Whether it's the surplus chicken from a factory farm snuck into your kids meal in the form of chicken nuggets or the cheese made from hormone-laden milk made acceptable on WIC food lists, it's really no secret: the role of the USDA's Food Distribution Programs (FDPs) since the Great Depression has been to get rid of surplus agricultural commodities by passing them on to those who need nutritional foods the most.
While FDPs have claimed to prevent nutritional deficiencies among low-income populations, that goal would seem difficult to come by when the focus has been more on maintaining government ties with the big agricultural industries than it has been on actually seeking to make Americans healthier. Through its FDPs and under the label of "entitlement commodities" or "bonus commodities", the USDA has managed to redistribute more than a billion pounds of conventional surplus foods each year. Even White House Chef Sam Kass caught on to the government's long-standing loyalties a while ago.
While I'm the first person in support of minimizing food waste, the way in which the USDA goes about choosing surplus commodities is extremely suspect. It shouldn't come as a surprise to you that our government is using food distribution programs from School Lunches to Disaster Assistance to support conventional meat and dairy industries as well the sectors of GMO-grown sugarbeets, corn, canola, rice, and soybeans. Notoriously, under ex-USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, the USDA bought 8 million pounds of beef and pork, costing us about $9 million. It is outrageous that our government has been dumping its hormone-laden, obesity-causing foods on our children and our nation's most disenfranchised groups. When did food distribution programs become our nation's trashcan?
Taking the example of school meals, about 20% of the foods schools receive annually come directly from USDA donated commodities. The rest is selected by individual states, based on a list of available foods annually compiled by the USDA. While a number of school boards have sought to improve their meals by wanting to opt for leaner meats or more fruits and vegetables, they have been restricted by the choices presented to them by the USDA's 'pro-big agricultural lobby' list. And given ongoing tough economic times, nutrition is the first thing to go when times are tough.
The USDA's rationale on food and nutrition actually seems to be the following: 'Why stop supporting the conventional cattle industry, when we can replace higher-fat ground beef with leaner but still irradiated beef cuts? On top of that we could provide 'healthier' vegetarian options by serving foods like GMO-grown soy burgers to support the Monsanto-driven American soy industry as well!'
Buying excess food to prevent waste seems like a good thing until you consider that much more than half of all entitlement foods bought for federally-funded programs consist in some form of factory-farmed conventional animal product, while fruits and vegetables barely even make the list. Healthy? Organic? Local? Here's hoping.
While recognizing that FDPs benefit a huge number of Americans and that valuable initiatives like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program or the Farm to School program are rapidly growing, believing that foods selected by the USDA are chosen to meet optimal nutritional guidelines is all but delusional.
In striving to feed the most needy while still trying to 'save' American agriculture, shouldn't the real option be to provide FDPs with truly healthy and environmentally sustainable food options? Couldn't all these programs be at the very core of the booming organic farming movement by supporting small and medium-scale farmers all across the country through what could become the nation's largest federally-funded CSA? Now there's a subsidy I could get behind.