Welcome to the shutdown shitshow

A look at what happens after the shutdown. A new paper calls for more ‘food is medicine’ research. And the designer of the Nutrition Facts panel has died.

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Alright, let’s get to it —



Today, in Food Fix:

— A look at what happens after the shutdown

— Paper calls for more ‘food is medicine’ research

— Designer of the Nutrition Facts panel dies


Welcome to the shutdown shitshow

It appears all but certain that the government will shut down starting on Sunday. In recent days, you’ve likely seen lots of headlines about how that would put nutrition benefits at risk for millions of people and halt routine food safety inspections, among many, many other disruptions. But none of these warnings have worked, so off the cliff we go. 

You can have a debate about what level of funding agencies should receive, or even the overall size of government — in fact, Congress is supposed to do that every year. But shutdowns don’t shrink the government and they ultimately cost the American economy

What’s driving this shutdown is not an earnest debate about the size of government. It’s hardline conservatives in the House demanding things like very deep government cuts that are just not going to happen. Even many of their Republican colleagues oppose these ideas, and, perhaps more importantly, the Democratic-majority Senate and White House will never agree to them. The standoff really is as simple as that — and it’s not clear how it ends. 

So what happens now? To me, that’s the most pressing question now. What’s turning off — and when? Every shutdown is a little different.

As I reported for subscribers on Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in the White House briefing on Monday warning that WIC funding could run out within days or weeks. And the idea that nutrition support for mothers, infants and young children could vanish has become a major talking point for Democrats looking to drive home just how disruptive this shutdown could be.

“WIC is a program that impacts and affects over 50 percent of all the newborns in this country,” Vilsack said during the briefing. “Nearly 7 million pregnant moms, new mothers, and young children count on WIC every single day to receive support.” 

“With a shutdown, what we would see across the United States is a denial of those benefits and opportunities,” he said. “In some cases, it would be literally within a matter of days after the shutdown.” 

While it’s true that WIC benefits are threatened, there are likely workarounds that could buy agencies some time. I’m told that USDA has already moved $500 million from its SNAP budget over to WIC (the secretary of Agriculture has the authority to move a certain portion of funds around). I asked USDA about this and the department said the transfer was made over the summer with congressional approval. This money is part of the current fiscal year, but any leftover funds could eventually be clawed back from the states (which administer WIC) to help bridge the gap nationally. 

As I noted earlier this week, some states have unspent WIC funds that can be deployed to keep benefits going, though it’s hard to know which states have those reserves or how long they’ll last. A USDA spokesperson told me the department is currently reaching out to state agencies to “get a more granular understanding of each individual state’s circumstances … so we can identify possible solutions to stretch WIC dollars to as many moms and children as possible if a shutdown does occur.”

“We are working to be as creative as possible, but the reality remains that many participants are at risk of being impacted during October if there is a lapse,” the department told me. USDA said several states have already indicated they do not have funds to go beyond a couple of days.

The USDA confirmed it also has a $150 million contingency fund which could help cover some benefits in the early part of the month. And there are more painful options, too. 

“When funds are not sufficient to support caseload,” the USDA spokesperson said, “WIC State agencies have options to take actions such as implementing a priority waiting list of individuals, a scenario that has not occurred since 1997.”

In the meantime: WIC participants are understandably very confused. Despite national headlines warning about a looming funding cliff, at least a couple of states are already saying that they will keep operating normally. Oregon officials took to social media to reassure residents that “in the event of a government shutdown, Oregon WIC will remain open for business! Oregon WIC participants should continue to use their eWIC cards to purchase healthy foods for their families at any participating grocery store or pharmacy.”

The WIC Association in New York state posted much the same, saying: “WIC clinics will maintain normal operations. WIC-approved stores will continue to accept payment with E-WIC cards.” 

In Utah, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox pledged that the state would keep WIC going through October: “In Utah, our number one priority is our families and we will not let down the families who depend on the WIC program,” Cox said. (The release said the state would be using funds from USDA, though it’s not clear if those are unspent WIC funds.) 

The Arizona Department of Health Services also took to social media to reassure that WIC would continue in the state in the event of a shutdown.

I also found one agency that was warning benefits were about to be turned off. In Jefferson County, Colorado, for example, officials advised residents that WIC benefits needed to be used by Sep. 30, and asked new enrollees to “contact us AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, so that if eligible, we can work to try and get you Sept. benefits to use by this Saturday.” The county also gave out links to food banks.

P.S. If you work in a state agency, I’d love to hear from you: helena@foodfix.co

This is all going to be very stressful. And it’s likely to be a mess for a while. When I was searching for what state agencies were saying, I came across this comment on Facebook, from a community member trying to advise other moms: “To my ppl on WIC if you have a couple dollars or food stamps left go buy at least 2 cans of milk for your babies before October 1st… the government might shutdown.”

SNAP still OK: As a refresher, USDA has said that it has the funds to keep SNAP benefits going through October, so that’s less of an imminent concern for the nearly 42 million people relying on that program. USDA sent a memo to state agencies last week explaining how it’s doing this. 


Paper calls for more ‘food is medicine’ research

A new paper published in the American Heart Association’s flagship journal, Circulation, calls for more and better research into the “efficacy and value of clinical Food Is Medicine programs.”

As a refresher, “food is medicine” or “food as medicine” — you’ll see both phrases used — refers to things like produce prescriptions (where a doctor writes a prescription for fruits and veggies) and medically tailored meals. It’s essentially trying to integrate food into the health care system as an intervention that could be reimbursed by insurers just like a drug or other treatment could.

“An estimated 90% of the $4.3 trillion annual cost of health care in the U.S. is spent on medical care for chronic diseases,” the American Heart Association said in an announcement this week. “Unhealthy food intake is a major risk factor for many of these diseases. … Recent research demonstrates that health care systems may be able to help patients access healthy foods, resulting in improved health, reduced need for health care and better cost-effectiveness.”

The idea of injecting food and nutrition into the health care system might seem like a logical approach. But research on the extent to which food-as-medicine concepts work has been limited (it’s expensive to follow people for a long time, for one). The paper calls for a more standardized, coordinated approach to conducting this research. 

“Much work needs to be done to create a stronger body of evidence that convincingly demonstrates the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of different types of Food Is Medicine interventions,” the AHA paper reads.


Designer of the Nutrition Facts panel dies

Burkey Belser, a graphic designer who created the ubiquitous nutrition facts label — a stark rectangle listing calories, fat, sodium and other content information — that adorns the packaging of nearly every digestible product in grocery stores, died Sept. 25 at his home in Bethesda, Md.,” reported Michael S. Rosenwald in the Washington Post. “He was 76. The cause was bladder cancer, said his wife Donna Greenfield, with whom he founded the Washington, D.C., design firm Greenfield/Belser.”

Belser had also worked with a long list of government agencies on projects like the EnergyGuide label for major appliances and the Drug Facts panels mandated on over-the-counter drugs. In 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded Belser with a Presidential Design Award for his work on the Nutrition Facts panel — a project he did pro bono after Congress did not provide funding for that part of the project, per a story I wrote for Politico back in 2014.

I was saddened to learn of Belser’s passing. I vividly remember interviewing him when I was writing about the Obama administration’s revamp of the Nutrition Facts panel and he was a delight. I asked what he thought of the redesign of his iconic label — which was done by another designer — and he gave me such a great quote:

“It felt like my daughter married a guy I like, but not all that much,” said Belser. “Someone who’s gawky, with a cowlick.”

Fun fact: The Nutrition Facts panel is often considered the most reproduced design of the 20th and 21st century. 


What I’m reading

‘Rome’s burning’: Small farmers complain Biden administration is fiddling as they vanish (Politico). “Small farmers and anti-monopoly groups say the Agriculture Department’s policy changes, while helpful, aren’t aggressive enough to restore the ranks of America’s smaller farms, which have been decimated over the last half-century,” reports Marcia Brown. “‘Vilsack, he’s doing a little bit here and there but my message to all them guys, including Vilsack, is: ‘Rome’s burning, guys, we’re disappearing,’ said Chris Petersen, an independent Iowa hog farmer and former president of the Iowa Farmers Union. ‘Approximately 92 percent of independent pig farmers are gone and the infrastructure for that type of agriculture is going and a lot of it is gone already.’ Small farmers say the moment offers an opportunity for the USDA, Vilsack and Biden to prove whose side they’re really on.”

Feeding the world once brought the US untold influence—no more (Bloomberg). “Today the source of America’s agripower is rapidly dwindling. The world’s top exporter of corn, soy and wheat for much of the past seven decades, the US is now facing a future of persistent agricultural trade deficits,” writes Isis Almeida, Gerson Freitas Jr, and Michael Hirtzer. “The shortfall for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 is estimated at $19 billion and is expected to balloon to almost $28 billion in fiscal 2024, according to Agriculture Department forecasts. This is an historic reversal: Since 1974 the only other annual deficits were in 2019 and 2020, during President Donald Trump’s trade war with China.”

Tequila-fueled trade deficits (National Journal). “When you order a margarita, does it ever cross your mind you’re contributing to the agricultural trade deficit? Probably not,” writes Jerry Hagstrom. “But that tequila comes from Mexico and, according to the Agriculture Department, the agricultural trade surplus that the United States long enjoyed has shifted to a deficit. For fiscal 2024, the Economic Research Service and the Foreign Agricultural Service have projected exports at $172 billion and imports at $199.5 billion.”


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