Category Archives: Opinion
By Elisha Smith, email@example.com, Center for Rural Affairs
October is National Farm to School month (#F2SMonth). “Farm to School” refers to schools serving local, farm-fresh foods ranging from fruits and veggies to honey and meat.
The more local foods we serve our kids, the better. One-third of U.S. children are obese or overweight, and only 2% of children get the recommended serving of fruits and vegetable each day. Farm to School programs increase students’ daily fruit and vegetable consumption significantly.
Moreover, each dollar invested into Farm to School stimulates an additional $2.16 of local economic activity. In Maine, shifting 1% of consumer expenditures to direct purchasing of local products was shown to increase incomes of Maine farmers by as much as 5%. And each new Farm to School job contributes to the creation of addition 1.67 jobs.
Often schools incorporate curriculums that help students learn about nutrition, agriculture, science, math and the path that food takes from the farm to the table as well as creating experience-based learning opportunities by visiting farms and participating in gardening, recycling, and entrepreneurial programs.
The Farm to School concept is simple: bring tasty, nutritious food from the people who grow it to the school kids that want to eat it. The details involved in making this a reality can be daunting, however. With that in mind the Center for Rural Affairs has put together a Farm to School Month Starter Kit, guide and several other resources to help wade through all the complexities.
By Nathaniel Sillin
Building a Fraud-Free Family
A generation ago, most families didn’t think about financial fraud. Today, it can come in many forms – over the phone, through the mail and increasingly, online. It’s an equal opportunity crime that affects consumers of all ages.
For the 15th straight year, the Federal Trade Commission tapped identity theft as the number one source of consumer complaints in its 2014 Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book (https://www.ftc.gov) released in February. The agency also noted a “large increase” in so-called “imposter” scams – phone calls and emails from thieves purporting to represent the government as a way to steal data and money from unsuspecting adults.
Young people, particularly students, may be the fastest-growing group of fraud targets. Due to their dependence and sometimes unwitting use of computers and mobile devices, young people may be the greatest potential victims of financial fraud, according to a 2015 study (https://www.javelinstrategy.com) by Javelin Strategy & Research. More than 64 percent of respondents said they were not “very concerned” about identity fraud, but were far more likely to find out they were fraud victims long after the damage occurred, such as through a call from a debt collector or a rejection letter from a lender.
Most consumers under the age of 18 shouldn’t have a credit record at all. But as digital thieves become more sophisticated and federal agencies become occasionally vulnerable to hackers, critical privacy data like Social Security numbers, which many parents obtain for their children in infancy to save or invest money or buy insurance on their behalf,could be at risk years before a child ever opens a bank account or applies for a loan.
For all of these reasons, it may be time to think about a family fraud plan. Here are some steps to consider.
Check the accuracy of all family credit data. Parents should begin by checking their own credit reports (https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action) to make sure creditor data and loan balances are accurate and no inaccuracies or unfamiliar lenders have crept into their information. Once clear, adult children can make sure senior relatives are taking similar steps. As for minors, the three major credit agencies – TransUnion, Equifax and Experian – have their own website guidelines for confirming and evaluating a minor’s credit data.
Make sure mailboxes are safe from thieves and any document with an account number or identifying data is destroyed before it is placed in the trash. The same goes for tax returns that are no longer needed.
Learn how to protect all mobile computer and handheld data and have a plan in place in case any family member loses a smartphone, tablet or laptop/desktop computer. Tips are available online, from smartphone service providers and device manufacturers.
Online, by phone and in person, be wary of collection demands or requests for Social Security numbers or other specific account data unless the identity of the caller can be verified. Fraudulent calls are called “vishing” scams, similar to “phishing” scams that involve fraudulent emails, texts and websites used to illegally collect personal data.
Install all software security updates immediately on mobile devices and computers and ensure passwords are unique and frequently updated.
Sign up for fraud alerts from banks, credit card issuers or investment companies to receive immediate word of unusual or potentially illegal activity on accounts.
Bottom line: Identity thieves and other financial fraudsters watch consumer behavior closely and are equally adept at stealing money and data in person, over the phone and online. Have a plan in place to protect the entire family.
By State Senator Steve Sodders
The Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award was presented during a ceremony at the Iowa State Fair. Among the honorees were Chris Foss (Foss Farm Corporation) of La Porte City, Mark Vernon Dengler of Dysart and Al and Ruth Schafbuch of Dysart.
The award recognizes the efforts of Iowa’s farmers as environmental leaders committed to healthy soils and improved water quality. Many Iowa farmers take voluntary action to improve and protect our environment and natural resources, while encouraging others to follow in their footsteps.
Improving Iowa’s water quality has been a top priority in recent years, and investments are paying off. We have reduced sediment entering our waterways and lowered phosphorus levels, but nitrate levels have not yet declined.
In 2013, the state released its Nutrient Reduction Strategy, with the goal of a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorous levels. By making improvements, farming becomes a more efficient operation, and we keep dangerous levels of nitrates out of our drinking water. It’s good for public health and saves money.
Iowa’s water quality efforts are aimed at improving soil health and reducing nutrient runoff with better cover crops and tilling practices. We are also establishing demonstration projects in watersheds throughout the state where best practices are used to improve water quality and educate Iowans about how to implement the techniques on their own land.
An Iowa Farm & Rural Life Poll shows that Iowa farmers are generally supportive of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and its goals, and are willing to take action. Most farmers expressed concern about agriculture’s impact on water quality. The challenge now is to translate those positive attitudes into practices that reduce harmful erosion and runoff.
Appropriations this year will help. The infrastructure budget included an additional $5.2 million to improve water quality. We also provided $9.6 million to clean up and improve Iowa lakes. In addition, $6.75 million for conservation cost-share programs will increase opportunities for our farmers to implement proven practices.
Working together, we can continue building on our successes and create a cleaner, healthier Iowa environment that will support a growing economy for future generations. Learn more about Iowa’s water quality improvement efforts at www.cleanwateriowa.org.
By Nathaniel Sillin
From Strip to Chip: Everything You Need to Know About the New Generation of Payment Cards
If you’ve received a replacement for your credit or debit cards in the mail lately, take a closer look. That little gold chip on the front is going to make it tougher for thieves to steal your data.
By year-end 2015, Visa estimates that 63 percent of cards in American wallets will feature this new technology (www.VisaChip.com) aimed at derailing counterfeit fraud. The new chip adds a unique, one-time code that changes every time you use your card to make an in-store payment. That automatic security code change makes your data nearly impossible to use to create a counterfeit card.
Counterfeit or “cloned” cards account for about two-thirds of in-store fraud to the tune of $3 billion, according to Boston-based research firm Aite Group. The transition to chip cards is expected to be nearly complete by year-end 2017.
You’ll see very slight differences in using these cards. First, you’ll need to insert a chip card into a new slot on built for chip cards and keep it there until your purchase is complete. You won’t have to swipe traditional magnetic strip on the back anymore. You will still be able to sign, enter a PIN or just pay-and-go for everyday transactions as before. Just remember to take your card with you when the transaction is complete.
However, if you are currently using an old but unexpired card or if the business where you’re doing a transaction doesn’t have the upgraded chip card equipment, don’t panic. The strip on the back of your card will continue to work with all card terminals for the foreseeable future.
For merchants – the collective name for the stores, restaurants and other businesses where you use credit and debit cards every day – the transition to chip cards is moving along as well. According to a recent survey by Visa, approximately 90 percent of business owners are aware of chip technology and about 70 percent have already upgraded their equipment or have plans to do so. Current estimates show that 47 percent of U.S. terminals will be able to read chip cards by the end of the year.
There’s one more incentive for all businesses to get on board with chip card technology: Starting October 1, liability for some counterfeit fraud may shift from the card-issuing financial institutions to retailers unless they are able to accept and process chip card transactions.
For merchants, processing chip transactions will likely involve a hardware or software upgrade somewhat similar to upgrading a cellphone contract. In many cases, the terminal will be included in the cost of the service. About a third of merchant terminals are already chip card-capable and just need a software update to fully function.
For the smallest businesses, some low-cost options for upgrading card acceptance terminals can cost $100 or less. Square https://squareup.com/contactless-chip-reader, for example, recently announced a new $49 card reader that accepts chip cards as well as mobile payments and they’re giving away 250,000 of them to small business customers at no cost.
If you travel overseas regularly, you’ve probably already seen chip card technology in action. It’s based on a global standard called EMV and is already at work in countries moving to cashless options for private and public goods and services.
One final note. While you’re waiting for your new chip cards, you’ll still be able to use your current strip-based credit cards in new machines under their zero liability fraud protection rules. However, debit card security rules are different, so it is best to check with your bank on their guidelines so you know your funds are secure.
Bottom line: The move from strip to chip cards will create a more secure environment for credit and debit card users. However, consumers will still need to keep their cards safe and confirm the accuracy of all their spending data.
By Nathaniel Sillin
10 Open Enrollment Mistakes to Avoid
How much time do you spend reviewing your benefits before open enrollment each year?
If your answer is “not much,” you’re not alone. A recent survey by insurer Aflac (http://workforces.aflac.com/about-the-study.php) says that 90 percent of Americans choose the same benefits year after year and that 42 percent forego up to $750 annually by making poor choices.
Rushing through annual benefits updates or making such uninformed decisions in insurance, retirement or other workplace-based benefits are actually part of a bigger story. Open enrollment is just one part of an overall financial plan: Unfortunately, too many employees see it as the only financial planning they have to do all year.
In reality, a safe financial future depends mostly on the savings, investing and spending decisions you make outside the workplace. As many employers are looking to shrink or discontinue the retirement and health benefits they offer, it’s time to take a fresh look at open enrollment.
Here are 10 benefits mistakes you might want to avoid.
Not having an overall financial plan. Your company may offer excellent benefits now. However, the Labor Department reports that average worker tenure at U.S. companies is only 4.6 years, so the biggest open enrollment mistake might be assuming your current benefits assure your financial future. It’s important to work alone or with qualified advisors to determine the right work-based benefits as part of overall spending, savings and investment activities throughout your lifetime.
Making choices at the last minute. Your benefits are important and deserve time for consideration. Put your open enrollment dates on your personal calendar with a reminder a few weeks ahead of time to coordinate with qualified advisors if you have them.
Forgetting to coordinate with your spouse or partner. Many employers are planning big changes to spouse/partner benefits. While the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) lets parents keep children on their health plans until age 26, more employers are instituting “spousal surcharges” or excluding spousal coverage altogether if they already have access to employer health insurance.
Ignoring your state’s Health Insurance Marketplace. Even if you have employer health insurance, things change. If you lose a job or cannot stay on your spouse or partner’s health plan, it might be worthwhile to familiarize yourself with your state’s ACA-mandated health insurance marketplace ahead of time.
Underestimating how big life events might affect your benefits. Salary changes, marriage, divorce, serious illness or starting a family are big signals to check your benefits, preferably well in advance of open enrollment. Think through every potential situation you might face and ask questions about how those changes might affect your benefit selections.
Passing on flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs). FSAs are workplace-based accounts that allow you to set aside money on a pre-tax basis to help you pay for healthcare and dependent care expenses during the calendar year. HSAs, if you qualify, also allow you to set aside pre-tax dollars in a qualified investment or savings account for long-and-short term medical expenses not covered by insurance. They don’t require you to spend out those funds every year. Your workplace benefits counselor, qualified financial advisor and Internal Revenue Service Publication 969 can assist with eligibility, types of accounts, contribution limits and tax issues associated with these choices.
Leaving retirement selections unchanged. As the Aflac data indicates, many individuals don’t change their investment focus in self-directed retirement plans for years. That’s why reviewing options in advance is essential.
Overlooking wellness options. Many employers pay for exercise, cholesterol screenings, weight loss, smoking cessation, immunizations or related benefits that can make you healthier, save money and possibly lower health premiums.
Bypassing transportation breaks. If you drive or take public or company-sponsored transportation to and from work, you may qualify for specific discounts or tax deductions. IRS Publication 15-B covers these programs and how to use them most effectively.
Forgetting education benefits. If an employer is willing to train you to advance in your career, don’t pass it up. However, get advice on the possibility of tax liability for these benefits. Separately, check out employer-sponsored education grant or scholarship awards for you or your kids – that can be free money.
Bottom line: Open enrollment is just one piece of a well-organized financial puzzle. Make sure your employer provided benefits choices compliment savings, investing and spending decisions you’re making on your own.