Photo Credit: Madison Richards | Daily Texan Staff

Kathleen Merrigan, Former USDA Agriculture Deputy Secretary, said at a lecture on campus Wednesday that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was one of the most successful products of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Obama administration.

During the lecture, hosted by the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Merrigan — who worked for the USDA from 2009 to 2013 as the deputy secretary and the chief operating officer — said the Obama administration has done an “above-average” job to avoid improper payments. 

“An improper payment can be giving more money than someone deserves, or less money than someone deserves — that’s the definition of improper payments in government,” Merrigan said. “They are doing really, really great, and, at the same time, doing better outreach in the program.”

The SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, serves approximately 47 million people in the United States, according to the Washington Post. Merrigan said the federal government aims to have less than a 4 percent error rate when avoiding improper payments. She said the SNAP program currently has an error rate of 3.8 percent.

Although Merrigan praised the way the USDA executed the SNAP program, she listed what she believed to be failures by the department. Among these was ensuring that there was an adequate amount of competition in the agricultural market.

Rajeev Patel, who is a research professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, also spoke at the lecture. He said he believes it is important to remember the circumstances in which the Obama administration was formed in context to the country’s approach to food topics. He said the department’s relationship with the private sector is something that should be taken into account when discussing the administration’s approach.

“Often, it’s forgotten that while the beneficiaries of SNAP are invariably poor people in the United States … it’s also important to remember that one of the largest beneficiaries of SNAP is Walmart,” Patel said. “18 percent of the $80 billion spent on SNAP is spent at Walmart.”

Public affairs graduate student Cristian Villalobos, who attended the lecture, said he believes the USDA should focus on educating parents on proper nutrition for children in the first 1,000 days of life. According to Villalobos, SNAP has been one of the more crucial programs since the recession in 2009.

“On a public perception level, it seems to have less of a stigma than other forms of welfare,” Villalobos said. “SNAP seems to be less politicized and conflated as a burden to the government.”

Merrigan said she believes there was an effort underway nationally to vilify the traditional SNAP beneficiary, driven by Republican budget cutting purposes.

“We were really trying to protect the image of the SNAP recipient and to maintain their dignity,” Merrigan said. “There was a notion that poor people can’t take care of themselves, and we tried to push back.”

HOUSTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday pledged $50 million to a program designed to restore seven river basins from Florida to Texas in an attempt to show a blueprint for rebuilding the Gulf Coast’s fragile ecosystem is more than just another federal report.

The USDA’s announcement accompanied the presentation of the final report of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, a team established by President Barack Obama after the April 2010 oil spill that highlighted decades of environmental decline in the Gulf of Mexico.

The task force’s plan for reviving the Gulf and the ecosystems and watersheds linked to it calls for rebuilding and conserving wetlands; cleaning polluted rivers and streams; strengthening communities along the storm-prone area and better preparing them for the storms that brew over the warm ocean waters; and allowing more sediment to naturally flow downstream to slowly rebuild barrier islands meant to provide natural protection from storms.

“We are all dedicated to making sure that the treasures we grew up with are still around for future generations,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, a New Orleans native who chaired the task force.

Jackson and officials from other federal and state agencies made the announcements in Houston at a summit sponsored by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. The summit focuses on the Gulf, its importance to the U.S. economy and the need to reverse decades of damage and neglect.

Jackson said the USDA project — an offshoot of an existing national program aimed at conserving, improving and preserving the nation’s watersheds — is only the first of many initiatives she expects will be announced in the coming months.

“I expect a flurry of activity to get some meat on those bones,” she said.

The Gulf of Mexico, long neglected and under-funded, is a vital part of the nation’s economy. More than 90 percent of the nation’s offshore oil and natural gas production originates in the Gulf and 13 of the top 20 ports by tonnage are in the region. If the five coastal states were a country, it would rank seventh in global gross domestic product. In 2009, the Gulf Coast produced 30 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

While this committee has been assigned the task of identifying problems and pinpointing possible solutions, Congress has been considering a bill called the Restore Act that would allow most of the penalties BP would pay for fouling the waters to go back toward restoring the environment in the five Gulf states: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas. The House is to hold hearings on the proposed bill later this week.

The first project administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service gives farmers and ranchers the finances they need to change their land or water use practices to help clean, conserve and preserve the watersheds, said Harris Sherman, the USDA’s undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment.

The USDA provides them with a “tool kit” of options for joining the program, he added.

The program — called the Gulf of Mexico Initiative — also requires matching funds from state, local and nonprofit entities, and so the funds available could total some $90 million, Sherman said. Similar projects are already under way elsewhere, and have successfully reversed some damage done to waterways.

The $50 million commitment to the Gulf Coast, however, is unique because it significantly increases the department’s funding to the region. Already, Sherman said, officials have met with ranchers and farmers in the area and are confident they will participate. The funding will be made available over the next three years, with the first $20 million available immediately.

The seven river basins identified for immediate assistance are already on the federal Clean Water Act’s list of polluted waterways. In Alabama, the program’s goal in the Weeks Bay watershed is to reduce agricultural-related nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment running downstream and to preserve wildlife habitats.

In a watershed shared by Alabama and Florida, the program aims to reduce the sediments and nutrients that flow into tributaries of the Escambia River. The USDA believes this will ultimately “improve wildlife habitat and the quality of water delivered to Pensacola Bay” and the Gulf.

The project has similar goals for another Florida watershed.

In Louisiana, it will focus on the Baratoria-Terrebonne estuary and the Mermentau basin, once again by reducing the harm fertilizers have as they flow downstream from rivers and streams into the Gulf of Mexico. In Mississippi the Jourdan River basin is the focus, while in Texas the goal is to clean up the Guadalupe River basin.

Officials believe the project will improve water quality for thousands of residents in Pensacola, Fla., Mobile, Ala., and San Antonio.

“We’re focusing on priority areas where we can get the greatest gains,” Sherman said.

Earlier this month, the USDA, department of agriculture and first lady Michelle Obama unveiled MyPlate, which will replace the food pyramid. Photos courtesy of USDA.

Earlier this month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and first lady Michelle Obama unveiled MyPlate, a national nutritional guideline that would replace the food pyramid and bear the official seal of approval from the USDA. MyPlate was created in part by Obama’s campaign against obesity. It does away with the prescribed portion sizes for different food groups, instead using the visual of a dinner plate divided into four sections. Half of the plate is designated for fruits and vegetables, with grains and proteins making up the rest. To the side is a smaller circle for dairy products.

This redesign comes at a crucial point in American health statistics. In January, the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services released the seventh edition of their “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” which classifies more than one-third of children and two-thirds of adults in the United States as overweight or obese. MyPlate’s ascension and the food pyramid’s retirement reflect the current American dietary landscape and our predilection for visually vibrant and deceptively simple design. Together, they don’t necessarily communicate eating healthily as simply or as effectively as many may hope.

The U.S. first started growing concerned about the nutrition and health of Americans in the 1970s, following the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health. And yet, it seems no amount of information about dietary health presented in any fashion is getting through. We’re as an unhealthy as ever.

How is it in this constantly connected information age we’re still eating so poorly, even as the evidence is ostensibly right in front of us? Because all the nuances of choosing the right food and knowing what’s in them is too complex to be boiled down into a simple graphic.

The original design, created in 1992 and the most familiar to young people, has been maligned by health experts, such as Harvard nutritionist Dr. Walter Willet (a longtime critic of the USDA’s health guidelines), for being too vague and not based on the most up-to-date science. The revamped pyramid created in 2005, called MyPyramid, was essentially the same as the previous pyramid, just turned on its side. MyPyramid featured an even more abstract design — most public displays did not even include pictures of food. MyPyramid also included a stairs element alongside the pyramid that is supposed to symbolize the need for physical activity, but the ambiguity of the design made it difficult to convey that information.

Willet and the Harvard School of Public Health (where he is the chair of the department of nutrition) have been critical of the food pyramid and its incoherence, lack of current data and heavy influence from the food industry. That influence that is difficult to ignore because the food pyramids and MyPlate were created in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for the advocacy of U.S. food producers.

While the influence may not be as overt in MyPlate, it still doesn’t do enough to provide the information most people need to make good decisions about the food they eat.

While it’s easy to see why the USDA and the first lady wanted to streamline the process of choosing your food as much as possible for Americans with busy lives, MyPlate may be too simplified. Based purely on the visual of the plate, it would seem that, as long as you fulfill the proper portions requirement, anything you choose is fair game: there’s no differentiation as to what’s best within in each food group.

For example, while MyPlate recommends about a fourth of your plate consist of protein, not all proteins are created equally and some are healthier than others. Harvard outlines how red and processed meats are unhealthy compared to proteins such as fish, poultry and beans.

Despite years of scientific research and reporting, there continues to be a disparity between what we know to be healthy and the actual quality of the food we produce. A paper, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2010 and conducted by doctors from the National Cancer Institute, concluded that the quality of the current U.S. food supply is insufficient to meet federal recommendations.

This information is all readily available, but often densely packed. The Internet is filled with helpful and relevant health information, but as the first lady notes, most people don’t have the time or interest to track that information down and implement it. Graphics like MyPlate are created for their ease of use and understanding.

While the goals of MyPlate are well-intentioned and admirable, it glosses over crucial information about dietary health. The easiest way to communicate what foods are healthy may not be in a colorful graph or chart, but in old-fashioned education. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of School Health, middle school students instructed in a comprehensive healthy lifestyle education program showed improvement in their eating behaviors and perhaps most promisingly, the kids felt more confident in their ability to eat healthily.

Published on Monday, June 20, 2011 as: MyPlate guidelines visually attractive, lacking information