At USDA, Taking on Ambitious Goals and Intractable Problems

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 4, 2008

On the campaign trail, President-elect Barack Obama said his administration would help small family farms, end childhood hunger and upgrade roads and bridges in rural areas.

His commitment to the rural and impoverished parts of America helped secure critical victories for him in Midwestern Corn Belt states, such as Iowa and Minnesota, and has heightened expectations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as Obama prepares to appoint an agriculture secretary to oversee wide-ranging efforts.

In cash-strapped times, the challenges of mounting new initiatives are daunting. And the USDA is still battling long-running problems: subsidy programs that give huge sums to ineligible, millionaire farmers; a food inspection system that puts Americans at risk for food-borne illnesses; and nutrition programs that fail to identify more than 30 percent of Americans who live in poverty and are at risk of hunger every month.

"Things are not working like they should. When things go wrong, it's difficult if not impossible sometimes to determine who should take responsibility," said Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "The mission of the department needs to be examined; there needs to be some restructuring."

Officials in the Bush administration defended the department's record over the past eight years, saying that despite the need for continued reforms, the agency has successfully responded to a number of crises and has kept the agricultural industry healthy, its core mission.

"We have established a very good foundation. The country produces what is essentially a positive in our balance of trade with agriculture," said USDA press secretary Keith Williams. "In a country where we import more than we send out, agriculture continues to be a bright spot."

Many of the problems that Obama wants to tackle have been controversial for several decades. Improper payment of crop subsidies -- intended to help struggling family farmers -- is a prime example.

Last week, a report by the Government Accountability Office asserted that the USDA continued to give federal subsidies to ineligible, wealthy farmers despite a series of congressional reforms. Between 2003 and 2006, more than 2,700 farmers who were earning more than the cutoff of $2.5 million annually continued to receive subsidies. Unwarranted payments totaled $49 million.

"Without better oversight to ensure that farm program funds are spent as economically, efficiently and effectively as possible, USDA had little assurance that these funds benefit the agriculture sector as intended," the report said.

Within hours of the report's release, Obama said the findings represented "a prime example of the kind of waste I intend to end as president."

However, the response from some other Democrats shows how difficult it will be to rein in subsidies.

"You need to look at the risk that is involved with crops. One year you might make 2 1/2 million, but another year you can lose 2 1/2 million -- you don't get credit for that," said Peterson, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota. "If you reduce subsidies, the cost of food will go up."

The most urgent change needed for the Obama USDA, according to the GAO and the Congressional Research Service, is improving the department's food safety inspections. At present, the USDA and 14 other departments and agencies administer a patchwork of food safety laws that often overlap and do not always make public safety the first priority.

For example, the USDA inspects packaged open-face meat sandwiches, with one slice of bread, and the Food and Drug Administration inspects packaged meat sandwiches with two slices of bread. The USDA does daily inspections of sandwiches, while the FDA inspects sandwiches an average of once every five years. Efforts to bring federal inspections under one agency have failed.

"We need to create a single agency that makes food safety its core mission," said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture.

DeLauro said change is needed because the USDA is now playing a conflicting dual role. "They have a blurred mission: One is to promote a product and another to protect the public," she said.

Another Obama campaign pledge -- to end childhood hunger by 2015 -- also presents immediate challenges. The nation's economic crisis has pushed the number of families relying on food stamps to 30 million, an unprecedented high expected to climb as unemployment rates continue to rise.

Bush officials in the USDA say the demands are staggering.

Already, nutrition programs administered by the department cost $63 billion annually, representing two-thirds of the USDA's budget. One in five Americans are "touched" by the programs, meaning they either rely on one of them for food or have an immediate family member who does. Still, USDA officials said only 63 percent of those who qualify for the programs have been identified and enrolled.

Outreach efforts have intensified in both the public and private sectors, and the numbers are expected to rise.

"That is currently creating a budgetary stressor," said Kate Houston, the USDA's deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. "Although most programs are entitlement programs, there are some that are not. There's a finite amount of money set aside, and decisions will have to be made."

Food banks and pantries -- which operate largely using private donations but receive 20 percent of their food from the USDA -- have said they are stretched thin; over the past year, demand has increased more than 20 percent. That is mostly because of jumps in food prices, which mean the poor have trouble paying their grocery bills and food stamps do not stretch as far.

"They only last until about halfway through the month, which is when we see our clients turning to food banks," said Maura Daly, vice president of government relations for Feeding America, a national network of food banks.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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