Union of Concerned ScientistsFood and Agriculture – Union of Concerned Scientists http://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Mon, 20 Nov 2017 23:16:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png Food and Agriculture – Union of Concerned Scientists http://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 The Natural Ways to (Help) Solve the Climate Problem http://blog.ucsusa.org/doug-boucher/the-natural-ways-to-help-solve-the-climate-problem http://blog.ucsusa.org/doug-boucher/the-natural-ways-to-help-solve-the-climate-problem#comments Tue, 07 Nov 2017 21:13:40 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54898

This week marks the beginning of the annual U.N. climate negotiations in Bonn, chaired by the nation of Fiji, and this year it’s going to be different. At most of the negotiating sessions from the early 90s up to the Paris Agreement in 2015, the emphasis was, reasonably, on reaching a broad consensus on how to prevent dangerous climate change. But Paris achieved that, and all the world’s countries, with one exception—the United States—have accepted that agreement. So now the question is, how can we make it work? A real challenge—particularly since a key delegation to the talks is now led by the climate-denialist Trump administration.

A new scientific paper, published two weeks ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Bronson Griscom and colleagues, will be extremely helpful in this task. (The multi-authored effort was led by The Nature Conservancy.) The paper’s title is “Natural climate solutions,” and it shows that changes in how we use forests, agricultural lands and wetlands can be a sizeable part of the solution. (Simplifying a bit, 37% of the solution by 2030, according to their calculations).

Among the many natural approaches that they evaluated, reforestation turns out to be one with the most potential (although also the largest uncertainty.) Here’s the key graphic summarizing the estimates:

The potential of 20 “natural climate solutions” by the year 2030, measured in PgCO2 per year. A Pg (petagram) is the same as a gigaton, i.e. a billion tons of carbon dioxide; current global greenhouse gas emissions total a bit over 50 gigatons of CO2/year. Solutions which also have benefits for the air, water, soil and biodiversity are indicated by the small colored bars just to the left of the vertical axis. Source: Figure 1 of B. Griscom et al. 2017, “Natural climate solutions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1710465114

 

The second-largest potential lies in reducing deforestation (or as the graph calls it, “Avoided Forest Conversion”), which also has the greatest low-cost potential and the benefit of lowering emissions immediately, and the third is improving natural forest management. So in terms of climate potential, forests are fundamental. But both agriculture (e.g. biochar, trees in croplands) and wetlands (e.g. protecting high-carbon peat swamps and mangrove forests, which also are important as buffers against storms and flooding) can make appreciable contributions, too. Furthermore, most of the potential solutions offer benefits not only to the climate, but also in terms of water, air, soil and biodiversity.

One notable feature of the paper is that it’s conservative, in the best sense of that word. The estimates take as a basic premise that natural approaches should only be implemented with safeguards for food security, biodiversity and people’s rights and livelihoods. Thus, for example, the calculations for reforestation assume that it will done using native species and only be implemented on grazing lands that were previously forested, so that afforestation of croplands and of natural grasslands is excluded. “Solutions” whose technical feasibility or social impact are questionable—e.g. Biological Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) or no-till crop production—are also excluded. And the authors go to great lengths (literally—there are over 90 pages of Supporting Information) to make sure that they’re not double-counting any of the potentials.

The paper does omit, at least in its explicit calculations, the kinds of solutions that involve changing how human societies consume rather than how we use nature to produce. In other words, the approaches it considers are supply-side ones, not demand-side ones such as changing our diets or reducing how much food we waste.

But the authors clearly realize the importance of consumption, and indeed they point out that the reforestation of grazing lands will have important impacts on livestock products, particularly beef. These effects could be of several kinds: shifting human diets away from beef, reducing herd sizes, improving the quality of cattle pastures or the nutritional value of their feed, and others. But what they have in common is that they would tend to reduce emissions of methane and nitrous oxide—both considerably more powerful greenhouse gases than CO2—from beef cattle and their manure. So there’d be an additional benefit in terms of emissions reduction, in addition to large amounts of carbon that will be sequestered by the new forests.

Just as important as the paper’s demonstration that natural solutions can be an important part of solving the climate problem, is their emphasis that they can only work if accompanied by massive cuts in fossil fuel emissions. Here’s their graphic showing the scenario they envisage, which includes cutting greenhouse gases from fossil fuels by 93% by 2050:

The scenario combining a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel emissions with Natural Climate Solution (NCS) mitigation to keep global temperature increases less than 2 degrees C. above the pre-industrial level. Source: Figure 2 of B. Griscom et al. 2017, “Natural climate solutions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1710465114

 


Combined with the natural climate solutions, this would achieve the “negative emissions” needed to keep global warming below the 2 degrees C. recognized as dangerous for the future of humanity. And it would do it without using BECCS or other approaches whose feasibility and acceptability remains to be seen.

The critical but at the same time secondary role of natural solutions is the reason I wrote “(help)” in my title, despite my dislike of the post-modern fad for excessive parenthesization. With its conservative approach, the paper by Griscom et al. demonstrates that forests, agriculture and wetlands can’t solve the climate problem alone, but are nonetheless a critical part of an approach that can solve it. Thus, it’s a key step forward in how we think about, and what we do about, the most important environmental challenge of our time.

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USDA Secretary Sidelines Science, Sells Out Farmers, Workers, and Eaters http://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/usda-secretary-sidelines-science-sells-out-farmers-workers-and-eaters http://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/usda-secretary-sidelines-science-sells-out-farmers-workers-and-eaters#comments Mon, 06 Nov 2017 21:59:52 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54866

Lest you think the Trump administration’s headlong rush toward rejecting science in favor of industry deregulation is mostly a problem in Scott Pruitt’s EPA, recent less-reported developments at the US Department of Agriculture demonstrate otherwise. Over the past few weeks, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has taken a variety of steps to sideline science and betray farmers, food chain workers, and eaters. Let’s review…

Secretary Sonny’s approach to science and policy takes shape (and it doesn’t look good)

Don’t be fooled by his folksy moniker and down-home anecdotes. Secretary Sonny is a big agribiz guy through and through, with a long history of ethics run-ins and rewarding his friends and business associates. And though he likes to talk about science-based decision-making and serving farmers and taxpayers as customers, so far it doesn’t appear that he’s walking the walk.

Since he took up the reins at the USDA last April, we’ve seen Secretary Sonny take steps to reorganize the department in ways that don’t bode well for rural development, conservation, nutrition, and other essential programs. His steadfast support of the troubling (and now-withdrawn) nomination of non-scientist Sam Clovis should be another big red flag.

For a big-picture look at the Trump administration’s USDA, read Moneyball author Michael Lewis’s in-depth (and disturbing) new Vanity Fair article on the topic. Meanwhile, I’ll pull out three recent moves that give us a clear indication of who stands to gain (and who is likely to lose) under Secretary Perdue’s watch.

Poultry workers: Unsafe at any speed?

First, Perdue’s Food Safety and Inspection Service quietly opened a comment period on a petition from the National Chicken Council (NCC) to speed up the process of processing chickens. Plants operated by the NCC’s member companies—which include giants Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms (no relation to the Secretary)—slaughter, cut up, and debone billions of chickens every year. The industry and at least one of its allies in Congress, looking to capitalize on the Trump administration’s zeal for deregulation, are lobbying Perdue’s USDA to let them process chickens even faster than the current speed of 140 birds per minute.

Civil Eats has a devastating account of the dangerous conditions already faced by workers in those plants. And under President Obama, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) determined that allowing plants to operate at higher speeds could result in more injuries among workers deboning chickens. NBC News reports:

“USDA wanted to raise the maximum line speed, but OSHA was very concerned that it would result in more workers being injured,” said David Michaels, Obama’s former head of OSHA. “We had support (from White House officials) who agreed that we didn’t want thousands of workers to have their arms destroyed by having to cut up chickens at 175 birds per minute.”

USDA maintained the speed at 140. But now Secretary Sonny seems poised to reverse that decision.

Citing research on the danger to workers and consumers, our allies at the Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Council submitted a public comment urging the USDA to “follow the law and the agency’s own findings” and reject the NCC’s petition. The comment period closes December 13.

Farewell, Farmer Fair Practices

And the Secretary also had another gift for Big Meat and Poultry last month. As Politico reported, he rolled back a pair of rules known collectively as the Farmer Fair Practices Rules:

Perdue withdrew an interim final rule that would have lowered the bar for producers of poultry and other livestock to sue the meatpacking or processing companies with which they have contracts. And USDA also will take no further action on a proposed rule to shield contract growers from unfair practices.

The rollback of these two rules administered by the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) means that contract farmers lose their newly-gained protection from exploitation by the corporate giants who control nearly every step of the meat and poultry production chain. The National Farmers Union, which represents family farmers across the country, called the move “deeply disappointing,” noting in a statement:

With this decision, USDA has given the green light to the few multinational meatpackers that dominate the market to discriminate against family farmers. As the administration has signaled its intent to side with the meat and poultry giants, NFU will pursue congressional action that addresses competition issues and protects family farmers and ranchers.

Do right and feed…well, maybe not everyone

In addition to turning his back on small farmers and underpaid food workers, Secretary Sonny also appears to be taking aim at low-income consumers. Since being confirmed as agriculture secretary in April 2017, Perdue has often repeated his “new motto” for the USDA:

“Do right and feed everyone” is a fine motto, but now it seems the Secretary didn’t really mean everyone. He recently went on record suggesting that enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would fall if individuals who are able to work are restricted from using it.

Perdue’s suggestion that the working poor should be barred from receiving nutrition benefits via SNAP is confounding. Data show that most SNAP recipients who can work do so—though usually for low or inconsistent pay that isn’t enough to feed their families. As Perdue’s home-state newspaper points out:

[I]n a state hostile to unions and with a minimum wage of only $5.15 an hour, also barring those who receive paychecks from receiving food stamps would have tremendous impact. An estimated 546,000 working Georgians live in households that receive the help, according to one study.

Even so, members of Congress have increasingly called for strengthening work requirements for SNAP participants. So, which is it—should SNAP beneficiaries work or not?

Mr. Secretary, we’re keeping our eye on you

Secretary Perdue has now been in office just over six months. Of his department’s 13 other leadership positions requiring Senate confirmation, only three are in place, and seven positions don’t even have a nominee yet. And the Secretary’s proposed departmental reorganization is still taking shape. But with early signs already troubling, we’ll be tracking further developments to paint a fuller picture of his intentions for science-based policy making for the nation’s food and farm system.

Stay tuned…

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Scientists to Senate: Reject Sam Clovis for USDA Science Post http://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/scientists-to-senate-reject-sam-clovis-for-usda-science-post http://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/scientists-to-senate-reject-sam-clovis-for-usda-science-post#comments Tue, 31 Oct 2017 13:00:59 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=53866

UPDATE, Nov. 2, 2017: Sam Clovis has withdrawn his name from consideration for the USDA chief scientist position.

UPDATE, Nov. 1, 2017: Shortly after I published this post, the Sam Clovis nomination story took an interesting turn. We now know that Clovis is implicated in the Trump campaign’s Russia dealings and has testified before special counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury. His confirmation hearing for the position of USDA chief scientist, previously expected Nov. 9, now seems likely to be delayed or cancelled. Read more in the Washington Post.


 

For months, controversy has swirled around the Trump administration’s…shall we say…deeply flawed nominee for USDA chief scientist. A former business professor, talk radio host, and Trump campaign advisor, Sam Clovis has embraced unfounded conspiracy theories and espoused racist and homophobic views. And did I mention he has no scientific training whatsoever?

It’s true. And while Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is standing by the nomination, thousands of the nation’s scientists are having none of it.

Experts say no way to unqualified “chief scientist”

In a highly unusual move, a group of more than 3,100 scientists and researchers—including leading experts in agriculture and food systems from all 50 states and the District of Columbia—today sent a letter to the Senate agriculture committee expressing opposition to the president’s choice to lead science at the USDA. The letter describes the nomination of the severely under-qualified Sam Clovis to be under secretary for research, education, and economics and chief scientist as “an abandonment of our nation’s commitment to scientifically-informed governance,” and calls on the Senate committee to reject it.

One of the letter’s lead signers is Dr. Mike Hamm, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Regional Food Systems, and C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University. Dr. Hamm has a PhD in human nutrition and decades of experience at the intersection of food and agriculture, and his research interests include community-based food systems, food security, sustainable agriculture and nutrition education. In addition to his academic posts, he served as a member of the governor-appointed Michigan Food Policy Council from 2005 to 2013 and was instrumental in developing the Michigan Good Food Charter.

I asked Dr. Hamm why this nomination has him so concerned, and what the practical impacts might be if Clovis were to take charge of scientific research at the USDA.

Dr. Mike Hamm is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Regional Food Systems and C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University.

KPS: Scientists don’t usually rally by the thousands to oppose nominees for relatively obscure government positions. Why is this nomination so alarming to you personally?

MH: I was really concerned when I heard about this nomination, as were a number of colleagues. We look to the USDA as an authoritative source of scientific, economic, and statistical information about the nation’s food system, and it seemed extremely careless to put all that into the hands of an unqualified person. Also, we rely on the USDA to develop research funding programs that not only tackle issues of concern to agricultural production and the food system right now but also look for probable challenges down the road—finding solutions takes time and thoughtfulness, and it is clear to me that the nominee hasn’t demonstrated the ability to do this in a scientific manner.

KPS: This under secretary position holds the purse strings for $3 billion in annual research grants to universities and other institutions. How significant is that investment in the universe of agricultural and food systems research?

MH: It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this. Whether it’s developing strategies to improve current yields while reducing environmental impacts of agricultural production, or identifying resilience strategies for increasingly prevalent issues, the person in this position has to be both reactive to current events and proactive about likely future scenarios. The under secretary controls the budget for this very broad range of research needs.

KPS: What worries you most about the prospect of the USDA going backward on science?

MH: The breadth of knowledge we now have on a wide range of strategies for agricultural production and the food system is remarkable. We know a great deal about strategies for producing a greater variety and quantity of crops under different conditions and with increasingly agro-ecosystem strategies. To lose this momentum would be a disservice to the agricultural community and to consumers and the general public. Whether it’s water use in California, Texas, and other water challenged states, or late frosts for tart cherries in Michigan, we can ‘see’ an increasing range of challenges in the near future. Going backwards means not thinking about these. Going backwards means not looking for ever more ecologically sound solutions to emerging issues and recognizing that we can often improve the situation to a range of societal issues while improving agriculture. This is frightening.

Scientists speak…but is the Senate listening?

Ecologist Irit Altman speaks to a staff person for Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) in August about the need for a qualified chief scientist to oversee USDA research on climate change and agriculture.

Scientists and their allies around the country have been mobilizing for months to oppose Clovis’s nomination. They’ve published letters to the editor in newspapers across the country, including Chicago, Illinois; Bloomington, Indiana (paywall); Wichita, Kansas; Missoula and Great Falls, Montana; Scottsbluff, Nebraska; Nashville, Tennessee; and Spokane, Washington. They’ve also met with Senate staff and delivered petitions from UCS supporters directly to key Senate offices in Maine, Colorado, and Ohio (see photos from the Maine petition delivery below).

Dr. Altman was joined by local Maine farmers Lindsey and Jake Roche in delivering a petition opposing the Clovis nomination to Senator Collins.

Sam Clovis to (finally) get a hearing

Today’s letter comes as the Senate agriculture committee is expected to announce that it will hold a long-awaited hearing on November 9 to hear directly from the nominee, and to dig into Clovis’s credentials and suitability for the chief scientist position. While many Senators, including key Senate leaders, have expressed opposition to the Clovis nomination, others are still uncommitted or even supportive.

Those Senators had better think hard about it, because the scientific community is watching. As 3,100+ experts have now told them, “We expect that when your committee evaluates Clovis’ record and qualifications, you will similarly conclude that he is unfit for this position.”

ACTION NEEDED! The time to act is now, and we can win this fight. The scientists’ letter has been delivered to the Senate, but you can still tell the Senate to reject the Clovis nomination.

Use UCS’s new call-back tool to make a phone call to your senator’s office, or send a personalized email today!

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For This DC School, Every Month is Farm to School Month http://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/for-this-dc-school-every-month-is-farm-to-school-month http://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/for-this-dc-school-every-month-is-farm-to-school-month#respond Fri, 27 Oct 2017 19:45:45 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54564
Photo: Sarah Reinhardt

It’s the end of October, which means National Farm to School Month is drawing to a close. But that doesn’t matter to the students at School Within School in northeast DC—for them, it’s always farm to school month.

Thanks to a farm to school tour hosted by DC Greens and the National Farm to School Network, I was lucky enough to visit a handful of the cutest (and smartest) gardeners in the district as they cooked up some ratatouille with their fall harvest. At School Within School, kids from three years old through fifth grade get to participate in FoodPrints, a gardening, cooking, and nutrition education program that integrates science, math, and social studies into hands-on lessons about local food.

You may have heard that farm-to-school programs support the economy (they generate an additional $0.60 to $2.16 in economic activity for every dollar schools spend on local foods), benefit public health (they help kids choose healthier options and eat more fruits and vegetables in school and at home), and foster community engagement (they fuel interest in local foods and offer opportunities to combat racial and economic inequities), but if you’re like me, you may have learned most of this from behind a computer screen. It’s another thing entirely to see farm-to-school programs in action, and to hear firsthand about what they could accomplish for our kids and communities with the right funding and support.

Walking in the footsteps of FoodPrints

Around the corner from School Within School, Ludlow-Taylor Elementary also boasts a beautiful school garden. Photo: Sarah Reinhardt

Our tour, led by FRESHFARM director of education Jenn Mampara, kicked off with a quick stop at the chicken coops and then took us to the school garden, where the kids go for lessons once a week. The gardener plants summer crops in August, and when school starts, kids get to weed, water, harvest, replant, and repeat through late spring. During the summer, the garden soil is kept healthy with a rotation of cover crops and beans, which are then dried and used in the fall.

From the garden, we headed up to the teaching kitchen, where students were busy mixing together beans and onions (“It’s watering my eyes!”) from the garden. Produce from the garden is supplemented by local farmers market produce to provide all the ingredients for the monthly cooking lesson that each FoodPrints student attends. The lesson on ratatouille moved fluidly from math (“What will happen if I add one cup of water?”) to science (“Why do we need to soak the beans?”) and back again, and students were engaged in active learning every step of the way.

Watching the educator walk the kids through their recipe, it struck me as wholly unsurprising that studies have shown that kids participating in farm to school programs display greater overall academic achievement, as well as social and emotional growth. Needless to say, kids who participate in farm to school programs also tend to show increased knowledge about gardening, agriculture, and healthy eating.

“It’s a meaningful experience for these kids to have in elementary school,” Mampara said. “This will have a lasting impact on their understanding of good food and where it comes from.”

And speaking of good food—the cooking doesn’t stop in the teaching kitchen. Once a week, the school cafeteria borrows a recipe from FoodPrints, so that kids continue to connect their experience in the garden to the food on their plate. Kristen Rowe, the Nutrition and Compliance Specialist at DCP Public Schools (DCPS) said that when students are involved in the entire process, they’re more willing to try foods like fruits and vegetables. “This initiative has created an appreciation and a connection between our students and nutritious food, and it’s evident in our cafeterias on FoodPrint days!”

Farm to school funding is in high demand

Students use foods from the school garden and local farmers markets in the teaching kitchen at School Within School. Photo: Sarah Reinhardt

But the success of farm to school programs like FoodPrints, which currently operates in 10 DC schools, can come at a price. Rob Jaber, Director of Food and Nutrition Services at DCPS, said he would like to expand the program to serve all DC students, and to do that, he needs resources. Since the “heat and serve” model became a staple of school food service, many schools lack the equipment and kitchen skills needed to start making food from scratch again.

Jaber hopes that DCPS will soon be the recipient of a USDA Farm to School grant, one of the most sought-after funding sources for districts looking to adopt or expand food-based curriculum. The USDA Farm to School Grant Program, established in 2010, provides $5 million annually to fund training, planning, equipment, gardens, education, and other operational costs for farm to school programs nationwide. While that may seem like a lot, it meets only a fraction of the need demonstrated by schools. To date, 365 grants totaling $25 million have been awarded out of more than 1,600 applications requesting more than $120 million. This means that, on average, only one in five applications receives funding.

DC Central Kitchen, a community kitchen and job training program providing meals to 12 schools in the district, was awarded a grant back in 2012. Theresa Myers, DC Central Kitchen’s Foundation and Government Relations Manager, explained how their food service capacity flourished with the grant. The organization received $100,000 to purchase new equipment and hire additional staff, and increased their processing and storage capacity by nearly a third as a result. DC Central Kitchen now purchases over $350,000 in local foods from 30 regional farmers each year, which means that about half of every tray of food served in these schools is local.

What’s happening in DC Public Schools is a microcosm, explained Maximilian Merrill, National Farm to School Network Policy Director. “This is a great model of what’s going on across the country.”

Photo: Sarah Reinhardt

A farm bill for farm to school

Not far from the garden, senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) and representatives Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) are also thinking about how to support successful farm to school programs around the country. On September 6th, they introduced the Farm to School Act of 2017, which would increase annual funding for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program from $5 million to $15 million; make the grants more accessible to a broader range of childcare settings and populations, including early child care, summer food service, after school programs, and tribal schools; and help beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers sell more of their produce through farm to school programs.

While National Farm to School Month is almost over (until next year), the farm bill is just getting started. To show your support for farm to school programs, you can sign on to this letter of support written by the National Farm to School Network endorsing the Farm to School Act of 2017. (You can also sign on behalf of an organization.)

Increasing the funding available for programs like FoodPrints by threefold means triple the opportunities for education and engagement, triple the economic benefit, and triple the happy and healthy kids. If that doesn’t water your eyes, I don’t know what will.

 

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USDA Reorganization Sidelines Dietary Guidelines http://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/usda-reorganization-sidelines-dietary-guidelines http://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/usda-reorganization-sidelines-dietary-guidelines#respond Tue, 17 Oct 2017 21:52:10 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54314
Photo: Cristie Guevara/public domain (BY CC0)

Last month, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced a number of proposed changes to the organization of the vast federal department he oversees. With its 29 agencies and offices and nearly 100,000 employees, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with a wide-ranging mission, from helping farmers to be profitable and environmentally sustainable to ensuring the nutritional well-being of all Americans. And while some of the organizational changes Secretary Perdue is pursuing (which all stem from a March executive order from President Trump) may seem arcane, they will have real impacts on all of us. The proposed merger of two key nutrition programs is a case in point.

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Public domain (Flickr)

The plan involves relocating the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) into the department’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). While FNS is well-known in anti-hunger and agricultural communities for its role in administering nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), CNPP is less so—though not for lack of impact or importance.

Established in 1994, CNPP is the agency responsible for reviewing and compiling the best available scientific literature on human nutrition, developing measures of dietary quality such as the Healthy Eating Index, and (jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services) issuing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and dietary guidance. At a time when more than 117 million Americans—half of all adults—are living with one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, the role that CNPP plays in protecting public health has never been more critical.

Reorganization compromises health without achieving efficiency

In the words of Perdue himself, the proposed reorganizations are aimed at making the USDA “the most effective, most efficient, and best managed department in the federal government.”

To be clear, reorganization (or “realignment”) is not an inherently bad thing. Proposals that could successfully increase the effectiveness and accountability of government agencies without compromising mission or purpose would be laudable. But merging CNPP into FNS accomplishes neither—and follows a dangerous pattern of this administration pushing back on science with its policy agenda. Furthermore, the merger poses serious threats to the scientific integrity of the agency charged with developing evidence-based dietary guidelines for the entire country, for several key reasons:

  1. FNS and CNPP serve distinctly different purposes. FNS administers 15 food and nutrition programs targeting distinct populations, serving only a fraction of Americans. CNPP develops science-based recommendations designed to identify nutritional deficiencies and address dietary needs at a population level, which are then applied to dozens of programs across the federal government. To conflate the distinct purposes of each agency would be to detract from the efficiency of each.
  2. The CNPP administrator will lack appropriate credentials to oversee the development of evidence-based national nutrition guidelines. Following the reorganization, CNPP would no longer be headed by a politically-appointed administrator, but instead by a career associate administrator. This individual is highly unlikely to possess the education and level of expertise required by this position.
  3. Merging CNPP into FNS introduces a conflict of interest. Nutrition programs administered by FNS must adhere to dietary recommendations established by CNPP, introducing a potential conflict of interest. Without clear separation between CNPP and FNS, undue influence on the former by the latter—or even the perception thereof—would present a threat to the integrity of evidence-based recommendations.

The USDA received public comments on this issue between September 12 and October 10. The full comment authored by the UCS Food and Environment Program, outlining the risks to scientific integrity and population health posed by the proposed reorganization, follows.


UCS Comments on USDA Notice, “Improving Customer Service”

October 10, 2017

Dear Secretary Perdue and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Bice,

On behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), we are compelled to respond to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notice, “Improving Customer Service,” with concerns regarding the proposed merging of the Center for Nutrition and Policy Promotion (CNPP) into the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). This proposed action would threaten the scientific integrity of CNPP and compromise public health, while providing zero demonstrable financial or public benefit.

UCS, a science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world, combines independent scientific research and citizen action to develop innovative, practical solutions and secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices. The Food and Environment Program at UCS makes evidence-based policy recommendations to shift our nation’s food and agriculture system to produce healthier, more sustainable and just outcomes for all Americans.

CNPP evidence-based recommendations play a critical role in protecting population health.
The current state of US population health poses enormous costs both to quality of life and health care systems. More than 117 million Americans—half of all adults—are now living with one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, overweight/obesity, and certain types of cancer. Recent research shows that dietary factors may now play a role in nearly half of all deaths resulting from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. In 2012, the direct medical expenses and lost productivity due to cardiovascular disease alone averaged $316 billion, while those due to diagnosed diabetes totaled $245 billion. In total, chronic diseases account for approximately 86 percent of all US health care expenditures.

However, just as diet is a key factor driving these trends, it also offers great potential to reverse them. The federal government has a critical role to play in promoting health and reducing the burden of chronic disease by supporting evidence-based policies and programs that improve the dietary patterns of Americans. For more than twenty years, CNPP has filled this role. The Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) at CNPP applies rigorous scientific standards to conduct systematic reviews of current nutrition research, and informs a range of federal nutrition programs, including the National School Breakfast Program, National School Lunch Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Working jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), CNPP is also responsible for overseeing the development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nutrition recommendations that are a cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and dietary guidance. As an autonomous agency, CNPP is well positioned to deliver unbiased and scientifically sound recommendations to other federal agencies and to the general public.

The proposed merger is unlikely to result in increased efficiency.
As stated in USDA-2017-05399, Executive Order 13781, “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch,” was intended to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability through agency reorganization. However, there is no duplication of function between CNPP and FNS. FNS administers 15 food and nutrition programs targeting distinct populations, serving only a fraction of Americans. CNPP develops science-based recommendations designed to identify nutritional deficiencies and address dietary needs at a population level, which are then applied to dozens of programs across the federal government. To conflate the distinct purposes of each agency would be to detract from the efficiency of each. Changes in allocation of resources from restructuring would also threaten the ability of CNPP to conduct its mission.

The proposed merger threatens the scientific integrity of CNPP, compromising its core function.
Merging CNPP into FNS will weaken the ability of the USDA to provide the most current evidence-based nutrition guidance to federal food and nutrition programs. The change would also jeopardize the ability of CNPP to comply with Congressional mandates, chiefly the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990, which requires the establishment of dietary guidelines at least once every five years and the promotion of these guidelines by any federal agency carrying out a federal food, nutrition, or health program.

The proposed reorganization would degrade the scientific integrity and core function of CNPP, particularly if:

  1. The CNPP administrator lacks appropriate credentials to guide the development of science based recommendations, including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
    The CNPP administrator has previously been appointed by the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services program. With the proposed reorganization, this position would be filled by a career official lacking necessary technical expertise. In its recent review of the DGA process, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) stated that it is of critical importance that “the DGA be viewed as valid, evidence-based, and free of bias or conflict of interest.” As the individual responsible for overseeing management of the NEL and development of DGAs and other science-based recommendations, the CNPP administrator must have strong credentials, including a background in dietetics, nutrition, medicine, and/or public health, with demonstrated experience relevant to nutrition science/research, population health, chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, economics, surveillance systems, and nutrition communications and marketing. This individual must also possess experience in advanced management and budget oversight; continuous quality improvement; program planning; implementation and evaluation; data analytics; information technology; and public policy.
  2. There is inadequate separation of agency function, diminishing the autonomy of CNPP.
    The application of dietary recommendations in programs administered by FNS introduces a potential conflict of interest. Without clear separation between CNPP and FNS, undue influence on the former by the latter—or even the perception thereof—would present a threat to the integrity of evidence-based recommendations. The development of the DGAs and the USDA Food Plans (e.g. Thrifty Food Plan) are of particular concern, as they inform programs administered by FNS.

The Union of Concerned Scientists appreciates the USDA’s efforts to increase the effectiveness and accountability of government agencies. However, the merging of CNPP into FNS accomplishes neither. The ability of CNPP to effectively and independently fulfill its mission of developing evidence-based dietary guidelines without undue influence may be compromised by: 1) the replacement of an appointed administrator with a career associated administrator who may not possess the qualifications needed to oversee the development of science-based federal nutrition recommendations; and 2) the inherent conflict of interest that occurs by way of FNS oversight over CNPP, as the latter develops guidelines that the former must adhere to in the implementation of various nutrition programs.

Given the alarming trajectory of diet and disease in the US, it is in the best interests of the public and the US healthcare system that CNPP continues to operate independently from FNS to produce evidence-based recommendations for population health. As the Director of the Office of Management and Budget considers proposed agency reorganizations to meet the directive of Executive Order 13781, “Improving Customer Service,” UCS is hopeful that the Director recognizes the magnitude of the potential risks associated with merging these agencies and rejects the proposed action.

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Congress Could Help Farmers, Prevent Pollution, and Reduce Flood and Drought Damage. Will They? http://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/congress-could-help-farmers-prevent-pollution-and-reduce-flood-and-drought-damage-will-they http://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/congress-could-help-farmers-prevent-pollution-and-reduce-flood-and-drought-damage-will-they#respond Tue, 03 Oct 2017 18:28:09 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54137
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Conservationist Garrett Duyck and David Brewer examine a soil sample on the Emerson Dell farm near The Dalles, OR. USDA NRCS photo by Ron Nichols.

The news lately has been full of Congressional battles—healthcare, the debt ceiling, and now tax “reform” (ahem)—and it’s starting to seem like Congress is only interested in blowing things up. But a huge legislative effort is gaining steam on Capitol Hill, one that is likely to have general bipartisan support, though you probably haven’t heard nearly as much about it. I’m talking about the next five-year Farm Bill—which really should be called the Food and Farm Bill, as it shapes that sprawling economic sector worth more than 5 percent of US GDP, and which Congress must reauthorize by September 30, 2018.

In this first of a series of posts on the 2018 Farm Bill, I look at how this legislation could do more to help farmers conserve their soil, deliver clean water, and even reduce the devastating impacts of floods and droughts, all of which would save taxpayers’ money.

Farm conservation works

Since 1985, the Farm Bill has promoted stewardship of soil, water, and wildlife by directing funding to a variety of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs. These programs provide financial incentives and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to protect their soil and store carbon by planting cover crops, reduce fertilizer and pesticide use by rotating a mix of crops, capture excess fertilizer and add wildlife habitat by planting perennial prairie strips in and around vast cornfields, and even take environmentally sensitive acres out of farming altogether.

Recent UCS analysis has shown that farm practices like these lead to positive environmental outcomes while maintaining or increasing farmers’ yields and profits and saving taxpayers’ money.

And our latest report, Turning Soils into Sponges, reveals a surprising additional benefit: growing cover crops and perennial crops can make farmers and downstream communities more resilient to the effects of floods and droughts. The report demonstrates that these practices—which keep living roots in the soil year-round—result in healthier, “spongier” soils soak up more water when it rains and hold it longer through dry periods. Using these practices, farmers can reduce rainfall runoff in flood years by nearly one-fifth, cut flood frequency by the same amount, and make as much as 16 percent more water available for crops to use during dry periods. But farmers need help to do it.

A changing climate demands more conservation, not less

So it was a real step backward when the 2014 Farm Bill cut the very programs that help farmers build healthy soil and prevent pollution. That bill cut the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), for example, by more than 20 percent. A USDA official recently told a Senate committee that CSP is “greatly oversubscribed” and must turn away thousands of farmers who want to participate.

(Incidentally, the Senate will hear this week from President Trump’s nominee to lead the USDA’s conservation efforts, whose conservation record as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture has been mixed.)

Meanwhile (surprise!) the problems that on-farm conservation can help solve are not going away by themselves. Midwestern farm runoff has led to deteriorating water quality from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico. And climate change will only worsen water quality and increase the frequency and severity of floods and droughts.

The latter is particularly bad news for farmers, and for all of us. A new report from the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, which operates the taxpayer-subsidized federal crop insurance program, shows that losses from drought and flooding were to blame for nearly three-quarters of all crop insurance claims paid to farmers and ranchers between 2001 and 2015.

Farmers are adopting conservation practices, and policy support is growing

For example, earlier this year researchers at Iowa State University released the results of their 2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, which asked farmers across the state about conservation practices they used between 2013 and 2015. Nearly half (44 percent) reported an increase in the use of practices to improve soil health, with 20 percent reporting they’d increased their use of cover crops.

Meanwhile, the National Farmers Union (NFU), which represents family farmers and ranchers across the country, has become increasingly vocal about the need for USDA programs and research to help farmers build soil health and cope with climate change. And taxpayer advocates have lent their voice to the call stronger requirements for on-farm conservation as a condition of participating in the federal crop insurance program (so-called conservation compliance). A number of states have undertaken healthy soil initiatives, and some observers expect soil health to get more attention in this Farm Bill, as it should.

Congress: Don’t ask farmers to do the impossible

To recap: farm conservation works, farmers want to do it, and we all need more of it to cope with a changing climate and the floods, droughts, and escalating costs it will bring. So why wouldn’t Congress invest more?

As usual, budget-cutting fever is the problem. The Trump administration’s proposed USDA budget reductions shocked farmers and their allies in Congress last spring, cowing even the powerful Republican chair of the Senate agriculture committee, who warned that the 2018 Farm Bill will need to “do more with less.” That’s a silly thing to say, of course…with most things in life, doing more requires, well, more. For farm conservation, that means financial incentives and technical assistance for more farmers and more acres, along with more monitoring to ensure that it’s getting results.

That’s why UCS joined with NFU and two dozen other organizations in outlining our collective conservation priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill. These include a substantial increase in funding for USDA conservation programs including CSP, along with additional monitoring and evaluation of outcomes, better enforcement of conservation compliance, and improvements in the federal crop insurance program to remove barriers to conservation.

As Congress debates the Farm Bill in the coming months, UCS will be urging them to see farm conservation programs for what they are—critical programs to help farmers stay profitable today while preventing pollution, improving resilience, and avoiding more costly problems down the line.

In short, an excellent investment in our future.

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Pointless Delay to the Added Sugar Label Keeps Consumers in the Dark http://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/sugar-label-delay http://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/sugar-label-delay#comments Fri, 29 Sep 2017 16:38:38 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54082

In another frustrating example of undermining science-based protections, the FDA this morning proposed delaying compliance for revisions to the Nutrition Facts label.

Most food companies were supposed to roll out their revised labels by July 2018. This delay would mean that those initial, larger companies would have until January 2020 and smaller companies until January 2021.

I have been dreading this official announcement all year and hoping—as more and more products I see in stores have updated their labels—that the FDA would acknowledge that its original rule was perfectly reasonable and has already given companies ample time to comply.

In December, food industry leaders proposed two different riders to draft House appropriations legislation that would have delayed the rule. Luckily, those failed to make it into final language.

Then, in April at now-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s confirmation hearing, he implied that he might delay the revised nutrition facts label. I urged Gottlieb to keep the compliance dates as a part of the final rule that was issued in 2016.

Once confirmed, Gottlieb was faced with what I would consider a pretty clear-cut decision: Implement a rule that was based in clear science on the public health consequences associated with excessive added sugar consumption—one that was also supported by the expert-driven Dietary Guidelines recommendations—or cow to industry wishes to delay the rule, even though the majority of food companies would have had until 2019 to make the new changes to their labels, and larger food companies like Mars, Inc. and Hershey Co. have already met the deadline or are on track to meet it.

In fact, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, at least 8,000 products from a variety of companies already bear the new label.

A few months later, the FDA announced of its intention to push back compliance dates, but there was no formal decision or indication of how long the delay would be. I, again, urged Gottlieb not to take a step backward on food label transparency by delaying the new label.

Despite what some food companies will have you believe, they have had plenty of time to accept the science on added sugar consumption and to give consumers the information for which they’ve been clamoring. The FDA first began its work to revise the nutrition facts label in 2004, and the proposed rule which included the added sugar line was issued in 2014. Industry has had over ten years to give consumers the information they want to make informed decisions, and to acknowledge the mounting evidence that excessive sugar consumption can lead to adverse health consequences, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.

Instead, as we demonstrated in a 2015 analysis of public comments on the FDA’s proposed rule, the majority of unique comments supported the rule (99 percent of whom were public health experts), while 69 percent of those opposed to the rule were from the food industry. The companies’ reasons for opposition included flimsy arguments about consumers’ ability to understand nutrition labels.

Last week, we signed onto a letter along with twenty other science, public health, and consumer organizations urging Gottlieb to let the rule move forward. As we wrote in the letter, this delay means that “an entire cycle of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans will have passed without the federal government’s premier public-health regulatory agency taking final action to implement a major recommendation of the Guidelines.”

It also means that consumers will have to continue to guess how much of the sugar in their food is added, gambling on healthy food purchasing decisions. While asking the agency to delay its labeling rules, the sugar industry seems to understand that it’s actually time to reformulate and meet consumer demand for healthier products to win consumers’ trust. A surefire way to win our trust would have been to move forward with the label, not force us to wait another year and a half for information we have the right to know.

The FDA’s failure to follow the science and listen to public health experts, including HHS staff who helped write the most recent Dietary Guidelines, is incredibly disappointing. We will be weighing in on this decision with comments that will be accepted for 30 days after October 2nd and will update you on how you can tell the FDA to rescind its rule to delay the enforcement dates for added sugar labeling.

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Happy 40th, SNAP! Celebrating Four Decades of Effective Nutrition Assistance http://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/snap-anniversary-effective-nutrition-assistance http://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/snap-anniversary-effective-nutrition-assistance#respond Fri, 29 Sep 2017 13:50:37 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54004

Happy birthday to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as we know it!

SNAP, it’s hard to believe it was only 40 years ago that President Carter made you into a better, stronger safety net by signing the Food Stamp Act of 1977. Of course, you’re grown now, and you know it takes more than one person to make a law. You were really born out of the hard work and bipartisanship of Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole—two legislators who loved effective anti-hunger legislation very, very much, and who improved the Food Stamp Act of 1964 by eliminating required payments for food stamp users and fine-tuning eligibility.

Naturally, some things have changed over 40 years

Like your name. You went through that phase where everybody called you “food stamps,” and we supported you, but “SNAP” really does suit you better.

You’ve also seen a host of changes come and go related to program eligibility, work requirements, and nutrition education funding—many of which continue to be subjects of debate.

And technology keeps barreling forward. You’ve seen the amazing things it can do—watching as schools handily adopt data matching technologies you’d never dreamed of having—and some days you feel like you’re getting the hang of it, like when you finally transitioned from paper stamps to an electronic benefit system. (Other days you’re calling your daughter-in-law because you once saw her set up a Roku in ten minutes and boy could you use her help with this.)

But some things have stayed the same

You’ve been there for the American people, unfailingly, through all the ups and downs of economic recovery and recession, changes in administration and leadership, and even that time Representative Steve King said that mean and totally untrue thing about you right to your face. (Sorry again. No one likes him, if that makes you feel better.)

You were there when the 2008 recession hit and 2.6 million Americans lost their jobs—many unexpectedly—and in the years that followed, as “middle-class” jobs became harder and harder to come by and people really needed you for a while.

And even now, amid the devastation of hurricanes and flooding, you are providing food to those who desperately need it through the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Despite what people say, you’re not just a program for “the poor.” You’re a program for all of us, because we are all vulnerable to the unexpected, economic crises and natural disasters included, and you understand that.

The best thing about getting older?

Take it from an organization that hit 40 a few years ago—the best thing about getting another year older is realizing that the people you’ve supported, through thick and thin, are here to support you too.

And one of the best things about the farm bill is that it gives us a chance to do just that.

On behalf of the 21 million American households you serve, and the millions more who know you’ll be there when they need you: Happy Birthday, SNAP.

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Free Lunches in New York City Public Schools Are a Win for Kids—and Technology http://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/free-lunches-in-new-york-city-public-schools-are-a-win-for-kids-and-technology http://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/free-lunches-in-new-york-city-public-schools-are-a-win-for-kids-and-technology#respond Wed, 20 Sep 2017 18:47:03 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=53745
Photo: USDA

It’s so good to share good news.

This month, the New York City Public Schools announced that, starting with the current school year, all students can receive free lunch with no questions asked. That means less stigma for kids facing food insecurity, less worrying for families, and less paperwork for school districts. And it might surprise you to learn that at the heart of this victory—carried across the finish line by a group of dedicated advocates—is a fairly common application of technology.

The underlying policy at play here is called the “Community Eligibility Provision,” or CEP. It was authorized with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to help schools and local educational agencies with a high percentage of low-income students. As a colleague wrote on this blog in 2016, CEP helps school systems (like New York City Public Schools) to reduce paperwork and poverty stigma, while making sure that free and reduced price meals are available to all kids who might need them. Instead of asking each family to fill out an application, CEP allows schools to determine student eligibility through household participation in programs like SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programcommonly referred to as food stamps) and TANF (the Temporary Assistance for needy Families program). If over 40 percent of students are deemed eligibleschools receive additional federal reimbursement dollars to cover free meals for more students beyond those who qualify—ensuring that even those whose families are not enrolled in federal assistance programs can still get meals if they need them. 

So how is New York City able to cover free meals for all students?

Here’s the math answer: the CEP multiplier is 1.6, which means that if 50 percent of students at School X are eligible for free meals, School X can actually serve free meals to (50 percent) * (1.6) = 80 percent of students using federal reimbursement dollars. If New York City Public Schools are now receiving federal reimbursement for 100 percent of students, it would mean they have demonstrated that at least (100 percent) / (1.6) = 62.5 percent of students are eligible through CEP.

Which brings us to the real-world answer: New York is able to cover free meals for all students because it got smart about its use of technology to better reflect true student need. The New York Department of Education website describes the new data matching engine it has developed to identify eligible students:

“This new matching system provides a more efficient and accurate process for matching students across a range of forms that families already complete. This new matching process yielded an increase in the number of students directly certified – or matched to another government program – and increased the direct certification rate, allowing the City to qualify for the highest level of reimbursement in the federal CEP program. The number of families living in poverty has not increased; the changes to the matching process allow the City to better identify families.”

Why the technology matters

I know what you’re thinking. It’s awesome that all kids in New York City Public Schools can eat for free! But why make such a big deal about this technology? It doesn’t seem like rocket science.

Bingo.

New York City Public Schools is not using a particle accelerator to improve data matching among students. They haven’t even used a 3-D printer. The data integration and management systems they’re employing, while complex, are actually fairly commonplace. It’s the same sort of technology banks use to combine different databases of credit scores and application information to make credit offers, which is the same technology Netflix uses to deduce that because you watched Good Burger, you might like Cool Runnings. (Hypothetically speaking.)

Yet when it comes to the use of technology in the administration of nutrition assistance programs, we have fallen remarkably behind. The transition from actual paper food stamps to electronic benefit cards officially concluded in 2004, nearly fifty years after the introduction of the first major credit card. Even now, some states (looking at you, Wyoming!) require SNAP applications to be faxed, mailed, or returned in person.

To be clear, I’m not claiming technology is a silver bullet. For one, implementing new technology often comes with a price tagand a steep learning curve. (Just ask Kentucky.) In particular, the use of data matching raises ethical concerns related to privacy and security, and these are not to be overlooked. But in many cases, these are arguments to improve, rather than disregard, the technology and the policies that guide its use. Because when our public assistance programs fall behind, so do the people who rely on themand so does our ability to deliver maximum public benefit with increasingly limited resources. It is critical (and just plain sensible) to use the tools at our disposal to help realize the potential of current technological systems to enhance the strength and efficiency of the federal safety net. 

Carrying the momentum in the 2018 farm bill

Keep an eye on this issue. There is reason to suspect that the advancement of technology in public assistance programs will be addressed in the 2018 farm bill, and even reason to hope for a bipartisan effort. In fact, I’ll take the opportunity to quote Glenn Thompson, chairman of the House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee, who opened a June hearing on SNAP technology and modernization with this sentiment: “We need to get the policy right. As we approach the upcoming farm bill, it is critical we understand opportunities to amend and improve the program to properly account for the changes that come with our evolving, technological world.”

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Why Congress Should Put the “Nutrition” Back in Nutrition Assistance http://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/why-congress-should-put-the-nutrition-back-in-nutrition-assistance http://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/why-congress-should-put-the-nutrition-back-in-nutrition-assistance#comments Thu, 07 Sep 2017 15:23:55 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=53361

Despite messages of economic populism, the Trump administration and its Congressional enablers have not been kind to the millions of Americans who struggle to make ends meet. From attacks on affordable health insurance and a living wage to tax cuts for the wealthy and worker protection rollbacks, they’ve made clear where their allegiance lies.

Now, the nation’s leading food assistance program for low-income individuals and families is on the chopping block. As with so many other policy proposals, that would not just be cruel but also short-sighted, new research suggests.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program is an effective response to poverty and food insecurity, lifting an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2014—including 2.1 million children—and even stimulating the economy during our most recent economic downturn. Still, the White House and some House Republicans appear eager to cut benefits and enact new (but largely unnecessary) work requirements.

In response, a new study published today in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior shows that rather than cutting the SNAP program, Congress would be wise to increase its investment to better promote healthy eating among recipients. That’s because the study’s authors found that current benefit levels fall short of supporting a healthy diet, including the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. And that’s not just bad for SNAP recipients, but for all of us, as it leads to greater costs from preventable diet-related diseases down the line.

Updating the costs of a MyPlate diet

The authors (full disclosure: they’re UCS senior economist Kranti Mulik and former UCS health analyst Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, now an assistant professor at North Carolina State University) sought to fill an important knowledge gap, informing policy makers of the true cost of healthy eating for individuals and families today. In 2011, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) calculated the cost of various eating plans based on its “food pyramid” (the federal dietary guidelines before 2010). The USDA has used its resulting “Thrifty Food Plan” to determine SNAP benefit levels ever since, but it’s now out of date.

The present study is an important update in two ways. First, it calculates the cost of following today’s federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, represented visually by the USDA’s MyPlate graphic, in which half of a person’s daily “plate” consists of fruits and vegetables. And second, Mulik and Haynes-Maslow considered the cost of labor to prepare food, an important but previously overlooked consideration.

Using the most current retail price data available from the USDA, Mulik and Haynes-Maslow documented the full monthly cost of following MyPlate, creating several scenarios in which individuals and families could meet that guideline with fresh, frozen, and/or canned produce. Then, they compared the cost of the various healthful eating scenarios to current SNAP monthly benefit levels.

The upshot? The benefits don’t even come close to covering the costs.

Of course, the very name of the program—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—indicates that it isn’t meant to fully cover recipients’ monthly food budgets. The study design took that into account, assuming a “benefit reduction rate” of 20 percent—the percentage of food costs that SNAP participants pay for themselves, according to previous research.

So how much additional SNAP support would struggling families need in order to eat a consistently nutritious diet? The authors found that a hypothetical household (two adults, one child 8-11 years old, and another child 12-17 years old) would need to incur an additional cost of $627 per month to eat a healthy diet in accordance with MyPlate.

This is a significant shortfall. And it’s an important finding, because researchers who study SNAP already know that recipients’ monthly benefits frequently run out before the end of each month. In a UCS policy brief published earlier this year, we noted: “Data indicate that household food bills frequently exceed the USDA Thrifty Food Plan standard costs used to determine benefit amounts, which may reflect inaccurate assumptions about geographic price variation, food preparation time, households’ ability to access food outlets, and the percentage of household income spent on food.”

The “N” is for “nutrition”

SNAP is intended to do more than just feed people. While many Americans fail the healthy eating test—fewer than 1 in 10 Americans meets recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake—it can be particularly difficult for low-income households, which not only lack financial resources, but also face more barriers to accessing healthy foods. And although half of all Americans now live with a diet-related chronic disease, the burden of poor health disproportionately affects low-income populations and communities of color.

If SNAP is truly to be a “nutrition” program, it should do more to facilitate good nutrition for participants and their families.

Raising SNAP benefits would be good for us all…and voters support it

Healthier eating would deliver significant benefits for that population—less obesity and diet-related illness, and fewer lost work and school days. But it would also come with a payoff for the nation’s health broadly and for taxpayer-funded healthcare programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.

A 2013 UCS analysis found that increasing Americans’ consumption of fruits and vegetables could save more than 100,000 lives and $17 billion in health care costs from cardiovascular disease (CVD) each year. And a recent study from researchers at Tufts University and colleagues in the UK found that a 30 percent fruit and vegetable subsidy targeting SNAP recipients would avert more than 35,000 CVD deaths by 2030, and would reduce disparities in CVD rates between SNAP recipients and the general population.

Moreover, a recent survey of more than 7,000 American voters conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland found that large bipartisan majorities (78-81 percent) supported substantial increases SNAP benefits, while 9 out of 10 (including 8 in 10 Republicans) favored providing discounts on fruit and vegetables bought with SNAP benefits. (Respondents also agreed with proposals to restrict the use of SNAP benefits to purchase sugary foods and beverages.)

So while the White House and members of Congress seek to balance budgets on the backs of the most vulnerable among us, their constituents support policies that make it easier for low-income Americans to eat a healthy diet. With the next five-year Farm Bill putting the question of SNAP funding back on the table, Congress and the White House should do just that.

 

Photo: USDA
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