by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Nov 11 2020

One reason why we need a more rational food policy: farm payments

I am all for making sure that farmers make a decent living but most agricultural subsidies go to Big Ag—the producers of corn and soybeans fed mainly to animals or, in the case of corn, as ethanol for car fuel.

These taxpayer-funded payments are enormous and represent increasing percentages of the income of Big Ag.

For example, see this chart from the Wall Street Journal.

As part of the Trump administration’s effort to get votes from farmers and ranchers, it pledged $37.2 billion to them in the spring and summer with an addition $14 billion in September.

Why is this about the election?  The Washington Post says “Trump’s farmer bailout gave $21 billion to red counties and $2.1 billion to blue ones.”

At a campaign rally in Wisconsin last week, President Trump didn’t mince words about how much his administration had done to bolster the economic fortunes of farmers…I gave $28 billion to the farmers, many of them right here, $28 billion, $12 billion and $16 billion, two years”… That redistribution was facilitated through the Agriculture Department’s Market Facilitation Program. According to data obtained by the Environmental Working Group through a Freedom of Information Act request, that program disbursed more than $23 billion in the 2018 and 2019 program years.

From a report from Agricultural Economic Insights:  USDA’s direct payments to Big Ag will equal 36% of net farm income, up from 22% in 2018=2019.  These payments used to account for around 10% of net farm income.

Check out its map:

Finally, it’s good to review the big picture of what happened to food and farming under Trump.  Civil Eats has an excellent review by Lisa Held.

To offset the effects of the tariffs, in 2018, USDA began distributing cash payments through the Commodity Credit Corporation at unprecedented levels, with no appropriations or oversight from Congress. In 2020, as the pandemic hit the farm economy, it added another source of government payments via the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Overall, Trump’s USDA has handed out more government dollars to farmers than any administration prior. In both 2019 and 2020, more than 40 percent of farm incomes came from federal assistance—the only thing keeping farm incomes afloat.

Those payments have been controversial because they have almost exclusively benefited the largest farms and agriculture companies. Two-thirds of the trade aid payments went to agriculture producers in the top 10 percent, including corporations, such as the $67 million paid to JBS USA, a subsidiary of the Brazilian-owned meatpacking giant. Small farms, especially diversified operations and those run by socially disadvantaged Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers, have largely been unable to access CFAP assistance.

All of this leaves plenty of room for improvement.

President-elect Biden: get to work!

Oct 22 2020

USDA data on dairy products

The USDA destroyed the ability of its Economic Research Service (ERS) to do investigations that might prove inconvenient for this administration (see my most recent post on this topic), but this agency is still producing reports on specific commodities.

Here are the latest dairy reports.  You have to be pretty nerdy to delve into these Excel spreadsheets but if you do, you will get a good idea of what ERS staff are doing these days as well as learn details about dairy production.  TMI?  Maybe.

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Oct 14 2020

Good news #3: Hatch Act invoked against USDA Secretary

Some parts of government are still functioning the way they are supposed to.

The U.S. Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) says USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has violated the Hatch Act and has to repay the US Treasury.

In letters to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics and to Representative Marcia Fudge,  the OSC says

Secretary Sonny Perdue violated the Hatch Act on August 24, 2020, when he spoke in his official capacity at an event in Mills River, North Carolina (the “August 24 event”)…The event generally related to USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program…Because he was on taxpayer-funded travel when he engaged in the political activity at issue, the U.S. Treasury must be reimbursed for the costs associated with his political activity.  Provided that immediate corrective action is taken and the U.S. Treasury is reimbursed for such costs, OSC will decline to pursue disciplinary action and instead consider this file closed with the issuance of the cure letter.

As the letter explains,

The Hatch Act restricts certain political activities of federal executive branch employees, except for the President and the Vice President.  As the Secretary of Agriculture,
Secretary Perdue is covered by the Hatch Act and prohibited from, among other things, using his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.  Under this provision, Secretary Perdue may not use his official title while engaging in political activity or his official position to advance or oppose candidates for partisan political office.

In his speech at the event, Perdue congratulated President Trump for authorizing an additional billion dollars to the Farmers to Families Food Box Program

you just authorized another billion dollars for the hungry people of this country and to keep our farmers there. And we’ve never seen an outpouring of compassion like that for people who matter, because people matter to you. And that’s what’s important to me. And that’s what’s going to continue to happen—four more years—if America gets out and votes for this man, Donald J. Trump.

This is a particularly clear violation of the Hatch Act.  The OSC is right to call Perdue on it and insist that he repay taxpayers.

This is also yet another example of how the Farmers to Families food box program, about which I have written repeatedly, is more about politics than feeding the hungry.

The OSC investigation resulted from a complaint from Representative Fudge and several colleagues in Congress.   It’s also good to see them doing their job.

Oct 12 2020

Good news #1: Extension of universal school meals

Readers have written me to point out that my posts rarely cover good news, and that they badly need to hear some.

Point taken: I devote this week’s blog to good news items.

Let’s start with Friday’s announcement that the USDA will extend universal school meals through June 30, 2021 (you can read the entire announcement here).

Is this an election-year ploy?  Maybe, but it’s the first thing Trump’s USDA has done that I think is worth doing.

It must have happened as a result of strong advocacy pressure.  I say this because, as The Counter’s Jessica Fu reported in August, the USDA was determined not to extend free meals to school children, arguing that it did not have the authority to do so.

“While we want to provide as much flexibility as local school districts need during this pandemic, the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue wrote in a letter last Thursday explaining the decision.

But a week later, the USDA did extend the universal meals program through the end of December this year.

Now it has extended that extension through the end of this school year.


This means, as the announcement says, USDA will:

  • Allow…meals to be served in all areas and at no cost;
  • Permit meals to be served outside of the typically required group settings and meal times;
  • Waive meal pattern requirements, as necessary; and
  • Allow parents and guardians to pick-up meals for their children.

Universal school meals:

  • Ensure food justice for children
  • Make sure all children are fed
  • Avoid stigma
  • Avoid expensive and cumbersome exclusionary paperwork

So this is good news, but there’s more work yet to do.

  • Make sure those meals are healthy and do adhere to nutrition standards.
  • Make universal school meals permanent.

My go-to reference on this topic:

Paperback Free for All : Fixing School Food in America Book

Oct 7 2020

The USDA’s food boxes: the saga continues

I cannot believe there is anything further to say about the Farmers to Families food boxes, the $4 billion USDA program that pays distributors to pick up dairy, meat, and produce, put it in boxes, and deliver the boxes to food banks, which then hand them out to people who need food.  My most recent post on the inclusion of a personal letter from President Trump in the boxes is here.

The USDA now says it has distributed 100 million of these boxes.

Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich reports  that the USDA now requires the private companies that collect, pack, and deliver the boxes “to also stuff the Trump letters into the package — an expansion of the controversial letter policy with just…days until the presidential election.”

The Counter’s Jessica Fu (to whom I owe an apology for spelling her name incorrectly the last time I quoted her) writes that “Religious groups distributing Covid hunger-relief boxes are praying with recipients, taping Bible verses onto flaps, and soliciting donations. Some of these practices may violate federal regulations.”

The Hunger Task Force says that the program is discriminatory: “Wisconsin has been underrepresented in all rounds of the program while Wisconsin’s hungry line up by the carload for assistance that has now been completely severed.”

New York legislators are also complaining.  They wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue:

in the transition between the CFAP vendors selected for rounds two and three, miscommunication from USDA has left many food pantries in New York City suddenly without food, causing upheaval in the lives of those families who were relying on their local pantries for meals.  We understand that the new vendors selected for round three of this program were required to specify the counties or boroughs to which they would provide food. However, this has forced many nonprofits and food pantries who had relationships with vendors no longer serving their county or borough to scramble to find new partnerships, with no guidance from USDA, no overlap in service
provision, and nowhere to turn for help.

On the saga goes.  It would have made so much more sense—financially, logistically, and humanely—for the USDA to strengthen SNAP enrollments and benefits.  Some of this is happening anyway, but the long history of food banks tells us that they can never meet needs on an ongoing basis.  SNAP, imperfect as it is, still is a demonstrably better means of relieving food insecurity.

Oct 6 2020

How much money is going into agricultural supports?

I’m trying to figure out how much money—over and above what’s appropriated through the farm bill—is going to Big Ag.  I wish someone would add it up for me.

Here’s what I know so far:

The USDA has given producers more than $10 billion in Coronavirus assistance.  This includes nearly $1 billion to Iowa farmers.  Lesser amounts went to producers in Nebraska, California, Texas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Overall, about half went to livestock producers.

According to the Environmental Working Group,

The largest and wealthiest U.S. farm businesses received the biggest share of almost $33 billion in payments from two subsidy programs – one created by the Trump administration to respond to the president’s trade war and the other by Congress in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  The Market Facilitation Program, or MFP, was intended to offset the perceived damage done by the administration’s trade war, which reduced many farmers’ access to lucrative Chinese markets. Payments for the 2018 and 2019 crop years were just over $23 billion – more than $8.5 billion for 2018 and $14.5 billion for 2019.

Chuck Abbott of the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) says:

With its new offer of $14 billion in coronavirus relief, the Trump administration could spend $50 billion — quadruple the cost of the auto industry bailout — in less than three years to buffer the impact of trade war and pandemic on agriculture. Farm groups welcomed the second round of coronavirus assistance while critics said it was “old-fashioned vote-buying” ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

And the largesse does not stop.  The House has proposed a $120 billion rescue fund that includes relief programs for livestock and dairy farmers and food processors, such as “$1.25 billion to assist contract growers of poultry and livestock growers who face revenue losses due to reduced placements related to COVID-19”

This money goes to Big Ag—Soybeans, Corn, Meat—mainly in mid-West Trump country.

What about food for people?  Well, we have the $4 billion Farmers to Families food boxes, although how much of that goes to farmers as opposed to distributors is unknown.

Oct 1 2020

Food fight: ethanol this time

The Trump Administration has poured billions of dollars into supporting Midwest producers of industrial corn, but to date is not doing anything in particular to help producers of corn-based ethanol.  Because Americans are not traveling as much, demand for gasoline is down and so is demand for fuel ethanol (required by law to comprise 10% of automobile fuel).

The ethanol industry is unhappy about this situation, and is accusing the Trump Administration of reneging on its promises.

This secret list of promises, the vast majority of which have not been fulfilled, was first reported by Reuters today and offers powerful evidence of the Trump administration’s failure to support ethanol, despite his rhetoric. This secret list also highlights how Senator Ernst and Grassley have failed to follow through on their own promises to fight for Iowa farmers with this administration, despite their rhetoric. Just last week, Senator Ernst touted herself as a “tireless advocate” for the ethanol industry yet by never releasing the list of White House ethanol promises she has avoided having to call out the President for the full extent of his failures.

What’s all this about?  Money, of course.

But I don’t have much sympathy for ethanol producers.

I don’t think corn—a food mainly for animals but also for people—should be used as fuel for cars.

For one thing, it takes almost as much energy to produce a gallon of ethanol as it does to produce gasoline.  The best that can be said is this:

Energy is required to turn any raw feedstock into ethanol. Ethanol produced from corn demonstrates a positive energy balance, meaning that the process of producing ethanol fuel does not require more energy than the amount of energy contained in the fuel itself.

If you want details, see the USDA’s report on ethanol energy balance.

An astonishing 40% or so of US corn is grown to produce ethanol.


I’m not the only one who thinks growing food to fuel cars is ridiculous, or—more politely—needs rethinking.

As a crop, corn is highly productive, flexible and successful. It has been a pillar of American agriculture for decades, and there is no doubt that it will be a crucial part of American agriculture in the future. However, many are beginning to question corn as a system: how it dominates American agriculture compared with other farming systems; how in America it is used primarily for ethanol, animal feed and high-fructose corn syrup; how it consumes natural resources; and how it receives preferential treatment from our government.

Another reason, as the USDA puts it: “Strong demand for ethanol production has resulted in higher corn prices and has provided incentives for farmers to increase corn acreage.”

Neither of those is good for the health of people or the planet.

Growing corn for ethanol makes no sense to me.  It’s too bad that the companies that invested in ethanol plants are hurting, but hey: that’s how capitalism works

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Iowa Farmers and Ag Leaders Demand that Senators Ernst and Grassley Release Secret List of Trump Ethanol Promises


Iowa Corn Farmer Doug Thompson: “Our Senators went to the White House, were made promises on ethanol that never came true, and then never said a word about it.”

Rural America 2020 Iowa Steering Committee writes letter to Ernst and Grassley; Group will be posting billboard advertisements and buying radio ads across Iowa calling for the release of the secret list of broken promises

(Des Moines, IA) –A group of Iowa farmers and ag leaders sent a letter to Iowa Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley today demanding that they make public a secret list of promises on federal ethanol policy that the Trump Administration made to them at the White House almost exactly one year ago.

This secret list of promises, the vast majority of which have not been fulfilled, was first reported by Reuters today and offers powerful evidence of the Trump administration’s failure to support ethanol, despite his rhetoric. This secret list also highlights how Senator Ernst and Grassley have failed to follow through on their own promises to fight for Iowa farmers with this administration, despite their rhetoric. Just last week, Senator Ernst touted herself as a “tireless advocate” for the ethanol industry yet by never releasing the list of White House ethanol promises she has avoided having to call out the President for the full extent of his failures.

“This is a betrayal on all sides,” said Iowa corn grower Doug Thompson, a member of the Rural America 2020 Iowa Steering Committee that sent the letter“Our Senators went to the White House, were made promises on ethanol that never came true, and then never said a word about it. It’s a colossal failure of execution and accountability and the only people who got hurt are the Iowa farmers who have lost billions of gallons in ethanol demand.

“We are now less than two weeks away from Iowa voters beginning to vote.” Thompson also said. “Senators Ernst and Grassley owe it to all Iowa farmers and voters to immediately release the list of ethanol promises – that was made on White House letterhead – so that Iowans understand the full magnitude of Trump’s broken ethanol promises. It’s the only way we can hold them accountable going forward. Even if our Senators claim this was a preliminary list – which we have no indication it was – it should be made public so that Iowans can see the extent to which our home state Senators got rolled by Big Oil and the White House.”

Rural America 2020, which already has billboards up across Iowa decrying Trump’s broken ethanol promises, will be placing messages across the state demanding the release of the secret ethanol list. They will also be recording radio ads from Iowa farmers that call for release of the list.

A timeline of the events (and related reporting) around the White House meeting in which the list was shared is as follows:

August 9th, 2019 – Trump administration grants 31 waivers for oil refineries that help undercut demand for ethanol.

August 16th, 2019 – Senator Grassley says publicly that Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)“screwed us” by providing 31 waivers to oil refiners.

August 23rd, 2019 – Senator Ernst says at a town hall meeting that the White House is putting together a document that will include all the help they will be providing on ethanol.

August 29th, 2019 – President Trump publicly promises corn farmers a “giant package” after angering them by providing the waivers.

September 12th, 2019 – White House convenes meeting with Senators Grassley and Ernst as well as Senators Ben Sasse (R-NE), Deb Fischer (R-NE), John Thune (R-SD), Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Governor Kim Reynolds. They are presented with the list of promises.

September 12th, 2019 – President Trump meets with the CEOs of Valero Energy (Joe Gorder) and Marathon Petroleum (Gary Heminger) to discuss Big Oil’s concerns on the same day as the meeting with the Senators and Governor Reynolds.

September 17th, 2019 – Grassley admits to having seen a “13-point plan” from the White House but declines to say what was in it or anything about it.

September 18th, 2019 – Both Grassley and Reynolds say they were encouraged by the White House meeting but that they want to see “something in writing” despite having both seen the secret list of promises in writing at the meeting on September 12th. Ernst also repeatedly tweets that she wants to see a plan in writing despite having seen the White House plan.

One year later – Brian Jennings, chief executive officer of the American Coalition for Ethanol says that “so many ethanol promises, promises to do right by this industry have collected dust” and says that recent attempts by the White House to manufacture ethanol policy victories “should never have been given credibility.”

“Over a year after receiving a list of promises from the White House – a ‘13-point plan’ as Senator Grassley referred to it – neither Ernst nor Grassley – has released the plan so that Iowans can judge for themselves,” added Doug Thompson. “Has the President broken even more promises than we know? Have our Senators spent the last year getting conned by the President or are they all just conning Iowa farmers? We need to see this list immediately to find out.”

The full text of the letter from the Iowa Steering Committee is below. The letter was sent to Senators Ernst and Grassley who attended the meeting at the White House where the ethanol promises were made. The Iowa Steering Committee also cc’d the other Senators at the meeting and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds who also attended the meeting.

Dear Senators Ernst and Grassley:

On September 12th, 2019, the President promised you in writing that he would add 500 million gallons of ethanol and 500 million gallons of advanced biofuels to the 2020 supplemental blending rule. While this market access would have been a welcome buffer during turbulent times, it did not happen. He also promised to add 250 million gallons of biodiesel to the 2021 blending volumes, however, we are still waiting.  Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs) are typically released in the summer to be finalized in November, but nothing has been presented to producers and the public for 2021. It is now harvesting season and the end of 2020 is around the corner, yet farmers and biofuel producers have little insight on how to plan for the 2021 planting season.

It is time for the President to make good on his promises to you, if he ever will. While he has had a year since releasing a list of promises, the few kept have come on the heels of outcry from rural voters. We believe that you must release his list of promises made if we are to see him keep any of them in the next 40 days, or after. Given his track record, we are concerned a Trump second term will include few promises to farmers at all, let alone broken ones.

Over the past three years, farmers and biofuel producers have lost our greatest export markets and faced devastating blows in the name of Big Oil handouts. Small refinery waivers skyrocketed under Trump, slashing four billion gallons of biofuels from the market. Staff at 150 biofuel plants in America lost hours or their jobs entirely. One billion bushels of corn – on top of already stored crops thanks to trade disputes – did not get blended into ethanol, driving commodity prices down even further.

Thanks to Trump’s broken promises, rising input costs, and dwindling receipts farmers have been forced to live on government-aid bailouts of $12 billion, $16 billion, and most recently $14 billion. Farmers do not want cash bailouts. Our sales drive our communities and job creation. Our quality of life and long-term viability rely on sales, manufacturing and economic incentives – not government checks. We want export markets, a level playing field and the certainty that comes with planning. Unfortunately, this administration has failed the bare minimum – to carry out a plan.

As reported, the President’s written promises to you were guarantees to streamline compliance for E15, act to support expansion of E85, resolve trade disputes, and address E10 and E15 labeling. To date these promises have not been upheld, and year-round E15 is only sold at 2,000 of 152,000 U.S. retail stations. As the president continues to break his promises, we have little faith 2021 will meet the expressed guarantee of 15 billion gallons.

It is time you make his promises public. Doing so prior to an election is the only way to hold him accountable. After the election, as we have seen, the President is far more inclined to side with Big Oil. Now is the time to demand these promises be made public and that they be fulfilled. Biofuel producers and farmers in your home state are depending on it.


Doug Thompson, Kanawha, Iowa
John Judge, Albia, Iowa
Chris Henning, Cooper, Iowa
Tom Grau, Newell, Iowa
Aaron Lehman, Polk City, Iowa
Marcella and William Frevert, Emmetsburg, Iowa
Tom Furlong, Letts, Iowa


U.S. Senator Ben Sasse
U.S. Senator Deb Fischer
U.S. Senator John Thune
U.S. Senator Mike Rounds
Governor Kim Reynolds





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Sep 30 2020

The Counter investigates: the Economic Research Service’s shameful downfall

I was pleased to see Jessica Fu’s article in The Counter: One year after a mass employee exodus, USDA’s research arm remains half-staffed. New work has ground to a near halt.

Long-time readers of will be familiar with  my distress at the USDA’s moving the Economic Research Service out of Washington DC to Kansas City, in a clear effort to destroy an agency that sometimes produced inconvenient research.

Fu supplies the data.

She also did some investigating.

“Everybody that was doing [work] on seeds, chemicals, and precision agriculture left—so all that work is wiped out completely,” MacDonald said. “We had a significant amount of work on the health and environmental impacts of industrialized livestock production. That was wiped out.”

Reports on tariffs, farm workers, honey bees, herbicide resistance, and antibiotic use in animal production are all among the work forfeited or delayed in the transition, according to an internal memo shared among staffers and reviewed by The Counter.

Her article points out that “some staffers believe” the ERS was targeted “because its findings frequently conflicted with political stances on food stamps, trade, and the environment.”  The USDA, of course, denies this, but the available evidence strongly supports this hypothesis.

I thought the ERS was the best kept secret in Washington—non-partisan researchers who reported on food system facts.  It got noticed.

An American tragedy indeed.