How the USDA Can Make or Break Public Health, and Why It Has Chosen the Latter

Story at-a-glance 

Since its inception, the USDA has been granted powers by both Congress and presidential executive orders that have made it the policy-setter for both agricultural policies and nutritional guidelines

USDA policies have been heavily influenced by the food industry, and for the last 100 years, its nutrition guidelines have been a direct result of an effort to boost farm economics

Agricultural subsidies are in large part responsible for promoting and worsening the US obesity epidemic

The USDA-run Smart Snacks in School program encourages “healthy choices.” But the “smarter, healthier” choices promoted are actually processed foods, including junk foods like tortilla chips, and artificially flavored water

If you want optimal health, you need to return to a diet of real, whole foods—fresh organic produce, meats from animals raised sustainably on pasture, and raw organic milk and eggs

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was formed in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln. It is responsible for developing and executing federal policies relating to farming, agriculture, forestry, and food.

Since its inception, the USDA has been granted powers by both Congress and presidential executive orders that, progressively and collectively, have made it the policy-setter for both agricultural policies and nutritional guidelines.

This is an obvious and serious conflict of interest that has led to an epidemic of chronic disease. It’s also why federal guidelines relating to diet are so grossly divergent from nutritional science.

Historically, USDA policies have been heavily—and in some instances, exclusively—influenced by pesticide producers and the junk food industry, and for the last 100 years, its nutrition “guidelines” have been a direct result of an effort to boost farm economics.

In short, federal dietary recommendations have very little to do with actual nutrition science, and everything to do with promoting foods that serve the junk food industry’s bottom line, not the public health.

Through its power to set and enforce both agricultural policy and dietary standards, the USDA has much to answer for when it comes to the current state of health of Americans…

Nutrition Guidelines Set to Boost Junk Food Economics, Not to Promote Health

Ever since 1933, every five to seven years the US Congress passes a set of legislative acts commonly referred to as “the Farm Bill,” which includes agricultural subsidies to growers of certain types of food.

These subsidies are in large part responsible for promoting and worsening the US obesity epidemic—a fact highlighted in a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.1 According to the authors, the root of the problem is that:

“Government-issued payments have skewed agricultural markets toward the overproduction of commodities that are the basic ingredients of processed, energy-dense foods.”

This includes corn, soybeans, wheat and rice, which are the top four most heavily subsidized foods.

By subsidizing these, particularly corn and soy, the US government is actively supporting a diet that consists of these processed grains, namely high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), soybean oil, and grain-fed cattle – all of which are now well-known contributors to obesity and chronic disease.

The Farm Bill essentially creates a negative feedback loop that perpetuates the highly profitable but health-harming processed food diet that the United States has become infamous for.

The US government is actively promoting obesity and chronic disease through these subsidies, while simultaneously creating flawed and ineffective anti-obesity campaigns and programs to combat the very problems rooted in its agricultural policies!

The Evolution of USDA’s Role in Junk Food Economics

A USDA document titled,“History of Agricultural Price-Support and Adjustment Programs, 1933-84, Background for 1985 Farm Legislation”2 describes the evolution of the USDA’s role.

In 1929, in an effort to provide balance to the equation, the Federal Farm Board was established by the Agricultural Marketing Act to help the USDA solve the problems of a) surplus food products, and b) low farm prices.

This effort also met with failure, at which point Congress enacted additional legislation designed to help farmers make more money.

The Great Depression of the 1930s produced a variety of legislation giving the USDA new powers intended to boost failing agricultural markets while helping to feed the poor, and with each successive act thereafter, the USDA became increasingly more powerful.

Crops covered by these acts included tobacco, various grains, cotton, and livestock such as pigs/hogs. Peanuts, wheat, rice, milk, a number of fruits and vegetables, and corn also became price control/subsidy crops during the ’30s.

In 1937, the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act3 gave the USDA the authority to control milk, fruits, vegetables, and specialty crops markets through price controls and surplus stockpiling. The law’s purpose was to bolster Depression-era failing agriculture prices by allowing USDA to fix minimum prices on these products.

An addendum was added to Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act in 1949, forming the Raisin Administrative Committee, which is still in existence today. This committee is currently in the news4,5 for its archaic rules that farmers cannot pack and market their own raisins. Instead, they must turn over up to 50 percent of their crop to the USDA, which then purportedly “markets” the raisins for the farmers.

A lawsuit6 on this matter claimed that USDA isn’t paying farmers for the raisins, and is instead holding them in reserve in order to artificially jack up prices. Remarkably, these archaic regulations were recently upheld by the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals. As reported by,7 “the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the US Department of Agriculture taking 47 percent of a farmer’s harvest does not violate the Fifth Amendment’s takings clause as long as the government aims to drive up crop prices.” Basically, what this means is that your tax dollars are spent on a government program that results in higher prices at the grocery checkout line…

USDA Also Supports GMOs—Even in Organics

Last year, Congress passed, and Obama signed into law, the “Monsanto Protection Act,” which grants enormous powers to the USDA to approve genetically engineered seeds, and allow them to be used even when the approval is challenged by a court ruling.

Interestingly enough, if you study the history of USDA secretaries and leadership, you’ll see that one of the early secretaries who had incredible clout in structuring USDA—Henry Agard Wallace8 — actually helped develop hybrid corn, and continued to conduct genetics research until his death. Wallace served as secretary through the pivotal USDA years of 1933 to 1940, more or less laying the groundwork for the agency’s stance on genetically engineered (GE) foods decades ago.

Today, it’s quite clear that GE crops are at the top of the list of agricultural products that the chemical technology industry wants to protect at all costs. GE seeds are FAR more lucrative than conventional seeds, since they’re covered by patents, and farmers are forced to purchase new seed and pay royalties each year.

When you consider the USDA’s long history of playing a central role in protecting pesticide and junk food economics, it’s hard to imagine the agency taking responsible actions for the environment and human health when it comes to GMOs… If it benefits the junk food industry, the USDA will side with the junk food industry, even if human health suffers. This likelihood becomes even more evident when you consider the USDA’s involvement in setting nutritional standards and dietary guidelines. The USDA is even exercising its political muscle to allow synthetic, non-organic, and even GE ingredients in organic agriculture—a development that has drawn harsh criticism,9 and rightfully so.

USDA’s Involvement with Nutrition Standards, and the Role of the School Lunch Program

When and why did the USDA get involved in setting nutrition standards,10 and how does the School Lunch Program figure into it? Historically, the school lunch program has always been tied to the setting of nutrition guidelines, which makes it virtually impossible to talk about one without including the other.

The National School Lunch Program became part of the USDA during the Great Depression as a subsection of the Surplus Disposal Programs, beginning in 1933. The Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, later called the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation, used federal funds assigned to USDA to purchase and distribute surplus food to unemployed families. Schools were added when it became apparent that individual states’ and communities’ efforts lacked in uniformity. 

States had haphazardly run school lunch programs up to this point, but when the Great Depression began and USDA took over in 1933, the agency used this as an opportunity to solve hunger while simultaneously creating a market for farmers’ products—all with the use of federal funds granted to USDA.

Today, the National School Lunch Program operates in over 100,000 private and public schools, as well as residential child care institutions. Congress expanded the program to include snacks in 1998.11 The so-called Smart Snacks in School program12 encourages “healthy choices.” But if you look at this Smart Snacks Infographic,13 you can see that the “smarter, healthier” choices promoted are actually processed foods, includingjunk foods like tortilla chips, and flavored “diet” water…

Food Distribution Programs Are More About ‘Creating Markets’ Than Optimizing Nutrition for the Underprivileged

The USDA asserted its authority to set nutrition policy when it publicly declared that the purpose of the surplus food program was to “dispose of surplus food and simultaneously raise the nutritional level of low-income consumers.”14  The actual law putting USDA in charge of educating people on nutrition was the Smith-Lever Act of 1914,15 which established Cooperative Extensions in each state. These are still active today. One job of the extensions is to educate the public on nutrition under the “guidance” of the USDA.

Besides the School Lunch Program, the USDA has been, or still is, involved with more than a dozen different food distribution programs (see below). Again, such programs are basically designed to create a market for whatever foods farmers are growing a surplus of—NOT necessarily to distribute the healthiest foods to those who need it most…

A variety of Child Nutrition Programs16 Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program17 Nutrition Program for the Elderly (now known as the Nutrition Incentives Program)
School Breakfast Program Special Milk Program Soup Kitchen/Food Banks Program
Summer Food Service Program Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
Child and Adult Care Food Program Commodity Supplemental Food Program for low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women (a predecessor to the WIC program) Emergency Food Assistance Program

A Brief History of USDA’s Flawed Nutritional Guidance

From the very beginning, USDA dietary guidelines have been based on what farmers have to sell, not what your body actually requires to stay healthy. has a flyer summarizing the history of USDA food guides and nutritional guidance,18 which began nearly 100 years ago in 191619 with guidelines for “how to select foods,” with a focus on “protective foods.” This included 20 percent of daily calories from fatty foods, and only 10 percent of daily calories from sugars. The bulk of your diet was fresh fruits and vegetables.

This was perhaps the first and last time the USDA even came close to promoting a relatively nutritionally sound diet. As mentioned earlier, the agency didn’t begin to frame its dietary guidelines around the farm economy until the 1930s Great Depression.

In the 1940s, the USDA came out with daily serving recommendations for seven different food groups, but it lacked specific serving sizes. Still, it wasn’t too flawed, as the focus for its nutritional guidance centered on reaching “nutritional adequacy” by eating a little bit of everything. Then, in 1956, guidelines were altered to reflect only four food groups: milk, meat, fruits/vegetables, and breads/cereals. Fat and sugar were excluded from the guidelines, as was caloric intake suggestions. These guidelines were promoted as the “foundation diet approach,” and the four food groups mentioned were considered “food for fitness.”

In hindsight, this is particularly ironic since sugar and fat are two of the mostimportant factors of a foundational diet for fitness! Sugars (along with breads and cereals) need to be restricted, and any beneficial food guidance need to make that clear, while healthy non-processed fats are a crucial component of a healthy diet.

As I’ve discussed in previous articles, Dr. Ancel Keys published a paper that served as the basis for nearly all of the initial scientific support for the Cholesterol Theory in 1953—three years before the USDA cut fat from its dietary guidelines. Trans fat-containing margarine took the place of healthy butter and lard, and the low-fat era was born. The consequences of this have been dire, as rates of heart disease began rising right along with the shunning of saturated fats…

In 1979, the basic four food groups were expanded with a fifth group, which recommended a moderate intake of fat, sugar, and alcohol. These five food groups then served as the basis for the creation of what became the 1992 Food Pyramid.

Some of you may be old enough to recall the original Food Pyramid, which had grains as the largest bottom block of the pyramid, encouraging you to eat 6-11 servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta each day. This excess of carbohydrates, most of them refined, is precisely the opposite of what most people need to stay healthy. At the very top of the pyramid was fats and sugar, and while sugar clearly belongs there, fats do not. In fact, most people would benefit from getting anywhere from 50 to 85 percent of their total daily calories from healthy fats until their body regains the ability to burn fat as a primary fuel!

The Food Pyramid was replaced by the more nebulous MyPyramid Food Guidance System in 2005, followed by “MyPlate” in 2011. MyPlate slightly downplays grains as the most important dietary ingredient, making vegetables the largest “slice,” but it still has a long way to go before it will offer a meal plan that will truly support your optimal health.

One of its most glaring faults is that MyPlate has again removed virtually all fats from the equation—despite advances in nutritional science confirming previous suspicions that non-processed healthy fats are crucial for good health, while processed carbs and sugars are the main drivers of disease! Again, the real reason why grains are promoted as a major cornerstone of your diet is because that’s what farmers are paid to grow in the US. There’s a lot of it, and it’s inexpensive compared to healthier foods like vegetables and nuts…

Blatant Conflicts of Interest Between USDA and the Food Industry Revealed

According to former USDA director of dietary guidance, Luise Light,20 blatant conflicts of interest between the USDA and the food industry occurred during the 1980s while the original Food Pyramid was being designed. She was hired during this time to develop the new food guide for USDA, and she recounts her disillusionment with this work in her book, What to Eat; The Ten Things You Really Need to Know to Eat Well and Be Healthy. According to Light, the USDA secretary himself changed healthier guidelines to less healthy ones, just to suit the demands of certain segments of the food industry. She writes:

“Where we, the USDA nutritionists, called for a base of 5-9 servings of fresh fruits andvegetables a day, it was replaced with a paltry 2-3 servings… Ourrecommendation of 3-4 daily servings of whole-grain breads and cereals was changed toa whopping 6-11 servings forming the base of the Food Pyramid as a concession to theprocessed wheat and corn industries.

Moreover, my nutritionist group had placed bakedgoods made with white flour… at the peak of the pyramid, recommending that they beeaten sparingly. To our alarm, in the ‘revised’ Food Guide, they were now made part ofthe Pyramid’s base. And, in yet one more assault on dietary logic, changes were made tothe wording of the dietary guidelines from ‘eat less’ to ‘avoid too much,’ giving a nod tothe processed-food industry interests by not limiting highly profitable ‘fun foods’ (junkfoods by any other name) that might affect the bottom line of food companies…

I vehemently protested that the changes, if followed, could lead to an epidemic of obesityand diabetes — and couldn’t be justified on either health or nutritional grounds. To myamazement, I was a lone voice on this issue… Over my objections, the Food Guide Pyramid was finalized,although it only saw the light of day 12 years later, in 1992. Yet it appears my warninghas come to pass.”

The agriculture secretary who did this was John Rusling Block,21 who served as head of the USDA from January 1981 to February 1986. When Block left the USDA, he became president of the National Wholesale Grocers’ Association, which later became Food Distributors International, which is now known as the National Grocers Association.

Block has also served as a senior policy adviser at a Washington lobbying firm, Olsson and Frank PC, which represents special interest groups before the USDA. (Incidentally, Olsson was deputy assistant secretary at USDA from 1971 to 1973.) Today, Block serves on the board of directors at Hormel Foods, along with other positions,22 including being a non-resident senior fellow with the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy.

Not surprisingly, the school lunch program is equally rife with conflicts of interest with the food industry. For example, the School Nutrition Association (SNA)23 is an association of food professionals who describe themselves as “providing high-quality, low-cost meals to students across the country.” So who are these “food professionals” exactly? Would it surprise you to learn that SNA’s members include some of the largest junk food manufacturers? This includes:

  • Coca-Cola
  • Domino’s Pizza
  • General Mills
  • Pizza Hut
  • Sara Lee and others

Trust Government-Issued Nutrition Guidelines at Your Own Risk…

In 2004, Luise Light complained24 that the latest dietary guidelines being considered as a replacement for the Food Pyramid were again being dictated by the food industry. And then she made this whistleblowing statement, citing the USDA’s “long and cozy relationship with the food industry:”

“As I learned from my days as aUSDA nutritionist, nutrition for the government is primarily a marketing tool to fuelgrowth in consumer food expenditures and demand for major food commodities… It’s an economics lesson that has very little to do with our health andnutrition and everything to do with making sure that food expenditures continue to risefor all interests involved in the food industry… It’s evident that the government can’t be relied on to provide objective, health-promoting food and nutrition advice.”

The 2011 MyPlate guideline encourages you to replace saturated fats (meat, lard, cream, butter, whole-milk cheese, and coconut oil) with monounsaturated- and polyunsaturated fats (primarily vegetable oils such as canola, corn, soybean, and safflower). But this time, industry influence didn’t get a free pass. In September 2011, nutrition experts at Harvard School of Public Health announced their dissatisfaction with USDA’s guideline by creating their own Healthy Eating Plate,25 which they said was designed specifically “to address deficiencies” in USDA’s MyPlate.

Harvard professor Walter Willett also made this no-holds-barred statement26 as to why he and his colleagues had created their own food guide: “Unfortunately, like the earlier U.S. Department of Agriculture Pyramids, MyPlate mixes science with the influence of powerful agricultural interests, which is not the recipe for healthy eating.”

What a Food Pyramid Based on Nutritional Science Really Looks Like

While Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate is definitely better than the USDA’s guidelines, I still believe it can be further improved upon. For example, it still recommends harmful canola oil over healthy butter fat, and promotes eating a variety of grains, albeit whole grains rather than refined grains like white bread.

I recommend minimal to no consumption of grains and sugars in my Food Pyramid for Optimal Health (see below), which summarizes the nutritional guidelines espoused in my Nutrition Plan. My pyramid, which is based on nutritional science, is almost the inverse of the original USDA food pyramid, featuring healthy fats and vegetables on the bottom. Again, most people would benefit from getting at least 50 percent of your daily calories from healthy fats such as avocados, coconut oil, nuts, and raw butter until they are able to burn fats as their primary fuel and have no evidence of insulin/leptin resistance.

In terms of bulk or quantity, vegetables would be the most prominent feature on your plate. They provide countless critical nutrients, while being sparse on calories. Next comes high-quality proteins, followed by a moderate amount of fruits, and lastly, at the very top, you’ll find grains and sugars. This last top tier of sugars and grains can be eliminated entirely.

While this may sound impossible to some, I can attest to the fact that quitting carbs is doable. In fact, once your body has successfully switched over from burning carbs to burning fat as its primary fuel, carb cravings actually disappear, as if by magic. There are two primary ways to achieve this metabolic switch, and these strategies support each other when combined:

  • Intermittent fasting: I prefer daily intermittent fasting, but you could also fast a couple of days a week if you prefer, or every other day. There are many different variations. To be effective, in the case of daily intermittent fasting, the length of your fast must be at least 16 hours long. This means eating only between the hours of 11am until 7pm, as an example. Essentially, this equates to simply skipping breakfast, and making lunch your first meal of the day instead and limiting food to a 6-8 hour window
  • A ketogenic diet: This type of diet, in which you replace carbs with low to moderate amounts of high-quality protein and high amounts of beneficial fat, is what I recommend for everyone, and is exactly what you get if you focus on the bottom three tiers of my food pyramid. This eating is very helpful to normalize weight and resolve insulin/leptin resistance. It is not something one eats the rest of their life but only until the insulin/leptin resistance resolves










Rays of Hope

While the overall situation remains bleak, there are a few rays of hope here and there. The main problem is that these positive developments are not widely applied, so the vast majority of people, including school children, are still being harmed rather than helped by our federal food policies. That said, some of the more encouraging developments include the following:

  • In 2011, the New York Times27 publicized the “movement” to make school lunches fresh from scratch once again, instead of basing most or all of the menus on processed, pre-packaged foods. As recently as April, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $25 million in grants to help schools purchase the kitchen equipment necessary for cooking healthier school meals.28 The agency has given out $160 million in kitchen equipment grants since 2009.
  • The Department of Defense has also been working with USDA since the mid-1990s to supply fresh fruit and vegetables to schools along with their deliveries to military installations.29, 30 The partnership gives schools a wider variety of fresh produce than would normally be available through the USDA. Noteworthy is the fact that this program’s rules specify that it does NOT allow processed or preserved fruits and vegetables, dips, processed fruit strips, trail mix, smoothies, carbonated fruit, or fruit with added flavorings injected into it.
  • The USDA also operates a Farm to School Program,31 which promotes the use of locally-grown fruits, vegetables, and milk. In 2011-2012, schools participating in this program served over $350 million-worth of local food. Additionally, last year the USDA awarded 71 grants to schools for local farmers’ produce, and to partner with farms to teach horticulture skills.32

As I said, all of these are steps in the right direction. But we need them to be implemented on a much larger scale! These programs need to be the rule, not the exception.

Help Support Small Farms – Buy Direct

If you don’t like the idea of your tax dollars lining the pockets of wealthy corporations that flood the market with sugary sodas, soybean oil, and corn chips, remember that you can make a difference by voting with your wallet, each and every day of the week. Support small family farms in your area, even if it means buying just one or two items at your local farmers market, instead of the big box store. All those little purchases add up.

If you want optimal health, you need to return to a diet of real, whole foods—fresh organic produce, meats from animals raised sustainably on pasture, and raw organic milk and eggs. Say no to junk food producersby not buying their products. Eating this way will earn you a long, healthy life—whereas the typical American diet may set you on the path toward obesity and chronic disease.

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