Mark's Food Policy Blog

Finding Solutions to Today's Food System Challenges

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Don’t try mailing anything to USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) after September 30th. There won’t be anybody at the Washington, DC-based agency to open the mail. In fact, there may not be a forwarding address either since NIFA, which conducts critical scientific research and manages dozens of important grant programs, still doesn’t have a new home.

Trump and his hatchet man, USDA Secretary Sonny “Side-up” Perdue, exiled the agency to either Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri, depending on which place offers them the cheapest rent. But as things stand now, it may not matter where they go since NIFA’s likely staffing levels won’t require more than a few cubicles. According to the Washington Post, 151 of 224 NIFA staff chose to discontinue their employment rather than relocate, a number that might increase as evacuation day draws near (99 of NIFA’s sister agency, the Economic Research Service’s 171 employees also declined the new posting).

The Administration’s reasons for kicking them out of Washington are legion, as one might expect from political leadership that is both feckless and fact-less. The Secretary says the move will save the Federal government money; a claim, according to the Post, that has been refuted by numerous economists familiar with the agency’s budget. But the song that Sonny sings the most is that NIFA will be closer to its target audience, namely farmers. By the same logic, I suppose, we should move the Pentagon to the Aleutian Islands to be closer to North Korea and Russia. But all kidding aside, the audience for NIFA’s work is the American people: commodity farmers in the Midwest, yes, but also growers striving for organic and sustainable food production everywhere, lower income families looking for healthy and affordable food in urban and rural communities, and researchers working to unravel the mysteries of the food system.

The real reason for the move is that Trump doesn’t like cheeky scientists who have a nasty habit of reminding us that the Emperor has no clothes (in this case, an image sure to provoke anyone’s gag reflex). As Bob Martin, Director of Food System Policy at the Center for a Livable Future, said, “The goal of the Trump Administration is to force out the professional workforce at NIFA and ERS…because their independence and integrity regularly angers the agro-industrial folks.”

There are at least two likely categories of casualties from this imprudent and politically motivated action: the programs and the people. NIFA administers $1.7 billion in research funding including the Organic Agriculture and Extension Initiative, Tribal College Education Equity Grants, and 1890 Facilities Grants for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Because staff are disappearing, the work can’t get done in a timely fashion. For instance, Sonny Ramaswamy, the NIFA Director from 2012 to 2018, said grants that funded crop and bee research are on hold.

Other key grant programs could suffer similar fates including the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (formerly FINI) with $41 million at stake and the Community Food Project (CFP) grants worth $4.8 million. Requesting and reviewing applications and awarding grants are difficult and time-consuming functions laden with legal and financial requirements. Unless qualified and experienced staff are in place, delays in distributing the funds – or even worse – are likely, if not in this fiscal year, then certainly by the next.

And it’s not just the experience of government staff that counts, it’s also their commitment and institutional memory. As an outside reviewer of CFP grant applications over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some extraordinary public servants at NIFA including Dr. Jane Clary, Dr. Pascale Jean, and Dr. Paul Cotton, all of whom are most likely leaving NIFA. They have been responsible for receiving thousands of applications, distributing millions of dollars, and managing hundreds of expert non-Federal reviewers who bring a remarkable range of technical, racial, and geographic diversity to the review process. Not only have Jane, Pascale, and Paul infused otherwise bloodless bureaucratic functions with humanity and fairness, they have done what public servants rarely get thanked for – redistributed a small portion of this nation’s riches for the public good, especially the health and well-being of the most food insecure. As an expression of Trump’s gratitude, they are summarily told to go West or get out. The message is clear: Federal workers lives don’t matter.

We live in an era where the past is a distant congregation of shadows, and the good that people do today only earns them the sneers of cynical politicians. Why worry about the loss of institutional memory or helping people eat healthfully when a craven, short-sighted gain is all that’s at stake? Jack Payne, the University of Florida’s vice president for agriculture and natural resources, warned that the hemorrhage of employees will devastate ERS and NIFA. “This is the brain drain we all feared, possibly a destruction of the agencies.”

NIFA and ERS conduct research and manage grants that are mandated by Congress. These initiatives and the appropriations that support them are not going away anytime soon, unless, of course, this Administration disposes of all the bodies that make government work. Like the Mafia that can engineer the disappearance of those who cross them, Sonny and the Don can come up with numerous semi-legal, constitutionally suspect ways to make the lives of Federal workers nasty, brutish, and short.

What can we do to protect the integrity of this scientific process and to rebuild NIFA’s professional capabilities? Stand up for those NIFA employees (and other Federal workers) who are becoming Trump’s sacrificial lambs. Reach out to them when you can – they are working under considerable stress, so please be kind and helpful. Share your concerns with your members of Congress. If you see something suspicious – delays in Request for Applications (RFAs), sluggishness in grant distributions – say something! If you’re in a position to do so, make CFP and Nutrition Incentive Program grants work really well! By that I mean go the extra mile to meet goals, exceed your performance measures, and tell the community and elected officials about your work and achievements. Finally, get ready for the 2020 election. This one will really matter!

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