables. We also talked about his first job, in Portland, and what Maine’s reputation is nationally for supporting families in need.

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS: The newest data from the USDA shows the lowest figures on record for food insecurity among children, with 7.9 million fewer people requiring SNAP benefits to feed their families nationally. Unfortunately, the numbers in Maine haven’t dropped. In fact, the number of children living in poverty has increased: The latest Kid Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows 6,000 more children in Maine living in poverty in 2014 than in 2008. Currently, Concannon said, 186,372 Mainers are using SNAP benefits. “We worry that we may be losing some ground,” he said. This pains him. “I am very mindful of Maine. I am very committed to Maine.”

HARVEST BUCKS: The Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets added a staff person this year to try to get the word out to SNAP recipients about programs that enable them to get deals at farmers markets in the state. For one, Maine Harvest Bucks, which gives bonuses based on purchases. Ten more markets signed on to offer Maine Harvest Bucks this past season, bringing the total to 34. (Maine has 116 farmers markets spread over two seasons.) Other market farmers (CSA farms, co-ops and farm stands) participate as well, bringing the total to over 50. “That’s why the (Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive) grants are so important,” Concannon said. “It’s giving the opportunity to farmers markets or the coalition of market farmers to help stimulate further consumption of fruits and vegetables that are locally grown.”

PERSUASION: Numbers released earlier this year by the USDA show that the number of SNAP families shopping at farmers markets has increased 860 percent in the last five years. With incentives like Maine Harvest Bucks, why don’t even more SNAP families shop at farmers markets? Concannon said there is a lingering misconception that farmers markets, which used to be cash-only enterprises, won’t take EBT cards (which is how SNAP recipients receive their government money).


EBT cards started being accepted at farmers markets across the country in 2005 and more markets become EBT-user friendly every year. “Right now there are 7,000 farmers or direct market farmers across the United States that can process EBT cards.”

THE PRICE, IS IT RIGHT? There is also a perception that farmers markets cost more than the supermarket, Concannon said. Not true, he said, at least not in season. “They are very competitive. You can’t go out and try to buy a certain out-of-season product and expect to get a bargain price. But they are competitive.”

He said he pays attention to prices at the supermarket and always has. His first job was at the 20th Century Super Market in Portland. “I was a bag boy. Yeah, I remember carrying bags out, slopping through the snow. It was a great job so I have always had an interest in supermarkets.” And a program like Maine Harvest Bucks can turn fair prices into bargains, by doubling how much a shopper can spend.

In terms of connecting SNAP shoppers with local fruits and vegetables, he said, “I think we’ve made progress.”

BRING IN THE REINFORCEMENTS: How can we speed that up? It’s a win-win for Maine farmers and food producers as well as families who struggle to buy food. “I think part of it is reinforcement.” Everything is linked, Concannon said. He praised Maine markets, like the one in Augusta, for having nutritionists on hand (through a USDA-funded program) to advise shoppers on how to cook what they see at the market. “Because if I don’t know what to do with a squash or some other particular vegetable, then the likelihood of me purchasing it is about zero.”

Schools can reinforce the positive messages about vegetables by, say, giving cafeteria options kid-friendly names. Like “x-ray vision carrots.” Concannon saw that at a school cafeteria recently and thought, “What child could refuse that?”


BACK HOME: Concannon makes an effort to get back to the state, and not just for vacation. Earlier this month, he gave the keynote speech at a summit on childhood hunger at Colby College.

On a cafeteria visit to Bonny Eagle Middle School, he was pleased to see a boy in line in front of him reach for something green. “He said, ‘That is kale that we grow here.’ ” That’s another example of how reinforcement works, he noted. The child who helps grow kale is more likely to want to eat it. And if it isn’t grown in the school yard, chances are it was grown somewhere nearby. “The whole farm world in Maine has taken off.”

Concannon is a happy participant in Maine’s thriving food economy, shopping at the Deering Oaks farmers market and eating at local restaurants. “We love the restaurant scene.” A favorite? The Dolphin Marina in Harpswell.

BAD RAP: Gov. Paul LePage has called the SNAP program so “broken” that “I don’t want my name attached to it,” and he threatened to refuse to administer it unless there is a ban on soda purchases. He’s also imposed asset tests to strip Mainers with assets of more than $5,000 of the right to receive SNAP benefits. The state has pushed for food stamp recipients to add their driver’s license photo to electronic benefit cards. The LePage administration says this promotes security and deters fraud and waste.

Concannon disagrees. It doesn’t stop those he calls the “bad actors,” who try to defraud the system, and who he said are particularly rare in New England, but it hurts others. “It is just a burden on people.” Maine is developing an undeserved reputation because of actions like the attacks on SNAP beneficiaries, he said. “The over-the-top rhetoric is leaking out of the state and giving the impression that all of Maine is like that.” It’s not, he said. “I worry about the state’s reputation.”

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