Scoop: There’s a deal on school meals

As congressional leaders work on a year-end spending bill, there’s a narrow deal on child nutrition. GAO questions USDA’s process for major food stamp benefits increase. And most Americans have never heard of MyPlate.

A ceiling shot looking down on a cafeteria table with children eating lunch off of cafeteria trays.s

Happy Friday! I spent the last couple days meeting with Food Fix subscribers from across the country who are interested in a whole bunch of different issues, from food as medicine to food tech. Our conversations were such a cool reminder that this newsletter has quickly taken on a life of its own! Thank you, again, for being here.

Food Fix in the news: ICYMI, I recently appeared on two podcasts: Vox’s “Today, Explained” (on the proliferation of food labeling lawsuits) and Food Tank’s “Food Talk” (on why I quit my job and more). But wait, there’s radio! Yesterday, I appeared on “The Laura Coates Show” on SiriusXM P.O.T.U.S. to talk about the school meals analysis we released with Impact Social.

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Alright, let’s get to it – 



Today, in Food Fix: 

 – Congress just might get something done on school meals

 – GAO questions USDA’s process for major food stamp benefits increase

 – Most Americans have never heard of MyPlate


Food Fix exclusive: There’s a deal on school meals

Congress appears on track to put together a big ol’ spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year, and it now seems very likely that a narrow piece of child nutrition reauthorization (CNR) will hitch a ride.

As I reported a few weeks ago, advocates have been “laser-focused” on trying to get something attached to the omnibus (AKA mega spending bill), if there was going to be one. It’s been touch and go, but on Tuesday night key congressional leaders struck a deal that provides a path forward on a broader spending package. Now, there’s a scramble to get child nutrition updates into that bill. 

Wait, what is CNR and why should I care? Child nutrition reauthorization, or CNR, is Washington-speak for legislation that updates the nation’s child nutrition programs (think: school lunches and breakfasts and the WIC program). Congress used to attempt this reauthorization every five years, but it’s now been more than a decade since they’ve done it. Why? Everything in Washington has gotten harder, even child nutrition.

Why now? There’s a broad coalition of groups, from school groups to unions, pushing Congress to act on child nutrition before the end of the year. As I previously reported: “The feeling is that it’s now or never for child nutrition reauthorization – or at least ‘now or not for a long time’ – as key lawmakers are expected to turn their attention to farm bill proceedings in the next Congress.”

A deal for summer meals: After a lot of on-again, off-again negotiations, key lawmakers have just settled on a narrow deal that would update and expand summer nutrition programs in the omnibus. 

I expect two pieces to be included: Making permanent Summer EBT – a program that provides grocery benefits to help buy food during the summer to households with school-age children – and making summer meal programs much more flexible so nonprofits and schools can do things like mobile or grab-and-go meals, instead of being limited to group settings. (Note: I think this second piece will be targeted at rural areas, but I haven’t seen the language.)

How to foot the bill? These changes would be a big expansion of summer nutrition benefits nationwide, which of course would bear a significant price tag (TBD, but I’m hearing it’s north of $23 billion over 10 years). 

One major offset to pay for this is an early end to the increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits instituted during the pandemic. Emergency allotments, as they are known, have greatly increased the amount of grocery benefits many households receive each month. Under the omnibus deal, the allotments would end at the end of February, instead of whenever the federal government ends the public health emergency. It’s worth noting that more than half of states have already ended these extra benefits as their public health emergency declarations ended. (I’m also hearing that some Pandemic-EBT money is being used as a major offset, but I don’t have all the details on how that would work.)

Stay tuned: All of the policies hoping to hitch a ride to this mega spending bill still need to go through congressional leadership, so some hurdles remain, but the fact that there is a deal is a sign something could actually get done here. 


Government Accountability Office questions USDA’s process for Thrifty Food Plan update

The Agriculture Department’s process for instating a historic increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits last year was flawed in several ways, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report this week.

Refresher: Back in 2021, the Biden administration unveiled a substantial percent increase in the cost of what’s known as the Thrifty Food Plan, which underpins how SNAP benefits are calculated. The change resulted in a 21 percent increase in the maximum benefit and added somewhere between $250- and $300-billion to the cost of the program over a decade (including the rising cost of food inflation).

GOP pushback: Republicans on Capitol Hill were – and frankly still are – furious about the move. It represented the first time USDA had updated the Thrifty Food Plan without keeping the update cost-neutral in something like four decades. Some saw breaking the precedent to spend more as a move to circumvent Congress.

The problems: The GAO study – done at the behest of Senate Agriculture ranking member John Boozman (R-Ark.) and House Agriculture ranking member and incoming chairman G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.) – flagged several issues with the department’s process. Among their concerns: That USDA’s report wasn’t externally peer-reviewed and didn’t meet government standards for economic analysis “primarily due to failure to fully disclose the rationale for decisions, insufficient analysis of the effects of decisions, and lack of documentation.”

The response: Boozman and Thompson together issued some spicy statements in response to the GAO report. “For USDA, sidestepping Congress seems to have become a habit, but today’s report from GAO details a particularly egregious effort to pull the wool over the eyes of the public,” Thompson said. Boozman called it “the opposite of good governance,” and said “it shows that poor decision-making happens when the administration operates in a vacuum without proper oversight.”

A word from USDA: Top USDA officials defended their process. “USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan re-evaluation was a robust, data-driven analysis and a thoughtful and deliberate effort that resulted in a significant and tangible decrease in poverty,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement this week, adding that the department stood “firm” behind its work.

What does it all mean? If debating over process sounds a bit like inside baseball, that’s because it is. This GAO report doesn’t do anything to change the benefit increase, which is set, but it does lend credibility to Republican concerns over how much leeway USDA has to increase spending on SNAP without explicit congressional approval. I expect this issue will be raised in quite a few hearings and during the farm bill process.


Most Americans have never heard of MyPlate

It’s been more than a decade since the federal government revamped nutrition messaging to adopt MyPlate, but new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds the vast majority of Americans have still never heard of it.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted between 2017 and 2020, found that roughly 25 percent of U.S. adults had heard of MyPlate and an even smaller slice – 8 percent — reported trying to follow the recommendations. 

“Percentages [of recognition] were higher for women than men, decreased with age, increased with education, and were higher for adults born in the United States and those who only spoke English at home,” per the report. 

Here’s an interesting chart from that report showing that nearly 82 percent of men over the age of 20 have not heard of MyPlate, the U.S. government’s marquee nutrition message:

A look at the budget: The Associated Press’ JoNel Aleccia published a good piece on this study. She cited a top USDA official saying that the agency’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget seeks an increase from $3- to $10-million annually “to bolster the MyPlate campaign by extending its reach and making recipes and other materials more culturally relevant.”

Per the report, “We absolutely want to make sure that MyPlate and other critical tools are in the hands of more people,” said Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. 


What I’m reading

FDA data shows a worrisome increase in antibiotic use in animal agriculture (Civil Eats). The FDA’s strategy for reducing antibiotic usage in animal agriculture amid rising concerns about the risk of antibiotic-resistant infections isn’t really working, per this report from Lisa Held. Agency data released this week shows that “while overall antibiotic sales for livestock decreased about 1 percent across the board in 2021 compared to 2020, significant increases occurred in the systems that produce Americans’ favorite meats.” Held flags that this year’s data show a 12 percent jump in antibiotic sales for use in chicken, while sales went up 1 percent for cattle and 3 percent for pork.

The dumb money driving the plant-based meat boom (Forbes). This is an excerpt from Chloe Sorvino’s new book Raw Deal, which looks at the venture capital dynamics at play in the alternative protein boom. “There’s all this financial capital funneling in to solve the ‘problem’ of meat—but there’s so much frenzy about how much money investors could make in the process that the entire industry could blow up on greed while Big Meat and its Big Macs kick back and watch the whole thing fizzle out,” she writes. 

How food became a weapon in the right’s culture wars (The Nation). If you think a lot about the cultural and political divides wrapped up in food and health, you’ll probably find this piece from Brent Cunningham interesting. There’s a ton of history here and the piece correctly notes that despite much political wrangling, per capita meat consumption in the U.S. has hit record levels. “Today in America, food arguably divides people more than it unites them, thanks in part to decades of manufactured controversy, done for political gain and corporate profit,” Cunningham writes.

Fighting for cranberry inclusion in definition of ‘healthy’ (WisPolitics). A bipartisan group of lawmakers, in part from cranberry-growing states, are urging the FDA to include cranberry and tart cherry dried fruit in the agency’s update to healthy nutrient content claims. The issue: These naturally tart products are often sweetened with added sugars and the agency’s proposed update doesn’t allow that for dried fruit.

Lead and cadmium could be in your dark chocolate (Consumer Reports). New testing by Consumer Reports found that dark chocolate bars broadly contain heavy metals like lead and cadmium. “To see how much of a risk these favorite treats pose, Consumer Reports scientists recently measured the amount of heavy metals in 28 dark chocolate bars. They detected cadmium and lead in all of them,” Kevin Loria writes. 

What are the causes of obesity? Letters from readers (New York Times). This is a collection of interesting responses to Julia Belluz’s recent piece about how top obesity researchers don’t agree on what’s causing the obesity epidemic.


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