Big-government proponents moan that pressure to reduce the federal budget threatens the most vulnerable among us--for example, that children will be deprived of food, shelter or medical care. In order to obviate that, because money is fungible and budget-cutting is suddenly in vogue, you would think that government agencies would be aggressively trimming noncritical, nonlife-threatening expenditures and diverting scarce resources to genuinely pressing needs.
You would be wrong.
Consider the recently funded million-dollar "People's Garden School Pilot Program" (a moniker that sounds borrowed from the Peoples Republic of China) to fund school gardens. With so many public schools short of books and other supplies, to say nothing of security, why the need for gardens? "School gardens hold great promise for educating our kids about food production and nutrition," according to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who at least seems experienced at spreading manure. He continued, "Learning where food comes from and what fresh food tastes like, and the pride of growing and serving your own fruits and vegetables, are life-changing experiences."
How about learning that government needs to live within its means?
We suspect that most reasonable people would consider this program to be the agricultural equivalent of a bridge to nowhere, the kind of wasteful discretionary spending that in the midst of budget battles and an austerity campaign should be on the chopping block.
"Backyard" gardening has lots of benefits, but those of us who have tried it know that it is not a serious and cost-effective way to feed people. Nor is it practical during most of the school year in a large swath of the United States. And like food from other sources, the produce from school gardens is not immune from contributing to obesity. Home-grown potatoes make great french fries! What kids really need to be taught (preferably by their parents) is moderation and how to prepare food in a way that minimizes calories. And more phys ed in school wouldn't hurt, either.
As we said, money is fungible, and Vilsack paid for the program with money authorized under the National School Lunch Act. If those funds aren't necessary for the government to pay for school lunches, that program should be cut; if it is essential, then this school garden pilot snatches needed food out of the mouths of schoolchildren.
Besides, there are good privately funded pilot programs to encourage greater knowledge about food and healthier eating for children. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver changed lunch menus in Britain and in Huntington, W. Va., where he filmed the first season of his Emmy-winning reality TV show Food Revolution. And although he wasn't able actually to change the schools' offerings in Los Angeles (because of resistance from the school district bureaucrats), he did make quite a splash there while illustrating what is possible with a little ingenuity and savvy. In addition, Berkeley, Calif., restaurateur Alice Waters's Edible Garden Foundation has created pilot projects in various parts of the nation to educate kids and offer them experience in growing and preparing food.
Secretary Vilsack's misjudgments are not isolated instances of poor management; rather they symbolize the blight of the USDA's big-government, paternalistic agenda.
Throughout the department, radical, progressive (read: left-wing) ideology has spread like a nasty weed. Historically the USDA's mission has been to promote American agriculture. That may have been the justification, however tenuous, for another ill-considered boondoggle: a grant and loan guarantee program to promote the installation of "ethanol blender," or "flexible fuel," pumps at gas stations.
The Obama administration has set a goal of installing 10,000 flexible fuel pumps nationwide within five years. "Flex-fuel pumps will give Americans a choice to purchase domestically produced, renewable transportation fuels," Vilsack said April 11. But this piles additional government subsidies on an already huge and flawed subsidy program that promotes the production of ethanol almost exclusively from corn, even though it is not a cost-effective source.
Ethanol from lower-cost biomass--for example, from cellulosic sources such as rice straw (a byproduct of harvesting rice) or switchgrass--would make far more economic sense but large volumes of ethanol from such substrates will not be commercially viable for many years. (And production will be delayed by government policies that specifically encourage corn-based ethanol by providing subsidies.) This is a classic example of why the government shouldn't meddle with market forces by trying to pick winners.
Moreover, if there were a demand from consumers for "domestically produced renewable transportation fuels," the owners of gas stations themselves would have a financial incentive to install the ethanol-blender pumps to boost their business.
Cutting funding for Vilsack's superfluous programs won't solve the budget crisis, but it might serve as an example of how to cut waste instead of using appropriated monies as a slush fund for pet projects.
The USDA's missteps can be attributed to a combination of poor judgment, bureaucratic ineptitude and radical ideology. No matter the causes, the department's bumbling undermines the best interests of the nation and its economic recovery.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.