by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Oct 7 2020

The USDA’s food boxes: the saga continues

I cannot believe there is anything further to say about the Farmers to Families food boxes, the $4 billion USDA program that pays distributors to pick up dairy, meat, and produce, put it in boxes, and deliver the boxes to food banks, which then hand them out to people who need food.  My most recent post on the inclusion of a personal letter from President Trump in the boxes is here.

The USDA now says it has distributed 100 million of these boxes.

Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich reports  that the USDA now requires the private companies that collect, pack, and deliver the boxes “to also stuff the Trump letters into the package — an expansion of the controversial letter policy with just…days until the presidential election.”

The Counter’s Jessica Fu (to whom I owe an apology for spelling her name incorrectly the last time I quoted her) writes that “Religious groups distributing Covid hunger-relief boxes are praying with recipients, taping Bible verses onto flaps, and soliciting donations. Some of these practices may violate federal regulations.”

The Hunger Task Force says that the program is discriminatory: “Wisconsin has been underrepresented in all rounds of the program while Wisconsin’s hungry line up by the carload for assistance that has now been completely severed.”

New York legislators are also complaining.  They wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue:

in the transition between the CFAP vendors selected for rounds two and three, miscommunication from USDA has left many food pantries in New York City suddenly without food, causing upheaval in the lives of those families who were relying on their local pantries for meals.  We understand that the new vendors selected for round three of this program were required to specify the counties or boroughs to which they would provide food. However, this has forced many nonprofits and food pantries who had relationships with vendors no longer serving their county or borough to scramble to find new partnerships, with no guidance from USDA, no overlap in service
provision, and nowhere to turn for help.

On the saga goes.  It would have made so much more sense—financially, logistically, and humanely—for the USDA to strengthen SNAP enrollments and benefits.  Some of this is happening anyway, but the long history of food banks tells us that they can never meet needs on an ongoing basis.  SNAP, imperfect as it is, still is a demonstrably better means of relieving food insecurity.

Oct 6 2020

How much money is going into agricultural supports?

I’m trying to figure out how much money—over and above what’s appropriated through the farm bill—is going to Big Ag.  I wish someone would add it up for me.

Here’s what I know so far:

The USDA has given producers more than $10 billion in Coronavirus assistance.  This includes nearly $1 billion to Iowa farmers.  Lesser amounts went to producers in Nebraska, California, Texas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Overall, about half went to livestock producers.

According to the Environmental Working Group,

The largest and wealthiest U.S. farm businesses received the biggest share of almost $33 billion in payments from two subsidy programs – one created by the Trump administration to respond to the president’s trade war and the other by Congress in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  The Market Facilitation Program, or MFP, was intended to offset the perceived damage done by the administration’s trade war, which reduced many farmers’ access to lucrative Chinese markets. Payments for the 2018 and 2019 crop years were just over $23 billion – more than $8.5 billion for 2018 and $14.5 billion for 2019.

Chuck Abbott of the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) says:

With its new offer of $14 billion in coronavirus relief, the Trump administration could spend $50 billion — quadruple the cost of the auto industry bailout — in less than three years to buffer the impact of trade war and pandemic on agriculture. Farm groups welcomed the second round of coronavirus assistance while critics said it was “old-fashioned vote-buying” ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

And the largesse does not stop.  The House has proposed a $120 billion rescue fund that includes relief programs for livestock and dairy farmers and food processors, such as “$1.25 billion to assist contract growers of poultry and livestock growers who face revenue losses due to reduced placements related to COVID-19”

This money goes to Big Ag—Soybeans, Corn, Meat—mainly in mid-West Trump country.

What about food for people?  Well, we have the $4 billion Farmers to Families food boxes, although how much of that goes to farmers as opposed to distributors is unknown.

Oct 1 2020

Food fight: ethanol this time

The Trump Administration has poured billions of dollars into supporting Midwest producers of industrial corn, but to date is not doing anything in particular to help producers of corn-based ethanol.  Because Americans are not traveling as much, demand for gasoline is down and so is demand for fuel ethanol (required by law to comprise 10% of automobile fuel).

The ethanol industry is unhappy about this situation, and is accusing the Trump Administration of reneging on its promises.

This secret list of promises, the vast majority of which have not been fulfilled, was first reported by Reuters today and offers powerful evidence of the Trump administration’s failure to support ethanol, despite his rhetoric. This secret list also highlights how Senator Ernst and Grassley have failed to follow through on their own promises to fight for Iowa farmers with this administration, despite their rhetoric. Just last week, Senator Ernst touted herself as a “tireless advocate” for the ethanol industry yet by never releasing the list of White House ethanol promises she has avoided having to call out the President for the full extent of his failures.

What’s all this about?  Money, of course.

But I don’t have much sympathy for ethanol producers.

I don’t think corn—a food mainly for animals but also for people—should be used as fuel for cars.

For one thing, it takes almost as much energy to produce a gallon of ethanol as it does to produce gasoline.  The best that can be said is this:

Energy is required to turn any raw feedstock into ethanol. Ethanol produced from corn demonstrates a positive energy balance, meaning that the process of producing ethanol fuel does not require more energy than the amount of energy contained in the fuel itself.

If you want details, see the USDA’s report on ethanol energy balance.

An astonishing 40% or so of US corn is grown to produce ethanol.


I’m not the only one who thinks growing food to fuel cars is ridiculous, or—more politely—needs rethinking.

As a crop, corn is highly productive, flexible and successful. It has been a pillar of American agriculture for decades, and there is no doubt that it will be a crucial part of American agriculture in the future. However, many are beginning to question corn as a system: how it dominates American agriculture compared with other farming systems; how in America it is used primarily for ethanol, animal feed and high-fructose corn syrup; how it consumes natural resources; and how it receives preferential treatment from our government.

Another reason, as the USDA puts it: “Strong demand for ethanol production has resulted in higher corn prices and has provided incentives for farmers to increase corn acreage.”

Neither of those is good for the health of people or the planet.

Growing corn for ethanol makes no sense to me.  It’s too bad that the companies that invested in ethanol plants are hurting, but hey: that’s how capitalism works

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Iowa Farmers and Ag Leaders Demand that Senators Ernst and Grassley Release Secret List of Trump Ethanol Promises


Iowa Corn Farmer Doug Thompson: “Our Senators went to the White House, were made promises on ethanol that never came true, and then never said a word about it.”

Rural America 2020 Iowa Steering Committee writes letter to Ernst and Grassley; Group will be posting billboard advertisements and buying radio ads across Iowa calling for the release of the secret list of broken promises

(Des Moines, IA) –A group of Iowa farmers and ag leaders sent a letter to Iowa Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley today demanding that they make public a secret list of promises on federal ethanol policy that the Trump Administration made to them at the White House almost exactly one year ago.

This secret list of promises, the vast majority of which have not been fulfilled, was first reported by Reuters today and offers powerful evidence of the Trump administration’s failure to support ethanol, despite his rhetoric. This secret list also highlights how Senator Ernst and Grassley have failed to follow through on their own promises to fight for Iowa farmers with this administration, despite their rhetoric. Just last week, Senator Ernst touted herself as a “tireless advocate” for the ethanol industry yet by never releasing the list of White House ethanol promises she has avoided having to call out the President for the full extent of his failures.

“This is a betrayal on all sides,” said Iowa corn grower Doug Thompson, a member of the Rural America 2020 Iowa Steering Committee that sent the letter“Our Senators went to the White House, were made promises on ethanol that never came true, and then never said a word about it. It’s a colossal failure of execution and accountability and the only people who got hurt are the Iowa farmers who have lost billions of gallons in ethanol demand.

“We are now less than two weeks away from Iowa voters beginning to vote.” Thompson also said. “Senators Ernst and Grassley owe it to all Iowa farmers and voters to immediately release the list of ethanol promises – that was made on White House letterhead – so that Iowans understand the full magnitude of Trump’s broken ethanol promises. It’s the only way we can hold them accountable going forward. Even if our Senators claim this was a preliminary list – which we have no indication it was – it should be made public so that Iowans can see the extent to which our home state Senators got rolled by Big Oil and the White House.”

Rural America 2020, which already has billboards up across Iowa decrying Trump’s broken ethanol promises, will be placing messages across the state demanding the release of the secret ethanol list. They will also be recording radio ads from Iowa farmers that call for release of the list.

A timeline of the events (and related reporting) around the White House meeting in which the list was shared is as follows:

August 9th, 2019 – Trump administration grants 31 waivers for oil refineries that help undercut demand for ethanol.

August 16th, 2019 – Senator Grassley says publicly that Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)“screwed us” by providing 31 waivers to oil refiners.

August 23rd, 2019 – Senator Ernst says at a town hall meeting that the White House is putting together a document that will include all the help they will be providing on ethanol.

August 29th, 2019 – President Trump publicly promises corn farmers a “giant package” after angering them by providing the waivers.

September 12th, 2019 – White House convenes meeting with Senators Grassley and Ernst as well as Senators Ben Sasse (R-NE), Deb Fischer (R-NE), John Thune (R-SD), Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Governor Kim Reynolds. They are presented with the list of promises.

September 12th, 2019 – President Trump meets with the CEOs of Valero Energy (Joe Gorder) and Marathon Petroleum (Gary Heminger) to discuss Big Oil’s concerns on the same day as the meeting with the Senators and Governor Reynolds.

September 17th, 2019 – Grassley admits to having seen a “13-point plan” from the White House but declines to say what was in it or anything about it.

September 18th, 2019 – Both Grassley and Reynolds say they were encouraged by the White House meeting but that they want to see “something in writing” despite having both seen the secret list of promises in writing at the meeting on September 12th. Ernst also repeatedly tweets that she wants to see a plan in writing despite having seen the White House plan.

One year later – Brian Jennings, chief executive officer of the American Coalition for Ethanol says that “so many ethanol promises, promises to do right by this industry have collected dust” and says that recent attempts by the White House to manufacture ethanol policy victories “should never have been given credibility.”

“Over a year after receiving a list of promises from the White House – a ‘13-point plan’ as Senator Grassley referred to it – neither Ernst nor Grassley – has released the plan so that Iowans can judge for themselves,” added Doug Thompson. “Has the President broken even more promises than we know? Have our Senators spent the last year getting conned by the President or are they all just conning Iowa farmers? We need to see this list immediately to find out.”

The full text of the letter from the Iowa Steering Committee is below. The letter was sent to Senators Ernst and Grassley who attended the meeting at the White House where the ethanol promises were made. The Iowa Steering Committee also cc’d the other Senators at the meeting and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds who also attended the meeting.

Dear Senators Ernst and Grassley:

On September 12th, 2019, the President promised you in writing that he would add 500 million gallons of ethanol and 500 million gallons of advanced biofuels to the 2020 supplemental blending rule. While this market access would have been a welcome buffer during turbulent times, it did not happen. He also promised to add 250 million gallons of biodiesel to the 2021 blending volumes, however, we are still waiting.  Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs) are typically released in the summer to be finalized in November, but nothing has been presented to producers and the public for 2021. It is now harvesting season and the end of 2020 is around the corner, yet farmers and biofuel producers have little insight on how to plan for the 2021 planting season.

It is time for the President to make good on his promises to you, if he ever will. While he has had a year since releasing a list of promises, the few kept have come on the heels of outcry from rural voters. We believe that you must release his list of promises made if we are to see him keep any of them in the next 40 days, or after. Given his track record, we are concerned a Trump second term will include few promises to farmers at all, let alone broken ones.

Over the past three years, farmers and biofuel producers have lost our greatest export markets and faced devastating blows in the name of Big Oil handouts. Small refinery waivers skyrocketed under Trump, slashing four billion gallons of biofuels from the market. Staff at 150 biofuel plants in America lost hours or their jobs entirely. One billion bushels of corn – on top of already stored crops thanks to trade disputes – did not get blended into ethanol, driving commodity prices down even further.

Thanks to Trump’s broken promises, rising input costs, and dwindling receipts farmers have been forced to live on government-aid bailouts of $12 billion, $16 billion, and most recently $14 billion. Farmers do not want cash bailouts. Our sales drive our communities and job creation. Our quality of life and long-term viability rely on sales, manufacturing and economic incentives – not government checks. We want export markets, a level playing field and the certainty that comes with planning. Unfortunately, this administration has failed the bare minimum – to carry out a plan.

As reported, the President’s written promises to you were guarantees to streamline compliance for E15, act to support expansion of E85, resolve trade disputes, and address E10 and E15 labeling. To date these promises have not been upheld, and year-round E15 is only sold at 2,000 of 152,000 U.S. retail stations. As the president continues to break his promises, we have little faith 2021 will meet the expressed guarantee of 15 billion gallons.

It is time you make his promises public. Doing so prior to an election is the only way to hold him accountable. After the election, as we have seen, the President is far more inclined to side with Big Oil. Now is the time to demand these promises be made public and that they be fulfilled. Biofuel producers and farmers in your home state are depending on it.


Doug Thompson, Kanawha, Iowa
John Judge, Albia, Iowa
Chris Henning, Cooper, Iowa
Tom Grau, Newell, Iowa
Aaron Lehman, Polk City, Iowa
Marcella and William Frevert, Emmetsburg, Iowa
Tom Furlong, Letts, Iowa


U.S. Senator Ben Sasse
U.S. Senator Deb Fischer
U.S. Senator John Thune
U.S. Senator Mike Rounds
Governor Kim Reynolds





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Sep 30 2020

The Counter investigates: the Economic Research Service’s shameful downfall

I was pleased to see Jessica Fu’s article in The Counter: One year after a mass employee exodus, USDA’s research arm remains half-staffed. New work has ground to a near halt.

Long-time readers of will be familiar with  my distress at the USDA’s moving the Economic Research Service out of Washington DC to Kansas City, in a clear effort to destroy an agency that sometimes produced inconvenient research.

Fu supplies the data.

She also did some investigating.

“Everybody that was doing [work] on seeds, chemicals, and precision agriculture left—so all that work is wiped out completely,” MacDonald said. “We had a significant amount of work on the health and environmental impacts of industrialized livestock production. That was wiped out.”

Reports on tariffs, farm workers, honey bees, herbicide resistance, and antibiotic use in animal production are all among the work forfeited or delayed in the transition, according to an internal memo shared among staffers and reviewed by The Counter.

Her article points out that “some staffers believe” the ERS was targeted “because its findings frequently conflicted with political stances on food stamps, trade, and the environment.”  The USDA, of course, denies this, but the available evidence strongly supports this hypothesis.

I thought the ERS was the best kept secret in Washington—non-partisan researchers who reported on food system facts.  It got noticed.

An American tragedy indeed.

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.


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.


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.