USDA Focus on Nutrition Program 'Integrity' Is a Smokescreen
By Sarah Reinhardt
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced it will hire a new "chief integrity officer" to oversee federal nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps).
The integrity of SNAP in particular has been a popular topic among those in the Trump administration, including USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue, who argue that SNAP enables a "lifestyle of dependency" and seek major program reforms in the upcoming Farm Bill. But these arguments have been conjured from very little science and a whole lot of smoke—and have the effect of distracting the public from more pressing issues at hand.
SNAP is among the nation's most effective and efficient programs
Monitoring any government program is necessary to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent effectively, and the USDA does so through its quality control process and periodic reports on fraud and abuse. In fiscal year 2011, as part of the Obama administration's Campaign to Cut Waste, the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted an extensive review of more than 15,000 stores for compliance with SNAP program rules. The results of these assessments, combined with USDA participation data, tell us the program is working as intended, and with remarkably few problems.
SNAP fraud1—broadly defined as exchanging benefits for cash or falsifying participant or retailer applications to illegally obtain or accept benefits—happens relatively infrequently, though it's difficult to measure. The USDA's most recent report on the topic estimated that it affected about 1.5 percent of all SNAP benefits received between 2012 and 2014. This represents a slight increase since the early 2000s (1.0 to 1.3 percent between 2002 and 2011), but remains substantially lower than in the 1990s, when reported rates were as high as 3.8 percent.
Compare this to some of the other federal programs contained in the Farm Bill—like crop insurance. Back in 2013, former USDA secretary Tom Vilsack voiced concerns about the integrity of crop insurance programs due to error and fraud rates that exceeded those of SNAP. As with SNAP, illegal activity is largely uncovered by way of criminal investigations. According to the Department of Justice, recent convictions and sentences connected with the federal crop insurance program have included the indictment of a Kentucky agricultural producer for insurance fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering; an Iowa farmer who received more than $450,000 in crop insurance proceeds illegally; a Louisiana farmer who created shell farms to receive more than $5.4 million in subsidy payments; and a Kentucky crop insurance agent whose clients received nearly $170,000 in indemnity payments for false claims. And those are just the cases from the last six months. Unlike SNAP, no chief integrity officer has been assigned to monitor fraud and abuse in the program.
So yes, we should be striving for continuous improvement in the operation of all federal programs. But explaining why SNAP in particular has come under such intense scrutiny requires some historical and political context—and a good understanding of who might benefit from maintaining old narratives.
The rise, fall and flatline of SNAP fraud
Though President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act into law in 1964, the program began to gain popularity in the 1970s, when participation doubled from 5 million to 10 million over the course of the decade. As participation increased, the USDA began to discover incidents of abuse, eventually revealing a widespread pattern of illegal activity that would plague the program for the next twenty years. Reported rates of fraud at this time were between 10 and 20 percent.
The widespread abuse lent itself to growing public disapproval of the food stamps program and, accompanied by racist and classist rhetoric around so-called "welfare queens," fueled substantial program reform by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s.
But what likely ushered in drastic improvements in rates of fraud and abuse was the introduction of new electronic benefit transfer (EBT) systems, which fully replaced paper food stamps in 2004. In addition to requiring a 4-digit PIN number, EBT cards create a record of each purchase, increasing the ease with which agencies can identify and document illegal use.
That brings us, more or less, to the efficient and effective program that we've seen for the last decade.
Despite how well SNAP works, politicians have continued to frame it as a program that suffers from rampant misuse and illegal activity. For those seeking drastic budget cuts and reforms, that negative narrative grants permission to discredit both the program and those who use it—and one needs to look no further than President Trump's welfare reform proposals or Speaker Paul Ryan's comment about the tailspin of "inner-city culture" to know that the legacy of the welfare queen is alive and well.
Speaking of integrity…
To get a sense of where this is all headed, keep your eyes on USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue—if you can. He's been making some quick pivots lately.
At a May 2017 House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture hearing, Perdue stated that "SNAP has been a very important, effective program," and that the agency was considering no changes. "You don't try to fix something that isn't broken."
Less than a year later, the secretary has voiced his support for a number of proposed program changes, including stricter work requirements for adults without dependents. Not unlike the recent announcement aimed at nutrition program integrity, these proposals are often grounded more in political ideology than fact. USDA's own data shows that most SNAP participants who can work do work—albeit in unstable jobs—and counters the notion that participants stay on the program for long periods of time.
When the House releases its draft of the Farm Bill, which may happen as early as this week, Perdue's response (or lack thereof) could provide insight on the policy proposals he's prepared to support. More than likely, he'll continue to endorse the positions of his party—but then again, we've been surprised before.
- Fraud and abuse should be distinguished from error rates, or improper payment rates, which capture how often SNAP participants receive underpayment or overpayment of benefits. (The overwhelming majority of SNAP errors are attributed to unintentional error by recipients or administrative staff.) Program error rates have also experienced substantial declines in recent years: they reached an all-time low of 2 percent in 2013, down from 6.6 percent in 2003. And though a 2015 USDA OIG review of the quality control process found understated error rates in some states, the resulting corrective actions target state agencies—not individual SNAP participants.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Zahida Sherman
Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
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By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
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By Katie Howell
A new tool called The Food Systems Dashboard aims to save decision makers time and energy by painting a complete picture of a country's food system. Created by the Johns Hopkins' Alliance for a Healthier World, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Dashboard compiles food systems data from over 35 sources and offers it as a public good.
By Manuela Callari
It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
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