Tag: usda

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.

Raisin-Taking Claim Now Ripe for Consideration on the Merits

As Ilya noted, the Supreme Court yesterday cleared the procedural roadblocks for the Horne family, which grows and processes raisins in California, to challenge the operations of the USDA’s marketing order system as an unlawful taking of their property without compensation. The Hornes say that under the USDA’s California Raisin Marketing Order, the Raisin Administrative Committee demanded that they hand over 47 percent of their raisins to be disposed of in ways that do not compete with sales in the domestic retail raisin market, such as export programs and school lunches. 

47 percent! Back in January that figure reminded me of an earlier scale of government extraction: 

Max Boot, who has written a new book on the history of guerrilla movements, tells how Shamil, firebrand leader of a celebrated 19th-century Muslim insurgency in Chechnya and Dagestan, began to lose the allegiance of “many ordinary villagers who balked at his demands for annual tax payments amounting to 12 percent of their harvest.” Instead, they switched their allegiance instead to the rival Russian czar, whose demands were more modest.

If only Washington were content with the czar’s less-than-12 percent. For more on regulatory takings, check out this testimony from way back in 1995 by Cato’s own Roger Pilon before the House Judiciary Committee.

Food Stamps Growth Has Bipartisan Roots

Republicans are jumping on the news that participation in the food stamps program hit a new record of 46.7 million individuals in June (about one in seven Americans). In a sluggish economy, an increase in food stamps participation is to be expected. Thus, it’s fair to hold up the increase in food stamps usage as being emblematic of the Obama administration’s failed economic policies. In addition, the president’s 2009 “stimulus” bill increased benefits and eligibility.

What Republicans don’t want to acknowledge is the role they played in expanding the food stamps program before President Obama ever took office. The 2002 farm bill—passed by a Republican-controlled House and signed by Republican President George W. Bush—expanded the food stamps program. As the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page correctly noted yesterday, “The food-stamp boom began with the George W. Bush Republicans, who expanded benefits in the appalling 2002 farm bill.”

The 2008 farm bill further expanded the program. However, on this the Journal lets the GOP off the hook when it says “But the supercharger was a 2008 bill out of the Pelosi Congress that goosed eligibility and rebranded the program as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to reduce the stigma of being on the dole.” Although Bush vetoed that farm bill (he didn’t cite the increase for food stamps in his veto message), congressional Republicans were instrumental in enabling the “Pelosi Congress” to override it. In the House, 99 (out of 195) Republicans joined most Democrats in voting to override the veto. In the Senate, only 12 Republicans voted to sustain Bush’s veto.

One of those Republicans who voted to override Bush’s veto—and who also voted for the 2002 farm bill—is Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Sessions, who is the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, has been a chief critic of the growth in food stamps under President Obama. Sessions has been particularly critical of the administration’s efforts to “recruit” new food stamps recipients. For example, a “Community Outreach Partner Toolkit” produced by the USDA in 2011 that suggests throwing a “great party”:

Host social events where people mix and mingle. Make it fun by having activities, games, food, and entertainment, and provide information about SNAP. Putting SNAP information in a game format like BINGO, crossword puzzles, or even a “true/false” quiz is fun and helps get your message across in a memorable way.

It’s probable, however, that the food stamps outreach is being driven by the bureaucrats at the USDA. To Sessions’s credit, he acknowledges as much in a press release on the USDA’s recent cessation of radio ads designed to attract Spanish-speaking individuals to the program. It’s important to note that these “radio novellas” were produced during the Bush administration. Similarly, a partnership with the Mexican government to make Mexican nationals more aware of U.S. welfare programs—including food stamps—was signed by Bush’s agriculture secretary Ann Veneman in 2004.

The Obama administration certainly deserves to be heavily criticized for the growth in government dependency. But attacks from Republicans (e.g., Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the “food stamps president”) have been too disingenuous. Yes, Republicans are now calling for the food stamps program to be cut, but given their culpability in its growth—and the fact that it’s an election year—it’s hard to view their sudden discovery of religion as anything more than standard politics.

Addendum: Here’s Chris Edwards’ recent chart showing the growth in food stamps spending under presidents Bush and Obama:

The USDA: Your One-Stop Shop

Politico yesterday reported that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is upset. According to him, the USDA just don’t get no respect:

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wants to spread the message to anyone who’ll listen: The U.S. Department of Agriculture isn’t just about farming anymore.

“This department is not appreciated,” the former Iowa governor told POLITICO in a recent interview. “We are engaged in virtually every issue and always can provide some support and some meaningful solution to a problem that is vexing folks.”

To prove the point, he challenges anyone to name an issue that doesn’t touch the department’s portfolio, from bolstering national security by helping wean Afghan farmers from growing opium — a cash crop that funds Islamic insurgents fighting U.S. troops — to providing USDA-backed home loans as a way to repopulate the sparse countryside. [emphasis added, with disgust]

Not bad for an agency that shouldn’t even exist.

Senate Spares Rural Development Subsidies

An amendment to a Senate appropriations bill introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that would have reduced funding for rural development subsidies at the Department of Agriculture by $1 billion was easily voted down today. Only 13 Republicans voted to cut the program. Thirty-two Republicans joined all Democrats in voting to spare it, including minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), ranking budget committee member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and tea party favorite Marco Rubio (R-FL).

This was a business-as-usual vote that will receive virtually no media attention. However, it is a vote that symbolizes just how unserious most policymakers are when it comes to making specific spending cuts. That’s to be expected with the Democrats. On the other hand, Republicans generally talk a good game about the need to cut spending and they rarely miss an opportunity to criticize the Obama administration for its reckless profligacy. Republicans instead fall back on their support of a Balanced Budget Amendment and other reforms like biennial budgeting.

I think most Republicans are in favor of a BBA because they believe it gets them off the hook of having to name exactly what they’d cut. There are several reasons why Republican policymakers won’t get specific: 1) they really don’t want to cut spending; 2) they’re afraid of cheesing off special interests and constituents who benefit from government programs; 3) they’re more concerned with being in power and getting reelected; 4) they’re just plain ignorant of, or disinterested in, the particulars of government programs.

As for biennial budgeting, Republicans would have us believe that appropriating money every other year will give policymakers more time to conduct oversight of government programs. I think it’s another cop-out. Coburn’s office put out plenty of information on the problems associated with USDA rural development subsidies (see here). A Cato essay on rural development subsidies provides more information, including findings from the Government Accountability Office that are readily available to policymakers.

(Note: I worked for both Jeff Sessions and Tom Coburn.)

The Ratchet Effect, Agriculture Edition

Between the lines of a front-page Wall Street Journal article about farm subsidies [$] is an instructive example of the ratchet effect:

Land prices are way up and so are bank deposits, as high corn and soybean prices mean local farmers are making the most money in their lives…An exception to the boom is the local office of the U.S. Agriculture Department, the dispensary of federal payments to farmers from an array of arcane programs with names like ‘loan deficiency’ and ‘milk income loss.’ On a recent afternoon, the parking lot in front of the squat brick building behind a Chinese restaurant was nearly empty.

The reason: Payments from America’s primary farm-subsidy program, dating from the 1930s, have stopped here. Grain prices are far too high to trigger payouts under the program’s ‘price support’ formula. The market, in other words, has done what decades of political wrangling couldn’t: slash farm subsidies.

Though the subsidy payments always ebbed and flowed with crop prices, many economists are convinced that what is happening now is different. A fundamental upward shift in crop prices is creating the real possibility that Midwestern farmers won’t ever again qualify for the primary form of farm subsidy.

There remain other types of subsidies, which continue to pay out because they aren’t linked to market prices. But high prices are undermining political support for those programs…

Well, there’s some good news. Maybe we can start downsizing the USDA, including by closing some of those local offices? Not so fast. The last two paragraphs of the article (on page A10) leave us with this cheery thought [emphasis added]:

Meanwhile, workers in the USDA’s county offices, seeing the handwriting on the wall, are campaigning for new things to do, now that there aren’t any price-support payments to dispense. One idea is to give them responsibility for federally subsidized crop insurance, currently handled by private companies.

Heck, why not? Heaven knows the federal government is flush with cash.

Ryan’s Plan for Farm Subsidies

I thought I would add some detail to the posts my colleagues have already written on Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) 2012 budget resolution.

Interestingly – and, I would argue, appropriately – the agriculture stuff appears in the “Ending Corporate Welfare” section of the plan, most of  it on page 36. After outlining the ways that farming America is doing well, Ryan’s plan would cut almost $30 billion (or 20 percent of projected outlays) over the next 10 years from farm subsidies (direct payments, currently costing about $5 billion per year) and crop insurance subsidies. Cuts will also reportedly fall on nutrition and conservation programs, but I will let my colleagues weigh in on those.

The focus on crop insurance is encouraging, because crop insurance is an increasingly important part of U.S. farm policy, especially in recent years when commodity prices have been high: high prices reduce the amount of money taxpayers spend on commodity payments, but increases crop insurance premiums, which we all subsidize. They now cost about $6 billion, or more than commodity payments.  And, as the blueprint points out, surely farmers “should assume the same kind of responsibility for assuming risk that other businesses do.” Well played, Congressman.

One point on where the cuts fall on the commodity payments side: As a free-marketeer, I acknowledge that direct payments are less market-distorting than price-linked payments, and they are less (although not fully) questionable under World Trade Organization rules.  If we are going to shovel money to farmers, in other words, sending unconditional welfare checks is the least distorting way to do it. But there is no money to raid from the price-linked programs because of high prices, so if savings are to be found, we need to raid the direct payment cookie jar. And, really, with $7 corn and red ink from here to eternity, surely this is an ideal time to wean farmers off of the government teat.

Reactions from the farmers’ friends, by the way? Predictable. The Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee dismissed the blueprint’s plans for agriculture as “simply suggestions” and that the Agriculture Committee will write the 2012 Farm Bill, thankyouverymuch. (Ryan himself said that the cuts should start in 2012, implying that the Farm Bill schedule should go ahead as planned).

The National Farmers Union spoke the usual blather about Americans spending less of their income on food than in other nations (perhaps because we are, you know, richer?) for the “safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply in the world,” which has been the favorite line of the farm lobby for years now.  The Corn Growers and the National Cotton Council joined them in trotting out variations of the new favorite talking point, about how agriculture has already taken a hit from cuts to crop insurance and that cuts to agriculture’s budget should be no larger than cuts to other areas. 

The blueprint is not my ideal plan, to be sure. That plan would have a line in it about removing the federal government once and for all from all aspects of the agricultural market, including by disbanding the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  It would at least include something about disbanding the production- and price-determined subsidies, so we’re not all on the hook again if prices fall. But it is a good start.