Tag: department of agriculture

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.

When Bipartisanship Is Good News

Usually when I hear that a policy proposal has bipartisan support, I instinctively check for my wallet. But I greeted with pleasure the news on Wednesday that two lawmakers — Rep. Scott Garrett (R, NJ) and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D, PA) — had introduced a bill to shut down the USDA’s Market Access Program, which the congressmen rightly paint as “corporate welfare to big business.”

I yield to no one in my abhorrence of trade barriers, here and abroad. But this program is less about addressing market access per se, and more about taxpayer funding of marketing campaigns, trade shows and other promotions, which surely are the responsibility of the firms/industries concerned.

Incidentally, the Market Access Program is a line item in one of many agricultural programs identified by our Tax and Budget team as being ripe for the chopping block.

Is Government Transparency Headed for a Detour?

With a year in office, and perhaps under some pressure to deliver on promises of transparency and change, the White House went on a little PR offensive this week. It rolled out a blog post and a video claiming the transparency successes of the administration’s first year. A lot has gone on, and it’s worth a review. It’s also worth noting some signals that the government transparency project could be heading for a slight detour.

In the video — a little infomercial-y, but tolerable and interesting — federal chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra cites several examples of government use of technology. A system called ISDS Distribute helps the government monitor flu outbreaks, for example, akin to Google.org’s Flu Trends. Chopra touted the benefits of machine readability and the Agriculture Department’s release of data about a thousand most commonly eaten foods. (I’m not sure if this is it, but if not it’s probably something similar. Someone like Mike could use it to build a site that is further along than 1996’s state-of-the-art.) And Chopra discussed the platforms they are building at apps.gov to help agencies draw on the participation and engagement of the public. Putting aside how these illustrate the federal government’s distended role, these are all fine things.

White House ethics counsel Norm Eisen cited the release of visitor records as “one of the big innovations in the White House” over the past year. (Good, yes. But “big”?) Eisen dodged the question about why health care negotiations are not on C-SPAN.

In response to a question about putting federal advisory committees online, Chopra told of a recent meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers for Science and Technology, which was telecast live on the web and archived.

Finally, Chopra touted the planned January 22nd roll-out of data feeds from every federal agency under a recent open government memorandum — three “high-value data sets” per agency. In working toward this, Chopra said, “the conversation is all about what would help you do what you do better.  How can we advance our shared goals of reducing disparities in health care, improving our commitment  to renewable energies, advancing our collective educational results?”

This language and some of the examples cited in the video cause me to worry that the transparency effort may be heading for a detour. Rather than substantive insight into government management, deliberations, and results, we might get a lot of data-oriented play-toys.

According to the memorandum:

High-value information is information that can be used to increase agency accountability and responsiveness; improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations; further the core mission of the agency; create economic opportunity; or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation.

That’s a very broad definition. Without more restraint than that, public choice economics predicts that the agencies will choose the data feeds with the greatest likelihood of increasing their discretionary budgets or the least likelihood of shrinking them. That’s data that “further[s] the core mission of the agency” and not data that “increase[s] agency accountability and responsiveness.” It’s the Ag Department’s calorie counts, not the Ag Department’s check register.

The kind of substance the transparency community expects is well represented in a  report issued jointly by the Center for Democracy and Technology and OpentheGovernment.org in March of last year. It’s called “Show Us the Data: Most Wanted Federal Documents,” and it asks for access to important research and governmental process information with the capacity to generate real insights into government and its operations.

Interesting data that the agency has collected or produced may be just that — interesting — but the heart of the government transparency effort is getting information about the functioning of government. Once we have these core elements of transparency captured, other data are absolutely good to have. But let the starting point be the workings of agencies themselves.

To help focus agencies on releasing the data that is high-value for genuine government transparency, I plan to examine the three data-streams each agency releases and grade the agencies on whether their releases provide insight into agency management, deliberations, or results.

As I examine the agency’s data feeds, I’ll use their proximity to true government transparency to assign them a letter grade, awarding them three points for each feed that has to do with management, deliberation, or results. These numerical scores — 9, 6, 3, or 0 — I’ll translate into grades: A, B, C, or D. (Nobody fails when the criteria only came out a week in advance.) F is reserved for agencies that don’t produce feeds.

This rubric for rating the data that agencies release seems reasonably objective, and a decent measure of which agencies are really responding to the demand for transparency and change, and which are pushing interesting data out as a smokescreen against deeper insights and reform. Hopefully, this effort at focusing agencies on true high-value data will see some uptake among my colleagues in the transparency community (if I haven’t alienated them with my endless harping on President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise). Watch this space for agency grades shortly after the release of the feeds.

Cato Launches New Web Site Exposing Wasteful Government Spending

Did you know that the average American family spends $1,000 each year on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whether or not it consumes that agency’s services?  Or that the federal government annually spends $1,500 per household on net interest costs alone?

In an ongoing effort to shed light on runaway government spending and expose wasteful government programs, Cato launched a new Web site today that examines the federal budget department-by-department to see which agencies can be reformed or terminated. DownsizingGovernment.org describes which programs are wasteful, damaging and obsolete in an era of trillion-dollar deficits.

The research exposes that many public outlays—though vigorously defended by the politicians who created them and the constituencies they purport to help—are remarkably ineffective at achieving their core aims.

Here are just a few examples:

Appearing on CNBC Monday, DownsizingGovernment.com editor Chris Edwards explained more about the site:

Plus, keep track of where your tax dollars are going by following DownsizingGovernment.com on Twitter (@DownsizeTheFeds) and Facebook.