Thursday, September 14, 2017

Where are the dairy checkoff reports to Congress?

The fluid milk and dairy checkoff programs are required by law each year to submit a Report to Congress. But these reports have gone missing since 2012.

Under the federal government's authority, the public-private checkoff programs collect several hundred million dollars each year in mandatory assessments from dairy producers, to be used for industry projects and marketing initiatives such as "milk mustache" posters, "Got Milk" ads, Domino's and Pizza Hut marketing partnerships, and other fast food industry collaborations. The USDA reports play a key role in transparency for these federal programs.

The most recent report on USDA's website is the 2013 report covering the 2012 checkoff activities and budgets. When the annual reports stopped appearing, I assumed USDA had simply delayed sharing them on the website. This blog first pointed out their absence in 2015, more than two years ago. Finally, in answer to my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request this summer, USDA told me in July that it would not share any documents, because the department had never published the reports or submitted them to Congress as required.

This morning, the lead story by Catherine Boudreau for Politico's Morning Agriculture covers this issue.
The Agriculture Department hasn't published legally required annual financial reports on a $400 million dairy research and promotional fund for the past four years, lending ammunition to farmers and other groups pushing for more transparency in checkoff programs.
A USDA spokeswoman told POLITICO the reports on the dairy checkoff are in the final clearance stage and should be posted within the month. The 2016 report is still in the works, she added. But the agency declined to explain the yearslong delay. In July, USDA turned down a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents from a Tufts University professor, saying that it had no records to send because the reports hadn't been published.
One of the best things about the annual reports, when they were still being published, was the independent evaluations by leading agricultural economists such as Harry Kaiser at Cornell and Oral Capps and Gary Williams at Texas A & M. At the 2016 annual meeting for AAEA, Kaiser and I organized a lively discussion of checkoff programs and nutrition.

The Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), which advocates for reform of checkoff programs, also wrote about this today. The OCM points out that former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack now is the CEO of the checkoff-funded U.S. Dairy Export Council.

I share the view of others quoted in the Politico article, suggesting that Congress should strengthen oversight over these programs and make both their finances and activities more transparent.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

12.3% of U.S. households food insecure in 2016

USDA reported today that the rate of household food insecurity fell during the economic recovery of the last five years of the Obama administration, from 14.9% in 2011 to 12.3% in 2016. The annual statistics are based on a national household survey each December, which asks about 18 different experiences related to food security during the year.

The new statistics represent modest improvements after a period of exceptionally high food insecurity in the United States. From the time the survey measurement began in the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s, the rate of household food insecurity never exceeded 12% [typo corrected, 4pm]. Then, during the Great Recession, in the last year of the W. Bush administration, this leading measure of food-related hardship jumped from 11.1% in 2007 to 14.6% in 2008, the largest ever single-year increase.

Although it is sometimes said that USDA no longer measures "hunger," one of the 18 survey items is a direct question asking survey respondents whether they went hungry during the year: The statistical supplement to the new USDA report shows that 4.0% of household respondents reported being hungry in 2016.

In the late 1990s, the United States and many other countries adopted goals for cutting food insecurity and hunger by half. Yet, the rate of food insecurity is higher now than it was at the time those goals were set. In the longer term, there has been no national progress toward reducing food insecurity and hunger.

A bi-partisan National Commission on Hunger in late 2015 made a series of sensible recommendations for reducing U.S. hunger. The report includes several compromises on themes that are likely to appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike, including protecting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from deep cuts, promoting dietary quality, and supporting work for program participants. At Brookings, the economist Jim Ziliak has recommended an agenda for modernizing SNAP (.pdf) that includes a benefit increase.

Yet, as Congress takes up the next Farm Bill, which will reauthorize SNAP, there is serious concern that leadership in both the House and Senate will support a more punitive approach with a focus on budget reduction at the expense of the poorest Americans. If that happens, it is easy to imagine that rates of household food insecurity could reverse course, end their recent brief turn toward national goals, and climb once more.

In my view, Americans of all political persuasions, Democrat and Republican, whether oriented primarily toward the social safety net or toward market-based solutions, should express high ambitions for reducing food insecurity and hunger in the United States.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

By the numbers: word counts in CDC nominee Brenda Fitzgerald's column for Coca-Cola

The Trump administration last week named Georgia Public Health Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald as the next leader of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a crucial federal public health agency. The CDC is based in Atlanta, so she won't have to move far.

Politico's Morning Agriculture briefing today noted that Dr. Fitzgerald has previously worked with projects that received $1.4 million dollars from the Coca-Cola Company, also based in Atlanta. Politico gives credit to a tweet from Russ Greene for noting her contribution of a 2013 column on childhood obesity to the Coca-Cola website.

Dr. Fitzgerald's column on childhood obesity follows the traditional sugar-sweetened beverage industry script with perfect rectitude, to an extent that seems remarkable for a public health official. The industry's story line prefers to emphasize physical activity rather than sugar or beverage intake as risk factors for childhood obesity, and in particular never to mention the association between sugar intake and Type II diabetes. Here are my word count statistics for Dr. Fitzgerald's column:
  • obesity: 4
  • health or healthier: 6
  • movement or moving: 7
  • physical activity: 6
  • diabetes: 4
  • beverage: 0
  • soda: 0
  • sugar: 0
  • sweet or sweetened: 0
  • calories: 0
  • intake: 0
  • consume or consumption: 1 (a reference to fruits and vegetables!)
From a sugar-sweetened beverage industry perspective, it's a perfect score.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Major media spread strange dairy checkoff story about Americans thinking chocolate milk comes from brown cows

The Washington Post on June 15 reports the story, good for a laugh at stupid Americans and their ignorance about where their food comes from:
Seven percent of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, according to a nationally representative online survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy.
It was then covered by a dozen other media sites, but the reporting is mostly weak. The whole thing seems like an industry organization's attempt at humor that went awry when it was picked up and taken seriously by more major media than intended.

None of the stories that I read noted that the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy is a checkoff organization -- part of the network of dairy and fluid milk checkoff organizations loosely overseen by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service and funded by more than $100 million each year in mandatory assessments that the federal government forces dairy farmers to pay into a common fund for marketing, promotion, and other purposes. The Innovation Center has an interest in educating Americans about real dairy products, so they think well of sweetened dairy beverages (chocolate milk is real milk) and don't think so well of soy milk and other non-dairy alternatives.

The Washington Post and other media imply that 7% of American adults are so dim that they think chocolate milk comes from brown cows, because chocolate is the same color as the cow. Before accepting this account of the survey result, we should all demand to read the actual questions and response frequencies, because this may be an exaggeration. For example, many cows actually are brown, so if the survey question asked whether chocolate milk can come from brown cows, a large fraction of Americans might answer "yes" -- and they would be right. If the survey question was at the end of a long survey and many people were clicking quickly by that point, it is easy to imagine 7% of respondents clicking this response at random. The context would clarify.

But none of the stories report the actual survey questions. Hilary Hanson at Huffington Post did better than most reporters in noting this:
One problem ― it’s tough to gauge the survey’s reliability. It’s possible, for instance, that some people were simply trying to be funny while answering the question.... The center, though, was unable to provide a full copy of the survey. And when asked about the survey’s methodology, McComb only said it was “conducted online.”
If you read the NPR version of the story, an interview by Audie Cornish, it sounds as if the interviewee Jean Ragalie-Carr is imprecise about the actual content of the question, leaving a listener to wonder if there was a multiple choice question with non-sensical options.
JEAN RAGALIE-CARR: When we asked them, where does chocolate milk come from, they indicated that they thought it came from brown cows.
SHAPIRO: Seven percent of Americans thought that.
CORNISH: Jean Ragalie-Carr is president of the National Dairy Council, which commissioned the survey. She says they put that question to a thousand people and gave them several options for how to answer.
RAGALIE-CARR: Well, there was brown cows or black-and-white cows, or they didn't know.
Cornish did quote another person with a bit more skepticism, but without really questioning the initial dubious story line:
CORNISH: Registered dietitian Lisa Cimperman says while she thinks some people were having a little fun with their answer, she's also not surprised that some might think chocolate milk comes from a brown cow.
Oddly, NPR reported interviewing the president of the National Dairy Council, which also is a checkoff organization (a fact that many Americans probably don't realize). But, the Washington Post article now has a correction at the bottom:
Update: This story originally said the survey in question was commissioned by the National Dairy Council. It was actually commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy, its sister organization. The Post regrets the error.
This update made me wonder if one checkoff organization (the National Dairy Council) requested a little more distance from a statistic that another checkoff organization (the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy) was promoting.

The media should go a little slower in sharing a self-serving dairy industry meme, and we should all wait for more information about this survey before taking this result seriously.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Choices Magazine explores 3-way connections between farm labor, immigration, and health care

Choices Magazine, the outreach magazine of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), has a special issue exploring the triangle of connections between farm labor, immigration reform, and health care policy. Philip Martin at UC Davis writes:
The Trump Administration has promised to make it more difficult for unauthorized foreigners to enter and work in the United States and for undocumented workers to access health care services. Such policies, if implemented, could have serious negative repercussions on the agricultural sector, which relies heavily on immigrant workers. Replacing foreign workers could be complicated due to difficulties in sourcing and hiring domestic workers to replace displaced undocumented workers. Additionally, the health deterioration of farm workers could negatively impact labor productivity, the sector’s viability, and the nation’s domestic food supply.
Cesar L. Escalante and Tianyuan Luo focus on the implications for laborers -- and the farmers who hire them -- of reducing access to health care. Thomas P. Krumel, Jr., has an interesting article about immigrant labor supply in the meatpacking industry, including its implications for meat prices.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Storm Lake Times wins Pulitzer for courageous reporting about agriculture and political power

The Storm Lake Times, a tiny newspaper in rural Iowa, became the topic of headlines around the world this week after it won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the local political power of agricultural interests.

In this piece by Art Cullen, for example, the paper explored how the Farm Bureau funded the county-level legal defense against accusations that excessive fertilizer use had polluted local water supplies. The Farm Bureau's "generosity" came with a catch.
Buena Vista County officially is a Farm Bureau county. The Farm Bureau and Iowa Corn Growers have pledged to cover the legal bills of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties as they defend themselves against a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works over pollution of the Raccoon River. The supervisors are expected to happily agree. The BV supervisors looked like the cat that just swallowed the canary upon announcing the deal.
They are happy that Farm Bureau is setting the terms of the legal defense and not the elected officials of our county. We have given up our franchise.
The supervisors believe they have no choice but to allow Farm Bureau to pay the bills and thus call the shots. They already called one shot: In the Farm Bureau engagement letter proposed to the counties, it states that the counties shall not claim that farmers are liable for pollution claims in the lawsuit in order to hold drainage districts or the county itself harmless.
Let us pause for a moment of appreciation for everybody whose work requires them, on occasion, to speak a hard truth.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Tufts/UConn RIDGE concept papers due March 13 (reminder)

The Tufts/UConn RIDGE Program supports innovative economic research on domestic nutrition assistance programs.

As a reminder, the 2017 submission cycle concept paper deadline is Monday, March 13, 2017 by 5PM EST. Slides and a recording are available for a February 2 informational webinar for potential applicants. Additional details are available below and on the RIDGE funding page

The RIDGE Program aims to broaden the network of researchers applying their expertise to USDA topics. We seek applications from a diverse community of experienced nutrition assistance researchers, graduate students, early career scholars, and established researchers who bring expertise in another research area.

Full details are available in the 2017 Request for Proposals (RFP)

Important Dates for the 2017 Submission Cycle
Concept paper due:                                 March 13, 2017
Full proposal (by invitation) due:                May 15, 2017
Funding period (up to 18 months):             July 11, 2017 – January 10, 2019

For additional questions, contact