by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Oct 5 2016

Some thoughts about SNAP: declining enrollments and legal issues

Let’s start with the USDA’s latest figures on SNAP participation.  Enrollment is down by a couple of million which could be good news (people have jobs that pay enough to make them ineligible) or bad news (elibility runs out).

The USDA issued a report in 2001 explaining the reasons.


As the report explains:

The large decrease in the number of food stamp participants is due to both a decrease in the number eligible for food stamps and a decrease in the rate at which eligible persons participate. The decrease in the participation rate played a slightly more important role, explaining 56 percent of the fall in the number of participants. The decrease in the number of eligible persons explains 44 percent of the fall in the number of participants.

Next, let’s look at the article in the New York Times on attempts to improve the quality of foods that can be purchased with SNAP benefits.

There have been manymanymany calls for the food stamp program to promote more healthful diets. Many states have requested waivers allowing for restrictions on what benefits can buy (some items, like alcohol, tobacco and household supplies, are already prohibited). Further restrictions have been rejected by the Department of Agriculture, which administers this welfare program.

The article is based on a study trying incentives for buying fruits and vegetables, restrictions on junk foods, and a combination of both.   The study concluded:

A food benefit program that pairs incentives for purchasing more fruits and vegetables with restrictions on the purchase of less nutritious foods may reduce energy intake and improve the nutritional quality of the diet of participants compared with a program that does not include incentives or restrictions.

the study was accompanied by an editorial calling for a trial of mixed incentives and restrictions.

But, as Daniel Bowman Simon tells me, the law only allows the USDA to do incentives.  By law, it cannot do additional exclusions.  This is because Congress says what retailers can and cannot sell to SNAP recipients:

As written in 7 U.S. Code § 2012, section (k)

“Food” means (1) any food or food product for home consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, hot foods or hot food products ready for immediate consumption….

It looks to me as though excluding soft drinks, for example, would require Congress—not the USDA—to change this definition or let states do so.

Daniel wonders why USDA doesn’t make this clear.  Me too.

I’m told that three states have requested waivers and that the USDA is considering them.  How?  I don’t know, but stay tuned.

NOTE:  Several readers filed corrections on this post and I thank them.  I have revised it accordingly.

Sep 8 2016

Good news: U.S. Household food security improves!

The USDA has just released its annual summary of statistics on national food insecurity, with these encouraging results.

Both total and very low food security have declined since 2014 and are heading back to the lower levels observed in the early 2000s.

The USDA defines food insecurity as not having enough resources to provide food for family members.

The new data show:

  • Households considered food insecure = 12.7%
  • Households considered severely food insecure = 5%
  • Households with children who are food insecure = 7.8%
  • Food insecurity is higher in households headed by single parents, especially those who are Black or Hispanic
  • Food insecurity is higher in some states (e.g., Mississippi = 20.8%) than others (e.g., North Dakota = 8.5%)
  • Food-insecure households participating in federal food assistance programs = 59%

These figures are better than last year’s, but still need improving.

The bottom line: federal food assistance programs do not do enough to alleviate food insecurity, even among households enrolled in them.

Jul 25 2016

USDA finalizes school food rules: Applause!

Last week, the USDA sent out a press release announcing the last four Final Rules for school meals under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010:

The press release summarizes USDA’s view of what’s most beneficial in these policies:

You probably won’t want to read all the fine print.  Fortunately, others have done just that.

Bettina Siegel at The Lunch Tray

  • Wellness policies will be required to prohibit on-campus marketing of foods and drinks that fail to meet the Smart Snacks nutritional standards.
  • Whether companies can market “copycat” snacks in schools (Smart Snacks-compliant versions of junk food available in supermarkets) is left up to local districts.
  • Also left to local districts are policies about incentive programs, such as Box Tops for Education or fast food coupons passed out to kids for reading books.
  • School wellness policies will be required to set nutritional standards for foods and drinks offered to kids at classroom parties or by teachers as treats, but districts can determine the actual policies.
  • Schools will be allowed to sell hard-boiled eggs, low-sodium canned vegetables, and peanut butter and celery.

Her bottom line:

With the finalization of these four rules, the historic work of the Obama administration in improving children’s school food environment is now complete. But, of course, we’re already one year overdue for the next CNR [Child Nutrition Reauthorization], a process which could easily roll back or weaken these reforms – many of which have already been overtly threatened by House Republicans.

CSPI’s Take on What’s New

  • Local wellness policies must address marketing of foods and drinks that do not meet the Smart Snacks standards.
  • Local wellness policies must involve the public and school community and produce an annual progress report.
  • Local wellness policies must designate a school official for compliance and undergo administrative review every 3 years.
  • School districts must update goals for nutrition promotion, nutrition education, physical activity, and school wellness activities based on evidence-based strategies.

CSPI says the new rules mean local wellness policies can and should:

  • Shift unhealthy school fundraisers to profitable healthy food or non-food fundraisers
  • Ensure that school celebrations support healthy eating and physical activity
  • Use non-food rewards
  • Provide ample opportunities for physical activity, quality physical education, and recess

My comments

Nutritionism: Many of the complaints about USDA’s nutrition standards derive from their focus on single nutrients—fat, salt, sugar—rather than on foods. Boiled eggs weren’t allowed because of their fat and cholesterol content, but copy-cat snack foods were.  If the standards applied to minimally processed whole foods, they would make more sense. USDA now has to take comments on whether to eliminate the standard for total fat from Smart Snacks because of the egg issue and the confusing nature of current research on saturated fat (also a problem resulting from studying one nutrient at a time).

Politics:  Regardless of how trivial some of these rules may appear, USDA’s school food standards must be considered an extraordinary achievement.  Against all odds—unrelenting opposition from companies that supply junk food to schools, Congress, and, weirdly, the School Nutrition Association—the new rules will improve the nutritional quality of school meals and snacks, at least most of the time.  School districts with officials who care deeply about improving the food served to kids now have a mandate to do so.  Those who don’t will have a harder time doing a bad job.  Applause to USDA for bringing the rules to closure.  May they survive the next round of lobbying.


Jul 4 2016

Happy Fourth of July!

Happy eating:

And happy thinking.  Check out Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech on industry consolidation and concentration, including what is happening in the food industry.

Competition in America is essential to liberty in America, but the markets that have given us so much will become corrupt and die if we do not keep the spirit of competition strong. America is a country where everyone should have a fighting chance to succeed—and that happens only when we demand it.

Here’s one idea:

The Agriculture Department has a role to play in making sure that poultry farmers and produce growers aren’t held hostage to the whims of giant firms.

Jun 15 2016

Seafood politics: Catfish? Really?

The Senate just voted to reverse a decision of Congress last year to remove catfish inspection from the FDA (which is usually in charge of regulating seafood) and give it to the USDA (which usually regulates meat and poultry).

Why did the 2008 and 2012 farm bills say that catfish inspection should be given to USDA?

It depends on whom you ask.

  • Defenders say it’s because USDA has the resources to protect us against unsafe Vietnamese catfish.
  • Critics said it’s to protect the Mississippi catfish industry against the food safety hazards of cheap imported catfish from Vietnam.

Indeed, the USDA inspection program is finding antibiotics and other unapproved carcinogens in catfish imported from Vietnam.

This issue, however, is a sticking point in US negotiations with Vietnam over the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Vietnam wants the USDA catfish inspection removed as an unfair barrier to trade.

As I wrote about this issue in 2013,

What is this about?  Not fish safety, really.  It’s about protecting catfish farmers in the South and setting up “more rigorous” safety criteria that will exclude competitive foreign catfish imports, especially from Vietnam.

Food retailers and retail trade associations are for reverting inspection to FDA. They say USDA’s catfish inspection program will take years to allow imports from Vietnam, thereby causing the cost of domestic catfish to rise.

But today, Politico Morning Agriculture reports that more than 100 House Republicans are urging repeal of the USDA’s catfish inspection program, pointing out that

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has 10 times stated that this program is “duplicative” and at “high risk” for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement…This is not a food safety issue.  USDA acknowledges that catfish, regardless of where it comes from, is considered a “low risk food.”

When I wrote this issue previously, I got comments that I needed to better appreciate the superiority of USDA’s import safety program.  As I said in response:

It’s not surprising if USDA’s import safety system is better than the FDA’s.  USDA gets $14 million a year to run its currently non-operating catfish inspection system.  The FDA gets $700,000 and, according to the Government Accountability Office, has managed pretty well with it.

My conclusion then and now:

If the political fuss over catfish inspection reveals anything, it is why we so badly need a single food safety agency—one that combines and integrates the food safety functions of USDA and FDA—to ensure the safety of the American food supply.


May 19 2016

SNAP politics: strange bedfellows

Wouldn’t it be useful if stores that accept SNAP benefits stocked some other real—as opposed to packaged—foods in addition to the apples, oranges, and bananas most of them now seem to carry (witness Walgreens)?

Congress thought so when it passed the 2014 farm bill.  This intended

to expand or preserve the availability of staple foods in underserved areas with moderate- and low income populations by maintaining or increasing the number of retail outlets that offer an assortment of perishable food and staple food items, as determined by the Secretary, in those areas.

In response, USDA proposed new regulations to improve what SNAP retailers had in stock.

The 2014 Farm Bill required USDA to develop regulations to ensure that stores that accept SNAP offer a broader variety of healthy food choices. The stocking provisions in the proposed rule would require SNAP-authorized retail establishments to offer a larger inventory and variety of healthy food options so that recipients have access to more healthy food choices. SNAP retailers would be required to offer seven varieties of qualifying foods in four staple food groups for sale on a continuous basis, along with perishable foods in at least three of the four staple food groups. The staple foods groups are dairy products; breads and cereals; meats, poultry and fish; and fruits and vegetables. In addition, the proposal calls for retailers to stock at least six units within each variety, leading to a total of at least 168 required food items per store.

Guess what?  Some retailers don’t like this idea.

What to do when you don’t like food regulations?  Go straight to Congress.

Now the House agriculture committee is complaining to USDA about the rule.  It says that USDA’s estimate of the cost per store ($140) is wrong.  Retailers say it will cost them $5000 per month to implement.

Who’s right?  Hence: politics.

The Congressional Black Caucus also wants the USDA to back off on this rule.  It says communities need these retailers (the quality of the foods they sell is not an issue, apparently).  Here is its letter.

Civil Eats has a good summary of the issues.

It troubles me greatly that SNAP divides advocates for the poor and advocates for health.  Don’t all of us want the recipients of federal food assistance to have access to healthful food choices?

Apr 20 2016

Federal Appropriations and the FDA

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee passed the 2017 Agriculture-FDA spending bill.

As Politico explains (behind a paywall, unfortunately)

The bill would boost funding for rural development to $2.9 billion and allocate an additional $33 million over fiscal 2016 levels for the FDA to carry out the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

This isn’t nearly enough to permit FDA to carry out its functions.

The committee also passed amendments to:

  • Block the USDA from carrying out rules to protect chicken farmers with contracts with processing companies (they own the birds).
  • Exempt e-cigarettes from FDA regulations that restrict e-cigarettes advertising.

Can someone please explain to me why agricultural appropriations committees have jurisdiction over FDA and FDA spending is linked to agriculture spending?  OK, this is an historical anomaly; the FDA used to be part of USDA, but that was nearly a century ago.

Today’s FDA is part of the public health service, along with the CDC.

Shouldn’t health committees decide how much funding should go to FDA’s mandate to protect public health?

Just asking.

Mar 31 2016

What do Americans eat? It’s hard to say.

I’ve just received a new report from USDA’s Economic Research Service, U.S. Food Commodity Consumption Broken Down by Demographics.  This looks at trends in per capita food availability—the amounts of specific foods available in the food supply, obtained from data on production and imports, from 1994 to 2008, corrected for waste, per person in the United States.

Food availability data, especially when corrected for waste, suggest trends in per capita consumption patterns (otherwise why would USDA bother to collect them?), but they are not consumption data.  They are about supply, not use.

With that said, the trends seem odd to me.  They demonstrate a decline in the availability of:

  • Fruit (mainly oranges)
  • Vegetables
  • Dairy (mainly milk)
  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Potatoes
  • Sugars

The supply of yogurt and cheese, however, has increased (but their per capita availability is relatively low).

The supply of apple juice also has increased:


Food availability data corrected for waste are supposed to come close to what people actually eat.  But if people are eating less of practically all foods, how come so many of us are still gaining weight?  Surely it’s not because of apple juice.

These data are an important source of information on U.S. dietary patterns.

But what do they mean?  The authors do not say, so it’s left to us to figure that out.

As I keep saying, finding out what people eat is the single most intellectually challenging problem in the field of nutrition.

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