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Shawn Vestal: Riccelli fighting for a nutritious plan

January 23, 2019

Rep. Marcus Riccelli’s proposal to stop switching our clocks twice a year and go year-round with daylight saving time has gotten a lot of buzz.

But he’s got a different package of legislation that he’s perhaps more excited about, even if it hasn’t set Facebook and Twitter on fire.

The Spokane Democrat is introducing legislation today that would create a “state fruit and vegetable incentives program” to help people living in or near poverty get their hands on healthier food.

The proposal is a fruits-and-veggies hydra, involving several different prongs: allowing health care providers to “prescribe” fresh produce to their patients by giving them vouchers; extending state funding for a program provides matching funds for fruits and vegetables for people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; and raising the amount of money that people on the Womens, Infants and Children program can spend at farmers markets.

It’s early, and legislation at this stage of the process often bears little resemblance to the final sausage, if it makes it through at all. But the package of proposals has a modest price tag, at around $4 million, and is generating bipartisan support in early conversations, Riccelli said.

The proposals are part of Riccelli’s longer-term efforts to address what he sees as the health crisis among young people and the inadequacies of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion – programs he supports, but which he views as lacking in efforts to promote health that come before the doctor’s office or emergency room.

With obesity rates rising, problems of “food insecurity” among low-income people, and the obstacles to healthy food faced by those in impoverished communities – whether that’s because they live in “food deserts” or because they’re struggling to stretch their SNAP benefits – Riccelli hopes the legislation can help families get more fruits and vegetables.

“We haven’t done enough on actual wellness,” he said. “We’re focused on treating people. We’re not focused on our activity, our food.”

Important stuff, though not the kind of thing that inflames the humors on Twitter. Riccelli, the House majority whip, is also co-sponsoring legislation that would fix Washington’s clocks in place year-round – shifting full time to daylight saving time and bringing us more wintertime sunshine in the afternoons. We would no longer change our clocks twice a year.

Lots of people like this idea, but it might be more of a lawmakers’ referendum than something with a practical result, at least in the near term. That’s because the feds would have to approve the change, and they haven’t done so for other states that have tried the same thing.

Still, the notion has attracted lots of enthusiastic responses – in social media and in real life, Riccelli said.

“I can’t believe how much attention it’s garnered,” he said.

His health package, on the other hand, is the kind of legislation that often flies under the radar. But it offers several modest proposals that would provide real benefits to people in need.

Access to healthful food is a real problem for lots of people in Spokane and around the country. The most recent statistics from the Spokane Regional Health District aren’t very recent – 2007 – but they show that at that time, 10 percent of Spokane residents surveyed cut or skipped a meal because they didn’t have enough money. One in 5 kids surveyed in school system said they’d done so.

At the same time, two-thirds of adults in Spokane County are overweight or obese, as are 1 in 4 schoolkids.

This is a strange double-whammy – not enough food, compounded with too much of what there is being unhealthy. The reasons for this are manifold, including the choices that people are making when they shop. But they also include what’s available – lots of economically struggling neighborhoods are full of places to buy Cheetos and energy drinks, but not apples and oranges.

Riccelli’s bill would target this dynamic in a few ways. One is to expand a USDA grant-funded program that was in place, mostly on the West Side, in the past couple of years: the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program. Under the program, a network of health care providers, in partnership with grocers and farmers markets, can give vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables to patients in the SNAP program or those with certain health conditions. (Some 18 percent of Spokane households receive SNAP benefits, the state Health Department says.)

In 2016-17, the program “prescribed” $97,000 in fresh produce through 15 health care systems, according to the state Department of Health. The legislation would also extend funding for Fresh Bucks, a program that provides matching dollars for SNAP shoppers at certain participating grocers – expanding their produce budgets.

The governor’s proposed budget included $2 million and change for the programs; Riccelli’s first proposal seeks double. At this point, who knows what a final version might look like.

But it is part of a campaign that Riccelli says he’s committing to fighting – trying to get ahead of the looming lifetime consequences facing young people with obesity and other health problems, at a time when American life expectancies are declining for the first time in about a century.

“We had a principal tell us about having his first 100-pound kindergartner,” he said, referring a meeting in Olympia a couple years back.

“Our kids and their friends, this younger generation, are the first expected not to outlive their parents.”

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