The Salt
10:46 am
Fri December 23, 2011

Senator Finds Government-Funded Food Waste Far Beyond The Compost Bin

As Eater reported this week, some politicians believe this country is awash in food waste. But this isn't the stuff in the garbage — it's the way we pour money into building restaurants, promoting American food products abroad, and encouraging the purchase of local foods.

Every December, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) puts a Wastebook together to highlight 100 examples of the government's most profligate and unnecessary spending initiatives. This year, the spending that Coburn deemed unworthy amounts to $6.9 billion. And there are a surprisingly large number of food-related projects on the list — dozens by our count.

You can take Coburn's word that the government is heavily involved in the food sector. As for whether all these projects are really all that harebrained — well, your view may be colored by your politics.

The list, whether it proves waste or not, is also an interesting window into all the different ways the government partners with restaurant chains and agricultural producers. Big subsidies to the corn and soybean industries — the kind of spending many critics of the food system frequently mention — are conspicuously absent from this list. But the list shows that the government is supporting a lot of smaller producers, too.

Here are some of the projects that appear on Coburn's 2011 list of initiatives that the senator says should not be national priorities.

  • Near the top of the list is mention of a project to support the Pakistani mango industry. Apparently, the U.S. Agency for International Development didn't get very far in its attempt to get Pakistan's mango growers up and running. The USAID Inspector General reported earlier this year that the program had led to no measurable increases in sales or employment.

  • Almost $800,000 of federal taxpayer funds went to subsidize "pancakes for yuppies" in Washington, D.C. — an IHOP branch inside a new shopping mall in the Columbia Heights neighborhood.

  • In other so-called restaurant fiascos, Coburn notes that a private developer received nearly $500,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to build an outlet for Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers, a nationwide pizza chain, in Arlington, Tex.

  • Coburn also isn't sure we need to be pushing American products overseas. He notes that the Washington State Fruit Commission received $100,000 in federal money to promote cherries, apples and pears in Indonesia. Hop growers also got some dough to push beer in China. And American brands like Welch's and Sunkist received support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Market Access Program to pedal food products in foreign markets.

  • Chocolate from Hawaii? We don't need it, says Coburn. Nearly $50,000 was awarded to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture to help support the ―emerging Hawaiian cacao industry and provide outreach during the 2nd annual Hawaiian Chocolate Festival.

  • The Washington State wine industry also got a boost from the feds. Coburn reports that the U.S. Department of Commerce gave $2 million to help build the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center. Ohio wine producers also did well by the government — they got money to promote the industry in the state.

  • Local food may be all the rage in some circles, but Coburn thinks there are some instances where it's not worthy of our tax dollars. Take, for example, a plan to develop and market a food hub in Vermont involving local farms and restaurants. Or a plan to advertise farmers' markets in Oklahoma.

As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has reported, Coburn has also gone after scientists. One year, Coburn blasted the National Science Foundation, a major government funder of research, saying it squandered taxpayer money on projects he called questionable, including one that involved putting shrimp on a tiny treadmill.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.