Tag: department of agriculture

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.

Breastfeeding and the Government

The media is reporting on a new study that finds long-term benefits to kids of breastfeeding.

Yet if health experts agree on the advantages of breastfeeding, why does the federal government subsidize mothers to use formula through the $7 billion Women, Infants, and Children program?

The WIC program is run by the Department of Agriculture, which summarized the subsidies as follows (page 1):

…infants participating in WIC consume about 54 percent of all formula sold in the United States. In most states, WIC participants use food vouchers or food checks to purchase their infant formula, free of charge, at participating retail grocery stores.

It’s true that in addition to handing out free formula, WIC administrators counsel women on the advantages of breastfeeding. But the counseling apparently isn’t working if WIC infants consume more than half of all formula. I am told that breastfeeding isn’t easy, so if you give moms a free alternative, many of them take it.

This is one of many examples we see of the government’s right hand working against its left. The Army Corps of Engineers destroys wetlands, while other federal agencies protect them. Milk and sugar programs push up food prices, while other programs subsidize food costs. Politicians complain about energy companies gouging consumers, yet federal ethanol policies push up energy costs.

The winners in each case are the political class – high-paid government administrators, members of Congress, and the groups hooked on federal subsidies. The losers are the rest of us – average taxpayers and consumers.

For more on federal food subsidies, see here.

Government Cheese

Self-anointed elites have been relentless in prodding government planners to apply their enlightened solutions for the purported benefit of the ignorant masses. As a result, the federal government has become a Super Nanny monitoring and guiding the intimate activities of the nation’s 300 million inhabitants. However, the government is not altruistic and does not have the solutions for how people should live their lives.

The amalgamation of programs and regulations that constitute the federal government is basically a reflection of the myriad special interests that have won a seat at Uncle Sam’s table. Government consists of fallible men and women who are naturally susceptible to pursuing policies that have less to do with the “general welfare” and more to do with rewarding the privileged birds incessantly chirping in their ears.

One result is that government programs often work at cross purposes. A perfect illustration is the confused U.S. Department of Agriculture, which spends taxpayer money subsidizing fatty foods while at the same time setting nutritional guidelines with the purported aim of getting Americans to eat healthier.

The New York Times explains:

Domino’s Pizza was hurting early last year. Domestic sales had fallen, and a survey of big pizza chain customers left the company tied for the worst tasting pies.

Then help arrived from an organization called Dairy Management. It teamed up with Domino’s to develop a new line of pizzas with 40 percent more cheese, and proceeded to devise and pay for a $12 million marketing campaign.

Consumers devoured the cheesier pizza, and sales soared by double digits. “This partnership is clearly working,” Brandon Solano, the Domino’s vice president for brand innovation, said in a statement to The New York Times.

But as healthy as this pizza has been for Domino’s, one slice contains as much as two-thirds of a day’s maximum recommended amount of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease and is high in calories.

And Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture — the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting.

Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese.

Your tax dollars are being used by the USDA to help Domino’s Pizza (and Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, and Burger King according to the article) sell its product. Of course, the government isn’t trying to help these fast food giants so much as it’s trying to help a particularly favored special interest: farmers.

While calls to get rid of subsidies for Dairy Management would obviously be on target, the better move would be to get rid of the entire USDA, which the New York Times comically refers to as “America’s nutrition police.” The USDA has been around for almost 150 years, and yet Americans have never been fatter. If there’s a solution to America’s obesity “problem,” it won’t be found in Washington. In a free society, the only solution is to make individuals responsible for the consequences of their own decision-making.

See these essays for more on downsizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture.