Key Accomplishments, FY 2013

USDA Priority Goal 1: Assist rural communities to create prosperity so they are self-sustaining, repopulating, and economically thriving

Key Outcome:

Enhanced understanding by policy makers, regulators, program managers, and those shaping public debate of economic issues affecting rural development, rural well-being, farm and household income, and rural communities

Key Accomplishments:

Large shifts in the supply of foreign-born, hired farm labor resulting from substantial changes in U.S. immigration laws or policies could have significant economic implications. ERS tracks key demographic and economic trends for hired farm workers, and the importance of international migration to the size and composition of the U.S. farm labor population. Research continued to update a model of the U.S. economy used to evaluate how changes in the supply of foreign-born labor might affect agricultural output and exports, wages, employment, and national income, and to improve the model’s relevance to current immigration policy proposals. Findings from the model and analysis were used in briefings to support decision making on immigration policy and were incorporated into a Federal Government report on the benefits of international migration for agriculture and rural communities.

Since the start of 2001 net job growth in non-metro America has been near zero. This stagnation in job growth overlaps with the first recorded period of non-metro population loss, between 2010 and 2012. The ERS report Rural America at a Glance, 2013 Edition is one in an annual series highlighting the most recent indicators of social and economic conditions in rural areas. This year's edition reports on the lower rates of growth in rural unemployment compared with urban employment despite similar declines in unemployment; the rise in wage inequality both within the rural workforce and between urban and rural workers; a 30-percent increase in the number of rural counties with poverty rates exceeding 20 percent; and negative rural population growth since 2010. Several major newspaper and online media outlets have reported on the key findings.

Rural veterans enhance the vitality of the rural economy. Nearly four million veterans reside in rural America, over 10 percent of the adult population, according to a recent ERS report, Rural Veterans at a Glance. The rural veteran population is older on average than the rural adult population as a whole, and the share of women and racial/ethnic minorities among the veteran population is increasing. Although some rural veterans face employment obstacles due to health issues, they tend to have more education and higher incomes than their nonveteran peers, and are more likely to work in higher-skill industries such as professional and business services, transportation and utilities, and manufacturing. ERS analysis and data support the Department’s outreach efforts to rural veterans and new farmers and ranchers.

The share of U.S. farms operated by women nearly tripled over the past three decades, from five percent in 1978 to fourteen percent by 2007. An ERS report published in May, 2013 finds that while most farms operated by women are very small, the number of women-operated farms increased in all sales classes. There were 15,400 women-operated farms with sales of at least $100,000, and 4,300 with sales of $500,000 or more. Nearly half of the sales from women-operated farms come from two commodity classes: specialty crops (fruits, vegetable, melons, nuts) and poultry and eggs. Aside from specialty crops, most sales were concentrated in livestock sectors. Women are the primary operator on one in seven U.S. farms. About one million women are primary or secondary farm operators, or 30 percent of all farm operators. ERS provided briefings on findings to support decisionmaking, and findings were cited in multiple newspaper, radio, and blog stories.

Between 1982 and 2007, production and cropland shifted to larger farms. An ERS report found that the shift was ubiquitous across states and commodities, persistent over time, and large, centering around a doubling of farm size over the entire period. Larger crop farms continue to realize better financial performance primarily by utilizing labor and capital more intensively. The long-term shifts in farm size have been accompanied by greater specialization, and a greater use of contracting. Technology has also played a major role in driving increases in farm size by allowing a single farmer to operate and manage more acres. Nonetheless family farms continue to dominate crop agriculture. In 2011, 96 percent of U.S. crop farms were family farms, and they accounted for 87 percent of the value of crop production. These findings have been reported in the media, and will feature in forthcoming articles. The measures developed in the study are being applied to farm data for Canada, Brazil, Japan, and the European Union for a broad comparative study of farm structure being carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Beginning farmers and ranchers have declined as a share of all farmers over the last two decades. An ERS report published in March 2013, Beginning Farmers and Ranchers at a Glance, finds that beginning farmers and ranchers have declined as a share of all farmers and that their average age has risen to 49 compared with an average of 60 for established farmers. They tend to operate smaller farms and are more likely to work off the farm than established operators. Beginning farmers often report that their biggest challenge in getting started in farming is to access enough capital and farmland to operate at a profitable size. The economic brief informed a suite of activities in this research area, including a workshop, “Transitions in Agriculture: Implications for Research, Data Development, and Analysis,” that focused attention on issues related to the transfer of the farm to next generation of farmers. Findings from the report and workshop were used in several interagency briefings and directly supported a Departmental initiative to expand opportunities to help beginning farmers and ranchers succeed in agriculture.

The number of hog farms is falling, and farms are increasingly specialized. The number of hog farms fell by more than 70 percent from 1992 to 2009, while the total hog inventory remained stable. The average hog farm grew from 945 head of hogs sold or removed under contract in 1992 to 8,389 head in 2009. The industry’s organization also evolved toward farms that specialized in a single stage of hog production, usually under contract with integrators. An ERS report assessed the structural change and analyzed the impacts on productivity, prices, and environmental performance. Substantial productivity gains for hog farms since 1992 were attributable to increases in the scale of production and technological innovation. The increased size of operations accounted for almost half of the total increase in hog farm productivity since 1992. Productivity gains in hog production have benefited U.S. consumers in terms of lower pork prices, and enhanced the competitive position of U.S. producers in international markets. However, the era of dramatic productivity growth in hog production from 1992 to 2009 will likely remain unmatched, absent significant technological innovation. The gains from exploiting scale economies are nearly exhausted, and the measurable technological and organizational innovations contributing to productivity growth are now widely diffused. This research was widely cited in the farm industry press and social media.

New models assessed the impacts of high temperatures and drought on corn and soybean production in 2012, and increase understanding of the impacts of new technologies and production practices on long-term yield projections. New ERS models provide a significant analytical enhancement to a simple trend yield approach frequently used for yield forecasting. Because of the timeliness of this analysis following the 2012 drought and its importance in the Department’s short-term and baseline projections, it was presented at the February, 2012 USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum in February. The findings have also been widely reported in the industry press.

The failure of many corn, soybean, and wheat futures contracts to converge to delivery market cash prices over the 2005 – 2010 period of time was attributable to inconsistent storage rates for the physical commodity rather than “excessive speculation.” The sustained period of non-convergence, as well as its magnitude, was unprecedented in domestic commodity markets and appeared to simultaneously imply different prices for the same grain, creating market uncertainty. This was a cause of concern for many market participants, policymakers, and economists, who worried that convergence failures signaled a weakening of the traditional price discovery and risk management roles of futures markets. The report’s findings helped to inform the debate about the need for changes under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to promote transparency in commodity markets.

Slaughter and processing options affect markets for locally sourced meat. An ERS report published in June, 2013 evaluated the availability of slaughter and processing facilities for local meat production and the extent to which these may constrain or support growth in demand for locally sourced meats. A majority of livestock in the United States are processed at a relatively small number of large-volume plants. However, these plants, even if conveniently located, are essentially unavailable to local meat proces­sors due to mismatches in scale, services, and business models. The report provided decision makers with information on the challenges and obstacles to meat producers seeking entry to or expansion in local markets.

USDA Agricultural Projections to 2022 suggest long run increases in consumption, trade, and prices. Each year ERS coordinates the Department’s Baseline projections for U.S. and world agriculture for the coming decade. The 2012 report found that following reductions from projected record levels in 2013, farm cash receipts and the value of U.S. agricultural exports are predicted to grow beyond 2015. The analysis also predicts that U.S. retail food price increases will average less than the overall rate of inflation in 2014-2022, largely reflecting higher livestock production that limits consumer meat price increases. The estimates in this report are incorporated into USDA’s submission for the President’s 2013 Budget, and support the Farm Service Agency’s estimation of budget costs for farm program commodities. Beyond its importance for USDA’s policymakers, the annual Baseline projections report and database is an essential reference for public and private decision makers, and receives over 100,000 page views annually on the ERS website.

Wide variation in wheat production costs across the country reflects differences in yields, cropping practices, and costs of land, labor, and capital assets. Wheat is the third largest U.S. crop in terms of both value and acreage, but unlike most other crops it has distinct varieties that are produced in different regions or over different seasons. The result is wide variation in the costs of wheat production across growing areas, inherent in the diversity of inputs and production practices. ERS analysis of a 2009 survey of costs and returns indicates that the North Central and Northern Plains regions had the lowest and highest per bushel costs, respectively. The two cost items that accounted for much of the regional differences in total production costs were machinery and fertilizer. These costs can affect the competitiveness of wheat with other crops in each region and the profitability of planting wheat relative to alternatives such as corn and soybeans. The U.S. is still a major wheat-producing country, with output exceeded only by China, the European Union and India. ERS analysis indicates that planted acreage in the U.S. has declined as a share of total acreage since the 1980s, particularly in the Central Plains.

U.S. beef markets are undergoing rapid change as alternative production systems evolve in response to consumer demands and compete with conventional grain-fed beef production. ERS research finds that beef products from alternative production systems likely account for more than three percent of the market, with estimated annual growth rates at 20 percent. Continued growth at current rates could double market shares for these products every five years, although it is unlikely that such growth will continue beyond a certain threshold. As supplies of beef from alternative production systems increase to meet and exceed demand for organic, grass-fed, natural, or local beef, current premiums will likely decline. As a result of declining relative prices and unless costs decline as well, profit margins for alternative beef products will likely narrow. The sustainability of each of these alternative beef production systems, including economic sustainability, will be determined as consumers assess and establish the value of various product attributes. Representatives from both industry and mainstream media contacted the authors for background information and the report’s findings on trends in alternative beef production systems.

Farmers are adapting to rising energy prices. An ERS report published in May 2013, Agriculture’s Supply and Demand for Energy and Energy Products, examined both sector and farm-level responses to changing market and policy drivers such as the increased production of biofuel crops and other sources of renewable energy, together with changes in production practices to economize on energy-based inputs like fertilizer. The report finds that farmers have adapted to rising energy prices and evolving policies by adjusting their use of energy-based agricultural inputs, altering energy-intensive production practices, and growing more energy-feedstock crops. This report was cited in agriculture-related blogs and websites.


USDA Priority Goal 2: Ensure our national forests and private working lands are conserved, restored, and made more resilient to climate change, while enhancing our water resources.

Key Outcome:

Enhanced understanding by policy makers, regulators, program managers, and those shaping public debate of economic issues related to developing Federal farm, natural resource, and rural policies and programs that respond to the challenges of climate change and the need to protect and maintain the environment while improving agricultural competitiveness and economic growth.

Key Accomplishments:

ERS’ climate change research examines the economic, environmental, and land use implications of farmer and market responses to climate change. In 2013, ERS was a lead contributor to a USDA report on “Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation” as well as the Third National Climate Assessment Report. One of the key findings often overlooked in the literature is that climate change will likely exacerbate current biotic stresses on agricultural plants and animals. Resulting changes in weed, disease, and insect pressures, together with changes in pollinator lifecycles, will affect plant growth and yield independent from climate change’s impacts through average temperature and rainfall. ERS’ global climate change model development has benefited from collaboration in the international Agricultural Model Inter-comparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP) over the years, culminating this year in a series of five forthcoming peer reviewed journal articles coauthored by ERS researchers that highlight the resource implications of climate change given changes in other drivers of agricultural supply and demand over the next 40 years. One of the findings of this collaborative effort is that world consumption of major field crops declines slightly across a range of climate-induced productivity shocks and types of economic models. Continuing refinement of climate change models was the goal of a joint 2013 workshop ERS sponsored with AgMIP focusing on integrating water scarcity into future agricultural assessments. In a similar vein, ERS held a workshop on “Economics of Markets for Agricultural Greenhouse Gases” to help develop a collaborative research community to create information systems, analyses, and integrated modeling systems designed to help inform key climate policy decisions.

A significant reason farmers participate in USDA conservation programs is to help mitigate risks from drought. Programs like the Conservation Reserve Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Payments play an important role in drought preparedness and climate adaptation even if they do not directly target such activities. If climate change increases drought risk, this may lead to increased demand from farmers to participate in these programs. In a related activity, ERS co-sponsored, with the Office of the Chief Economist, a roundtable discussion of approximately 60 experts and stakeholders to share experiences and lessons learned from the 2012 drought. The roundtable was a premier Department-wide deliverable for the Secretary for addressing the climate change priority area.

Conservation payments improve environmental quality only if they support actions that would not have been adopted without the payment. Additionality is achieved when a conservation payment causes a change in conservation practice adoption, agricultural input use, or land use, and therefore improves environmental quality. ERS research shows that roughly 80 percent of farmers who received cost-sharing for a structural conservation practice (riparian buffers and grassed waterways, for example) would not have adopted the practice without the payment. These practices are often expensive to install and on-farm benefits are limited or occur only in the distant future. The research also shows that almost 50 percent of producers who received an incentive payment for conservation tillage would be using conservation tillage even without the payment. Conservation tillage is often adopted without payments because it can reduce costs and may increase profit. Preliminary results are detailed in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. ERS researchers have also briefed the Natural Resource Conservation Service.


USDA Priority Goal 3: Help America promote agricultural production and biotechnology exports as America works to increase food security.

Key Outcome:

Enhanced understanding by policy makers, regulators, program managers, and organizations shaping public debate of economic issues related to adoption of economically and environmentally sustainable technologies and factors affecting trade of U.S. agricultural products (including biotech products), and strategies to increase markets for U.S. products, including biotech crop exports.

Key Accomplishments:

Globally, investment in agricultural research, development and innovation is shifting to developing countries and the private sector. ERS co-authored a report ASTI global assessment of agricultural R&D spending (published by the International Food Policy Research Institute,, which found that for the first time China surpassed the United States to become the global leader in spending on agricultural research and development. The report also showed that private companies increased their share of total spending on food and agricultural research and innovation. ERS also produced an edited volume, Productivity Growth in Agriculture: An International Perspective, which found that the global rate of agricultural productivity growth has been accelerating, led by improved performance in developing countries and transition economies, but may be slowing in some industrialized countries. These findings have important implications for future competitiveness of U.S. agriculture. ERS research findings were published in Science and have been widely cited in the media.

U.S. consumer demand for organically produced goods has grown continuously since USDA established national standards for organic production and processing in 2002. An ERS article published in October, 2013, Growth Patterns in the U.S. Organic Industry, showed that while Americans economized on their food purchases during the 2007-09 recession, including purchases of organic products, growth in demand for organic products rebounded quickly following the recession. Industry analysts estimate that U.S. organic food sales were $28 billion in 2012 (over four percent of total at-home food sales), up 11 percent from 2011. The article also discusses how USDA has begun organic regulation of nonfood agricultural products—for example, laundry detergent with organic coconut oil, Aloe Vera, and other ingredients—which accounted for another $2.2 billion in organic sales in 2011, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Growth in organic cropland and pasture and rangeland continues. According to ERS estimates published on October 24 2013, the U.S. had 3.1 million acres of certified organic cropland in 2011 and 2.3 million acres of certified organic pasture and rangeland, continuing the long-term growth trend in this sector. Certified cropland and pasture dipped between 2008 and 2010 as sluggish growth in consumer demand during the recession dampened the short-term outlook for organic producers. However, the growth in certified acreage of both cropland and pastureland has more than recovered those losses and has reestablished its upward trajectory.

China’s agricultural subsidies and price supports may actually improve prospects for U.S. agricultural exports by raising the costs and prices of Chinese commodities above international levels. ERS research has identified China as the most prominent example of a developing country that has transitioned from taxing to supporting agriculture, and examined how World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments shaped its agricultural policies over the last decade. The emergence of agricultural support in developing countries like China poses a challenge to efforts to reduce global distortions in agriculture. ERS research clarifies the linkages between China’s national-level strategy and farm-level subsidies and price supports, and explains how these policies have actually increased some U.S. commodity exports to China. The findings were reported in a number of high level briefings to senior policy officials to support decisionmaking.

Food insecurity continues to plague the poorest countries in the world. The USDA publishes the International Food Security Assessment to inform U.S. policymakers as well as international donor organizations of the food security situation in 76 low-and middle-income countries. The report provides projections of food availability and access—including food gaps and the number of food-insecure people. Findings indicate that the greatest improvement in food security over the next decade will be in Latin America and the Caribbean. Sub-Saharan Africa will continue to be the most food-insecure region. The findings are used to make decisions on funding for U.S. assistance programs by USDA and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Brazil’s costs of producing sugar and currency exchange rates are important determinants of global sugar prices, which are projected to exceed historically high levels over the next decade. Brazil is the world’s largest sugar producer and exporter, and its share of global production and trade has increased substantially in recent years. ERS analysis shows that Brazil’s sugar production costs determine the long-run price of raw sugar in the world raw sugar market, although there are short- to medium-term deviations from this long-term relationship caused by other factors. Brazil’s increasing costs of producing sugar in recent years, attributable to both its growing ethanol use and appreciation of its currency, is driving projections of historically high prices for the commodity in global markets over the next decade. Sustained higher global prices could weaken the case for current policies that support US producers. Alternatively, volatility in exchange rates leading to increased volatility in international sugar prices could strengthen the case for policies that provide a safety net, even if season average prices are forecast to reach historic highs. The results of this analysis were presented in a briefing to senior policy officials.

U.S. broiler meat exports are projected to increase about 12 percent over the next decade, due in part to rising demand in price-sensitive developing countries. ERS has analyzed recent major developments in international poultry trade, including a rapid increase in poultry exports from Brazil and a sharp decrease in imports by Russia. The United States and Brazil, both with a combination of adequate land to produce feed, large internal markets, and strong processing sectors, are expected to remain the major broiler producers and exporters. Nonetheless, low production costs and competitive export prices are reasons why Brazil is expected to continue to be the largest exporter of poultry products and account for most projected growth in global import demand over the next decade. The findings of this report have been reported in industry media outlets.

Afghanistan has emerged as one of the world’s largest importers of flour, spurred by strong economic growth and a rapidly expanding population that depends on flour for over half of its caloric intake. ERS research finds that Afghanistan’s flour milling industry has been slow to rebuild, in part because of competition from imported flour. Afghanistan’s official trade policies, to the extent that they are enforceable along their rugged borders, place flour producers at a disadvantage—the tariff on imported wheat tends to raise operating costs for millers. ERS findings indicate that despite poor infrastructure and war-torn conditions, Afghanistan’s wheat and flour markets function reasonably well, are well-integrated across domestic regions, and that private traders have a track record of successfully procuring imported wheat and flour from regional suppliers. ERS’ research on Afghanistan’s wheat and flour markets under insecure conditions has been of interest to NATO policy advisers given the planned transfer of security responsibilities from coalition forces to domestic authorities.


USDA Priority Goal 4: Ensure that all of America's children have access to safe, nutritious, and balanced meals.

Key Outcome:

Enhanced understanding by policy makers, regulators, program managers, and those shaping public debate of economic issues related to improving the efficiency, efficacy, and equity of public policies and programs relating to the food prices and availability at home and abroad, consumer food choices, nutrition and health outcomes, nutrition assistance programs, and protecting consumers from unsafe food.

Key Accomplishments:

An estimated 85.5 percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2012, meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The remaining households (14.5 percent) were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.7 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year—because the household lacked money and other resources for food. Additional research focused specifically on children shows that an estimated 79 percent of households with children were food secure throughout the year in 2011, meaning that all the household members had consistent access to adequate food for active, healthy lives. ERS provided briefings on these research reports and officials and summary findings to support decision making on USDA food assistance and nutrition programs.

Updated estimates of distance to supermarkets using 2010 data provide additional measures of food access. Efforts to encourage Americans to improve their diets and to eat more nutritious foods presume that a wide variety of these foods are accessible to everyone. However, for some Americans and in some communities, access to healthy foods may be limited. Using Census Bureau population data from the 2010 Decennial Census, income and vehicle availability data from the 2006-2010 American Community Survey, and a 2010 directory of supermarkets, ERS research found that that 9.7 percent of the U.S. population, or 29.7 million people, live in low-income areas more than one mile from a supermarket. However, only 1.8 percent of all households lives more than one mile from a supermarket and do not have a vehicle. ERS’ Food Access Research Atlas, an online mapping tool based on this updated data, provides users with the ability to map various measures of food access by census tract across the U.S. Multiple briefings to senior policy officials were conducted for this report, and related mapping tool and multiple major media stories made this research one of the most widely cited findings from ERS in the past year. Over a million maps showing the locations of areas with low access measures were generated within a week of the Atlas’ release on the ERS website.

Households including members with disabilities are at higher risk for food insecurity. Recent ERS research analyzed the prevalence of food insecurity by a range of types of disabilities. The report focused on two groups of households that include adults with disabilities: 1) households with a working-age adult with a disability that prevented work (not in labor force-disabled); and 2) those with a working-age adult with a specified disability (hearing, vision, mental, physical, self-care, or going-outside-home disability) and no indication that their disability prevented them from working. Food insecurity was most prevalent among households with an adult who was not in labor force-disabled (33.5 percent), followed by those with a working-age adult with other reported disabilities (24.8 percent). Households with no working-age adult with a disability had a much lower prevalence of food insecurity (12.0 percent). Close to two in five households with very low food security included an adult with a disability. The study findings demonstrate the importance of disabilities as a determinant of food insecurity.

Americans increased their away-from-home share of caloric intake from 17.7 percent in 1977-1978 to 31.6 percent in 2005-2008, mainly from table-service and fast-food restaurants. Food prepared away from home (FAFH)—whether from table-service restaurants, fast-food establishments and other locations, or from a take-out or delivery meal eaten at home—is now a routine part of the diets of most Americans. Previous ERS research found that FAFH tends to be lower in nutritional quality than food prepared at home (FAH), increases caloric intake, and reduces diet quality among adults and children. A recent study updated previous research by examining dietary guidance and the nutritional quality of FAH versus FAFH in 2005-2008, compared with 1977-1978. Data from 2005-2008 indicated that food consumed away from home was higher in saturated fat and sodium, and was more cholesterol dense than food consumed at home.

Analysis of milk consumption behavior provides insight into recent trends. Decreases in the intake of fluid milk since the 1970s mainly reflect changes in how often U.S. consumers drink milk, not the portion sizes consumed when they drink milk. Generational differences in intake frequency have contributed to the per capita decline in intake. Related research focusing specifically on income and price changes found that small changes in prices and income modestly affect a household’s choice among milk products. However, households mitigate the impact of more substantial price and income shocks by switching from more expensive to less expensive products.

New food labeling regulations and new diet and nutrition information can affect food companies’ use of health- and nutrition-related claims. An ERS report published in February, 2013 examined health and nutrition related claims on new U.S. food and beverage products from 1989 to 2010. The report also analyzed 2009-2010 sales and average nutrient content data for new food and beverage products carrying at least one of the ten most common health and nutrition related claims. The percentage of food products making health and nutrition related claims fell between 1989 and 2001, but then rose from 2001 to 2010. A proliferation of new products with claims appealing to weight-conscious consumers between 2001 and 2010 reflects growing awareness of obesity-related problems and educational campaigns targeting obesity. Claims related to gluten, antioxidants, and omega-3 ranked among the leading health and nutrition related claims by 2010. Growing consumer demand for food products that contribute to overall health beyond basic nutrition may have provided manufacturers with incentives to supply and promote these products. The largest increase in health and nutrition related claims over 2001 to 2010 were for “no gluten,” followed by “no trans fats.” Overall, voluntary health and nutrition related claims by food companies were present on 43.1 percent of new products introduced in 2010 and sales of those products carrying health and nutrition related claims exceeded that of all other new food products introduced during the year. Results of this research were presented in briefings to senior policy officials. 

ERS food availability data updated. The ERS food availability (per capita) data system includes three distinct, but related data series. The data serve as popular proxies for actual consumption. The food availability data are now available through 2011 at the national level and most commodities have annual data extending back to 1909. This data series provides estimates, for example, of the pounds of beef available for domestic consumption per capita per year. Also included in the data system are data on nutrient availability in the food supply and data on loss-adjusted food availability. This data series provides estimates, for example, of the calories of beef available for domestic consumption per capita per day. This system provides important statistical indicators that track food and nutrient availability, and the data system makes information available for policymaking and regulatory decisions such as for farm assistance programs, nutrition education, public health programs, and regulation of vitamin and mineral fortification and food labeling.

Nutrition standards for competitive foods in schools may affect foodservice revenues. USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) supply most of the foods and beverages obtained by children in American schools. Many schools also sell other foods and beverages, often called “competitive foods,” because they compete with USDA meals for children’s food selections. In response to concern about the nutritional quality of these foods, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required USDA to set nutritional requirements for competitive foods served by schools that also offer USDA school meals. This report examines U.S. students' competitive food selections, their contribution to school foodservice revenues, and how that contribution might change under more strict nutrition standards. Using data from two national surveys of schools and School Food Authorities to examine competitive food selections and school foodservice revenues, findings indicate that most of the competitive foods selected by students in 2005 were of low nutritional value. The amount of revenue school foodservices obtained from competitive foods varied widely. The majority obtained less than 12 percent of revenues from competitive foods. Some school foodservices were more reliant on competitive foods, with 10 percent of foodservices obtaining 36 percent or more of their revenues from these foods. School foodservices with high competitive food revenues typically were located in more affluent districts and served fewer students receiving free and reduced-price lunches than did schools with low competitive food revenues. Secondary (middle and high) schools received much more revenue from competitive foods than did elementary schools. These results were used by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to be better informed about potential impacts of competitive food rules.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participation leads to modest changes in diet quality. Previous research has shown that SNAP effectively reduces food insecurity, but questions remain about the extent to which it affects the quality of adult participants’ diets. This report compares the Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scores for adults in low-income households that do and do not participate in SNAP, and finds SNAP participation results in a large increase in the likelihood of consuming whole fruit, and a slightly lower consumption of dark green/orange vegetables. The report also finds that SNAP participants have slightly lower HEI scores (both total and components) than nonparticipants, meaning that they have slightly lower diet quality. They do, however, consume less saturated fat and sodium than low-income nonparticipants.

Participation in SNAP and Unemployment Insurance examined. Recent ERS research estimates households' participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Unemployment Insurance (UI) programs and provides nationally representative annual estimates for 2004-2009 of households’ multi-program or “joint” participation patterns in both SNAP and UI, including breakouts of household types categorized by household income relative to poverty, race/ethnicity, and education level. SNAP and UI are two strands of the Nation’s recessionary safety net—the subset of safety-net programs for which participation is responsive to the business cycle. The study found that an estimated 14.4 percent of SNAP households also received UI at some time in 2009 (a recessionary year), an increase of 6.6 percentage points from 2005 (a full-employment year). Conversely, an estimated 13.4 percent of UI households also received SNAP in 2009, an increase of 2.3 percentage points from 2005. SNAP households with lower annual income relative to the poverty line or with household heads who did not complete high school were relatively less likely to also receive UI, indicating that these populations were more likely to rely on SNAP benefits alone (without UI).

Detailed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participation estimates at the county level in Texas provide estimation blueprint for other states. ERS research linked SNAP administrative records from Texas to the American Community Survey (ACS). The large sample size of the ACS enables the estimation of SNAP participation rates for demographic subgroups and counties within the State and for demographic subgroups within the largest counties in Texas, helping SNAP administrators to better target outreach. The methods developed for the Texas estimates have begun to be adopted by other states and could lead to more accurate and detailed nationwide estimates of SNAP participation.

Three recent studies examined by ERS provide cost-of-foodborne-illness estimates ranging from $14.1 billion to $152 billion. An ERS report published in November, 2013 compared recent cost-of-foodborne-illness estimates and examined the reasons for differences in these estimates. The report showed that differences in these estimates were largely due to the number of diseases considered, the valuation methods used, and uncertainty about disease incidence estimates. ERS briefings to the Food Safety and Inspection Service on this research provided key guidance on food safety cost estimates.