TOPIC: Dept. of Agriculture

Natural foods co-op gets a raw deal

Acting in concert with federal officials, authorities in Los Angeles raided a local natural foods buyers co-op and arrested three people for distributing raw milk and dairy products, reports Ian Lovett of The New York Times and Stuart Pfeifer and P.J. Huffstutter in the Los Angeles Times. Authorities also seized $70,000 worth of inventory from the Venice co-op, Rawsome, on the grounds that the shop was selling unsafe and unlicensed products to consumers and doing so without a business license. Operators of the co-op maintain that the products in question weren’t being sold to unknowing consumers, but distributed to members of a buyers’ club who specifically sought out unadulterated foods and were well aware of the risks. Because the operation wasn’t open to non-members and was run by volunteers, its trustees claim they aren’t required to have a business license. (more…)

As corn demand goes up, subsidies go down

The Wall Street Journal’s Scott Kilman visits Shelbyville, Illinois and reports that in “this typical Midwestern town” crop prices are now high enough that they no longer trigger billions of dollars in federal subsidies to farmers. Kilman’s narrative is a feel-good one for WSJ readers: the market has done what special-interest Washington politicians never could — cut farm subsidies in half during the last six years. The high crop prices are a result of both growing demand from consumers in developing countries like China and also the fact that each year millions of tons of corn is used to produce ethanol for auto fuel.

However, there are still egregious farm subsidies that ought to be eliminated from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture budget. For example, the federal government still doles out billions of dollars so farmers uphold their promise to not grow crops in highly erodible land.


The food stamp backlash

Reading James Bovard’s screed on food stamps as a “magnet for abuses and absurdities” in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, I immediately thought, “Wow, he’s targeting food stamps the way conservatives in the 80s and 90s attacked welfare.” By the end of the piece Bovard makes it explicit: “Decades after liberals derided Ronald Reagan’s reference to a Cadillac-driving ‘welfare queen,’” Bovard writes,”Obama administration policies could easily permit Trust Fund Babies driving Rolls Royces to get free food courtesy of Uncle Sam.” Is there a valid argument behind this overheated rhetoric?

Not really. (more…)

There’s no such thing as a free school lunch

Schools in Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee will participate in a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture pilot program to provide free meals for all students at any school where at least 40 percent of the students are deemed low-income. The Chicago Tribune’s Tara Malone and Monica Eng report that this is part of the “Community Eligibility Option” being rolled out by USDA and that the program will be implemented in all states by the 2014-15 school year.

It’s confusing, though, whether the program makes financial sense for participating schools. The participating schools get federal reimbursement based on the number of needy children that they have. So the costs for meals for non-needy students shifts from the student’s parents to the school district. Stay tuned to see how schools in the pilot states choose to participate.

An apple a day . . . or not

Almost every day I put an apple in my son’s lunch because it’s one of the few fruits he eats.  While I worry about his limited palate, I’ve always thought, “well, at least he’s eating an apple a day,” as the saying goes.  So the USDA’s announcement that apples contain the highest concentration of pesticide residue of any produce – and are ranked number one on the Environment Working Group’s list of the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables – was a punch to the gut. (more…)

Wisconsin v. Walker

The big news from Wisconsin yesterday was that the state supreme court upheld the law taking away most collective bargaining rights for state public employees who are neither police nor fire fighters. This is obviously a huge, though expected, victory for Gov. Scott Walker and the state Republican party. One thing to note, though, is that Walker’s anti-government employee agenda has recently met resistance among even Republicans in the state legislature. The legislature rejected a plan to significantly roll back the number of state employees who work on behalf of food stamp and Medicaid recipients. The main result of the anti-public employee union bill may be a backlash on other Walker policies as well.

Scott Walker turned down on privatization

The Wisconsin state legislature did away with two major attempts by Gov. Scott Walker to privatize local administration of federally-funded social services. Jessica Vanegreen of the Madison Capital Times reports that Walker had wanted to use private workers to run Wisconsin’s food stamp program, Food Share, and also to run Medicaid. Walker’s idea was that residents would no longer apply in person for Food Share or Medicaid services, but instead use hotline numbers. The Obama administration threatened to remove federal funding if these proposals got enacted.

But even when Walker loses, he partly wins. The state legislature did agree to consolidate staff at centers that administer food stamp benefits.

It’s suddenly okay to criticize ethanol subsidies

So reports Eartha Jane Melzer of the Michigan Messenger: There is bipartisan support in Congress to cut down on ethanol subsidies.  Some Republican candidates for president, including erstwhile Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, also support a subsidy rollback. This seems particularly notable because the whole ethanol-aura is that any presidential candidate running in the Iowa caucus dare not speak ill of the subsidies.

As Melzer notes, corn-based ethanol depletes the U.S. corn supply and drives up international food prices. More than that, though, despite all Barack Obama’s talk of “winning the future” through renewable energy, no renewable energy product gets more federal subsidies than environmentally dubious ethanol.

Food stamp use continues to climb

Sara Murray of the Wall Street Journal reports that nearly 44.6 million Americans received food stamps in March — or roughly fifteen percent of the entire U.S. population. So even with other indicators — like the unemployment rate — suggesting a tepid economic recovery, more families and individuals have requested financial assistance in buying groceries. The states my blogging tends to focus on have followed these trends — Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan all have seen increases in food stamp use.

The abbreviated positive take is that more people who qualify for stamps are taking advantage of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture-funded program. The negative take, of course, is that three years after Wall Street collapsed millions of Americans are still mired in poverty or near poverty.

Not everybody loves ethanol

Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he called for a possible end to U.S. Dept. of Agriculture ethanol subsidies. “You can’t do that!” pundits exclaimed. “You need to win the Iowa caucus, and everyone in Iowa loves ethanol!” But Jason Clayworth of the Des Moines Register points out that the politics of ethanol are changing. Industry trade groups have called for a subsidy phaseout and even Iowa U.S. Senator Charles Grassley wants to gradually reduce the federal money for ethanol.