by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

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.

Dec 6 2017

Orwell-speak from USDA: new SNAP rules

The USDA, straight out of George Orwell’s 1984, has promised “new SNAP flexibilities to promote self-sufficiency.”

What does USDA mean by “flexibilities”?  Here are its exact words (I put the key words in quotes and in bold for emphasis:

  • “Self-Sufficiency” – The American dream has never been to live on government benefits. People who can work, should work. We must facilitate the transition for individuals and families to become independent, specifically by partnering with key stakeholders in the workforce development community and holding our recipients accountable for personal responsibility.
  • “Integrity” – We must ensure our programs are run with the utmost integrity. We will not tolerate waste, fraud, or abuse from those who seek to undermine our mission or who do not take their responsibility seriously.
  • “Customer Service” – Together, we must ensure that our programs serve SNAP participants well. In order to achieve a high degree of customer service, we at FNS must also provide States the flexibility to test new and better ways to administer our programs, recognizing that we are all accountable to the American taxpayer for the outcomes.

Why the quotes?  Because the words mean anything but what they say.  Hence: Orwellian.

This is the USDA’s first attack on SNAP.  Prediction: more to come.

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Dec 4 2017

USDA makes school meals more flexible (translation: less nutritious)

The USDA announces its revised school meal rules, in words that would make George Orwell proud:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today provided local food service professionals the flexibility they need to serve wholesome, nutritious, and tasty meals in schools across the nation. The new School Meal Flexibility Rule…reflects USDA’s commitment, made in a May proclamation to work with program operators, school nutrition professionals, industry, and other stakeholders to develop forward-thinking strategies to ensure school nutrition standards are both healthful and practical…This action reflects a key initiative of USDA’s Regulatory Reform Agenda, developed in response to the President’s Executive Order to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens.

Try and get your head around this.  The revised rules make school meals less nutritious.  They allow schools to:

  • Serve flavored rather than plain low-fat milk (higher in sugar)
  • Be exempt from serving whole grain-rich products.
  • Have until the end of the 2020-2021 school year to reduce the salt in school meals.

This rule will be in effect for SY 2018-2019. USDA is accepting public comments for longer term use at www.regulations.gov.

I will never understand why adults would lobby to make school meals less healthful, but here is the School Nutrition Association praising the changes.  The Association cites survey data indicating that 65 percent of school districts are having trouble with whole grains and 92 percent with sodium requirements.

I love Margo Wootan’s quote (she is director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest):

The proposal is a hammer in search of a nail…Virtually 100 percent of schools are already complying with the final nutrition standards, including the first phase of sodium reduction.

Here are:

Nov 2 2017

USDA updates its chart collection

The USDA has just updated its agricultural statistics charts.

Some of the charts deal with trade issues.  I thought this one was especially interesting.

We (or farm animals) consume most of some commodities (pork, corn, beef).  Others are mainly for export (cotton, almonds,).

This is why trade matters to much to U.S. agriculture.

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Oct 9 2017

Belgium’s new food pyramid

Belgium has produced a new food guide “pyramid,” upside down.  Its advice:

  • Drink water
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, and grains
  • Eat less dairy and meat, particularly those high in fat
  • Eat a lot less junk food, sugary drinks, and alcohol

Nothing new here, really, except for making the advice so graphically clear.

As Quartz puts it, “the new food pyramid in Belgium sticks meat next to candy and pizza.”

USDA: take note.

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Oct 4 2017

Food security: a roundup of new reports: international and domestic

International

For the past few weeks I’ve been collecting reports on food security.  I’ve already posted the most recent report on worldwide trends (not good) from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Here are two more on global trends:

In an editorial triggered by the FAO report, The Lancet announces a major effort to address global food security:

In 2018, The Lancet will launch four food-related initiatives: the EAT-Lancet Commission, the LancetObesity Commission, a Series on health and agriculture, and a Series on the double burden of malnutrition. Each of these projects will reinforce a different aspect of the global call for equitable and sustainable provision of food to be a priority: recommending how policy makers approach food systems inclusive of health, cultural respect, agriculture, production, transport, trade, and retailing.

U.S. Domestic

In the meantime, food security remains a significant issue in the U.S., as indicated by this collection of recent reports, mostly from USDA:

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