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School could be out for awhile

We got the news on Thursday that HISD schools were going to be closed until March 31 due to coronavirus. (This week is spring break, so the kids got an extra day off before the start of break, then a week and a day after it.) But there’s a very real possibility that schools will remain closed well after that.

Houston schools could remain closed well beyond the end of March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, requiring unprecedented efforts to deliver meals and educational materials to hundreds of thousands of children, several local superintendents said Friday.

One day after nearly all Houston-area districts canceled classes through at least next week, local education leaders said their staffs were crafting contingency plans under the assumption that schools will remain closed long-term. Public health experts have said the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is expected to last months with the potential to infect millions of Americans.

“We’re planning as if we’re going to have to do school remotely for the remainder of this (school) year,” said Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre, whose district serves about 78,400 children.

For now, no area school districts have canceled classes past March 30, the date when Houston and Fort Bend ISDs are scheduled to return to school. Many district leaders said they plan to reassess their calendars next week, when updates about the virus are available.

However, several education officials said they expect the continued spread of COVID-19 and growing public awareness about its potentially devastating effects likely will prompt extended cancellations.

“If we’d had this discussion two days ago, I think we’d have said (school closures) would last a couple weeks, maybe to the first week of April,” said Curtis Culwell, executive director of Texas School Alliance. “I think the reality that’s beginning to sink in is, this could be longer than that.”


The Texas Department of Agriculture received a federal waiver Friday allowing districts to serve school meals off-site and to small groups, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement.

On the academic front, districts are grappling with multiple challenges in providing high-quality instruction, including lack of access to technology among lower-income and rural students, inexperience with remote learning tools, concerns about attentiveness among elementary-age children and the delivery of special education services.

The Texas Education Agency told district leaders Thursday evening that they must commit to “supporting students instructionally while at home” to avoid extending the school year.

Here’s the HISD announcement, in case you missed it. I have to say, I have no idea what to expect at this point. I don’t see any way that the overall coronavirus situation is better or noticeably under control by March 31, so I do believe schools will be closed longer than that. How much longer, and what the schools do about it, that’s the big question. This could wind up being a mostly lost year from an educational perspective, which is another scary thing to contemplate. And with all this disruption, does it make sense to proceed with STAAR testing as if nothing else were happening? State Rep. Jon Rosenthal thinks we should cancel the STAAR for this year, and I’m hard pressed to see the argument against that. How can that test mean anything in this context? Again, I have no idea what to expect. It’s going to be a super bumpy ride, and we’ll have to do it in our own spaces. Hang in there.

Where have all the Christmas tree farmers gone?

They’re not growing them like they used to.

Across the U.S., Christmas tree farmers are getting out of the business. Illinois lost dozens of farmers in recent years, dropping from 212 growers in 2012 to 182 farmers in 2017, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census data.

James Farmer, an Indiana University professor who led a study that looked at farmers in the Hoosier state, said younger farmers aren’t taking the place of those who are retiring. Most growers in Indiana have plans to stop growing or planting trees in the next five years, Farmer said.

“The average farmer was 64 years old. A lot of folks get into Christmas tree farming and start planting trees when they are older. Most of them have smaller operations. But by the time they hit their mid-70s, they get out,” Farmer said.

The physical demands of tree farming can discourage growers from continuing the business, as can the amount of time it takes to turn a profit. About 30 percent of Indiana farmers reported revenues of $10,000 or less in 2017, the study found. And selling Christmas trees is a part-time endeavor for most growers.


Christmas tree farmers have also been hit by another competitor. Artificial trees sales have been steadily increasing, with 24 million purchased last year compared to about 21 million purchased in 2017, according to data by the National Christmas Tree Association.

“In the last few years, they have taken over a large percentage of the market. It’s hurt us more than we realized,” said Doug Hundley, a seasonal spokesman for the association.

Last year, the average price of a live Christmas tree was $78, and the average cost of an artificial one was $104, according to the 2018 consumer report by the association.

Older consumers who no longer have children living in the household tend to shift to artificial trees or don’t put one up, Hundley said. But there is demand from younger families who drive to farms to pick and cut their own tree. According to the association, 28 percent of the live Christmas trees purchased in 2018 were bought at farms.

“We think sales increase is coming from millennials,” Hundley said.

Hey, something millennials aren’t being blamed for – nice. This was a wire story from the Chicago Tribune, so I went looking to see if Texas Christmas tree farmers are making the same complaints. Far as I can tell, they’re doing fine, though there have been some tree supply shortages, which can be blamed on retirements, the 2008 recession, and hemp. Make a note to get your tree earlier next year, to mitigate against these risks.

Carrizo cane and French wasps

I love stories like this.

They’ve burned it, bulldozed it, hacked it and poisoned it. Now they want to try wasps – imported from France, no less.

The target is carrizo cane, a bamboo-like reed that’s a fearsome enemy of officers patrolling the Texas-Mexico border. Dense stands have camouflaged stash houses, half-ton steers and a caged Bengal tiger someone tried to sneak into the country.

“I’ve heard agents talk about it like it was Sherwood Forest,” said Francis Reilly, an environmental consultant and adviser to the U.S. Border Patrol. “They’d hear screams or gunfire in the cane thickets, and not be able to find anybody when they went in.”

The federal government has spent millions trying to prune the stuff. Now Texas is coming to the rescue – or is at least trying to – with Governor Greg Abbott signing a law in May to create a $10 million carrizo-purge program at the State Soil and Water Conservation Board. It turns out there’s nothing in the budget to cover it, though officials are hunting for the funds. They would finance the efforts of John Goolsby, a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist who wants to unleash armies of French carrizo-eating wasps along the Rio Grande.

Texas, in other words, aims to fight an invasive foreign species by bringing in another foreign species.

What could possibly go wrong?


The war on the cane has been raging for years along the border. Back in 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security intended to annihilate carrizo with imazapyr, but the plan to spray the herbicide from helicopters didn’t sit well with locals in Laredo, who sued. Protesters, including priests and first- graders, descended on City Hall. The spraying scheme died.

Since then, the feds have thrown the kitchen sink at the stalks. They engaged bulldozers to tear up roots, but that hurt the ecosystem. They set fields on fire, but that made the reed grow back with a vengeance. They sent in crews armed with machetes and tricked-out weed-whackers, but that was just ridiculously time-consuming.

Goolsby had meanwhile tracked down the tiny Arundo wasp – a bit bigger than a pinhead – in Montepellier in France.

As it happens, Arundo won’t lay eggs in anything but carrizo. Once the larvae hatch, they act as petite saws, slicing through a plant’s fibers, ultimately stunting its growth.

Goolsby has been testing this since 2009, and swears the Arundo wasp won’t eat anything but the cane. I guess we’ll find out. According to Wikipedia, Carrizo cane, aka Arundo donax was introduced into California around 1820, and has multiple uses, including for the reeds of musical instruments such as the saxophone. I always knew reeds were made of cane, but had never thought about it any further. Carrizo also sucks up a lot of water, so beating it back from the Rio Grande also serves a drought-fighting purpose. Who knew? Finally, I will note that the state of Texas had something like $18 billion in unallocated cash lying around at the end of the legislative session. If we wanted to find a measly $10 million to do this project, we could have done. That’s just how we roll around here.

A poison plan for feral hogs?

It could work, though probably not any time soon.

A preservative used to cure bacon is being tested as poison for the nation’s estimated 5 million feral hogs.


The USDA program that began in April includes $1.5 million for the research center headquartered in Fort Collins, Colorado. Its scientists have made sodium nitrite studies a top priority.

Sodium nitrite, used as a salt to preserve meat, can keep red blood cells from grabbing oxygen in live animals. Unlike people and tested domestic animals, pigs make very low levels of an enzyme that counteracts the chemical. Swine that eat enough sodium nitrite at once show symptoms akin to carbon dioxide poisoning: They become uncoordinated, lose consciousness and die.

But baits so far haven’t hit the 90 percent kill rate on penned pigs (feral or domestic, they’re all the same species) needed for EPA consideration. Once it does, approval could take up to five years, Cunningham said.

One problem is creating baits in which pigs will eat a lethal dose. Sodium nitrite tastes nasty and breaks down quickly in the presence of air or water, making it easier for pigs to smell and avoid, said Fred Vercauteren, project leader in Fort Collins.

Microencapsulating the powder masks its smell and keeps it stable longer.

“We’ll work on that throughout the summer,” Vercauteren said.

There are other issues, including keeping the bait away from other animals. The story refers to a solar-powered “Hog Annihilation Machine” that is supposed to open only when it hears hog noises, while delivering a shock to other animals. Is science great or what? We’ll see how this goes.

Feral hogs cross the border

You can’t stop them, and hoping to contain them is not looking so likely, too.

If nothing else, the voracious wild hogs that years ago destroyed the lucrative melon and cantaloupe harvests in this isolated border city — and are now ruining the alfalfa, corn and oat crops — have discriminating tastes.

“They like vanilla. It really attracts them,” Leonel Duran, an animal control agent for the state of Chihuahua, said as he stirred two bottles of Vera Cruz vanilla extract into a blue barrel of fermented corn.

When the concoction was ready, the crew hauled it to a large octagonal trap in a fallow field near the dry, narrow channel of the Rio Grande. The mix was quickly spread inside, followed by dry corn and stale rolls.

With the sun going down, the wily, nocturnal hogs would soon be up, and drawn to the trap.

The people who farm the oasis-green irrigated croplands around here, just across the border from Presidio, are just the latest to suffer from hog predations.

Omnivorous and intelligent, the non-native beasts now roam almost all of Texas, as well as most of the continental United States and Hawaii.

Some 5 million feral hogs are found throughout the country and in almost every habitat, spreading as far north as Canada from their original territory in the South.

“They have expanded their range from 17 to 39 states in the last 30 years, and cause damage to crops, kill young livestock, destroy property, harm natural resources, and carry diseases that threaten other animals, as well as people and water supplies,” said Edward Avalos, a U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary, noting in a news release that hogs cause an estimated $1.5 billion in damage and control costs each year.

In April, the USDA launched a $20 million hog-control program, a move some see as a long overdue.

“We’ve been singing about pigs from the choir loft for years. Congress finally caught on. They didn’t hear us, they heard the landowners,” said Mike Bodenchuk, state director for Texas Wildlife Services, a federal-state cooperative.

We’ve been exporting feral hogs domestically, so I guess this was the natural next step. I’m sure that somewhere Ted Cruz is muttering incoherently about “sealing the border”. Beyond that, the most interesting thing I learned from this story is that El Paso is the only one of Texas’ 254 counties to not have any hogs in it. I don’t know what your secret is, El Paso, but good luck maintaining that.

We’re exporting feral hogs

You’re welcome, neighboring states.

Feral pigs have already taken over Texas and are expanding their numbers in other states, but federal and state land managers think they have a chance to tip the balance in New Mexico. They’re willing to bet $1 million in federal funds on a yearlong pilot project aimed at eradicating the pigs and using what they learn here to keep them from gaining a foothold elsewhere.

It marks the first time the U.S. Department of Agriculture has teamed up with a state to develop a comprehensive plan for getting rid of the pigs.

A small army of state and federal employees has been trained to stalk, trap and kill New Mexico’s feral pigs. Various techniques have been used by wildlife managers and landowners for decades in the fight against feral swine, but the New Mexico team is focusing on determining what combination works best in which circumstances and how effectively helicopters can be to track the pigs across vast landscapes.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve with this so we can prevent a lot of the damage that we know will be coming if we don’t do anything about it,” said USDA Wildlife Services state director Alan May. “Sport hunting pressure alone won’t be enough to stop a population from spreading.”

You can say that again.

In Mississippi, peanut farmers often wake to find uprooted plants. In Texas, where there are an estimated 2.6 million pigs, the animals have moved from destroying pastures and crops to tearing up suburban gardens.

Texans spend about $7 million a year on trying to control pigs and repair some of the damage, said Billy Higginbotham, a professor and wildlife specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center.

“We’re not like New Mexico, Nebraska or Kansas, for example, where we’re just beginning to get a few and can probably think in terms of eradication,” he said. “What we’re simply trying to do here is not even use the “e” word — eradication — but to think in terms of managing the damage.”

SciGuy reminds us how challenging that is.

In 2010, an estimated 750,000 pigs were harvested, or 29 percent of the population. That sounds harsh, but it’s really not.

The scientists estimate with such a harvest the feral hog population will still double every five years. Even a high harvest — 41 percent of the population, annually — will allow the wild pig population to actually grow by 12 percent a year.

An annual harvest rate of 66 percent is required to hold the feral hog population in check, the scientists believe.

That’s something like 1.8 million of the beasties a year, at current population levels. There aren’t enough helicopters in the state for that. Good luck controlling your hog invasion, New Mexico.

The Houston Food Bank could use your help

Times are tough, y’all.

Despite a growing demand, food banks, charities and pantries face a dwindling supply of products to distribute to Houston’s hungry this holiday season.

Food banks in Houston and across the country have less to give away because the federal government is purchasing fewer excess farm products to stabilize agricultural prices. At the same time, high agricultural prices due to a historic drought have exacerbated shortages, experts said.

“We are trying to do a better job and we just get kicked in the shins with this drop,” said Brian Greene, Houston Food Bank president and CEO. “We now have to take two steps back.”

The Houston Food Bank has seen a 38 percent drop in government food donations this year, which Greene said translates to about 5 million meals. Government donations account for about 20 percent of the food issued by the Houston Food Bank, which feeds 137,000 people each week through 500 agencies in southeast Texas.

From 2010 to 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s purchases through the Emergency Food Assistance Program declined 27 percent. As a result, in 2012 at least 181 food banks saw declines in government donations, more than half of which saw drops of 40 percent or more.

This decrease forced food banks to spend millions of dollars purchasing food items, according to data from Feeding America.

National hunger relief advocates say that although the USDA has announced commodity purchases in August and December 2012 that will help relieve some of the shortage, that food will not be delivered until early to mid-2013.

“We live in a shortage world and are doing our best,” said Greene.

He said 66,000 people go hungry in Houston every day despite their best efforts.

Now would be an excellent time to do what you can to help.

Rick Perry and pink slime

Two great tastes that taste great together.

Can't be worse than one of these

Gov. Rick Perry is defending so-called “pink slime” in a statement issued in conjunction with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and South Dakota Lt. Gov. Matt Michels (on behalf of South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who’s on a trade mission to China).

Their statement says that the “lean, finely textured beef is a safe, nutritious product that is backed by sound science.”

Here’s how the AP describes the produce, nicknamed pink slime: “The lower-cost ingredient is made from fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts. The bits are heated and spun to remove most of the fat. The lean mix then is compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. The product is exposed to ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.”

Since she’s been the chief troublemaker in all this, I’m going to let Bettina give the response.

When I started my petition on March 6th, I had one simple, clearly defined goal:  to ask USDA to revisit its practice of providing school districts with ground beef containing LFTB.  The USDA/schools petition went viral, garnering almost a quarter of a million signatures in a little over a week (and now exceeding that target).  USDA responded to the outpouring of concern by offering schools the option of buying beef without this filler.   And that might have been the end of this story.

But clearly something else arose out of my petition and the media coverage associated with it.  Consumers learned — many for the first time — that USDA allows LFTB to be mixed into the nation’s ground beef supply, up to 15%, without any labeling to disclose that fact.  Reportedly, 70% of beef in this country now contains LFTB.

And as it turns out, consumers are quite unhappy about this fact.

Some people are concerned about food safety, given the pathogenic nature of the raw material used by BPI to make the product.   Its safety record, though now admirable, was somewhat more troubling between 2005 and 2009 when E. coli and salmonella were repeatedly found in its product, as reported by the New York Times.   Some consumers – rightly or wrongly — worry about the use of ammonium hydroxide in the processing of their food.  Some people consider the inclusion of an unlabeled filler to be a form of economic adulteration, in that their package labeled 100% ground beef might only be  85% ground chuck or ground round and the rest a gelatinous meat filler.  And others claim there are aesthetic differences between beef with LFTB and pure ground beef.

Whether any or all of these concerns are valid is almost beside the point.  Our free market is founded on informed consumer choice, but in this case USDA deprived consumers of the ability to make that choice when it made the controversial decision to treat LFTB as “ground beef,” no different from ground chuck or ground round.

Now that the truth about LFTB is coming to light, BPI’s business may be suffering.  But this consumer reaction should not come as much of a surprise to the company;  why else did BPI, according to the Times, lobby USDA back in 2001 to exempt their product from labeling?

As I said in an interview on the very first day of my USDA/schools campaign, the use of LFTB in ground beef is “one of those practices that can thrive only in obscurity.”   Now exposed under intense media scrutiny, BPI is discovering that this is indeed the case.

Of course, Rick Perry also works best when he operates in obscurity, so I suppose none of this should come as a surprise to anyone. It’s a true meeting of the minds.

Pink slime

I don’t know if you’ve been following the “pink slime” debate, but Bettina Siegel, who is one of the main catalysts behind it, had an op-ed in the Chron that summarized the main arguments.

Last week, the online publication The Daily set off a media firestorm when it reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is purchasing ground meat for use in school food which contains, collectively, 7 million pounds of “Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings” (BLBT) – popularly known as “pink slime.”

In the past, slaughterhouse waste – fatty scraps and bits of connective tissue left over from beef processing – was used only for pet food or rendering into cooking oil. People didn’t eat it and, indeed, such waste is banned in Britain for human consumption. But in 2001, a South Dakota company called Beef Products Inc. (BPI) received USDA approval for a new process which extracts fat from the scraps and treats the remaining tissue with ammonium hydroxide to inhibit pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella. The resulting gelatinous pink mass, nicknamed “pink slime” by a horrified government micro­biologist, is mixed into ground beef as cheap filler (up to 15 percent in school lunches), reportedly shaving three cents off every pound that contains it.

Meat industry lobbyists maintain that BLBT is nothing more than “lean, nutritious” beef, but two former microbiologists at the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service have vociferously protested the agency’s controversial decision to classify BLBT as “meat.” In a 2002 email to colleagues, one of these scientists wrote, “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”


It’s notable that three leading fast food giants – McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell – all recently discontinued their use of BLBT. Though they haven’t said so explicitly, it’s likely that growing consumer concern over pink slime led to their change in practice. But while fast-food customers can vote with their dollars, our nation’s schoolchildren, particularly those whose lower economic status forces them to rely on federal school meals, lack any voice in the matter.

I recently started a petition on asking the USDA to reconsider the use of BLBT in meat destined for school meals. In a week and a half, the petition garnered more than 230,000 signatures – and on Thursday, the USDA announced that starting in the fall, schools will be able to opt out of pink slime, choosing between 95 percent lean patties made with the filler, or fattier ground beef made without it, sold in bulk.

This is a good first step. But we need to make sure that schools can actually afford the meat without slime which, because it is sold in bulk, will require labor to form into patties. And we need to insist that pink slime is labeled in grocery-store ground beef. Consumers have a right to know what’s in their burgers.

Seems to me that accurate labeling is a pretty reasonable thing to demand. You can see all of Siegel’s blogging on the subject here, and if you really want to know what difference pink slime makes in terms of taste and edibility, read this intrepid reporter’s taste test. Actually, the taste test is almost an anti-climax. The ordeal he had to go through just to ascertain that he had one sample with pink slime and one without is what’s really eye-opening, and a fine example of Siegel’s point that we deserve to know what we’re eating. The Daily did some legwork on that as well. Check their list and see if you’ve been inadvertently eating this stuff. Then go sign the petition if you agree that you should have known all along.

New school food coming

No more mystery meat.

School lunches, long saddled with an unhealthy reputation, are getting a makeover.

Instead of salt-doused fried foods, highly processed white bread and sugar-laden desserts, cafeteria trays will be carrying whole wheat pizza, leafy green and orange vegetables and fresh fruit.

The changes, announced Wednesday by first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, mark the first major nutritional adjustment to the $11 billion school meal program in 15 years.

Under the new guidelines, which were directed by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, schools must limit calories, trans fat and sodium, while serving students a wider variety of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.


The new rules, which will affect 32 million children, will be phased in over the next three years.

Many Houston-area school districts have already taken steps to raise nutritional standards, instituting changes that mirror many of the new USDA requirements.

In Houston ISD, for example, all milk is fat-free or low-fat, and more than half of grains served are whole grain, including pasta, sliced bread, homemade rolls, pizza crust and brownies.

Meals contain no trans fat, and dark green and orange vegetables are served three times a week, said district spokesman Jason Spencer.

Clear Creek, Spring and Alief are among the other local school districts that have also made the switch to all whole-grain items, fat-free or low-fat milk and more dark green and orange vegetables.

Olivia has been asking to get the school lunch more often as of late. I think that’s more because it’s what her friends do than anything else, but that’s okay. I suspect she won’t have any problems with the change, but as The Lunch Tray wrote last month, there can be quite a few bumps in the road in getting better food to school kids. Don’t be surprised if there are problems here and there. If you don’t mind a little profanity, there’s an interesting perspective on the issue of better-quality food and why it isn’t always embraced here. This is a process, one that will likely take some time to show results. Here’s more from The Lunch Tray and Obamafoodorama, and The Spork Report has some related food news from HISD.

There are lots of hungry people in Texas


Millions of Texans are at risk of going hungry, and the resources available to many low-income families aren’t enough, according to new data released [Wednesday] by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Texas Food Bank Network.

The report, which is based on survey data from 2008 to 2010, showed Texas as among the most troubled states in the nation for hunger.

Nearly 19 percent of Texas households reported barely having enough food, and about 7 percent reported sometimes having too little to eat. Texas ranked 2nd in the nation in food insecure households, trailing only Mississippi. The percentage of Texas households facing hunger has also climbed from the 14.8 percent three-year averag between 2006 and 2008, said J.C. Dwyer, State Policy Director at the Texas Food Bank Network.

The U.S. average was 14.6 percent.

“Hunger is a huge problem in Texas, and getting worse,” Dwyer said.

The Texas Food Bank Network partnered with Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative and First Choice Power to produce a report entitled “Hunger by the Numbers: A Blueprint for Ending Hunger in Texas,” which the Food Bank Network said was the first such report to include detailed statistics for each of Texas’ 254 counties.

You can find a copy of the report here. Obviously, the time frame coincides with the economic downtown, so one would expect an increase in many kinds of problems, but still. One out of five people going hungry, many of whom are children, is appalling. Too bad this didn’t come up at the Republican Presidential candidates’ debate, not that any of them would have had any solutions for it.

The state of school food

Bettina has a feature story in Houston Family magazine about the current state of school food, which takes into account recently passed legislation by Congress and what’s going on in HISD. She also has a report from an HISD “Nutrition Strategy Event” that was an attempt to “define a clear direction and priorities for Houston ISD Food Services and its partners”, and a report on the USDA’s new school food regulations. If you have kids in public school as I do, these will be of interest to you.

Progress on food stamps

Good news.

With hundreds of new workers on board, Texas has dramatically improved its speed and accuracy processing food stamp applications, Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs [told] state lawmakers [last week].

But he’ll also tell the joint gathering of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and the House-Senate panel overseeing the eligibility system that he needs more resources, including more workers.

“Yes, we’ve turned it around,” Suehs told the American-Statesman on Tuesday. But he added: “We still have a long way to go to maintain it there. This thing is still in a precarious situation.”

In August, Texas processed 93.5 percent of applications within the required 30 days, compared with 58.6 percent in September 2009, according to the commission.


In the past year, the commission has added 864 workers to determine eligibility and enroll Texans for food stamps and Medicaid, bringing to 8,380 the number of staffers. The commission has also revamped worker training and stationed workers in office lobbies to handle certain questions so that not everyone has to wait in line.

“There’s no doubt that things have significantly improved,” said Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income Texans. “It’s clear evidence of what a better funded and staffed eligibility system is capable of.”

I could crab about how we got into this mess in the first place and how it took threats of federal action for the state to take it seriously enough to address, but I’ll skip that this time and just offer my kudos to Tom Suehs for getting this done. There’s still a long way to go, and we may never truly undo the damage of the failed privatization scheme that left HHSC in such a mess, but so far so good.

Feds fine Texas for food stamp failures

Our longstanding food stamp problems continue to cost the state of Texas millions of dollars.

Federal officials have fined Texas $3.96 million for errors in issuing food stamp benefits, according to a letter sent to House Speaker Joe Straus.

The penalty is for exceeding 105 percent of the national average rate of payment errors — overpayments or underpayments — for the past two federal budget years, according to the letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Texas plans to appeal the fine, said Geoff Wool, a spokesman for the state Health and Human Services Commission. He said that the number of food stamp recipients in Texas spiked after Hurricane Ike in 2008, increasing 26 percent in the year that followed.

It’s true that Hurricane Ike made a bad situation worse. But it was a bad situation to begin with because of the miserable failure privatization extravaganza that started in 2005 until its merciful death less than two years later. In the meantime, of course, the state had seen thousands of experienced HHSC employees leave the agency, which is the proximate cause of the staff shortages that led to the initial lawsuit over food stamp application processing delays. Ike was a factor, but without that screwed up experiment, HHSC would have been in much better shape to handle the increase in caseload that Ike helped cause. Rick Perry and his Republican cronies took something that was working, and they broke it. And the cost of that – the human cost, not just the dollars and cents cost – keeps mounting. And just as a reminder, one of the guys who helped screw things up in the first place has now been hired to un-screw them.

Speaking of that lawsuit from last year, here’s a brief update.

In December, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid sued the commission in state district court in Travis County over the backlog. The group expanded its lawsuit in June, adding more plaintiffs and arguing that the entire food stamp system is purposely dissuading people from participating.

But Wool said, “We feel that because this is a federal program governed by federal rules, the state court is limited in its ability to provide relief.” The state is seeking to get the case dismissed, arguing in a June 22 court filing that food stamp processing deadlines aren’t mandatory.

“That,” said Cynthia Martinez of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, “is about as ridiculous as it sounds. This is an attempt for them to avoid accountability by making the argument that the king can do no wrong because he is the king.”

Business as usual, I’m afraid. Hair Balls has more.

Monitoring the food stamps problem

State Sens. Judith Zaffirini and Tommy Williams will be keeping an eye on the food stamps situation.

Zaffirini said in an interview that she and Williams will work with Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs on hiring more enrollment workers — as well as training and retaining them — and improving communication between state and local offices.

“Hiring personnel in and of itself will not solve the problem,” Zaffirini said.

The state is not meeting federal food stamp standards, which require applications to be processed within 30 days (and seven for emergency applications). In September, Texas failed to process 41.4 percent of applications by the federal government’s deadline. The federal government — which pays for all the food and half the administrative costs of the program — has told Texas to speed up application processing or risk losing federal funds.

Zaffirini said she told Suehs she wants to see weekly progress reports and a timeline for the hiring.

“We need to ensure that the people who are eligible for the services are receiving them in a timely period,” she said.


Zaffirini said she thinks the state should be collaborating more closely with food banks.

Officials with the Texas Food Bank Network this week sent a letter to federal food stamp officials, saying that programs such as food stamps should not rely on non-profits to address their staffing needs.

“We worry that an over-reliance on comparatively small organizations like ours, while an obvious immediate solution, may divert attention and urgency from the broader, more fundamental failures in our state’s application system,” says the letter from Eric Cooper and Jan Pruitt of the Network to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s William Ludwig.

You can see the letter the Food Bank network wrote here (PDF). I think they’re right to be concerned that they’ll be depended on for more that they can give. We’ve been dealing with this on the cheap all along, I don’t see why anyone should expect it to be different now. Zaffirini and Williams may be able to make a difference at the margins for the time being, but nothing will change until the state’s leadership does.

Feds to Texas: Fix food stamps!

Yet another (bad) way in which our state has distinguished itself.

Federal officials say Texas should appoint a food stamp czar to take charge of fixing the application backlogs and high error rates plaguing the program.

“All states are feeling the pinch right now because of the economic recession, but I’m not aware of any state that is having it to the degree that Texas is,” said William Ludwig, a Dallas-based regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

Ludwig, who rarely gives interviews, oversees food stamps for Texas and four other states. He attributed the state’s problems last week to a “whole series of missteps, mismanagement over the last four years,” starting with thousands of state workers getting pink slips in advance of a massive privatization effort.

Gosh. What might have happened four years ago? Let me think…

[Texas Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Tom] Suehs, who became commissioner Sept. 1, met last week with supervisors from across the state and said he was shocked to learn how frequently employees were working overtime, staying late and coming in on the weekends. The state spent $2.5 million in August on overtime for enrollment workers.

Texas wasn’t always in this position.

From 1998 to 2004, the federal government gave the state bonus payments for payment accuracy. Last year, Texas had a higher error rate than the national average.

Some of the worker shortage dates to fall 2005, when former Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins informed 2,900 eligibility workers that they wouldn’t have a job after the start of a Legislature-mandated privatization plan. Though officials later decided to retain some of the workers, many had already left.

“The key thing that happened that has really led to us being here is the state gave pink slips” to workers, Ludwig said. “Those were the senior employees who understood the system.”

Privatization was a gift that just keeps giving, wasn’t it? How many more examples do we need to understand what a failure “small government conservatism” is? EoW has more.

Justice for Hispanic farmers

I received an email about this and thought it was worth passing on.

Hispanic farmers and ranchers deserve justice! Join us in calling on President Obama to end discrimination and bring transparency to USDA-administered farm programs. Sign the petition online here.


United States District Court for the District of Columbia

Civil Action No. 1:00CV02445

United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

Civil Action No. 04-5448 (Consolidated)

The Garcia case is a class action lawsuit which seeks to remedy years of massive and admitted discrimination against Hispanic farmers and ranchers who were denied access to United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) loan programs in violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1691, et seq. The lawsuit also seeks to remedy discrimination against Hispanic farmers and ranchers in the administration of USDA farm benefit programs. Unlike most lawsuits, the salient facts in this case are not disputed.

According to such authoritative sources as the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the Congress of the United States and former Agriculture Secretary Glickman, the original defendant in this case, the USDA has a long, sordid and well-documented history of discrimination against minorities in connection with farm credit and benefit programs. The USDA not only systematically discriminated against Hispanic and other minority farmers for decades, but in the early 1980s the USDA secretly dismantled its apparatus for civil rights enforcement. As a result, for approximately fifteen years, minority farmers who complained of discrimination in connection with farm credit and benefit programs, found their complaints relegated to a bureaucratic black hole. Those complaints that were not lost or intentionally destroyed were placed in an empty office to gather dust. When Congress learned this, it took the extraordinary step of waiving the ECOA’s two-year statute of limitations applicable to claims arising from January 1, 1981 to December 31, 1996.  To date, the government has paid nearly $1 billion to almost 13,000 black farmers who alleged discrimination identical to that experienced by Hispanic and other minority farmers and ranchers.  Yet despite the historic settlement of the black farmers’ lawsuit, tens of thousands of black farmers are disgruntled because (1) they were denied hearings on the merits of their claims, and (2) the settlement provided no forward-looking remedial relief.

There’s a lot more at the link, so check it out.

“Crazy ants” becoming a bigger menace

You may recall hearing about the “crazy ants”, also known as Rasberry ants, last year. They’re apparently gaining a large foothold in Texas and other states, and are threatening honeybees wherever they go.

The range of the so-called Rasberry crazy ant has more than doubled in the past year, creating a swath in 11 counties beginning near Houston and moving north, scientists say.

Given the ant’s encroachment on livestock, hay bales and a few honeybee farms, some are trying to classify it as an agricultural pest, one that must soon be stopped.

“It really is spreading at an alarming rate and we need to do research now,” said Danny McDonald, a Texas A&M University doctoral student who is examining the tiny creature’s biology and ecology. “There’s no time to wait.”

But serious research requires serious dollars.

The Texas Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture will fund in-depth research on the Rasberry crazy ant, but only if it gets the pest classification. And to do that, state officials say more research must be done. It’s a sticky Catch-22.

“This is absolutely idiotic,” said Tom Rasberry, the exterminator for whom the ant is named because he fought against them early on. “If killing honeybees does not put it in the ag pest category I don’t know what does.”


The ants — formally known as “paratrenicha species near pubens” — are called “crazy” because they wander erratically instead of marching in regimented lines. Although they eat stinging fire ants, they also feed on beneficial insects such as ladybugs and honeybees.

The USDA’s Agriculture Research Service recently released about $30,000 for a yearlong study by Texas AgriLife Extension Service and A&M’s Center for Urban & Structural Entomology to determine how quickly the ants are spreading.

“Our folks know this is a very serious issue and we’re jumping on it to make sure we find a solution very quickly,” said Bryan Black, Texas Department of Agriculture spokesman. “We want to protect agriculture and we want to protect the public, absolutely.”

Critics say the initial study won’t address the ant’s food preferences, reproduction cycles, lifespan, temperature tolerance or effect on wildlife.

“There are literally thousands of things we need to find out to get on a fast track, otherwise we’re going to do just like we did with the fire ant and wait until it was too late,” Rasberry warned.

I sure hope that’s not how it goes. If money is an issue I would hope that this is the sort of thing that can get bipartisan cooperation and thus done relatively easily. Who wants to be pro-ant?

The real Coke classic

True aficionados know, if you really want the kind of Coca Cola they used to make before the “New Coke” fiasco, you have to get one that was bottled in Mexico.

Coca-Cola Classic, as it has been known since then, wasn’t exactly the old formula, because it no longer contained cane sugar. Instead it was sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Regardless, sales skyrocketed and order was restored to the universe.
Now, decades later, iconic glass bottles of Coca-Cola sweetened with cane sugar have been appearing on store shelves around the U.S. Ironically, this arguably more real version of the real thing happens to be made in Mexico, where soft-drink bottlers still use cane sugar.

The surge of popularity of Mexican Coca-Cola in the U.S. doesn’t make the corporation happy, partly because of territorial rights, but more important, because cane sugar is a more expensive ingredient in this country than HFCS, thanks to tariffs and farm subsidies.

HFCS is cheaper because it comes from corn. The sweetener is made in a complex process that uses enzymes to partially convert nearly pure glucose corn syrup into fructose; the fructose is then recombined with glucose to create a high-fructose mixture of varying percentages, depending on the intended use. The soft drink ingredient, for example, contains 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose.

Cane sugar, on the other hand, is sucrose, a disaccharide of glucose and fructose obtained from sugar cane, which is not widely grown in the U.S.

There’s a big debate over the effect of HFCS, which is in so many foods these days, and the agriculture policies that enable its widespread use by effectively subsidizing it. Ezra Klein and Grist would be good sources to learn more about that. The issue at hand here is which one of these taste better in an ice-cold Coke?

Mart Martin, a spokesman for Coca-Cola’s North American division in Atlanta, says there is “not a perceivable taste difference” between U.S. and Mexican Coca-Cola, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

To find out, we conducted a blind tasting of Mexican and U.S. Coca-Cola with the help of the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. Unmarked samples, both taken from glass bottles, were served to the students and faculty, who rated their relative sweetness and overall flavor.

Interestingly, people who had been raised in or near Mexico often instantly identified the Mexican Coca-Cola and universally preferred it, while those raised in the States preferred the U.S.-made Coca-Cola. In other words, we tend to like what we’re used to.

One thing that wasn’t tested is how much influence the shape of the Mexican Coca-Cola bottle and the label might have on taste perception. After all, nostalgia is a thirst for something sweet from the past.

I agree with the bit about the shape of the bottle. There’s something about the 16-ounce glass bottle that just feels so right. It doesn’t matter that I really can’t tell the difference, or that I switched to Diet Coke years ago. Hoist one of those bottles, and all is well in the universe.