by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Nov 2 2023

Toward a national campaign to prevent weight-related chronic disease

Jerry Mande, a co-founder of Nourish Science wrote me to urge support for a national action plan to reduce obesity—and the chronic diseases for which it raises risks. (Note: he also has an op-ed in The Hill on NIH research and leadership needs).

Here is what we should do. It’s time for a new federal nutrition goal. For decades it’s been some variation of “access to healthier options and nutrition information.” Jim Jones [the new head of food and nutrition at FDA] used that last week in his vision for the new human foods program. It’s in USDA FNS’s mission too. The WaPo reporting on life expectancy, fatty liver disease, & Lunchables in school meals reveals that goal has failed and needs to be replaced.

The goal should be updated to: ensuring that every child reaches age 18 at a healthy weight and in good metabolic health. Cory Booker proposed making it the U.S. goal in his attached letter to Susan Rice on the WHC [White House Conference]. It’s part of the Nourish Science vision.

It’s doable.  USDA has the necessary power, reach, and resources. Over half of infants are on WIC, 1/3 of children in CACFP [Child and Adult Care Feeding Program], virtually all in school meals, and almost ½ of SNAP recipients are under 18. If we leveraged those programs to achieve the new goal and with FDA’s & CDC’s help, we could make substantial progress. For example, USDA was able to raise school meal HEI [Healthy Eating Index] scores from failing U.S. average of 58 to an acceptable 82 in just three years.

We have a successful blueprint in FDA regulation of tobacco. When we began our FDA investigation in 1993 1/3 of adults and ¼ of kids smoked cigarettes. Today we have a $700M FDA tobacco center and 11% of adults and only 2% of high school students smoke cigarettes.

We should set the new goal in the upcoming Farm Bill. We should change USDA’s name to the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture and state the new goal.

The only needed ingredient to make this happen is an effective federal nutrition champion. That’s how tobacco happened.

I’m optimistic. We can do this.

I like the vision.  I’m glad he’s optimistic.  Plenty of work to do to get this on the agenda.

Some background

Sep 26 2023

Some good news about school food

A lot of good stuff is going on about school food these days.  Here are five items.

I.  Universal school meals:

Massachusetts has become the 8th state to authorize universal school meals for kids in public schools.

Five of the eight states that have passed universal school meal programs did so this year. Minnesota and New Mexico enacted their policies in March, with Vermont following in June,  Michigan in July and now Massachusetts.  [Others are underway; here’s a current list]

II.  The USDA’s Healthy School Meals Incentives

III.  Water-in-schools initiatives

A new study just out: “Effectiveness of a School Drinking Water Promotion and Access Program for Overweight Prevention” finds drinking water associated with healthier weights.

  • The US News and World Report article on the study.
  • A short video of study findings is available in English and Spanish
  • National Drinking Water Alliance article
  • Water First resources are available here

IV.  Plant-based school meals

Another study, Plant-Based Trends in California’s School Lunches, produced these findings:

  • 68% of districts offer plant-based options daily or weekly, a 54% increase since 2019.
  • Plant-based entrees increased by 16% (but account for only 8% of entrées offered).
  • Districts are serving higher quality, whole plant-based entrees.

But then things get complicated:

  • Processed meat entrees account for 18% of all entrées offered, an increase of 11% since 2019.
  • More the half (57%) of all offerings on school menus contain cheese, and some of these are highly processed and include meat (e.g., pepperoni pizza).

California has a School Food Best Practices Fund for purchasing high-quality plant-based offerings, along with locally grown, minimally processed and sustainably grown food.

V.   School Nutrition policies and practices

A new study, “School Nutrition Environment and Services: Policies and Practices That Promote Healthy Eating Among K-12 Students,” says these interventions work:

Providing school nutrition professionals with professional development

  • Improving the palatability of school meals
  • Offering taste tests
  • Pre-slicing fruit
  • Providing recess before lunch
  • Offering incentives for trying healthier options
  • Providing access to drinking water

Comment:  Yes on universal school meals.  Everyone should be working on states to pass this legislation.  As for what works in schools, these interventions are well within the possible.  Get to work!

Aug 30 2023

School is starting: What the USDA is doing (a lot, actually)

I received an email from the USDA about what it is doing about school meals for the fall (and see ALSO at the end of this post).

It included links or attachments to resources.

This last one shows the money USDA has put into school meals since 2021.

This looks impressive.  Let’s hope it does good. 


The Chef Ann Foundation, which teaches scratch-cooking in schools, is recruiting applicants for its Healthy School Food Pathway Fellowship.  This is a 13-month training program.  See messages and graphics.  They are also hosting an explanatory webinar—tomorrow—for which you can register here.

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Aug 22 2023

The proposed SNAP Nutrition Security Act of 2023

Several readers have asked me to comment on legislative proposals to refocus SNAP on nutrition quality.

Their requests were triggered by an editorial in The Hill,  America’s food program for the poor should focus on nutrition, by two former USDA Secretaries, Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman, who co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Food and Nutrition Security Task Force.

They have several suggestions for improving SNAP:

To start, they should make diet quality a core, statutory focus of SNAP. Legislation from Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — the SNAP Nutrition Security Act of 2023 — would not only provide a statutory focus on nutrition within SNAP but craft a robust data collection strategy to identify opportunities to improve nutrition in the program.

The Booker/Rubio bill is clear about its purpose:

Food programs administered by the Department of Agriculture  should simultaneously combat food insufficiency and diet related chronic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer, which cause immense suffering, significantly increase already high health care spending, increase poverty, and undermine military readiness.

The bill calls for a report from the USDA Secretary that includes:

  • An analysis of the food and nutrition security of participants and non-participants in SNAP
  • Changes in SNAP aimed at improving food and nutrition security and diet quality
  • An analysis of the effectiveness of those changes
  • Recommendations for additional authority for the USDA Secretary to improve food and nutrition security and diet quality.

The core of this bill is store-level data collection.

The bill authorizes the USDA to study “the specific food items acquired with [SNAP] benefits by eligible households.”

Good idea, and about time too.  I was on the SNAP to Health commission which made similar recommendations in 2012.

I hope Congress passes it.  Here are the organizations that endorse the bill so far (as of July 14, 2023).

For the record: if we were starting from scratch on poverty reduction, my strong preference is for income support, not SNAP.  It worked splendedly during the pandemic.

Given that SNAP is what we’ve got, my preference is for the WIC model, or would be if all of these questions weren’t so politicized.


Aug 18 2023

Weekend reading: USDA’s food assistance programs

I find it hard to keep up with everything USDA is doing in food assistance, because its programs go way beyond SNAP.  Every now and then, the USDA sends an update via email.

General Overview of Food Assistance and Nutrition Programs

USDA’s domestic food and nutrition assistance programs affect the daily lives of millions of people, with about one in four U.S. residents participating in at least one food assistance program at some point during a typical year.

Expenditures for food and nutrition assistance account for more than two-thirds of USDA’s budget.

USDA food and nutrition assistance programs, costs and participation, fiscal year 2022

USDA expenditures on food assistance programs, fiscal years 1970–2022

You may also be interested in charts on:

The point: This is a huge amount of money.  These programs demonstrably relieve poverty, but are not nearly enough to solve it.  And the amounts are large enough to constitute a target for budget cutters, regardless of consequences.

Most of the attention focuses on SNAP, the most expensive program.  To the extent that the others stay off budget cutters radar, they can do plenty of good.

And these are basically what’s left of the safety net for the poor (except for the Earned Income Tax Credit).

These help, but not nearly enough.

Aug 16 2023

USDA’s latest chart on GMOs

I’ve been tracking what’s happening with GMO plantings for a long time, ever since writing Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety. 

The USDA has published charts of GMO plantings for a long time, but this is the first one I’ve seen that incorporates sugar beets and alfalfa.  Take a look.  It’s titled, “More than half of harvested U.S. cropland uses seed varieties with at least one genetically modified trait.”

Why is this of interest?  It’s an indicator of corporate consolidation and control of the food supply.

Organic, anyone?

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Aug 10 2023

A taste of summer: melons

Every now and then the USDA recruits a talented designer and produces terrific charts like this one.

I thought this was perfect for a hot summer day.  Enjoy!

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Jun 21 2023

MyPlate in song?

I am not a big fan of the MyPlate food guide.

  • It was created without doing consumer research to find out how well people understand it.
  • Pie charts are harder to understand than pyramids (the old pyramid, despite its flaws, conveyed the what-you-should-eat messages much better).
  • The Protein section makes no nutritional sense; grains and dairy are also excellent sources of protein, and beans, which are high in protein, are vegetables.

Never mind.  We have to live with it.

It appeared in 2010.  Now the USDA is trying to sell it, and with a catchy music video no less.

Will this sell kids on eating their veggies?

I hope the USDA has an evaluation in the works.