Hello! Thank you for reading Food Fix. This is the eighth edition of the newsletter. In just one month, we’ve covered a lot of ground together. Our first edition featured an interview with FDA Commissioner Robert Califf on why he thinks the agency’s foods program needs a reboot. Then we brought you a guide to the White House food conference and a Q&A with House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro about infant formula and food safety. We covered Beyond Meat’s fall, the intense debate over food stamp restrictions and what the Inflation Reduction Act means for food policy.
Food Fix has also started to appear in the broader press. Just before launch, we were mentioned in NPR’s Weekend Edition. We’ve hit local radio to talk about the White House conference. A Media Operator cited Food Fix as a model for starting media companies with a newsletter first (alongside Punchbowl and Puck – both also led by Politico alumni). Our dear friends over at The Hagstrom Report have cited our reporting a couple times, too. Stay tuned for more.
As a reminder, the newsletter will be on break next week as I prep for a busy fall. We’ll be back in your inbox Sept. 6.
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Alright, let’s get to it –
Today, in Food Fix:
– A third of states have not been approved for P-EBT this summer (and it’s late August)
– Food Fix posts White House conference comments
– FDA updates on Daily Harvest: Still no answers
– Another romaine lettuce E.coli outbreak?
– USDA extends WIC waivers
States are leaving billions in grocery aid on the table
For all the aid that Washington poured out during the pandemic, a lot of it hasn’t lasted to this point. Stimulus checks, of course, were temporary, but other pieces like the child tax credit and universal free school meals didn’t stick, like some advocates had hoped they would. One exception has been Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT), a program Congress patched together in short order to help replace the value of school meals.
Congress created the roughly $2 billion-per-month program in spring 2020 when schools broadly shut down amid the unfolding crisis, cutting off children in low-income families from a key daily source of food. The emergency effort gives households a debit card to buy groceries (just like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, still known to many as food stamps) to replace the school meals that weren’t available or were difficult to obtain during the initial shutdowns.
P-EBT was extended multiple times throughout the pandemic as concerns grew about hunger, particularly among children. But as I wrote several times at POLITICO, the program was very difficult to implement. It was slow. There were numerous problems with data and logistics. At times, there literally weren’t enough EBT cards. Still, P-EBT has continued – and it’s morphed into a particularly important program that replaces school meals in the summer months, when low-income kiddos have long lacked access to free and reduced-price meals.
Overall, P-EBT appears to be pretty effective in reducing food hardship among families with children. For example, a new analysis out this morning from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project found that in the months leading up to this summer, food insufficiency – one measure of hardship – was lower in states that “distributed substantial Pandemic EBT benefits to compensate for meals lost during pandemic-related school closures.”
This finding would be notable during normal times, but it’s particularly salient during a period of high food inflation, when there’s a ton of attention being paid to Americans’ struggle to afford groceries.
The researchers note that “food insufficiency among households with children, and especially among lower-income households with children, rose at the end of the 2021-2022 school year and has remained elevated.”
States on sidelines: In this context, it’s timely to note that a third of all states have not yet been approved for P-EBT for this summer (and yes, summer is almost over). A handful of states haven’t applied for the program for the last school year, nor have they applied for this summer. The Hamilton Project has a handy new map that shows the latest. (Note: I checked with USDA on Thursday to see if there were some states pending, but did not hear back.)
Billions on the table: The overall impact of states not participating in P-EBT amounts to billions of dollars in grocery benefits that are not being utilized nationally. In Florida, for example, P-EBT last summer was estimated to deliver more than $1 billion to students and childcare-aged children. Florida is not yet approved for this summer. That’s a significant amount of federal aid to pass up.
“This kind of policy solution is kind of a no-brainer,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economics studies at the Brookings Institution, in an interview. “If it didn’t happen or it didn’t happen on time because state-level bureaucrats thought it was too hard [to implement], then yes, we should make it easier. But we also ought to shame them a little bit.”
Introducing Food Fix’s unofficial docket for the House conference
As I’ve been covering the forthcoming White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health, there’s been a bit of grumbling that there isn’t a public docket where you can read all the comments and recommendations submitted to the administration. (For those of you who aren’t regulatory nerds, the government’s typical process includes a public docket.)
The process for the conference is more informal, so we actually don’t know how many comments the White House has received. I’m guessing it’s a lot, but administration officials wouldn’t give me a number when I asked.
As folks started to share with me what they’d submitted to the White House, I decided to put together an unofficial collection of comments. I kept trying to compile these, and you all just kept submitting them!
I will update this clearinghouse periodically. If your comment is missing from the list, you can submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Date coming next week? The White House has still not announced a date for this conference, which is the first of its kind since the Nixon administration, other than to hint it will be in late September. Those in the know now expect the date will be revealed on Monday. The White House is holding a stakeholder update Monday afternoon and teasing that there will be “exciting announcements.” Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, is slated to join.
FDA updates on Daily Harvest: Still no answers
The FDA on Thursday issued an update on its investigation into the mysterious case of Daily Harvest and its French Lentil & Leek Crumbles, which have been linked to hundreds of serious illnesses, including abnormal liver function and even gallbladder removal. But there’s still no word from the agency on the root cause.
Large-scale hospitalization: The FDA said 369 illnesses have been reported, including 125 hospitalizations (yes, that’s a lot!).
“FDA’s investigation is ongoing, and more information will be provided as it becomes available,” the agency said. (I keep thinking these FDA emails are going to reveal a cause, only to open them and be disappointed.)
Brush up: Daily Harvest issued a major product recall on June 17, and about a month later said the company identified tara flour, a plant-based protein ingredient, as the culprit. The FDA has not gone that far, saying it’s still investigating.
What on earth: Even if it is tara flour, we still don’t know why this ingredient might have caused such serious issues. My understanding is that all the tests that have been conducted by the company, lawyers and FDA officials have not yet found anything definitive. The mystery continues.
Another romaine lettuce E.coli outbreak?
While we’re talking food safety, there appears to be another E.coli outbreak potentially tied to romaine lettuce. The CDC announced Thursday that an outbreak it has been tracking has now grown to 84 cases, including 38 hospitalizations, across four states.
“A specific food has not yet been confirmed as the source of this outbreak, but many sick people reported eating sandwiches with romaine lettuce at Wendy’s restaurants in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania before getting sick,” CDC said.
The agency continued: “Investigators are working to confirm whether romaine lettuce is the source of this outbreak, and whether romaine lettuce used in Wendy’s sandwiches was served or sold at other businesses. Wendy’s is fully cooperating with the investigation.”
Zooming out: If this ends up being romaine-based, it will add to a very long list of outbreaks tied to this particular green. Every outbreak like this also offers another reminder that FDA has not put water safety standards in place yet for leafy greens and other produce, despite Congress asking the agency to do so more than a decade ago. Separately, the produce industry has been stepping up to work on food safety. But clearly it’s not enough if this keeps happening over and over again.
WIC waivers extended
The USDA announced late Tuesday that it will extend a slew of waivers that provide a lot more flexibility to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (a.k.a. WIC), including by allowing imports to fill in where needed and covering the costs of alternatives – after much concern that these flexibilities would not be extended past Sept. 30.
The latest extension continues until either Dec. 31 or 60 days after the expiration of a state’s COVID-19 major disaster declaration, whichever is sooner. USDA said it has so far granted nearly 500 WIC waivers since the Abbott Nutrition recall on Feb. 17 roiled the infant formula market. As a reminder: WIC serves roughly half of all infants in the U.S., and Abbott is WIC’s No. 1 supplier of infant formula.
Mixed messages: As I noted on Twitter the other day, USDA could have avoided a lot of confusion by being clear and transparent about its intentions, as the formula shortage continues to be a significant public concern. The mixed messages from FDA and USDA on the seriousness of the shortage only added to their communication woes. For now, folks in this space are breathing a sigh of relief knowing that the flexibilities will last at least a few months longer.
What I’m reading
As students go back to school, many face a lunch bill for the first time in 2 years (NPR). Your host was pretty psyched to hear friend and former colleague Ximena Bustillo’s first report on All Things Considered on Thursday. The piece, from Boise, Idaho, notes that universal free school meals are ending this school year, and highlights the impact that’s already having on students and schools. It also touches on why Republicans didn’t think another extension was warranted.
New steps to protect consumers from Salmonella in poultry (The Hill). Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack writes an opinion piece touting USDA’s recent proposal to declare Salmonella an adulterant in certain breaded and stuffed chicken products, calling it “just the first step in our efforts.” Vilsack notes that while data show Salmonella contamination rates for poultry have been declining since the 1990s, the rates of Salmonella infections have not gone down.
How Deadly Bacteria Spread in a Similac Factory — and Caused the US Formula Shortage (Bloomberg). This deep dive (behind a paywall) has some new details about problems that led to the Abbott Nutrition recall, the human toll and the history of the Sturgis, Mich., plant. But it also clearly followed a lot of my reporting at Politico, as well as others at CNN, ABC, and the Detroit News, with no attribution or acknowledgement. Not a great look.
Is Dr. Oz gaining on Fetterman in Senate race? (Philadelphia Inquirer). Some new polling suggests that Mehmet Oz might be gaining on Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who has maintained a sizable lead in the Senate race for months. Real Clear Politics has an overview of polling averages over time here. While we’re on the topic, Oz recently suggested Fetterman might not have had a stroke if he “had ever eaten a vegetable in his life.” I think we are now on Day 11 of crudité-gate.
A midwestern war over state fairs and butter sculptures (Twitter). OK, so this one is just funny. Sen. Amy Klobuchar sent a shot across the bow when she announced she would bring Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to the Minnesota state fair, with some choice words: “He’s from Indiana, he thinks he’s seen everything, but he hasn’t seen the Minnesota State Fair, which is the biggest state fair in the country,” Klobuchar said. “I will be bringing him to the butter carving.” (Was that a thinly veiled threat?)
Ashley Johnson has joined the National Pork Producers Council as director of food policy. Johnson was previously a technical service veterinarian at Zoetis, a veterinary pharmaceutical company.
Reana Kovalcik, a seasoned food and farming communications pro, has left the Organic Trade Association, where she was director of public affairs. Kovalcik tells Food Fix she plans to stay in the food and ag space.
Her departure follows that of Kelly Taveras who left her post as VP of communications at OTA in June.
The Breakthrough Institute is opening a Washington office and is hiring for a number of leadership positions in D.C. and/or Berkeley, Calif., including a federal policy manager for food and agriculture.
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See you Sept. 6!