What’s Up With the USDA?


About a year ago, Sonny Perdue became the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and boss of an agency with a $140 billion yearly budget. Among many other matters, the Dept. of Agriculture runs the country’s nutrition safety net, in the form of 15 assistance programs including SNAP (aka food stamps); school breakfasts and lunches; and WIC, which feeds women, infants, and children.

Previously, Perdue spent eight years as governor of Georgia. He has also filled other posts, like board member for the National Grain & Feed Association, and president of both the Georgia Feed and Grain Association and the Southeastern Feed and Grain Association — all of which constitute what are politely called “close industry ties,” the kind that almost inevitably lead to conflicts of interest.

While serving as governor, he did not divest from four farm-related family businesses, refused to put them in a blind trust, and even continued to help run them. During his occupancy of Georgia’s highest office, over a dozen official ethics complaints were filed against him, and he was actually fined by the State Ethics Commission.

Perdue retaliated by firing the head of the Commission, who had served under four governors. Then Perdue went on to get a special law passed, just for him, to reduce his own state tax bill by $100,000, and got all the fine money back plus considerably more.

When he was appointed by the president to the cabinet post, his confirmation was delayed by the federal Office of Government Ethics, but eventually went through. As newly appointed Ag Sec, Perdue told the press:

If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition — thus undermining the intent of the program… A perfect example is in the south, where the schools want to serve grits. But the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won’t eat it. The school is compliant with the whole grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits. That doesn’t make any sense.

It’s hard to argue with such an assertion, and right out of the gate, Perdue announced that school lunch rules would have “greater flexibility” which basically meant undoing the Michelle Obama-inspired menu changes by restoring to local control the guidelines concerning salt, milk, and whole grains.

Meanwhile, the headline in another publication read, “Sonny Perdue changes school lunch rules, but says Obama standards for milk, grains remain.” Well, which is it?

Basically both, through the miracle of time extensions, which means in practical terms that some things will never happen. Cornell policy expert David Pelletier is quoted as saying:

He is not changing the standards per se, but he is allowing schools to not follow them. It’s a bit like saying the posted speed limits on the roads remain the same, but you can go as fast as you want.

In reaction, Rachna Govani of Foodstand published a letter reminding readers that for many kids, school lunch might be the only meal they get all day, so it needs to be nutritious. She warned that the deficit of whole grains and the excessive salt in the American diet are two causes of cardiovascular disease, and noted that a bad diet greatly outweighs the ability of any exercise to compensate for it. She says:

Yet physical activity has been used by big food, big soda and now Perdue as a red herring. His message about exercise promotion mirrors the debunked propaganda big soda promoted.

Govani refers to the sugar-sweetened beverage industry’s doctrine of personal responsibility, which claims that people who consume its products only get fat because they do not perform enough exercise to negate the calories. A big fan of the Coca-Cola Company, Perdue has accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of its contributions, which could indicate that favors are owed in return.

Perdue’s ongoing task is reorganizing the USDA to concentrate on production and trade, while reducing food safety measures and giving scant attention to areas like rural development. All his policies favor agribusiness over family farms. He was responsible for the universally hated “Harvest Box” idea to replace SNAP’s current method of allowing people to choose their own food.

At one point he visited an elementary school lunchroom to announce his new regime, and created what might be his finest media moment. Perdue told the kids, “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without chocolate milk.” Since no one would regard his bulky physique as that of a role model, in some quarters this was regarded as shocking.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Ethics Questions Dogged Agriculture Nominee as Georgia Governor,” NYTimes.com, 03/08/17
Source: “Sonny Perdue changes school lunch rules, but says Obama standards for milk, grains remain,” PolitiFact.com, 05/04/17
Source: “School lunches could lose nutritional value,” USAToday.com, 05/15/17
Source: “Sonny Perdue remakes USDA in Trump’s image,” FarmFutures.com, 03/16/18
Source: “Ag Secretary Perdue Moves to Make School Meals Great Again,” USDA.gov, 05/01/17
Photo credit: USDAgov on Visualhunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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