The Government Spends Billions on Food. Who Benefits? | Civil Eats

The Government Spends Billions on Food. Who Benefits?

In this week’s Field Report: A push to improve federal food purchasing heats up, the first food-focused COP kicks off, dust storms accelerate, and new evidence suggests that fair-trade certifications are failing to protect farmworkers.

Volunteers from DTE Energy pack prepackaged boxes for delivery to churches and homebound seniors at Focus: HOPE, a local agency located in Detroit, Michigan that operates the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) in a client choice model so that participants can select the foods they want. (Photo credit: Preston Keres, USDA)

Photo credit: Preston Keres, USDA

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has an array of programs aimed at helping farmers grow food that supports rural communities and the environment, but its own purchasing has long revolved around sourcing the cheapest foods available.

Last week, lawmakers in both the House and Senate introduced legislation that could transform the agency’s food purchasing processes, directing the USDA to seek out not just the most affordable foods but also to consider factors including supply chain resiliency, environmental impact, and labor policies when deciding which companies are on the receiving end of the billions of dollars it spends on food each year.

“USDA has an opportunity to use its sizable purchasing power to address our agriculture sector’s compounding crisis of agri-business consolidation, climate change, and worker mistreatment,” said Senator Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), a lead sponsor of the bill in a press release.

Called the EFFECTIVE Food Procurement Act, Markey’s proposal follows another bill, the Strengthening Local Meat Economies Act, introduced by John Fetterman (D-Pennsylvania) in September. After a ramp-up period, Fetterman’s legislation would require the USDA to purchase at least 20 percent of its meat and poultry from small and mid-sized processors and to prioritize contracts with regional producers, socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and companies that have fair labor agreements in place.

Both pieces of legislation, which face long odds of getting included in next year’s farm bill, represent a push to better use federal purchasing power to accelerate progress on goals that the Biden administration has stated are key to its policy vision, including climate action, equity, and improving competition and resilience.

And they’re linked to a larger movement to shift institutional and government food purchasing that has taken root in cities and states around the country, said Chloe Waterman, the senior program manager of the climate friendly food program at the nonprofit Friends of the Earth. The organization is one of several environmental, food, and farm groups that joined forces to create the Federal Good Food Purchasing Coalition about a year ago.

“We got together and said, ‘We now have a decade’s worth of proof-of-concept for this idea of values-aligned food procurement. The federal government is a way bigger player than any of the cities or municipalities or school districts that we’re working with. So, how can we bring this strategy to the federal level?’” she said.

The coalition released its first report earlier this month, which traces how the government spent nearly $17 billion on food in two separate years, 2019 and 2022. And it found that despite an executive order directing agencies to consider greenhouse gas emissions in procurement, another addressing consolidation, and hundreds of millions of dollars granted to small and mid-size farms and processors over the past few years, the government isn’t exactly putting its money where its mouth is.

According to the analysis, the USDA is by far the largest purchaser within the federal government, with programs for school meals, domestic hunger, and foreign aid accounting for more than half of total government food spending. In 2022, USDA spent nearly half of its food dollars with just 25 vendors, several of which represent the same multinational food companies the Biden administration has called out for exploiting American farmers.

The USDA spent the most money—6 percent of its total purchases, or $270 million—on food from Cargill, which is the country’s largest private company and has long been accused of creating unfair markets for farmers and perpetuating deforestation in South America. Tyson, recently the subject of a major child labor investigation, took in $248 million, including 43 percent of dollars spent on poultry and was among the top five beneficiaries of spending on pork.

Interestingly, the largest contracts for beef did not go to any of the country’s biggest meatpackers, although some of the companies are processors that could be sourcing animals from slaughter facilities owned by the big four. (The EFFECTIVE Food Procurement Act would also require the USDA to provide more transparency around its purchasing.) While it wouldn’t affect numbers from the past, the agency did recently commit to only buying red meat from cattle raised in the U.S.

But that won’t impact its relationship with JBS USA, a subsidiary of the Brazilian meat giant. In 2022, the USDA spent more than $60 million on pork and chicken from JBS and its poultry company, Pilgrim’s Pride. More than a year ago, lawmakers asked the USDA to end contracts with the company based on accusations of criminal behavior, including bribing government officials and using child labor in its supply chain. However, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declined, stating that it would “potentially impair” the agency’s ability to secure affordable food.

To Waterman, that is precisely why change is necessary.

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“If we can’t even cut out or suspend purchasing from one vendor who’s a particularly bad actor, what does that say about like the resiliency of that supply chain and the lack of diversification in it?” she said. To illustrate the alternative approach, when Senator Fetterman introduced his bill to diversify the USDA’s meat purchasing, groups supporting the legislation created a map that showed the hundreds of small and mid-size processors that could be tapped instead. Many of those businesses recently received grants from USDA to expand and/or stay open.

Volunteers from DTE Energy pack prepackaged boxes for delivery to churches and homebound seniors at Focus: HOPE, a local agency located in Detroit, Michigan that operates the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) in a client choice model so that participants can select the foods they want. (Photo credit: Preston Keres, USDA)

A map of the small and mid-sized processors that could supply the USDA with its meat needs. (Map courtesy of Rafi-USA)

The report also analyzed greenhouse gas emissions from USDA purchasing and concluded that shifting more dollars toward plant-based foods (pulses, including beans, lentils, and tofu are a particularly tiny slice of current purchasing) could provide a variety of benefits that match the administration’s priorities. For example, it found that replacing 50 percent of beef purchases with plant-based proteins would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent, land use by 16 percent, water use by 5 percent, and costs by 2 percent.

“Our analysis included this cost element to show that you can reduce emissions and save . . . while also achieving benefits along every metric that we included,” Waterman said.

To date, more than 200 organizations have endorsed the EFFECTIVE Food Procurement Act, while 65 have endorsed the Strengthening Local Meat Economies Act. But the bills are partisan, with no backing from Republicans. And with the farm bill process punted to next year and still no end in sight on the many spending bills Congress plans to pass, their future remains uncertain.

That’s not to say that, if enough momentum built up, the agency couldn’t start to shift its purchases on its own, Waterman said. “Even just from the numbers that we found, it does appear that USDA is moving in the right direction, and they have stated that they share some of the goals of diversifying their supply chains,” she said. “I just don’t think that they’re doing it fast enough.”

Read More:
Biden Targets Consolidation in the Meat Industry (Again)
Institutional Food Has a Sourcing Problem. This Coalition Is Trying to Fix It.
How One Groundbreaking Set of Rules is Changing the Food System in L.A. Schools

COP28 Kicks Off. Starting tomorrow, world leaders, experts, fossil fuel and agribusiness executives, civil society groups, and activists will officially convene in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for what is being billed as the first global climate summit to pay serious attention to food and agriculture’s role in the conversation. Because it’s also the first COP to be led by an oil company executive who is also using the gathering to strike oil and gas deals, it’s unclear whether it will result in the immediate, dramatic shifts away from fossil fuels that experts say are necessary to curb catastrophic climate outcomes.

Last week, the Council of the European Union published a draft of the food systems declaration world leaders are expected to sign; it barely mentions greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and stops far short of getting countries to commit to concrete actions and targets to reduce those emissions. “Anything that does not address emissions at this point is really a disappointment and a cop out,” said Wanjira Mathai, managing director for Africa and global partnerships at the World Resources Institute, during a recent media briefing.

The briefing included a panel of experts who said one of their top priorities would be ensuring that small-scale and Indigenous farmers from around the world are given adequate resources and represented in the conversations around food production. A report earlier this month found that while small, family farms produce a third of the world’s food, they have received less than 1 percent of international financing aimed at expanding climate-smart agriculture.

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Anna Lappé, executive director of the Global Alliance for Future of Food (and a member of the Civil Eats advisory board), said that her group was seeing “a worrying uptick” in food and agrichemical companies putting money into lobbying and public relations campaigns to try to steer the narrative toward what many experts and advocates see as false food-and-climate solutions. “The challenge will be to ensure that vested interests from the energy, food, and agrochemical sectors don’t undermine calls for real solutions,” she said. “We cannot address the planetary crisis without tackling food system emissions, and we can’t phase out fossil fuels without transforming food systems.”

Read More:
Will a Food and Ag Focus at COP28 Distract From the Fossil Fuel Economy?
The IPCC’s Latest Climate Report Is a Final Alarm for Food Systems, Too
Is Agroecology Being Coopted by Big Ag?

Avoiding the Next Dust Bowl. Sand and dust storms are becoming much more frequent due to climate change, accompanying droughts, and poor land and water management, and two billion tons of sand and dust now enters the atmosphere every year as a result, according to the United Nations’ Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). During a five-day meeting, UNCDD experts released three reports on the storms, one of which is specific to agriculture and includes information on how to reduce its role in desertification and the creation of dust and to minimize impacts on farms. Dust storms have been increasing in frequency and severity in dry western states, and agriculture can contribute to them by leaving fields bare between crops and tilling the soil. In May, dust from tilled farm fields caused a storm in Illinois that led to a 72-car crash in which seven people died. The storms can also destroy crops and harm livestock.

Read More:
Dust is a Growing Problem. What Role Does Farmland Play?
To Prevent the Next Dust Bowl, Give Soil a Chance

Unfair Trade. A new report published by Corporate Accountability Lab, an organization that holds businesses accountable for human rights and environmental abuses, shines a light on abuse faced by farmworkers in Mexico—even while working on farms growing certified “responsible” produce. To gather data, food anthropologist James Daria conducted more than 200 in-depth interviews with workers in Mexico’s San Quintín Valley employed by berry farms selling to Driscoll’s and the company that produces the Good Farms and Heritage brands sold at Costco. While the farms were certified by Fair Trade USA and the Equitable Food Initiative, Daria found incidents of forced labor and widespread violations of policies on sexual harassment, wage theft, and retaliation. The workers themselves described the conditions as “21st century slavery.” Annual audits required by the certifying bodies often failed to reveal the system’s shortcomings.

Read More:
Does Your Food Label Guarantee Fair Farmworkers’ Rights?
Why Aren’t Federal Agencies Enforcing Pesticide Rules That Protect Farmworkers?

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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