Tag: department of agriculture

Vilsack to Congress: Give Me More Money or I’ll Let the West Burn

Congress rejected the Forest Service plan to give the agency access to up to $2.9 billion a year to suppress wildfires. In response, Secretary of Agriculture threatened to let fires burn up the West unless Congress gives his department more money. In a letter to key members of Congress, Vilsack warned, “I will not authorize transfers from restoration and resilience funding” to suppress fires. If the Forest Service runs out of appropriated funds to fight fires, it will stop fighting them until Congress appropriates additional funds.

This is a stunning example of brinksmanship on the part of an agency once known for its easygoing nature. Since about 1990, Congress has given the Forest Service the average of its previous ten years of fire suppression funds. If the agency has to spend more than that amount during a severe fire year, Congress authorized it to borrow funds from its other programs, with the promise that Congress would reimburse those funds later. In other words, during severe fire years, some projects might be delayed for a year–hardly a crisis.

Yet Vilsack and the Forest Service are intent on turning it into a crisis. In a report prominently posted on the Forest Service’s web site, the agency whines about “the rising costs of wildfire operations”–that cost not being the dollar cost but the “effects on the Forest Service’s non-fire work.”

USDA/HHS Removes Consideration of “Sustainability” from Dietary Guidelines

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services made headlines last winter when they released the draft form of their updated dietary guidelines and revealed that they were considering “sustainability” as a factor in their recommended diet—and by “sustainable” they meant foods that had “lower greenhouse gases” associated with their production. This favors plant-based foods over animal- based ones.

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan now even had its far-reaching fingers in our food. We found this somewhat rude.

Under the wildly-crazy assumption that all Americans, now and forever, were to convert to vegetarianism, we calculated that the net impact on future global warming as a result of reduced greenhouse gas emissions was two ten-thousandths of a degree Celsius (0.0002°C) per year. Not surprisingly, we concluded if one were worried about future climate change, “ridding your table of steak shouldn’t be high on the list.”

We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help: School Lunch Edition

How much does a “free” school lunch cost?

In the last few years, First Lady Michelle Obama has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make school lunches healthier. In 2011, Neal McCluskey argued that, though well-intentioned, the changes would result in more wasted food, higher costs, and major implementation challenges. The General Accounting Office has now issued a report that confirms these concerns:

According to the GAO report, local and state authorities told researchers the new standards have resulted in more waste, higher food costs, challenges with menu planning and difficulties in sourcing products that meet the federal portion and calorie requirements.

When such decisions are made at the local level, schools can solicit and respond to feedback from parents and students. However, when the proverbial faceless bureaucrat in some distant Washington office decides, the rules tend to be uniform and inflexible, leading to all sorts of unintended consequences:

The federal government’s changes to school lunch menus have been disastrous, causing problems for cafeterias trying to comply with the rules and leaving the menu so expensive or unpalatable that more than 1 million students have stopped buying lunch, according to a government audit…

One school district told federal investigators that it had to add unhealthy pudding and potato chips to its menu to meet the government’s minimum calorie requirements. Other school districts removed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from their elementary school menus.

Five of the eight school districts surveyed by the Government Accountability Office, the official watchdog for Congress, said they believed students were going hungry because of smaller entree portions demanded by the rules.

In other words, the so-called “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” actually resulted in some kids being served less healthy food while other kids went hungry.

Two-thirds of states reported on the GAO survey that implementation in 2012-13 was a “very great challenge” or an “extreme challenge.” The report noted that much of the difficulty was related to the sheer volume of regulations. In just 18 months, the USDA issued 1,800 pages of “guidance” for following the new rules. Moreover, the “guidance” was “provided too late in the 2012-2013 school year to be helpful” because schools “had already planned menus and trained food service staff” on what they thought the new rules required. However, some guidance memos “either substantively changed or contradicted aspects of previously issued memos.” When state officials contacted the USDA’s regional offices for guidance on understanding the “guidance,” the USDA staff were “sometimes unable to answer state questions on the guidance.” 

Let’s hope this serves as a cautionary tale for those who want the federal government to play a larger role in education policy in general.

Pennsylvania Moves to Starve Poor People

That’s the message I came away with after reading an online article from a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter about a decision by the state of Pennsylvania to limit eligibility for food stamps. The article is a perfect example of the difficulty advocates for limited government face in communicating their ideas through the mainstream press.

At issue is the PA Department of Public Welfare’s decision to eliminate eligibility for food stamps for people under the age of 60 who have more than $2,000 in assets (the value of one’s house, retirement benefits, and car would be excluded). The DPW estimates that only “2 percent of the 1.8 million Pennsylvanians receiving food stamps would be affected by the asset test.” Indeed, the DPW’s website notes that “Because of changes to SNAP, most Pennsylvania households are not subject to a net income limit, nor are they subject to any resource or asset limits.”

(SNAP is the acronym for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which was known as the Food Stamp program until 2008 when Congress changed its name to sound more palatable. The program is run jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state governments, but federal taxpayers pay for the direct benefits.)

One of the “changes” that the DPW refers to is categorical eligibility, which basically means that Pennsylvania households already receiving benefits from other welfare programs, including cash welfare and Supplemental Security Income, automatically qualify for food stamps. In recent years, both the state of Pennsylvania and the federal government have made it easier to qualify for food stamps benefits.

Unfortunately, the Inquirer reporter either wasn’t aware of these details or didn’t deem them important enough for inclusion. Instead, he quotes ten—let me repeat that, ten—critics of the DPW’s decision. The critics include a “national hunger expert,” the legal director of a “leading anti-hunger group,” the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, the executive director of the “liberal Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center,” and an older woman who says that she’ll “have to give up paying for my health insurance.”

It took me all of two minutes to get a quote from Nathan Benefield, the director of policy analysis at Pennsylvania’s pro-liberty Commonwealth Foundation:

Unfortunately for taxpayers, politicians in Harrisburg and Washington have for the past few years considered it a “success” to have more families on welfare. Pennsylvania welfare eligibility and spending—including for food stamps—has exploded, threatening to crowd out everything else in the state budget. Means testing for assets is a common-sense reform to ensure those who truly need aid get it.

There, was that so hard?

Of course, journalists who are interested in getting the pro-liberty take on welfare reform are welcome to contact my colleagues and me at the Cato Institute. Honestly, we don’t want people to starve in order to save a buck—we just believe that the federal government is an improper and less effective means for assisting those who are truly in need. Pressed for time? Here are Cato essays on food subsidies, welfare, and federal subsidies to state and local government.

Don’t Tread on My Plate

Last week First Lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled “ChooseMyPlate.gov,” an updating of the federal government’s ongoing efforts to lecture us on how to eat. While the idea of nutrition recommendations from Washington, D.C. isn’t itself new, the past couple of years have seen a lurch toward a more coercive approach, especially under the Obama administration, under pressure from a burgeoning “food policy” movement, as I explain in a new Daily Caller op-ed:

All sorts of nannyish and coercive ideas are emerging from that [movement] nowadays: proposals at the FDA to limit salt content in processed foods; mandatory calorie labeling, which poses a significant burden on many smaller food vendors and restaurants; new mandates on food served in local schools; advertising bans; and on a local level efforts to ban things like Happy Meals at McDonald’s. No wonder many parents, local officials and skeptics in Congress are beginning to say: Back off, guv. It’s my plate.

The fact is that the federal government’s dietary advice has changed often through the years—the Washington Post had a great feature on past federal dietary guidelines, under which sweets and even butter held their place as food groups—and that government’s recommendations have regularly proved wrong and even damaging, a point that Steve Malanga elaborates on in this City Journal piece (“Following the government’s nutritional advice can make you fat and sick.”)

Yesterday, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal had me on opposite Maya Rockeymoore of the group Leadership for Healthy Communities to discuss issues that ranged from the school lunch program to whether Washington should serve as an “arbiter” of contending dietary claims, an idea I didn’t much care for. You can watch here.

Raw Onions Served As Snack in D.C. Schools

Fifty-three elementary schools in the District of Columbia take part in the federal government’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, a recently ramped-up federal initiative that dishes out millions to local schools to get them to use raw produce as snacks. According to the Washington Examiner, it was by inadvertence that students at Turner Elementary School were given raw green onions (scallions) as a snack the other day when they were supposed to be given zucchini slices instead. Children were observed making “yuck” faces before throwing the offerings in the trash or, in some cases, resourcefully tucking them into their bags to take home for their parents to cook.

Are we sure this is the best way to keep students from sneaking Doritos into the building?

On a less tear-inducing note, the school board in the town of Darien, Conn. has unanimously voted to pull out of the federal school lunch program. Finance director Richard Huot cited current and forthcoming federal mandates that, among other things, ban chocolate milk, discourage reliance on refillable sports water bottles, and require schools to push salads in preference to longtime favorites such as fruit. The regulations also drive up labor costs, Huot said, and make the lunch program more complex to run generally. “The children in this town are savvy consumers,” Huot said. “You put a lousy product on the table; they are not going to buy it.”

As a famously affluent suburb, Darien can afford to turn down the bribes — sorry, subsidies — that come with doing it Washington’s way. Isn’t it a shame so many other communities feel they have no real financial choice but to go along?

USDA’s Budget Boom

Spending at the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be an estimated inflation-adjusted 43 percent higher this year compared to just a decade ago. The following chart shows the dramatic rise in USDA spending from fiscal 1970 to the president’s projection for fiscal 2011:

Most folks probably think of farm subsidies when they think of the USDA. However, farm programs only account for 19 percent of total USDA outlays. The vast majority of USDA spending, 69 percent, goes to food subsidies: food stamps, school breakfast and lunch programs, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). In fact, spending on food stamps alone this year will account for roughly half of total USDA spending.

Why aren’t these programs housed at the Department of Health and Human Services, the government’s chief welfare bureaucracy? The answer is politics, of course. Every five years or so Congress passes a new “farm bill,” which updates or sets the agenda for USDA programs and policies. Stuffing welfare programs in with traditional farm subsidies engenders broad legislative support for the total legislative package. Including food subsidies helps secure votes from urban and suburban legislators who would otherwise have little or no incentive to vote for farm subsidies.

See here for more on downsizing the Department of Agriculture, including both farm and food subsidies.