December 14, 2017 11:14AM

Food Stamp Reform in 2018?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of the costliest welfare programs at about $70 billion a year. Not only is it costly, but a large share of the benefits are not used as intended.

Recipients are supposed to use SNAP or food stamp benefits to “make healthy food choices” and “obtain a more nutritious diet.” But it turns out that about $15 billion of food stamp spending goes for junk food, such as candy and cola. Many recipients are not making the nutritious choices the government intends.

The Trump administration is expected to pursue welfare reforms next year, and trimming food stamp benefits is one priority. The Washington Post says that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

is considering proposals to let states impose new restrictions on purchases of soda and candy and require SNAP candidates to apply in person, according to the Secretaries Innovation Group (SIG), which represents state social service secretaries from 20 Republican administrations. The agency is also considering a proposal to allow states to reduce payments to some groups of people, including undocumented immigrants' citizen children.

… In the past, the USDA has rejected requests from states to take some of the actions SIG has suggested, particularly limiting the types of foods that people can buy with food stamps.

… One of the more controversial proposals involves a recommendation that the USDA ban “harmful” foods, such as soda and candy, from being purchased with food stamps. SIG also proposes that the program allow the purchase of only specific, “approved” foods, similar to what the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program does.

“The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is intended to subsidize nutrition for needy families,” reads SIG's proposal, which was submitted to the USDA and Republican congressional leadership, and obtained by The Post. “However, too many recipients are utilizing their benefit to purchase items that are not only void of nutrition, they are damaging to their health.”

The article says “SNAP is America's largest anti-hunger program,” but the main food-related health problem for low-income households today is not hunger, but obesity. Americans with low incomes are more obese than people with high incomes, on average. In general, people with low incomes are not suffering from too little food, but from too much of the wrong kinds of food.

So ending SNAP’s subsidies for junk food would be a pro-nutrition way to cut demand for the program and reduce taxpayer costs. Federal reforms to allow states to restrict benefits would move in the right direction. If food stamps could be only used for items such as fruits and vegetables, it is possible that fewer people would use the program and costs would fall.

For more on federal food subsidies, see here.

May 5, 2017 1:30PM

Should Taxpayers Back the ‘Organic’ Label?

Media Name: organic_seal_-_small.png

Why are consumers willing to pay almost double for food labeled organic?  The average consumer probably believes that the “USDA Organic” label issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture implies the food comes from small local farms that use production techniques that are environmentally friendly and result in food that is better for human health.  The Washington Post published an article recently about an organic farm that does not seem to be consistent with such perceptions.  The High Plains dairy complex in Colorado, the main facility of Aurora Organic Dairy, has over 15,000 cows. In the organic dairy industry 87 percent of farms have less than 100 cows, but farms with 100 or more cows produce almost half of organic dairy products.

The Post article argues that these large dairy operations may be violating the USDA’s regulations for organic milk. Though Aurora officials maintain that they meet all the requirements for the USDA Organic label, the article contends that satellite images, visual inspections by Post reporters, and tests of milk from High Plains all indicate that the company may not be complying with the natural grazing standards of the organic regulations.

But the Post article misses the important point that even if Aurora were in technical compliance with the grazing regulation, the label does not convey any information about health and environmental benefits. As then-secretary of agriculture Dan Glickman stated at the release of the final standards for organic foods in 2002:

Let me be clear about one thing: the organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.

John Cohrssen and Henry Miller, in the spring 2016 issue of Regulation, argue that on average, organic foods are neither safer nor better for human health than non-organic foods. And the USDA has located the National Organic Program in the department’s Agricultural Marketing Service, a service that is exempted from environmental analysis because its “programs and activities have been found to have no individual or cumulative effect on the human environment.” In fact, organic farms may cause more harm to the environment because they require the use of more land and water than conventional farming.

Though the touted benefits of organic foods may be non-existent, federal spending on organic agriculture under the 2014 Farm Act was over $160 million dollars and customer perceptions of organic food safety and quality persist. As Cohrssen and Miller note, a 2014 Academics Review analysis concluded that because of the USDA Organic label, “the American taxpayer-funded national organic program is playing an ongoing role in misleading consumers into spending billions of dollars in organic purchasing decisions based on false and misleading health, safety, and quality claims.”

Whether or not Aurora has been following the standards of organic labeling or organic foods live up to their supposed benefits, the organic label itself has been very useful for farmers. But should government aid producers at the expense of consumers and taxpayers?

Written with research assistant David Kemp.

December 22, 2015 11:37AM

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.”

Numerous graphs in the report show declines in inflation-adjusted funding for various line items–but, deceptively, none of the graphs have the Y-axis set to zero, thus exaggerating those declines. Moreover, many of those line items are ridiculous anyway: who cares of land-management planning budgets have declined? The Supreme Court decided in 1998 that land-management planning was a waste of time, so why are they still spending any money at all on it? In any case, most of the items tracked by the charts aren’t programs the Forest Service borrows against for fire, so creating the proposed $2.9 billion emergency fund would do nothing to stop the funding declines.

The question Vilsack should ask is not “Why won’t Congress give his agency a blank check?” but “Why does the Forest Service spend so much on fire anyway?” The answer to that question is complex but comes down to one simple thing: the Forest Service has no incentive to control costs as long as Congress keeps reimbursing them.

As wildfire historian Stephen Pyne wrote in 1995, Forest Service fire managers have long been known for “creative accounting,” transferring “as many costs as possible” to the emergency fire funds. One of these is the “presuppression fund” that becomes available when fire danger is high; the other is the suppression fund that becomes available when a fire isn’t controlled by the first responders. When either of these conditions takes place, Pyne notes, “everything imaginable is charged to fires.” This situation has only gotten worse in the last two decades.

So it’s not surprising that many Forest-Service-fed news articles have reported that 2015 was the costliest fire year ever, citing Forest Service costs of $1.7 billion. But none of the articles mention costs to the Department of the Interior, and while I can’t find that number anywhere, I suspect it was not a lot more than half a billion dollars, as the most it has ever spent in the past was around $470 million.

The reason why this is important is that most fires this year were on Interior lands, not national forests. The Forest Service and its parent, the Department of Agriculture point to the near-record number of acres burned in 2015, about 9.8 million. But less than 20 percent of those acres were on national forest lands, while 54 percent were on Interior lands. 

Firefighting Costs Per Acre Burned

  Forest Service Interior
2010 2,834 177
2011 818 200
2012 564 105
2013 983 252
2014 1,371 264
2015 922 ?
Average 916 171

As the table above shows, the Forest Service habitually spends more than five times as much as the Department of the Interior per acre burned on their respective lands. Unlike the Forest Service, Interior agencies have never had a blank check for suppressing fire, so they have had little incentive to wildly overspend. 

Worse, Congress’ policy of giving the Forest Service the average of its previous ten years’ of fire suppression costs gives the agency an incentive to spend more each year so that its ten-year average spirals upwards. Meanwhile, in mild fire years, Congress says that the appropriated fire suppression funds that the agency doesn’t need “may be transferred to the National Forest System, and Forest and Rangeland Research accounts to fund forest and rangeland research, the Joint Fire Science Program, vegetation and watershed management, heritage site rehabilitation, and wildlife and fish habitat management and restoration.” 

Thus, it’s heads the Forest Service wins; tails the taxpayers lose. When fire years are mild, the agency gets a windfall to spend on non-fire programs. When fire years are severe, it gets to borrow from those non-fire programs to spend all it wants on fire suppression, knowing it will be reimbursed–and then complains that its non-fire programs are hurt by the borrowings.

One of the reasons why the administration and some environmental groups are behind the Forest Service proposal to give it $2.9 billion a year to draw upon is that increasing fire costs fit neatly into their global climate apocalypse. Yet the data don’t show that the United States is suffering worse droughts today than in the past. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the percentage of the nation that was severely or extremely dry during summer months (July-September) averaged about 15 percent in 2015. That’s high, but hardly a record.

In recent years, this percentage has ranged as low as 3 percent in 1992 to as high as 24 percent in 1953. It was 20 percent in 2012 and 22 percent in 2000. There was a six-year period in the 1950s when it was 15 percent or more in all but one year (when it was 13 percent), and reached as high as 24 percent. So far, both the 1930s and the 1950s were dryer than the 2010s. This suggests that droughts are cyclical, not growing.

What is growing is the Forest Service’s spending on fire. It will continue to grow until Congress gives the agency incentives to contain its costs rather than incentives to spend more each year.

October 9, 2015 1:43PM

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 expanded upon our findings during the public review period for the newly proposed dietary guidelines and submitted a pointed Comment, stressing two issues:

Throughout the Scientific Report whenever greenhouse gases are mentioned, a negative connotation is attached and food choices are praised if they lead to reduced emissions.

This is misleading on two fronts.

First, the dominant greenhouse gas emitted by human activities is carbon dioxide which is a plant fertilizer whose increasing atmospheric concentrations have led to more productive plants, increasing total crop yields by some 10-15 percent to date. The USDA/HHS is at odds with itself in casting a positive light on actions that are geared towards lessening a beneficial outcome for plants, while at the same time espousing a more plant-based diet.

And second, the impact that food choices have on greenhouse gas emissions is vanishingly small—especially when cast in terms of climate change. And yet it is in this context that the discussion of GHGs is included in the Scientific Report. The USDA/HHS elevates the import of GHG emissions as a consideration in dietary choice far and above the level of its actual impact.

Ultimately, we advised that “climate change concerns don’t belong in dietary guidelines,” although fretting, “[w]e can only guess on what sort of impact our Comment will have, but we can at least say we tried.”

Turns out that we were wildly successful.

This week, prior to a Congressional hearing on the proposed guidelines, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell posted an article on the USDA blogsite where they addressed the issue of sustainability [emphasis added]:

There has been some discussion this year about whether we would include the goal of sustainability as a factor in developing dietary guidelines. (Sustainability in this context means evaluating the environmental impact of a food source. Some of the things we eat, for example, require more resources to raise than others.) Issues of the environment and sustainability are critically important and they are addressed in a number of initiatives within the Administration. USDA, for instance, invests billions of dollars each year across all 50 states in sustainable food production, sustainable and renewable energy, sustainable water systems, preserving and protecting our natural resources and lands, and research into sustainable practices. And we are committed to continuing this investment.

In terms of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), we will remain within the scope of our mandate in the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act (NNMRRA), which is to provide “nutritional and dietary information and guidelines”… “based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.”  The final 2015 Guidelines are still being drafted, but because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.

Of course, we don’t know what comments changed their minds, but the notion that the entire nation going vegetarian would have no effect on climate seems powerful enough, as is the well-known direct fertilization effect of increasing carbon dioxide.

Sometimes when it comes to battling the federal government, it’s a major victory when you can just get them to behave within the rules. By getting the USDA and HHS to “remain within the scope of [their] mandate” and not consider climate change when establishing the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, it’s looking like this’ll be a win for the good guys fighting against the far-reaching and invasive climate actions being pursued by this Administration.

March 11, 2014 8:47AM

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.

January 10, 2012 2:11PM

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.

June 7, 2011 4:50PM

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.