by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Apr 25 2018

Interim federal spending for food programs

I am just getting to this (better late than never), but in March Congress passed the 2,232-page appropriations bill H.R. 1625 (115).  This continued funding for the federal government until the end of September.

Despite White House calls for deep cuts—this bill gave:

  • USDA and FDA $23.3 billion in discretionary funding, $2.4 billion above current levels.
  • USDA USDA Farm to School Grant Program $5 million
  • Food for Peace ,$1.7 billion
  • Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, $35 million, a 30% increase since last bill
  • USDA Economic Research Service, $86.75 million, above USDA’s request of $77 million.
  • USDA Agricultural Research Service, $1.2 billion, above the $993 million request
  • Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, $400 million, $25 million more than in 2017
  • USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, $981.1 million, $925 million more than current spending.
  • Child nutrition programs (school meals), $24.25 million, $2 million more than current levels.
  • Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), $6.175 billion in discretionary funding over two years
  • Commodity assistance programs (soup kitchens, food banks, farmer’s market nutrition programs and other emergency assistance programs), $322.1 million over two years, and above current $313 million

But then there’s SNAP, where the real money is: $74.01 billion.  This is a $4 billion cut from current levels, and “subject to any work registration or workfare requirements as may be required by law.”

Except for SNAP, these look good for the next few months.

But the Farm Bill can change all this and we have yet to see what Congress will do about it.

And, according to Politico, the White House is expected to ask for up to $60 billion in cuts.

Start lobbying now.

 

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Apr 2 2018

US Food Assistance, 2018 Overview

USDA has just published its latest overview of US food assistance.

Here’s what this is about:

These percentages apply to total USDA spending on 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs: $98.6 billion in FY 2017.

The bottom line: expenditures are down and have been declining for the past 4 years.  $98.6 billion is 4% less than in 2016 and nearly 10% less than the all-time high of $109.2 billion set in FY 2013.

How come?

Note: The prevalence of food insecurity has not changed.

Although USDA attributes the drop to improvements in the economy, the prevalence of food insecurity has not changed.

Therefore, we have to ask: Could tougher eligibility requirements and application procedures have anything to do with this?

Mar 29 2018

How much of the food dollar do farmers get?

USDA has just issued a revision to its food dollar series—its graphic explanation of how the U.S. food dollar gets spent.

This tells us that 15.8 cents out of every food dollar goes to the producer; the rest goes for marketing.

Oddly, the USDA does not provide an updated illustration of the marketing components from its previous version in 2006:

What this tells us is that 80% of the cost of food is accounted for by marketing.

Don’t farmers deserve more?

Mar 1 2018

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations: A prototype for the Harvest Box? Not exactly.

Last week I discussed my skepticism about the Trump Administration’s plan to replace some SNAP benefits with boxes of 100% American-grown commodities.

NPR’s The Salt is skeptical for a different reason: the experience of Native Americans with the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).

Since 1977, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has bought nonperishable foods to distribute on Indian reservations and nearby rural areas as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. The program was designed as an alternative to SNAP for low-income Native Americans living in remote areas without easy access to grocery stores. The food boxes delivered were filled with canned, shelf-stable foods like peanut butter, canned meats and vegetables, powdered eggs and milk.

It’s consequences?  A high prevalence of overweight and type-2 diabetes on Indian researvations.  As The Salt quotes:

“There’s even a name for it – it’s called ‘commod bod.’ That’s what we call it because it makes you look a certain way when you eat these foods.”

As it happens, I was in Albuquerque last week speaking at the Native American Healthy Beverage Summit sponsored by the Notah Begay III Foundation (I got to meet Notah Begay III when he introduced my talk).

I asked everyone I could about experiences with FDPIR.  Those who grew up in households participating in the program cited several issues:

  • Culturally inappropriate
  • Poor quality
  • Induced dependency
  • Undermined traditional diets
  • Part of barter/trade economy (unwanted items were bartered, traded, sold, or fed to pets)

Justin Huenemann, the CEO of the Foundation, took me to an FDPIR distribution center on a reservation near Bernalillo.

This was a big surprise.  It was clean, well stocked with fresh produce, frozen meats and fish (bison, salmon), and canned and packaged foods, all of them reasonably healthy.  Ordered items are delivered by truck to people who cannot come into the center.

The USDA has worked hard to improve the program (see fact sheets and evaluations).  Participants can choose from a long list of eligible foods.

But: the program serves only about 90,000 participants at a cost of $151 million in 2017.  Scaling it up to 40 million SNAP participants—and nearly $70 billion in benefits, seems unlikely.  Even scaling it up to the 16.7 million households promised by USDA seems iffy.

In any case FDPIR is NOT the prototype for the Harvest Box.

The prototype is the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) for low-income elderly.  This program, serving 600,000 seniors with a $236 million budget in 2017, offers a more limited selection of food options, none fresh.  It distributes the boxes through food banks and other nonprofits who then do the actual deliveries.  CSFP raises many if not all of the issues mentioned by my informants.

I still think this is a smokescreen to distract attention from budget cuts to SNAP but I was grateful for the opportunity to see the FDPIR in action.  The quality of the foods looked pretty good to me—an oasis in a area where healthy foods are not readily available.

Feb 22 2018

USDA’s pesticide testing results for 2016

Worried about pesticide residues on fresh and processed fruit and vegetables?

The USDA tests for a bunch of them in more than 10,000 food samples (of which more than 90% are fruit and vegetables).

The results from 2016 are encouraging.

Residues exceeding the tolerance were detected in 0.46 percent (48 samples) of the total samples tested (10,365 samples).

Of these 48 samples, 26 were domestic (54.2 percent), 20 were imported (41.7 percent), and 2 were of unknown origin (4.1 percent).

Residues with no established tolerance were found in 2.6 percent (273 samples) of the total samples tested (10,365 samples).

Of these 273 samples, 179 were domestic (65.6 percent), 90 were imported (32.9 percent), and 4 were of unknown origin (1.5 percent).

These are low percentages.

They could be lower.

It’s good the USDA is keeping an eye on this.

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Feb 20 2018

Trump’s “Blue Apron” plan for SNAP: real or a smokescreen?

I vote for smokescreen.

Let’s take this one step at a time, starting with the FY 2019 Budget announced last week.  In this administration’s usual Orwell-speak:

The Budget proposes a bold new approach to administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that combines traditional SNAP benefits with 100-percent American grown foods provided directly to households and focuses administrative reforms on outcome-based employment strategies. The Budget expands on previous SNAP proposals to strengthen expec­tations for work among able-bodied adults, pre­serves benefits for those most in need….

Translation: work requirements and budget cuts.  These are emphasized in the FY 2019 Budget Addendum.  This proposes a $17 billion cut in funding ($213 billion over the next decade).  In more Orwell-speak, it is

designed to improve nutrition and target benefits to those who need them while ensuring careful stewardship of taxpayers’ money. This  suite of proposals includes a new approach to nutrition assistance that combines retail-based SNAP benefits with a package of nutritious, 100 percent American-grown food. The Budget also encourages States to innovate in helping participants move to self-sufficiency and improving employment outcomes.

This language comes directly from USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s Big Idea: America’s Harvest Box, specified as containing:

Shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat-cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables.

The box would account for roughly half the benefits; the other half would come from using EBT cards, as in the past.

What got all the attention was a statement from White House OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, as reported in the Washington Post:

What we do is propose that for folks who are on food stamps, part — not all, part — of their benefits come in the actual sort of, and I don’t want to steal somebody’s copyright, but a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash,” Mulvaney said. “It lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices] whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food. So we’re pretty excited about that.

Blue Apron, in case you haven’t been keeping up with this, is a meal-delivery service that has had some fiscal problems lately.

The budget plan includes some “add-back” requests for additional funds for special purposes.  One such request is for $30 million to test whether the Harvest Box plan works.

Under this proposal grants would be made to a small number of states to design, implement, and evaluate the provision of a package of USDA Foods in combination with the traditional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) electronic benefits used at approved retailers. This supports early implementation and evaluation of the related 2019 Budget proposal, which calls for this program structure nationwide and is estimated to save over $12 billion in 2019, and $129 billion over ten years. These grants would provide important policy and administrative lessons to inform efficient and effective nationwide implementation.

What are we to make of all this?  My favorite reaction comes from Politico: “Trump’s Food Stamp Idea Is Like Blue Apron Had a Socialist Hangover.”

It is hardly pro-market to displace the private sector and build a parallel, state-run distribution system, no matter how many times you name-check Blue Apron. This is the sort of thing you find in countries still recovering from socialist hangovers…No, the “Harvest Box” approach to hunger policy makes sense only in the context of hunger politics. And hunger politics have always been as much about the welfare of agribusiness as about the welfare of the poor…. It is generally more expensive than either buying food locally and distributing it or simply giving the recipients cash or vouchers to purchase their own food. Rigorous experimental testing has shown that it does not even produce systematically better nutritional outcomes than giving out money.

I particularly enjoyed Andy Fisher’s comments.  Fisher is author of Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups (see my Weekend Reading post on this book).  “Comrade Trump, he says, might just be on to something.”  SNAP, he points out,

is an accomplice to our need for cheap food with the accompanying externalities caused to public health. It reinforces the ills of the marketplace rather than seeks to transform them.”

His suggestion?  Nationalize the grocery industry.

The NY Times pointed out that even Trump administration officials don’t think this is a serious proposal:

administration officials on Tuesday admitted that the food-box plan…had virtually no chance of being implemented anytime soon.  Instead, the idea…was a political gambit by fiscal hawks in the administration aimed at outraging liberals and stirring up members of the president’s own party working on the latest version of the farm bill.  The move, they said, was intended to lay down a marker that the administration is serious about pressing for about $85 billion in other cuts to food assistance programs that will be achieved, in part, by imposing strict new work requirements on recipients.

Let’s be clear what this about: Cuts to SNAP.  As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities analyzes the situation, the plan intends to cut SNAP benefits as well as:

  • Expand government bureaucracy
  • Shift costs to states and nonprofits
  • Increase costs for participants
  • Restrict access to fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Increase stigma for low-income households
  • Negatively impact retailers

Let me add a couple of other points:

The bottom line:  pay attention to the budget cuts.

Jan 10 2018

Our Orwellian USDA doublespeaks again

FERN’s Ag Insider reports: USDA’s top lawyer says politics has nothing to do with the recent reassignment of senior officers.

Of course it doesn’t.

Stephen Vaden, the former Trump transition official now serving as the USDA’s interim chief lawyer, says politics played no part in the reassignment of 13 of the department’s top-rank and highest-paid civil servants since the new administration took office. Four of the career employees retired rather than accept the new posts.  “All reassignments were based on organizational need,” said Vaden in a seven-page letter released within hours of a request from all 10 Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee for information about the personnel moves.

Does he really think anyone believes this?

Statements from USDA these days are easily interpreted.  They mean the opposite.

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Dec 11 2017

USDA’s case studies on front-of-package labeling

The FDA is responsible for food labeling but in the peculiar way things get done in federal agencies, the USDA governs front-of-package labeling for organics and also gets involved in labels for non-GMO, no-antibiotics and those for country-of-origin.

It has just published a report on all this:

The report is a good place to learn about the labeling laws passed in 1990, and it has an interesting case study on GMO labeling:

It has a lot to say about organic labeling:

Do such labels influence what the public buys?  Yes.  (That’s what the USDA is worried about)

Does the public understand what the labels mean?  Not really. (The USDA worries about this too)

The USDA derives many conclusions from this study, but boils them down to this statement:

There are fundamental tradeoffs in how information is presented to consumers. If it is presented simply, then important nuance or complexity may be missed. On the other hand, if standards and labels attempt to convey complexity, then consumers may just be confused. Policymakers and marketers will need to consider these tradeoffs in the future when developing new process-based labels.

What the USDA does not discuss is the fundamental issue behind fights over food labels.  They work well to discourage people from buying products that may not be good for them or do not meet their values.  That’s why the food industry opposes them so strongly.

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