Vilsack, Dean defend Thrifty Food Plan against GAO, GOP criticism
|Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Stacy Dean have defended their development of the Thrifty Food Plan against criticism from the Government Accountability Office and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee and its incoming chairman.|
The Thrifty Food Plan, which describes how much it costs to eat a healthy diet on a limited budget, is used to determine the level of benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the Biden administration’s reevaluation led to a 21% increase in the benefit levels.
In a study requested by Boozman and Thompson, GAO said USDA “began the reevaluation without three key project management elements in place.”
“First, without a charter, USDA missed an opportunity to identify ways to measure project success and to set clear expectations for stakeholders.
“Second, USDA developed a project schedule but not a comprehensive project management plan that included certain elements, such as a plan for ensuring quality throughout the process.
“Third, the agency did not employ a dedicated project manager to ensure that key practices in project management were generally followed.”
Boozman and Thompson said the process for reevaluating the Thrifty Food Plan amounted to poor management.
Senate Republicans declined to hold a confirmation hearing on President Biden’s nomination of Dean as agriculture undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. If Biden renominates her in the next Congress and there is a hearing, Dean is likely to come under intense questioning from Republicans.
In a statement, Vilsack said, “USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan reevaluation was a robust, data-driven analysis and a thoughtful and deliberate effort that resulted in a significant and tangible decrease in poverty.”
“We stand firm on both the quality of our work and the difference it made in millions of people’s lives. We owed it to the American people to get the reevaluation done well and get it done quickly — and that’s exactly what we did. USDA will continue to take steps to advance nutrition security for all Americans because everyone should be able to afford healthy food for themselves and their families.”
Dean said, “USDA takes pride in the quality and care of our work, and the execution of the 2021 Thrifty Food Plan reevaluation was no different.”
“We took a thoughtful and considered approach, focused on the specific congressional directive, and GAO’s review affirmed the aspect of the reevaluation that had the biggest impact on the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan.
“We are committed to continuous process improvement and have already implemented several of GAO’s relevant insights in our efforts to ensure the Thrifty Food Plan represents our best estimate of the cost of a nutritious, practical, cost-effective diet.”
GAO said USDA should have subjected the reevaluation to a more formal peer view, but a USDA spokesperson said, “USDA will continue to support and strengthen the peer review process in future reevaluations of the TFP, beginning with the Alaska and Hawaii TFP reevaluations already underway.”
“Further, during the 2021 reevaluation, colleagues at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and Economic Research Service provided peer review, and FNS hosted a technical panel discussion.
“However, we acknowledge more can always be done to support external scientific input,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson also noted that USDA rejected a research study that could have supported an even bigger increase in the Thrifty Food Plan because the evidence was not sufficient.
The spokesperson said, “The GAO report highlights areas where evidence could have supported larger increases, but USDA concluded the evidence was not sufficiently clear and compelling.”
“For example, GAO notes a research study that would have supported a significant increase in the model’s food waste assumption, which would have increased the TFP by as much as an additional 27%. However, FNS maintained the prior food waste assumption, as the evidence for changing it was not conclusive.”
USDA’s comments in response to the study begins on Page 57 of the report, which can be found at https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-23-105450.pdf.