by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Aug 25 2015

Update on the school meal situation

School is starting and the school food debates will no doubt be starting up again.

The USDA has a new report on what’s happening with adoption of the new nutrition standards.

  • A national study of elementary school principals and foodservice managers finds the majority (63%) to agree or strongly agree (7%) that students seem to like the new lunches.
  • The participation rate for paid school lunches declined from FY 2008 through FY 2014, with steeper declines during FY 2012-2014.  This could be do to the changes in standards but is more likely the result of higher prices charged for meals.
  • Smaller, more rural, and wealthier districts had the most difficulty adopting the new meal standards. Higher meal prices affected smaller and more rural districts.

The 2015 School Food Poll conducted by the Kellogg Foundation just reported:

  • 90% of respondents support the national school nutrition standards.
  • 86% say the school nutrition standards should stay the same or be strengthened.
  • 91% say kids need access to safe drinking water in schools.
  • 88% support increased government funding to expand farm to school programs.
  • 84% believe sustainable agriculture should be part of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Kellogg Foundation provides

My interpretation: The nutrition standards are working well enough but it’s time to advocate even more strongly for universal school meals.  It’s absurd and unconscionable that poor kids are getting priced out of school meals.

Addition: The School Nutrition Association, the group doing everything it can to undermine the new nutrition standards, has just issued a report finding that the standards have caused severe financial harm to 70% of schools.  The reason?

There is strong consensus as to the leading reason for the decline in lunch ADP: decreased student acceptance of meals [.underlined in report].

The report does, however, provide a table of reasons for increased costs:

  • Increased per meal food costs — 70.1%
  • Decreased lunch participation — 56.8%
  • Decreased a la carte revenue — 53.0%
  • Increased labor/benefits costs — 48.5%
  • Declining student enrollment — 20.6%

Given these results, you might think the SNA would be lobbying night and day for higher reimbursement rates, but no such luck.  The SNA is lobbying for weaker standards.  Pity.

Addition, August 25:  A study from the University of Vermont finds school kids to be consuming slightly fewer servings of fruits and vegetables since the nutrition standards were implemented and to be producing 56% more plate waste.  This is not good news.

Addition, August 28:  But a CDC study finds that in 2014, schools were making significant progress:

  • Almost all schools offered whole grain foods each day for breakfast (97.2%) and lunch (94.4%)
  • Most schools offered two or more vegetables (79.4%) and two or more fruits (78.0%) each day for lunch.
  • Approximately one third (30.5%) of schools offered self-serve salad bars.
  • Among the 55.0% of schools that prepared food at the school, about half were trying hard to reduce salt.
  • Overall, 97.5% of schools used at least one of the nine school nutrition services practices examined, with 23.9% using one to three of the practices, 48.3% using four to six of the practices, and 25.3% using seven or more of the practices.

My interpretation: Schools are moving to adopt the new nutrition standards.  Some are succeeding better than others.  The outcome of studies therefore depends on whether you see the glass as half full, or empty.

Aug 24 2015

USDA wants to pre-test Dietary Guidelines’ messages. Good idea!

The USDA is asking for input on its plan to test educational messages in the forthcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines and related products.

It wants the tests to involve about 57,000 respondents in

qualitative and possibly quantitative consumer research techniques, which may include focus groups (with general consumers or with specific target groups such as low-income consumers, children, older Americans, educators, students, etc.), interviews (i.e., intercept, individual, diads, triads, usability testing, etc.), and web-based surveys.

The purpose of the testing is to identify consumers’ understanding of the guidelines’ education messages and to obtain reactions to “prototypes of nutrition education products, including Internet based tools.” As USDA puts it, this information “will be formative and will be used to improve the clarity, understandability, and acceptability of resources, messages and products.”

USDA says this information

will be used to further develop the Dietary Guidelines and related communications. These may include: (1) Messages and products that help general consumers make healthier food and physical activity choices; (2) Additions and enhancements to ChooseMyPlate.gov; and (3) Resources for special population groups that might be identified.

This is interesting.  I don’t remember USDA asking for consumer input on nutrition education materials since the 1992 pyramid.

Let’s encourage USDA to do this.

Send comments to Dietary Guidelines Communications, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 3101 Park Center Drive, Room 1034, Alexandria, VA 22302. Comments may also be submitted via fax to the attention of Dietary Guidelines Communications at 703–305–3300 or through the Federal eRulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the online instructions for submitting comments electronically.

Feb 28 2015

Vilsack: Guidelines committee members are like 3-year-olds

Yesterday’s Hagstrom Report quotes USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s comments to the Commodity Classic on the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee:

The “folks who put those reports together … have freedom. They are like my 3-year-old granddaughter. She does not have to color inside the lines.”

His 5-year-old grandson, he said, “is learning about coloring within the lines.”

“I am going to color inside the lines,” Vilsack said.

Sounds like the USDA has no intention of doing what the DGAC recommends.

This is why it’s so important to file comments @ www.DietaryGuidelines.gov by April 8.  You can also register there for the public meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, on March 24.

Addition, March 10: Secretary Vilsack’s speech and press conference remarks are here.

 

Jan 26 2015

Some thoughts about the Revolving Door

Joel Leftwich has left his job as senior director for PepsiCo’s public policy and government affairs team (since March 2013) to become staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee now led by Pat Roberts (R-Kansas).

In some ways, it’s a perfectly logical appointment.  Before joining PepsiCo, Leftwich worked for Roberts as a legislative aide from 2005 to 2010 and as deputy staff director for the Ag Committee from 2011 to 2013.

But his connection to PepsiCo raises concerns.  The Ag committee will be dealing with several issues involving sodas and snack foods opposed by some members of Congress:

  • Reauthorization of WIC, the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program (its requirements for healthy foods are always under pressure).
  • Preservation of the school nutrition standards authorized by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (under attack by the food industry and its friends in Congress).
  • SNAP nutrition standards (there is a movement to make sodas ineligible for SNAP-EBT purchases).
  • Issuance of the 2015 dietary guidelines, always under pressure not to say anything direct about not drinking sodas.
  • Issuance of the new food labels.  The soda industry opposes putting in “added sugars.”   While this is FDA’s purview, not USDA’s, the Ag Appropriations Committee governs FDA’s appropriations.

And on the state level, it’s worth taking a look at what the Texas Commissioner of Agriculture is up to, courtesy of Bettina Siegel’s The Lunch Tray: “cupcake amnesty.”

Clearly, agricultural policies affect public health in highly prominent ways.

That’s why we need to do a much better job of connecting food policy to health policy.

And that’s why having a leading PepsiCo lobbyist in charge of agricultural committee staff raises serious concerns about conflict of interest.

Dec 22 2014

GAO: USDA and FDA need to coordinate food safety activities

The Government Accountability Office has just released a new report.

Much of the report is about the need for better coordination of the food safety oversight responsibilities of the USDA (meat and poultry) and those of the FDA (everything else), not to mention the 13 other agencies that deal with aspects of food safety (the report provides a handy summary chart).

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This report points out that both agencies

have mechanisms in place to facilitate interagency coordination on food safety that focus on specific issues, but none provides for broad-based, centralized collaboration…[Existing]mechanisms do not allow FDA, FSIS [USDA], and other agencies to look across their individual programs and determine how they all contribute to federal food safety goals. Nearly all the experts GAO interviewed agreed that a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety is important to foster effective interagency collaboration and could enhance food safety oversight. The Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) served
as a centralized mechanism for broad-based food safety collaboration and resulted in a number of accomplishments, including improved coordination. However, the FSWG is no longer meeting…Without a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety, there is no forum for agencies to reach agreement on a set of broad-based food safety goals and objectives.

The GAO complains that “for more than a decade, we have reported on the fragmented nature of federal food safety oversight.”

Actually, its complaints go back longer than that but here’s one from 1999:

New Picture

I will have to go through my files but as I recall, the GAO started arguing for a single food safety agency sometime in the early 1990s.  Political realities make that idea impossible.  Instead, we have the Food Safety Working Group which seems to have stopped meeting.

It’s good the GAO is still on the case.  We need better food safety oversight.

Tomorrow’s example: Caramel apples.

Nov 20 2014

What Dan Glickman is doing these days: bipartisanship

Dan Glickman, former USDA Secretary (1995-2001) has been turning up in my mailbox newsletters a lot lately.  Here’s a small collection.

On making the connection between agriculture and health

The food, agriculture, health, hunger and nutrition sectors need to create new ways of working together that harness their shared commitment to improving health through food and nutrition. And we need government and industry to work together in a way that transcends typical political and business interests….The food industry can do more to reinforce healthy diets through marketing, incentives and other strategies, including product formulation, placement, packaging, and portion sizes. And government needs to amplify its existing efforts to ensure consistent and affirming nutrition and health messages for consumers.

On the need for bipartisan approaches

While a healthy, civil debate among those with differing viewpoints is an essential component of our democracy, the current partisan tone in government is impeding progress. Through the Democracy Project and events like Bridge-Builder Breakfasts, political summits and timely policy discussions, BPC [Bipartisan Policy Center ] is fostering an ongoing conversation about how to overcome political divides and help make our government work better.

He is a co-chair of AGree–Transforming Food and Agriculture

AGree seeks to drive positive change in the food and agriculture system by connecting and challenging leaders from diverse communities to catalyze action and elevate food and agriculture as a national priority.  [Here is what AGree agrees on]

And here he is on the implications of the midterm elections’ for the “rural-urban divide:” 

Notwithstanding the very strong farm and agricultural economy the past few years, the Democratic Party and its leadership are having a great deal of trouble connecting with farmers and rural citizens and small-town America…a sustained effort at the highest political level by Democrats to connect with rural issues and concerns is necessary if they want to broaden their popularity and build bigger and more successful electoral coalitions and succeed in this country’s many rural congressional districts.

…It is no secret that casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan were borne by a disproportionate number of young men and women from these areas. The economic recession has also hit rural America very hard and many towns have not seen much impact on their lives from the rebounding American economy.

The White House and Democratic Party gurus need to recognize that they are failing to connect with rural America….The future of American leadership on nutrition, farming and hunger is in jeopardy without positive action to rebuild and maintain these bipartisan coalitions.

In his post USDA years, Glickman has become a strong spokesman for bipartisanship and bipartisan decisions about how to link agricultural policy to health policy.

Wouldn’t it be nice if he succeeds?

Nov 13 2014

White House delays even more food rules

This morning’s Politico Pro Morning Agriculture says that FDA menu labeling (see Monday’s Post) is not the only food rule being held up by the White House.

The issue: The White House is supposed to sign off or reply within 90 days, or formally request an extension.  That’s not happening with menu calorie labeling or four others:

  • The Common or Usual Name for Raw Meat and Poultry rule: this refers to what you can call meat and poultry with added water, salt or other ingredients.  The White House has been sitting on rule for review since April 30.   Chicken producers love it.  Some meat producers don’t.  Here’s the initial proposal.  It’s not clear whether or how it’s been altered.
  • Child Nutrition Program Integrity and Child and Adult Care Food Program proposals: these rules, also sent in April, deal with USDA’s implementation of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. The integrity rule deals with mismanagement.  The other one requires USDA to update the meals to comply with dietary guidelines every 10 years.
  •  USDA’s catfish inspection rule: Sent to the White House on May 30, this would implement a section of the 2014 farm bill that puts USDA, not FDA, in charge of catfish inspections (see previous post on this).
  • EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard for 2014: This was sent August 22.  The White House has not extended the review period.  f the administration does take more time to officially complete its review, it could push the release of the rule governing how much ethanol needs to be mixed into gasoline for 2014 into 2015.

What’s going on?  Politics, of course.  But I can only speculate on what they might be.

Nov 11 2014

Does the USDA deliberately make it difficult for retailers to accept SNAP benefits?

A colleague and reader who recently took over a small food business wanted to continue to make it possible for people enrolled in SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. Food Stamps—to buy his products.

The business had already followed the steps needed to become an authorized SNAP retailer and had been accepting Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT cards) for a couple of years.

His new ownership required him to start over.  He filed the application with the USDA last April.  As he explained last week:

About six months later now, after repeated follow-up and efforts to move it along and resubmitted paperwork and things not mailed back, we’re finally learning that our accounts were approved for use in August. Probably the 8th person we spoke to since starting was able to tell this to us nonchalantly today. Everyone prior has had *virtually* no idea what’s going on or good answers for us other than “start over” or “I’ll have someone call you.”

Six months to set up EBT, surely among the largest transaction types in the country (in terms of the funding body and the process). The USDA & FNS must be woefully understaffed….

So our EBT accounts were finally approved and activated. What’s fascinating then is the number of companies that reach out to tell us (paraphrasing) that “due to recent changes in the Farm Bill, retailers are no longer able to get free processing equipment from the USDA so call us today to get low-cost equipment and a low-cost monthly flat-fee for your EBT processing needs.”

Obviously our bi-cameral, newly monocular Congress will only care about fraud with respect to EBT. So any responses to bureaucratic inefficiency will not likely result in reform, only reduction.

Alas, he is right about that.  Although Congress, in passing the Agricultural Act of 2014 (a.k.a. the Farm Bill), did not make the deep cuts in SNAP that many Republicans wanted, it did make some mean-spirited changes.

For example:

Section 4002: The Secretary shall require participating retail food stores to pay 100% of the costs of acquiring, and arrange for the implementation of, electronic benefit point-of-sale equipment and supplies, including related services (exceptions: farmers’ markets, nonprofit food coops, etc).  So yes, my reader’s small business has to pay for this.

Here’a another example:

Section 4018: Prohibiting Government-Sponsored Recruitment Activities.  No funds authorized shall be used by the Secretary for:

  • Recruitment activities designed to persuade an individual to apply for SNAP benefits
  • TV, radio, or billboard ads designed to promote benefits and enrollment
  • Agreements with foreign governments designed to promote benefits and enrollment
  • Compensating persons who conduct outreach activities relating to SNAP participation or who recruit others to do so.

It’s possible that the long delay in USDA approval of his EBT accounts could be due to staff incompetence, but it’s clear that Congress does not want anything done to promote SNAP or make it work well for anyone involved in the system.

Let’s hope the USDA is better about approving the eligibility of recipients.

As of August 2014, 46.5 million Americans received SNAP benefits at an average of $124 per month.   The USDA needs to do a better job of serving them and the retailers they buy from.

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