USDA’s cancer moonshot

USDA launches a research initiative aiming to help halve cancer deaths. That big review of FDA’s foods program is expected out today. Plus, four states get funding for universal school meals campaigns.


Digital art of a white rocket ship against a dark sky. The rocketship is launching surrounded by fruits and vegetables floating on both sides.s

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Helena

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Today, in Food Fix: 

– USDA launches a research initiative aiming to help halve cancer deaths

– Today: Reagan-Udall to unveil major review of FDA foods program

– Four states get funding for universal school meals campaigns

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USDA’s cancer moonshot

The Agriculture Department on Monday announced a new Agricultural Science Center of Excellence for Nutrition and Diet for Better Health – or ASCEND for Better Health, for short – to support President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, which aims to “end cancer as we know it.”

The topline: ASCEND for Better Health is a virtual center tasked with accelerating research on “diet-related chronic diseases, including cancer.” Per USDA, one of the project’s long-term goals is to “translate research into impactful solutions that improve public health and wellbeing, particularly in underserved communities.”

Biden’s goal: The administration’s Cancer Moonshot has set a goal of reducing the death rate from cancer by at least 50 percent over the next 25 years.

Where food fits in: “While the connection between food and cancer related results may not be obvious to some, the work we do at USDA can make a powerful impact on this initiative’s success,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at the virtual event to rollout ASCEND on Monday. “More than one third of cancer cases can be prevented through nutrition and diet alone. Because our work at USDA promotes nutrition security, we are uniquely positioned to enrich equitable access to cancer-fighting foods.”

Monday’s rollout was led by Chavonda Jacobs-Young, undersecretary for research, education and economics. 

The big question: I got a few texts from sources about this new initiative that were along the lines of: “This is a great idea, love to see it, but hard to see a big impact without real money pouring into this neglected research area.” The department did not announce new spending on nutrition research as part of this rollout. Instead, ASCEND will coordinate existing resources with a greater focus on precision nutrition and prevention.

Context: Historically, a small slice of USDA’s research budget has been dedicated to human nutrition. It’s not really been a major focus of the Agricultural Research Service, which conducts a ton of very important research. Back in 2019, I wrote a story with Catherine Boudreau (now at Business Insider) about the lack of funding and attention to nutrition science in Washington; we reported that ARS dedicated just over 7 percent of its overall budget to human nutrition, “virtually the same level as in 1983 when adjusted for inflation.” 

“That means USDA last year spent roughly 13 times more studying how to make agriculture more productive than it did trying to improve Americans’ health or answer questions about what we should be eating,” we wrote at the time.

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Sweeping review of FDA foods program lands today

The Reagan-Udall Foundation is expected to release its hotly anticipated review of the FDA foods program today, likely mid-day. It will be shared with FDA and then posted on the foundation’s website.

The review, conducted by an outside expert panel, was requested by FDA Commissioner Robert Califf last summer as the agency faced sustained criticism for its handling of the infant formula crisis and dysfunction within its foods division, partly as a result of my reporting.

Short timeline: The expert panel, led by Jane Henney – who served as FDA commissioner during the final years of the Clinton administration – had just 60 business days to do this job, which is a tight turnaround. By comparison, I spent several months on my deep-dive of FDA (though I have no doubt this panel will flag many if not all of the same issues). This review was also limited in its scope – it didn’t include the Center for Veterinary Medicine as part of this exercise, which led some stakeholders to question how serious the effort was. (Brush up on this particular debate here).

What to expect: The Reagan-Udall report is expected to contain a wide range of recommendations, which will give Califf options to try to fix the foods side of the agency. I wouldn’t be surprised if reinstating an empowered deputy commissioner for foods is one of the options presented.

As readers of this newsletter well know, there’s been a lot of pressure on FDA to put someone more clearly in charge of food at the agency. There’s also growing recognition that going back to a deputy commissioner structure, or making the org chart more clear, while potentially helpful, wouldn’t solve all that ails the agency. 

Money, tech, nutrition: While leadership and culture problems are thornier to address, it’s a safe bet that this report will flag inadequate resources at the agency and a need for better technology systems. Also something to watch: What does the report say about FDA’s comparatively tiny pot of resources to work on nutrition?

Decisions, decisions: It’s important to remember that this report is really a slate of recommendations for Califf. The commissioner will decide what to actually do – and there are plenty of folks who worry he’s already made that decision, and that this review was mostly a ploy to buy time. Of course, a senior FDA official last month insisted that no decisions had been made.

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New funding for universal school meals campaigns

Tusk Philanthropies’ Solving Hunger, an anti-hunger nonprofit that focuses on local policies, on Monday announced four grants to groups pursuing universal free school meals at the state level.

Tusk Philanthropies issued an RFP earlier this year promising groups $25,000 capacity grants for internal operations and “support from lobbyists and communications firms to successfully run advocacy campaigns to pass legislation.”

The grantees: Hunger Free Vermont, North Carolina Alliance for Health, End Hunger Connecticut!, and Feeding New York State were selected out of more than 20 state groups that applied. (Vermont has universal free meals for this school year, but the campaign seeks to make the policy permanent.)

Tusk Philanthropies is the family foundation of Bradley Tusk, a political strategist/venture capitalist who used to work for then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Chuck Schumer.

State by state: “Stuff gets done in state government,” Tusk told Food Fix in an interview. He said he tried repeatedly to convince lawmakers on Capitol Hill to extend universal free school meals over the past year, but Congress let the expansion lapse Sept. 30, which leaves the issue up to states for the time being.

ROI: Tusk estimated the group has so far spent $4 million on local anti-hunger campaigns that have helped expand access to $1.5 billion in government nutrition benefits. “It’s a really good use case for foundations,” he said.

Brush up: Food Fix and Impact Social recently released an analysis on public sentiment around universal free school meals. Subscribers can find that memo here. Summary slides are here.

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What I’m reading

Thousands have benefits stolen through card skimming across New York (The City). Advocacy lawyers in New York this week sent a letter to top officials at the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, asking for help for more than 2,200 participants whose benefits were stolen in the first eight months of 2022. “Most of the theft in the state has happened to people living in New York City, according to state officials – and lawyers with Legal Aid and the New York Legal Assistance Group said their clients are often given confusing advice on what to do.”

The opportunities and risks of classifying food as ultraprocessed (Rabobank). This memo by Nicholas Fereday, executive director of Food & Consumer Trends, looks at what’s driving the increasing focus and pressure on ultraprocessed foods and notes that this trend “may become a serious threat to large sections of the packaged food industry.” Fereday also argues that the common industry refrain that “everything is processed” is “probably not a winning counterargument.”

Restaurant groups push to overturn California fast-food wage law (Wall Street Journal). Restaurant industry groups said they have enough voter signatures for a ballot measure to try to stop the implementation of a new California law to set minimum hourly wages for fast-food workers in the state. “A coalition of restaurant owners and business groups called Save Local Restaurants said Monday it had filed more than 1 million petition signatures to put the law on hold and place an initiative before California voters on the 2024 ballot.”

Watchdog group to consumers: Avoid titanium dioxide (CSPI). This didn’t get any pickup in the press (that I could find anyway), but it caught my eye: The Center for Science in the Public Interest added a new entry for titanium dioxide in its Chemical Cuisine database of food additives. “In 2021, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that titanium dioxide is no longer safe in foods due to the same concerns over nanoparticles. As a result, titanium dioxide is now banned as a food additive in the EU.” The whitening color additive is typically found in foods like frosting, dressings, coffee creamer and chewing gum, among other products, per CSPI.

PepsiCo to lay off hundreds of workers in headquarters roles (Wall Street Journal). PepsiCo is planning to cut hundreds of jobs, per this report, in what’s being seen as “a signal that corporate belt-tightening is extending beyond tech and media.” The job cuts affect the company’s North America beverage business and its North America snacks and packaged foods business.

We’re at the beginning of a food revolution (New Food Order). A new podcast by AgFunder and Food+Tech Connect kicked off last week with an interview with Sam Kass, former Obama White House advisor and now VC investor. Between the smattering of expletives, there are some hot takes on the future of carbon markets and why Kass thinks the food system is about to change in a big way.

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Who’s who

Christy Felling has been named director of communications and marketing at the First Five Years Fund, a bipartisan early learning advocacy group. Felling was previously director of media and public affairs at Share Our Strength. 

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