by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Jul 23 2020

What’s in those USDA boxes?

RC Rybnikar sends these photos (thanks!) of examples from USDA’s Farmers to Families program.  The label.

What’s inside:

Looks good to me.

And now the USDA is expanding its list of commodities in the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).

Additional details:

Here’s what’s been added:

alfalfa sprouts, anise, arugula, basil, bean sprouts, beets, blackberries, Brussels sprouts, celeriac (celery root), chives, cilantro, coconuts, collard greens, dandelion greens, greens (others not listed separately), guava, kale greens, lettuce – including Boston, green leaf, Lolla Rossa, oak leaf green, oak leaf red and red leaf – marjoram, mint, mustard, okra, oregano, parsnips, passion fruit, peas (green), pineapple, pistachios, radicchio, rosemary, sage, savory, sorrel, fresh sugarcane, Swiss chard, thyme and turnip top greens.

Here’s what’s been expanded: apples, blueberries, garlic, potatoes, raspberries, tangerines and taro (Why?  Because USDA found these commodities had a 5 percent or greater price decline between mid-January and mid-April as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic).

Let’s hope this helps small- and medium-size producers of these foods, and the foods get to people who need them.

Jul 21 2020

Report questions value of online SNAP shopping

The USDA has a pilot program that permits most low-income families enrolled in SNAP (formerly food stamps) to use their benefits to buy groceries online.

This could be convenient and protect participants from Covid-19 exposure.

But food will be more expensive: SNAP does not cover delivery costs.

Only a few retailers at the moment can accept SNAP benefit payments: Amazon, Walmart, Fresh Direct, and Safeway/Albertson’s.

This situation has induced the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) to publish a research report that raises some serious questions.

According to the press release, the pilot program exposes SNAP participants

to a loss of their privacy through “increased data collection and surveillance,” as well as risks involving “intrusive and manipulative online marketing techniques.” The report reveals how online grocers and retailers use an orchestrated array of digital techniques—including granular data profiling, predictive analytics, geolocation tracking, personalized online coupons, AI and machine learning —to promote unhealthy products, trigger impulsive purchases, and increase overall spending at check-out….The increased reliance on these services for daily food and other household purchases could expose these consumers to extensive data collection, as well as unfair and predatory techniques, exacerbating existing disparities in racial and health equity.”

On the basis of this report, several advocacy groups jointly wrote the USDA Secretary to make sure that these retailers do not unfairly target or take advantage of SNAP participants.

Our request is based on a new study by the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), which finds that leading online grocery and e-commerce companies…are engaged in extensive data profiling, and deploying geolocation tracking, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and behavioral science techniques to track and target consumers, promote unhealthy products, and trigger impulsive purchases. Most of these operations are largely invisible, and CDD’s analysis of the companies’ privacy policies reveals that they fail to protect consumers from these data collection, targeting, and predatory marketing practices.

The letter has several “asks,” among them:

  • Forbid the use of techniques that take advantage of consumers’ psychological vulnerabilities, or employ manipulative practices designed to foster impulsive behavior.
  • Require participating retailers to prioritize healthier products in their ecommerce and online promotion efforts, discounts, and coupons.
  • Facilitate the participation of smaller, independent retailers, farmers markets and other local produce suppliers.

These groups also plan to ask Congress to conduct oversight hearings.

It’s terrific that these groups are keeping an eye on this program.

I’m curious to see the percentage of SNAP participants who use the program and are willing to pay the higher delivery costs.

I imagine that the big retailers are for it.  As was documented in Michele Simon’s 2012 report—Food Stamps: Follow the Money—for some time, retailers are SNAP’s greatest beneficiaries.

Jul 8 2020

More about the ongoing saga of the food boxes

I’m still trying to figure out what’s happening with the USDA’s food box program.  Is it helping farmers?  Recipients?  It’s hard to get the big picture.

H. Clare Brown in The Counter writes that the Farmers to Families box program is failing to meet its targets.  It is “10 million boxes and 25 percent short of its forecasted delivery.”

Other aspects of the distributor selection process were even more perplexing. No distributors from Maine were selected, for instance. Some contractors failed to deliver their boxes directly to distribution points, forcing food banks to incur tens of thousands of dollars in last-mile delivery costs. And then there were questions about the cost of the food: Despite requests from lawmakers, the agency has not publicly released detailed information about the prices it has paid for the food boxes. Reporting from The Counter found that, in some cases, the agency was paying well above retail prices for gallons of milk distributed in the boxes….Advocates have argued that the food boxes…represent a regressive attempt to reinvent the wheel, forcing people to wait in long lines reminiscent of Depression-era food handouts, in full view of their neighbors and in potentially dangerous proximity to other people. It remains to be seen whether the food box program is more efficient for purchasing groceries than SNAP.

In the meantime readers have been sending me photos of what they are seeing.

RC Rybnikar sends this photo with the comment that the lettuce was iceberg, not romaine.

Andrew Coe, who wrote the op-ed I linked to last week, sent a photo of a New York City Board of Education food box that is part of the city’s free meals program.  

 

Well, the apples are fresh.

Larissa Zimberoff sent me a photo of pork patties distributed through a food bank in Marin County.  These do not appear to be part of the COVID-19 program.

Gayle Lautenschlager writes:

In a recent blog post regarding USDA food boxes you asked if there is a way to both more efficiently help people who need food while simultaneously helping farmers. The answer is yes and it is already being done in Washington state.

The program is called Farm to Food Bank. Harvest Against Hunger is the lead agency running this program as well as a sister program called King County Farmers Share.

The basic premise is that giving money directly to food banks allows them to wholesale purchase produce directly from local farmers. The result is that small local farmers are supported and food banks increase their distribution of culturally relevant and in demand produce. Often the local farmers will throw in extra produce or give a “non profit discount” which results in a below wholesale price per pound.

I am happy to know about such programs.

But my big question still remains: What is a sustainable way to address food insecurity in individuals and ensure a reasonable market that adequately compensates small- and medium-size farmers?

Can one policy do that?

Jun 2 2020

Harvest boxes: the ongoing saga

Let’s start the latest round of items related to food boxes for the hungry (which I’ve been following closely) with the New York Times Sunday Magazine cover for May 31: cars lined up in San Antonio for handouts from food banks.

To deal with this problem—and that of farmers destroying animals and crops—the USDA  has issued contracts to companies to collect the food and pack it into boxes to be delivered to food banks.

The contracts were issued in a great hurry, with just the kind of results you might expect.

Some members of Congress were so concerned about the haste and lack of oversight that they wrote a letter to Secretary Perdue raising questions about the entire process.

This new program was announced on April 17, 2020, and solicitations were accepted for one week.  USDA then announced $1.2 billion in contracts just one week later, on May 8, 2020, with awardees expected to begin box deliveries as soon as May 15, 2020…We are concerned, however, that contracts were awarded to entities with little to no experience in agriculture or food distribution and with little capacity to meet the obligations of their award.

Little funding is going for boxes in New England, for example, and none to Maine or Alaska.

Put another way, the Northeast has 10% of the country’s population and 33% of COVID-19 cases but is receiving only 4% of food relief dollars, according to ProPublica’s analysis of data from the USDA, the Census Bureau and Johns Hopkins University.

USDA has already cancelled one $40 million contract with an avocado producer.

Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich and Ryan McCrimmon have been closely following this story, particularly events related to a company in San Antonio.

CRE8AD8 (pronounced “create a date”), a San Antonio event marketing firm, received $39 million to deliver food boxes in the Southwest, sparking questions about its qualifications from produce industry veterans, local lawmakers and top ag policymakers in Washington. The San Antonio Express-News also reported that the company made dubious claims about its clients, credentials and affiliations.

They report that Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) wrote to Secretary Perdue calling for revocation of the contract.

Despite these objections, the USDA rushed through a license to CRE8AD8 to allow it to operate as a produce business. CRE8AD8 posted on its Facebook page: “We’ve received our PACA license! Let’s feed America!”

The reporters note:

It’s been more than a month since an aerial photo of thousands of cars waiting in line for food in a San Antonio parking lot went viral — a gut-wrenching sign of the huge need amid economic fallout from Covid-19. But USDA’s new Farmers to Families Food Box program has yet to come through for that hard-hit community.,,The San Antonio Food Bank has not received a single box from CRE8AD8 (pronounced “create a date”), the embattled event planner that received a massive $39 million USDA contract in its own backyard. The food bank says it’s currently getting about 10 percent of what it expected from the program, all from smaller contractors.

Overall,

The fledgling food box program is working well for many nonprofits and food banks serving food to people in need. Of the roughly dozen major food banks POLITICO contacted, nearly all reported that they had begun receiving boxes, though many deliveries starting behind schedule.

All of this is likely to go on for a long time.  The Packer says that USDA will do a second round of funding for box distributors.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning another round of contracts for the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, according to an administrator of the program who touted its successes during a Produce Marketing Association Virtual Town Hall.

Additions

From Politico, June 1:

The Texas-based event planner that received a $39 million contract from USDA to supply boxes of meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables has delivered its first 235 boxes to the San Antonio Food Bank. CRE8AD8 agreed to provide 750,000 boxes to feeding organizations across the Southwest by June 30. The company’s CEO said more food will be delivered this week to food banks in Arizona, Texas and Utah. More from the San Antonio Express-News.

From Politico, June 2: The Wisconsin dairy industry is concerned that its industry has been left out of the USDA payments for boxes; Members of Congress wrote the USDA Secretary to complain that Wisconsin-based businesses received less than 1 percent of the funding.

May 12 2020

USDA gets its “harvest boxes” at long last

Remember “Harvest Boxes”?  This was USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s method for replacing SNAP benefits with boxes of food commodities (see my much earlier post on this).

The idea was widely ridiculed at the time (impractical, logistically expensive, condescending), but the Covid-19 pandemic has resuscitated the plan.

It won’t be called Harvest Boxes.  Instead, welcome to the $3 billion “Farmers to Families Food Box Program.”

Agricultural Marketing Service’s Commodity Procurement Program will procure an estimated $100 million per month in fresh fruits and vegetables, $100 million per month in a variety of dairy products, and $100 million per month in meat products. The distributors and wholesalers will then provide a pre-approved box of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need.

It comes with an Infographic.

How will this work?  USDA has an FAQ page.

Q. Please explain the goal of the government regarding execution of these contracts?

A.  The prime contractor receiving an award is responsible for all aspects of contract performance. The aspects of performance include but are not limited to sourcing product for inclusion in boxes, conducting all aspects of preparing the boxes, sourcing and communicating with non-profits and transportation and final delivery of boxes to the non-profit on a mutually agreeable, recurring schedule.

What does this mean?

Contractors will acquire dairy, meat, and/or produce, pack it in boxes, and deliver those boxes to food banks, which will then distribute the boxes to people seeking food.  This puts food banks—charitable organizations largely run by volunteers—on the front line of food assistance.

Should we be doing this?

I’m not the only one thinking this system is logistically absurd and just plain wrong.

Matt Russell, Robert Leonard and Beto O’Rourke, writing in the New York Times, say “Americans Are Lining Up for Food. What Is Team Trump Doing?”

Funding food banks while not expanding food stamps…is a solution driven by ideology rather than practicality. We have great respect for these organizations, but food banks aren’t up to feeding tens of millions of hungry Americans indefinitely.  We already have an amazingly efficient and effective program to do this. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, empowers Americans in literally hours and days to go to their local grocery store and get the food they need.

What’s supposed to be in the boxes?

The USDA explained in its solicitation document what it is expecting to get.

Who is getting the contracts?  Look them up here.  United Fresh, which represents fruit and vegetable growers, has questions about the selection process.   And farmers are asking: how is it possible for companies with no warehouses or storage capacity to prepare boxes?

But that’s not all. 

The USDA also announced an additional $470 million in food purchases for donation to food banks for delivery in July.

As for benefit for farmers, FERN’s AgInsider reports:

“USDA is working as quickly as possible to implement CFAP,” said the spokesperson. “Signup for the direct assistance is expected to begin by the end of May. USDA proposes to use a $125,000 payment limit per commodity, with an overall payment limit of $250,000 per individual/entity and a $900,000 adjusted gross income limit for individuals who do not derive 75 percent or more of their income from farming.”

I’m interested to see how this works, in practice.  We should know in a couple of weeks.

Apr 21 2020

USDA announces COVID-19 food assistance

The USDA has established a new Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).

This has $19 billion to distribute to farmers, ranchers, and consumers.

Cutting through the rhetoric, the new program has two parts:

  1. Direct Support to Farmers and Ranchers—$16 billion: for direct support and marketing costs.  [Note: producers say this is not enough].
  2. USDA Purchase and Distribution—$3 billion: for buying fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and meat products at the rate of $100 million per month, each.  “The distributors and wholesalers will then provide a pre-approved box of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products to food banks, community and faith based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need.”  [Note: Fruit and vegetable producers say this is not enough].

In addition, the USDA says it will:

  • Allocate $873.3 million to purchase a variety of agricultural products for distribution to food banks, as determined by industry requests, USDA agricultural market analysis, and food bank needs.
  • Under previous acts, allocate $850 million for food bank administrative costs and USDA food purchases, of which a minimum of $600 million will be designated for food purchases, as determined by food bank need and product availability.

Comment 

  • The bulk of this program goes to Big Ag—on top of the $22 billion or so Big Ag got in compensation for trade losses last year.
  • The much smaller Purchase and Distribution program is to deal with the shocking problem of producers destroying foods while hungry people line up for food distribution from food banks overwhelmed by the demand.
  • USDA is using this to reinstate its “harvest box” proposals as a means to replace SNAP benefits.
  • USDA is not backing off from its other long-term strategy to do all it can to reduce SNAP enrollments and benefits, or from Trump Administration public charge policies that put anyone who is not a citizen at risk of never getting citizenship or of deportation if they apply for public benefits.
  • These measures are expensive band-aids.  They do not address fundamental flaws in agricultural support programs.
  • Maybe this crisis will at last cause Congress to start supporting sustainable, resiliant agriculture?  Hey, I can dream.

Here is everything else the USDA says it is doing

the USDA announcement also says what it is already doing  “to make sure children and families are fed during a time of school closures and job losses, as well as increase flexibilities and extensions in USDA’s farm programs to ensure the U.S. food supply chain remains safe and secure.”  What follows is a direct quote.

Feeding Kids and Families

  • USDA expanded flexibilities and waivers in all 50 states and territories to ensure kids and families who need food can get it during this national emergency.
  • USDA is partnering with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, McLane Global, PepsiCo, and others to deliver more than 1,000,000 meals a week to students in a limited number of rural schools closed due to COVID-19.
  • USDA authorized Pandemic EBT in Michigan and Rhode Island, a supplemental food purchasing benefit to current SNAP participants and as a new EBT benefit to other eligible households to offset the cost of meals that would have otherwise been consumed at school.
  • USDA expanded an innovative SNAP online grocery purchase pilot program in Arizona and CaliforniaFlorida and Idaho, and DC and North Carolina, in addition to Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, New York, Oregon and Washington.

Actions to Ensure a Strong Food Supply Chain

Whole of Government Response in Rural America

  • USDA released The COVID-19 Federal Rural Resource Guide (PDF, 349 KB), a first-of-its-kind resource for rural leaders looking for federal funding and partnership opportunities to help address this pandemic.
  • USDA opened a second application window (April 14, 2020 to July 13, 2020) for $72 million of funding under the Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) grant program.
  • USDA Rural Development lenders may offer 180-day loan payment deferrals without prior agency approval for Business and Industry Loan Guarantees, Rural Energy for America Program Loan Guarantees, Community Facilities Loan Guarantees, and Water and Waste Disposal Loan Guarantees.
  • USDA will use the $100 million provided for the ReConnect Program in the CARES Act to invest in qualified 100 percent grant projects.

For all the information on USDA’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic and resources available, please visit www.usda.gov/coronavirus.

 

 

Apr 2 2020

Tone deaf industry-funded study of the week: avocados and cognition

I don’t know about you but I’m having a hard time these days paying attention to anything other than Coronavirus.  Everything else seems irrelevant.

This announcement seems particularly tone deaf.

On March 18, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture put this as its most important story of the day: “Daily Avocado Consumption Improves Attention in Overweight and Obese Persons

It refers to a study jointly funded by USDA and Haas Avocado Board: “Effects of 12-week avocado consumption on cognitive function among adults with overweight and obesity.”  Edwards CG, et al.  International Journal of Psychophysiology.  2020;148:13-24.

The study’s predictable conclusion: “Daily avocado intake over 12 weeks, after controlling for covariates, improved attentional inhibition and increased serum lutein concentrations among adults with overweight and obesity.”  This was predictable because industry-funded studies almost invariably come out the way their funder hoped they would (what a coincidence!).

In this case, the Abstract goes on to say: “However, the cognitive benefits were independent of changes in lutein concentrations.”

Really?  If lutein has nothing to do with cognition, why make such a big deal of it, as is done on the Hass Avocado Board website.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love avocados.  But I will never understand why it takes this kind of “science” to sell them.  I put science in quotes because this kind of industry-funded research is really about marketing.  USDA co-sponsors such research through its marketing programs.

This kind of self-serving marketing seems even more inappropriate right now.  At least to me.

[Thanks to Hugh Joseph for sending the NIFA annoouncement].

Mar 31 2020

What does $2 Trillion do for US Food Systems? (Not much, alas)

President Trump’s $2 Trillion relief package is the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020.’’

This 880-page (!) bill addresses food systems in several ways, most of them in “Title I Agricultural Programs” which starts on page 609 like this:.

For an additional amount for the ‘‘Office of the Secretary’’, $9,500,000,000, to remain available until expended, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus by providing support for agricultural producers impacted by coronavirus, including producers of specialty crops, producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools, and livestock producers, including dairy producers: Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 22 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency 23 Deficit Control Act of 1985.

This sounds good (in Ag-speak, specialty crops are fruits and vegetables), but what this means in practice, according to the New York Times, is

  • About $23.5 billion in assistance to farmers ($9.5 in subsidies, $14 in borrowing authority)

But this will go mainly to soy and corn producers, key Trump constituents in an election year.  This amount follows nearly $26 billion in aid already provided to offset losses from the China trade war.  This new funds exceed USDA’s entire discretionary budget request for next year.  The USDA Secretary may allocate the funds as he wishes, with no oversight.

So much for welfare for the rich.

As for the poor, the bill provides

  • About $25 billion for food assistance (domestic food programs $8.8 billion, SNAP $15.8 billion).

This too sounds like a lot but all it does is account for the expected increase in demand from people newly out of work.  It does not in any way increase the amount that individuals and families receive.

How did this happen?  Chalk it up to effective lobbying by agribusiness.

The gains for agribusiness were accomplished, says the Times, by “A small army of groups mounted the fast-moving campaign for aid, including the politically powerful American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Joining them were other smaller players representing producers of goods like turkey, pork and potatoes or sunflowers, sorghum, peanuts and eggs.”

Earlier, Politico reported that nearly 50 organizations representing farmers, equipment manufacturers and agricultural lenders sent a letter stating their needs as a result of declining demand from school and restaurant shutdowns and direct-to-consumer sales.

The bill does little to help the folks who most need help.  Anti-hunger groups tried, but failed.

Poor people need to vote.  And organize.