by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Aug 6 2019

The true purpose of moving the ERS out of DC: “Drain the Swamp”

Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

The Washington Examiner reports on a speech given by Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff and current budget head, on why the administration chose to move the Economic Research Service from Washington DC to Kansas City:, causing 70 to 80 percent of its researchers to resign:

What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time…It’s really, really hard to drain the swamp, but we’re working at it…Guess what happened? More than half the people quit. Now, it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker. I know that because a lot of them work for me, and I’ve tried. You can’t do it.  By simply saying to people, ‘You know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, D.C., and move you out to the real part of the country,’ and they quit.  What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time…even that was difficult to do.

From my standpoint, the destruction of the ERS—now a done deal—is nothing less than an American tragedy.

The ERS was an apolitical research organization, producing carefully done and highly vetted studies on all aspects of USDA’s food programs—agricultural supports, GMOs, pesticides, crop insurance, conservation, trade, food insecurity, food assistance programs, dietary guidelines.

Sometimes their studies produced inconvenient results.  Sometimes truth is inconvenient.

I’ve always viewed the ERS as a national treasure.  I used to think it was Washington’s best kept secret.

Somehow, somebody in this administration found out about it.   It was a tiny agency and must have looked easy to get rid of.

A tragedy indeed.

Some of my previous posts on this topic.  I wish they had done some good.

And this just in:

USDA’s inspector general says the department may well have violated laws by moving ERS without congressional permission.


Jul 30 2019

USDA wants to remove 3.1 million people from SNAP

Every time I think the USDA has done the worst damage it possibly can—I’m still reeling from the destruction of the Economic Research Service—it comes up with another bad idea.

This time, the USDA has proposed to “close a SNAP eligibility loophole,” in quotes because this is USDA-speak for throwing people off the rolls.

The “loophole” refers to permitting states to automatically enroll low-income people on SNAP (and low-income children on school meals) if they qualified for temporary financial assistance.

But, as the agency explains in its press release,

The proposed rule would fix a loophole that has expanded SNAP recipients in some states to include people who receive assistance when they clearly don’t need it. In fact, the depth of this specific flexibility has become so egregious that a millionaire living in Minnesota successfully enrolled in the program simply to highlight the waste of taxpayer money.

The press release goes on to say that

This proposal gives USDA the ability to save billions of dollars, ensuring nutrition assistance programs are delivered with consistency and integrity to those most in need.

Yeah.  Right.

A USDA Fact Sheet explains that 3.1 million SNAP recipients get benefits because of the loophole.

USDA officials told reporters that 300,000 children will become ineligible for school meals unless their parents now go through application processes.

The USDA’s cost/benefit analysis, has interesting things to say, first about how much money will this measure save:

$9.4 billion over the five years 2019-2023. Included in this is an estimated reduction in Federal transfers of approximately $10.543 billion over the five-year period as well as a $1.157 billion increase in Federal administrative costs. The Department estimates an additional $1.157 billion in administrative costs to State agencies (for a total of $2.314 billion in additional administrative costs).

Bottom line: Just under $2 billion per year in savings, if the USDA’s numbers are right.

But what about costs?

The Department estimates that approximately 9 percent of currently-participating SNAP households will lose eligibility for SNAP because
their incomes or resources exceed Federal SNAP eligibility standards (an estimated 1.7 million households in FY 2020, containing 3.1 million individuals).

In addition, the Department estimates that households that remain eligible for SNAP (approximately 17.2 million households containing 34.7 million individuals) and new SNAP applicants will face additional burden associated with the application process, at a cost of approximately $5 million annually.

And all of this is likely to be an underestimation:

While overall about 9 percent of all households currently participating in SNAP will lose eligibility under this proposed rule, households with one or more elderly individual(s) and/or earned income will be disproportionately affected. Approximately 13.2 percent of all SNAP households with elderly members will lose benefits (7.4 percent will fail the income test and 5.8 percent will fail the resource test), as will 12.5 percent of households with earnings (8.6 percent will fail the income test and another 3.9 percent will fail the resource test). Households without children will also be disproportionately affected, with 10.1 percent losing eligibility (approximately 5.5 percent will fail the income test and an additional 4.6 percent will fail the resource test.).

You don’t like this?  File comments.  The deadline is September 23.

HOW TO FILE COMMENTS: Click the Comment button here.

The Food and Nutrition Service, USDA, invites interested persons to submit written comments on this proposed rule. Comments may be submitted in writing by one of the following methods:

  • Federal eRulemaking Portal: Go to Follow the online instructions for submitting comments.
  • Mail: Send comments to Program Design Branch, Program Development Division, Food and Nutrition Service, USDA, 3101 Park Center Dr., Alexandria, VA 22302. Email: Send comments to Include Docket ID Number [FNS-2018-0037], “Revision of Categorical Eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance” in the subject line of the message.
  • All written comments submitted in response to this proposed rule will be included in the record and will be made available to the public. Please be advised that the substance of the comments and the identity of the individuals or entities submitting the comments will be subject to public disclosure. FNS will make the written comments publicly available on the internet via
Jul 19 2019

Weekend reading: What Big Ag is thinking about planting decisions and economic prospects

Every now and then I run into an excellent source of information about things I know nothing about.  I’ve just discovered Purdue University’s Ag Economy Baromoter, which tracks the opinions of producers of corn and soybeans.

Big Ag feels pretty good about current agriculture and trade policies, probably because USDA’s agricultural support system ihistorically has been firmly rigged in their favor.

If Purdue asked small and medium-sized producers, it might get a different stiory.

Jul 10 2019

One more time: the Economic Research Service tragedy

I was asked to do a more formal write-up of my blog posts on what’s happening with the Economic Research Service for World Nutrition, a publication of the World Public Health Nutrition Association.

My article is now published as “The Trump Administration’s destruction of the Economic Research Service: An American Tragedy (World Nutrition 2019;10(2):87-91).

It covers events through June 22, 2019.  Since then:


Jun 18 2019

The tragic destruction of the Economic Research Service, continued

I care about what’s happening to the ERS because I depend on the research it produces and have relied on its authoritative studies for decades.  I trust ERS researchers to be honest, independent, and wonderfully available to provide expert interpretation of USDA data.  It breaks my heart to see the destruction of an agency I considered to be a national treasure.  I thought it would be protected by being under the radar.  Apparently not.

Staff losses and politicization means that the ERS is highly unlikely to continue doing that same kind of independent, critical research.  This is an enormous loss.

The USDA sent out a press release announcing that the ERS offices would be moved to Kansas City.

USDA says it is doing this for these reasons:

The considerable taxpayer savings will allow us to be more efficient and improve our ability to retain more employees in the long run. We will be placing important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from Washington, D.C. In addition, we are increasing the probability of attracting highly-qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities.

Do we believe this?  No, we do not.

As Politico reports,

The proposal has already sparked a brain-drain of veteran economists from ERS, and some lawmakers and ERS staff allege relocation is a back-door attempt to shrink the agency and clamp down on research that doesn’t align with the Trump administration’s priorities.

Politico notes that “USDA paid the consulting firm Ernst & Young $340,000 to run the site selection process.”

In the meantime, ERS employees voted to unionize.  OK, better late than never.

Jerry Hagstrom of The Hagstrom Report  attended USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue’s announcement of the location of the move to ERS employees.  Union members expressed their displeasure openly (they have nothing to lose at this point).

This was a small agency doing quality work.  Its destruction is an American tragedy.

Thanks to the Hagstrom report for providing links to relevant documents:

USDA Research, Education, and Economics — ERS Directed Reassignment Letter (sample)
— Notice of Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment Authority
— Offer of Directed Reassignment: Acceptance/Declination Form
— Application for Voluntary Separation Incentive Program Buyout
— Frequently Asked Questions: Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIP)
— Sample Buyout Computation Worksheets
— Tax Questions on Buyouts (VSIP)

KC Area Development Council — USDA + KC: Relocation
— KC Now (video)

The ERS union’s letter to USDA for help with the move


May 29 2019

Trade mitigation payments are no substitute for effective agricultural policy

One of the daily newsletters I subscribe to is Chuck Abbott’s Ag Insider, sponsored by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), which covers and analyzes agricultural policies otherwise unknown or incomprehensible to readers like me.  You can subscribe to it here.

The particular article that caught my eye is about how Trump’s program of compensating farmers for the losses caused by his trade war with China has gotten the government much deeper into supporting Big Ag than some congressional representatives think is appropriate.

The USDA has stated that it will spend $15 to $20 billion on trade mitigation payments this year.  This will pay $2 a bushel for soybeans, 63 cents a bushel for wheat, and 4 cents a bushel for corn.

If you were a farmer, which would you plant?

The promised new payments will

double the $8.5 billion that has been paid so far on 2018 production of almonds, cotton, corn, dairy, pork, soybeans, sorghum, sweet cherries, and wheat. And the $15-$20 billion would be on top of $11.5 billion previously forecast for federal payments this year. Last year, direct farm payments totaled $13.8 billion, largest in 12 years, because of trade mitigation aid.

This is big money, at taxpayers’ expense.

Abbott’s point is that the “Freedom to farm” act of 1996 encouraged farmers to make planting decisions based on market prices rather than expectation of subsidies, and to reserve part of their land for conservation purposes.  Farmers were able to sell their crops for market prices rather than have the government buy them.

But the USDA says

Farmers should continue to make their planting and production decisions with the current market signals in mind, rather than some expectation of what a farming support program might or might not look like, based on inaccurate media stories.

And guess what: The National Corn Growers Association wants higher payments.

In other articles in this series, Abbott reports that “more than a third of net farm income for Kansas farmers comes from Trump tariff payments, but that won’t make up for lost export sales.”

May 28 2019

USDA’s destruction of the Economic Research Service: A National Tragedy

The reasons behind the Trump Administration’s efforts to relocate the USDA’s Economic Research Service out of the Washington DC area are becoming increasingly transparent: the administration views the conclusions of ERS research on SNAP and other key issues as incompatible with its agenda.

I wrote about the real reasons behind the proposed transfer in a post on September 21 last year: 

Former [ERS] officials were unanimous in arguing that the proposal to relocate the agency outside of Washington DC and reorganize it into the USDA Secretary’s office was “ill-conceived,” made no sense, was done without appropriate consultation, was potentially illegal, would politicize the agency, and would damage, if not destroy, an agency that is the jewel of USDA. The USDA says the reasons for doing this are easier recruitment, cheaper rent, closer alignment with the Secretary’s policy initiatives, and getting the agency closer to stakeholders.  None of these bears up under even the most casual scrutiny. So what is this really about? I’m guess that this is about getting political control over—silencing—an agency that conducts independent, unbiased, nonpartisan research that risks leading to inconvenient truths.

Now, ERS employees are coming forward to state publicly that they view the transfer “as a crackdown on research that’s unflattering to White House policy priorities.”

According to Politico, ERS personnel have done an analysis of which researchers are being told to stay in Washington, DC, and which ones are being told to move.  The ones being transferred out

are largely specialists in issues like climate change, food stamps and trade policy, where economic assessments often clash with White House policies.  The list, shared exclusively with POLITICO, shows a clear emphasis was placed on keeping employees in Washington whose work covers less controversial issues like crop planting over those whose research focused on areas sensitive to the administration….USDA released a written statement from Perdue arguing the relocation is not connected to the work being carried out by ERS economists. The secretary has long said the move will save taxpayer money and bring the agencies closer to major farming regions.

Some members of the House of Representatives are trying to block the relocation but even if they can, it will be too late.  By the time any legislation gets passed, the move will already have been accomplished and key ERS researchers long gone.

Eight Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) co-sponsored a measure that would prevent ERS and NIFA from being moved.  Van Hollen is also trying another route: Politico reports that he has  put a hold on the nomination of Scott Hutchins to be USDA’s chief scientist…”to indicate the seriousness of Van Hollen’s concerns about the proposed relocation.”

In the meantime, everyone is waiting to see where USDA intends to move the ERS.  The options are Kansas City, the Research Triangle in North Carolina and multiple spots in Indiana.

Whatever happens, the damage has been done.  Many ERS researchers have retired or resigned.

This agency produced authoritative analyses of food and nutrition issues that I relied on for much of my work.  This is an incalculable loss. and nothing less than a national tragedy.

Mar 19 2019

Trump budget double-speak: USDA/ERS budget cuts

The Trump administration released more details on its proposed budget, in language straight out of George Orwell’s 1984.

Framed as “savings and reform,” the proposal is to move the USDA’s Economic Research Service out of Washington DC.   Although this proposal says the purpose is to bring the ERS closer to rural America, its real purpose is to put the ERS out of business.

Why do I say this?  Because this proposal comes with a $26 million budget cut.   I also hear rumors that ERS research staff are being offered retirement options.

ERS is the jewel in USDA’s crown, nothing less than a national treasure, not only worth preserving but worth extolling for its truly important contributions to society.

I’ve long said that ERS was the best kept secret in government.  Its researchers worked tirelessly to provide real data on America’s food production and what it means for health.

Here, for example, is its latest report on how the U.S. food dollar is spent.

The best thing I can say about this budget is that it is unlikely to pass.  Members of Congress have been trying to put a stop to this move.  Let’s hope they succeed.

This may be a small piece of what’s happening, but in my field it is essential.

Please tell your congressional representatives to restore ERS’s budget and keep it in Washington, DC.



The Office of Management and Budget’s analysis

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