A City Of 10 Million Is Running Out Of Water


No Drips, No Drops: A City Of 10 Million Is Running Out Of Water

By Sushmita Pathak        June 25, 2019

These satellite images from June 15, 2018, (left) and June 15, 2019, show the diminishing size of the Puzhal Lake reservoir in Chennai, India. Copernicus Sentinel-2 Satellite Image/Maxar Technologies via AP.

In India’s sixth-largest city, lines for water snake around city blocks, restaurants are turning away customers and a man was killed in a brawl over water. Chennai, with a population of almost 10 million, is nearly out of water.

In much of India, municipal water, drawn from reservoirs or groundwater, typically runs for only a couple of hours each day. That’s the norm year-round. The affluent fill tanks on their roofs; the poor fill jerrycans and buckets.

But in Chennai this summer, the water is barely flowing at all. The government has dispatched water tankers to residential areas to fill the void. Still, some people in especially hard-hit areas have vacated their homes and moved in with relatives or friends.

Satellite images of the city’s largest reservoir, Puzhal Lake, taken one year apart, reveal a chilling picture. Since June 2018, the lake has shrunk significantly. Puzhal is one of the four rain-fed reservoirs that supply water to most parts of Chennai.

Another picture shows the parched bed of Chembarambakkam Lake, another major reservoir. Its cracked surface is covered with dead fish.

“It’s shocking but not surprising,” says Tarun Gopalakrishnan, a climate change expert at the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment. He says the crisis in Chennai is the result of “a toxic mix of bad governance and climate change.”

Rains have become more erratic because of climate change. That, coupled with a delayed arrival of the seasonal monsoon, which usually comes in June, has all but dried up the city’s water supply. Government data show that the storage level in the four lakes combined is less than one-hundredth of what it was at this time last year. A severe heat wave gripping most of India, including Chennai, has aggravated conditions.

What’s happening in Chennai could easily happen anywhere across India, Gopalakrishnan says.

A 2018 government think tank report projected that 21 major Indian cities, including the capital, New Delhi, and India’s IT hub, Bengaluru, will “run out of groundwater as soon as 2020.” Approximately 100 million people would be affected, the report predicts.

In Chennai, residents are scrambling to conserve water.

“We stopped using showers for bathing. We use buckets so that we can ration the amount of water,” says 33-year-old university professor Nivash Shanmugkam. His family also avoids using a washing machine for its laundry and washes clothes by hand as much as possible.

Public institutions are suffering. Hospitals and nursing homes are charging more for services to cover the increased cost of water, according to the local press. There are also reports that toilets at schools are dirty due to a lack of water.

Indian workers carry the last bit of water from a small pond in the dried-out Puzhal reservoir on the outskirts of Chennai. Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

A scuffle over water turned deadly for a 33-year-old man when he tried to stop another man and his sons from siphoning large amounts of water from a public tank this month.

Businesses and offices have been affected too. Amit Agarwal, a 28-year-old IT professional in Chennai, has been working from home for the past few days because there is no water in the bathrooms in his office. Many tech companies have been advising employees to do the same.

In Chennai’s shopping malls, restrooms are operational only on some floors.

The rich can buy additional deliveries of water from private tankers, sometimes at exorbitant rates. Poor people living in slums simply can’t afford to pay.

The response of the government of Tamil Nadu, the state whose capital is Chennai, has ranged from downplaying the extent of the crisis to praying to the rain gods.

“There has been a water shortage in several areas due to monsoon deficit. The government is taking several steps,” Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami told reporters on Friday.

Those steps include a special train that will soon begin transporting 10 million liters of water per day – that’s about 2.6 million gallons — to Chennai from another part of the state. After initially turning down donations, Tamil Nadu has accepted an offer of aid of 2 million liters of drinking water from a neighboring state, Kerala.

Opposition politicians in Tamil Nadu are staging protests. Dozens of women carrying colorful plastic water pots with slogans written on them gathered in Chennai this week to criticize the government for its handling of the water crisis.

One thing that could have possibly averted this acute water shortage? Rainwater harvesting.

In 2002, the government of Tamil Nadu passed legislation that mandated rainwater-harvesting structures on all buildings, including private homes, in the city. The goal: to capture rainwater and store it for later use. It was a revolutionary idea. When the city got hit with heavy monsoon rains a few years later, rainwater harvesting raised the water table enough to last the city until 2016, says Sekhar Raghavan, director of the Chennai-based nonprofit The Rain Centre.

But the government failed to monitor the rainwater-harvesting structures, which meant a lot of them didn’t work properly.

“This is a wake-up call for the government and citizens,” he says.

Raghavan says he’s now getting calls from people asking about how they can properly harvest every drop of rainwater.

Anticipating inadequate rainfall and planning for acute water shortages are further complicated by climate change.

“The fear associated with climate change is not the fear of knowing that everything is going to be worse,” says Gopalakrishnan. “It’s the fear of not knowing.”

While they may not necessarily light ceremonial fires for rain like their elected leaders, Chennai residents will nevertheless be praying for a downpour soon.

NPR correspondent Lauren Frayer contributed to this report from New Delhi.

Welcome to the Swedish shopping mall where every single item is second hand


June 26, 2019

Welcome to the Swedish shopping mall where every single item is second hand 🙌

via People Fixing The World

The shopping mall where everything is recycled

Welcome to the Swedish shopping mall where every single item is second hand 🙌via People Fixing The World

Posted by BBC on Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told House panel he had to condense issues for inattentive Trump

Shocking photo of drowned father and daughter highlights migrants’ border peril

The Guardian

Shocking photo of drowned father and daughter highlights migrants’ border peril

The toddler’s arm was still draped around her father’s neck after bodies were found in the Rio Grande as they sought asylum Warning: graphic images

The grim reality of the migration crisis unfolding on America’s southern border has been captured in photographs showing the lifeless bodies of a Salvadoran father and his daughter who drowned as they attempted to cross the Rio Grande into Texas.

The images, taken on Monday, show Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 26, and his daughter Valeria, lying face down in shallow water. The 23-month-old toddler’s arm is draped around her father’s neck, suggesting that she was clinging to him in her final moments.

The UN refugee agency compared the photograph to the 2015 image of the three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi who drowned off the Greek island of Kos – although it remains to be seen if it will have the same impact on America’s fierce immigration debate.

Their bodies were discovered on the bank of the river near Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas, just half a mile (1km) from an international bridge.

According to Julia Le Duc, a reporter for La Jornada, Martínez Ramírez had arrived in Matamoros on Sunday, hoping to request asylum from US authorities with his wife, Vanessa Ávalos, and their daughter.

But when he realized that it could be weeks before they were even able to start the asylum process, Martínez decided they should swim across, said Le Duc, who witnessed Ávalos give her account to the police.

“He crossed first with the little girl and he left her on the American side. Then he turned back to get his wife, but the girl went into the water after him. When he went to save her, the current took them both,” Le Duc told the Guardian.

Tania Vanessa Ávalos of El Salvador, center left, is assisted by Mexican authorities after her husband and nearly two-year-old daughter were swept away by the current while trying to cross the Rio Grande to Brownsville, Texas, in Matamoros, Mexico.
FacebookTwitterPinterest. Tania Vanessa Ávalos of El Salvador, center left, is assisted by Mexican authorities after her husband and nearly two-year-old daughter were swept away by the current while trying to cross the Rio Grande to Brownsville, Texas, in Matamoros, Mexico. Photograph: Julia Le Duc/AP


The image underlines the dangers which mostly Central American migrants face in their attempts to escape violence, corruption and poverty at home and find asylum in the United States.

As part of a broader crack down on migration, the Trump administration tightened the country’s asylum system, creating a growing backlog of cases. Migrants are routinely forced to wait for months to start the asylum process; those who despair of waiting turn to more remote and dangerous routes across the southern frontier.

On Sunday, two babies, a toddler and a woman were found dead after succumbing to heat exhaustion in Anzalduas Park, which borders the river in the city of Mission.


Elsewhere three children and a woman from Honduras died in April after their raft capsized on the Rio Grande, and a six-year-old from India was found dead earlier this month in Arizona, where temperatures routinely soar well above 100F.

So far this year, dozens of people have died attempting to cross the Rio Grande, where water levels are at their highest levels in 20 years and record levels of snow-melt run-off have transformed the river into a raging torrent.

Claudia Hernández, a Mexican police officer in the border town of Piedras Negras, told the Guardian: “The river is treacherous and the people who aren’t from here don’t know that. I grew up here along the Río Bravo river [Río Grande]. I wouldn’t even go into that water to bathe or swim. There are springs and whirlpools and when the current takes you it can pull you under.”

Authorities stand behind yellow warning tape along the Rio Grande where the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria were found, in Matamoros, Mexico, on Monday.
FacebookTwitterPinterest. Authorities stand behind yellow warning tape along the Rio Grande where the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria were found, in Matamoros, Mexico, on Monday. Photograph: Julia Le Duc/AP


Isabel Turcios, a Franciscan nun, the director of the Casa del Migrante shelter in Piedras Negras said that local activists warn migrants not to try their luck on the river, but the US has drastically reduced the number of migrants who are allowed to request asylum each day.

“People get desperate and cannot keep waiting. They just want to cross. So they go to the river and without any form of protection – no life jacket, nothing to save them – they go into the river. They always tell me that if God wants them to make it then somehow they will make it.”

She added: “It’s not how things should be. They should be able to cross at the bridges. Every human being has the right to migrate. It’s a human right.”

Meanwhile Mexico has launched its own crackdown on migrants as the government scrambles to ward off Trump’s threat of trade tariffs.

“Very regrettable that this would happen,” said President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Tuesday in response to a question about the latest deaths on the border. “As there is more rejection in the United States, there are people who lose their lives in the desert or crossing” the river.

According to reports in the local press, Martínez, Ávalos and their daughter left their home in the municipality of San Martín in April. But after two months waiting in the southern city of Tapachula – and fearful of the Mexican authorities – the family decided to push on.

A U.S. Border Patrol boat navigates the Rio Grande near where the bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter Valeria were found.
FacebookTwitterPinterest. A U.S. Border Patrol boat navigates the Rio Grande near where the bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter Valeria were found. Photograph: Julia Le Duc/AP


“They said they were scared because of the way things were going for migrants, what with the pressure from Trump. That’s why they decided to cross the river. Their plan was to hand themselves into US migration,” Martínez’s sister Wendy told El Diario de Hoy.

One of Martínez’s cousins, Enrique Gómez, tweeted an appeal to the Salvadoran president, Nayib Bukele, pleading for help in repatriating the bodies. Gómez said the family sought assistance from the Salvadoran government but were being charged between $7,000 and $8,000 to repatriate the bodies. Bukele’s office responded by asking Gómez to send a private message and promised to start the repatriations.

On Wednesday, Pope Francis expressed “immense sadness” over the fate of Martínez and his daughter. “The pope is profoundly saddened by their death, and is praying for them and for all migrants who have lost their lives while seeking to flee war and misery,” a spokesman said in a statement.

The UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said the deaths represent “a failure to address the violence and desperation pushing people to take journeys of danger for the prospect of a life in safety and dignity.”

In the US, several Democratic presidential candidates, including Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker, also expressed their dismay on Tuesday evening. “Trump is responsible for these deaths,” wrote O’Rourke in a tweet, while Harris called it “a stain on our moral conscience”.

The photograph of Martínez and his daughter provoked soul-searching among some Mexicans, but recent polls revealed that attitudes towards migrants have hardened in recent months.

“The image… is a painful symptom of our systematic failure,” tweeted author Alma Delia Murillo. “And on top of that you have idiots who blame the migrants.”

Polling firm Parametría showed 58% of Mexicans oppose migrants entering the country from Central America. 32% of respondents expressed the same opinion on November, when migrant caravans were welcomed with outpourings of generosity.

This report includes material from the Associated Press

Welcome to donald trump’s America!

From Clay Jones

June 26, 2019


I’ve been a cartoonist since 1990 and this might be the hardest cartoon I’ve ever had to draw.

Shame on Donald Trump. Shame on Republicans. Shame on each and every single one of you who supports this.

This cartoon was hard to draw but right now, it’s even harder to be a proud American.


Photo of dead migrant father and daughter ‘kills every part of us that makes us human’

CNN posted an episode of CNN Replay.
June 26, 2019
Cuomo: Photo of dead migrant father and daughter ‘kills every part of us that makes us human’


Don Lemon: “That picture. I can’t even look at it.”


Chris Cuomo: “You must. … Of course it kills you. It kills every part of you, every part of us that makes us human.”

Lemon: “…Who are we? Who are we, as a people, to sit and judge people who are trying to come across for better lives and better conditions?”

See More

Cuomo: Photo of dead migrant father and daughter 'kills every part of us that makes us human'

Don Lemon CNN: “That picture. I can’t even look at it.” Chris Cuomo: “You must. … Of course it kills you. It kills every part of you, every part of us that makes us human.”Lemon: “…Who are we? Who are we, as a people, to sit and judge people who are trying to come across for better lives and better conditions?” https://cnn.it/2Fxe9QY

Posted by CNN on Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Could Hemp Be a Cash Cow for Dairy Farmers?

Civil Eats

Could Hemp Be a Cash Cow for Dairy Farmers?

Amid an epidemic of dairy closures around the country, some farmers are betting on the booming hemp market to balance out low milk prices.

For most of his life, Dale Grossen has milked cows on the Wisconsin dairy farm his grandparents bought. But these days, the payoff for milking his 55 Holsteins, which he does largely by himself, isn’t what it was.

“The prices are so bad that it’s not even worth being a dairy farmer anymore,” he said.

Now, as many small dairy farms are struggling to survive, Grossen is trying out a new crop on his farm: hemp.

Some of Dan Grossen's dairy cows. (Photo courtesy of GroHubFarm.)Some of Dan Grossen’s dairy cows. (Photo courtesy of GroHubFarm.)

Sustained low milk prices and operational costs have been devastating for many family-sized dairies. Wisconsin, once the heart of the nation’s dairy industry, lost 638 herds in 2018. Meanwhile interest in hemp is booming; the number of applications for licenses to grow the new crop in the state’s ballooned from 250 in 2018, the first year, to more than 1,400 in 2019. Dairy farmers in need of some much-needed cash are prime candidates for the crop.

But some early experiences suggest that the transition will take some work.

Expectations of the young industry in the United States got a boost when a decades-old federal ban on growing hemp was lifted in last year’s farm bill. Limited cultivation had already started, after a 2014 federal policy change cracked the door open for some states to begin working with the crop—which can be used for food, fiber and, popularly, the compound cannabidiol, or CBD—on an experimental level.

Some forecasts say the nation’s hemp industry, which was estimated at $800 million last year, could skyrocket to $20 billion by 2022. Now, more states are opening up to the crop—at least 41 have created some kind of hemp program—and many are expecting it will infuse fresh vitality into the agricultural sector.

Potato farmers in Maine are looking at hemp as a side crop. Kentucky, where the agriculture sector has been hit by the decline of tobacco, is trying to mold itself into a hemp powerhouse. In Wyoming, historically a center for sugar beets, farmers are also eyeing hemp as an economic booster. And in areas where small dairy farms are flailing, many see hemp as a potential buffer against unstable milk prices.

In Pennsylvania, dairy farms of different scales are starting to work with new hemp companies, according to Rob Barley, the chair of the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board. Star Rock Farms, in which Barley is a partner, is beginning to grow hemp for fiber, while some smaller-scale operations are starting to grow the crop for CBD production. “I think there’s opportunity,” Barley said, “but it’s so young.”

Wisconsin Representative Tony Kurtz, a sponsor of the hemp pilot program enacted there in 2017, envisions the crop playing the same role in the state’s family-sized dairy farms that tobacco once did.

“It was a crop that was very lucrative; a lot of dairy farmers would have an acre or two for extra money,” Kurtz said. “And I do think hemp could have that potential.”

‘An Altogether Different Farm’

Dale Grossen and five other nearby farms in Green County, Wisconsin all got started growing hemp at the same time last year.

Grossen’s son, Ben, and cousin, Mark Hubbard, led the push to launch GroHubFarm. Hubbard, who has a background in Washington’s cannabis industry, brought in an assortment of hemp varietals to experiment with in the region. Across five farms near Monroe, they put in 36 acres of the crop, experimenting with factors like placement and irrigation. Grossen planted 16 acres on his land.

Hemp growing at Dan Grossen's farm, also known as GroHubFarmOne of GroHubFarm’s hemp fields in southern Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy of GroHubFarm.)

“It’s an altogether different farm than I’m used to,” he said.

There were practical challenges, like keeping weeds down and preventing the plants from being pollinated, which lowers their value for CBD. To keep up with the workload—which piled up on top of Grossen’s usual routine running a dairy farm—they brought in workers.

Then, as harvest time approached, testing determined that most of their plants contained more than the state’s limit of 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Many of the varietals they had selected turned out to exceed the legal THC content level, though that wasn’t clear until they were mature. Because the crops wouldn’t pass inspection, Grossen took his chopper to his plot and burned it.

Including investments in equipment, it cost about $400,000 to get the full 36-acre project started. Only six acres—or 17 percent—were salable. Still, on the plants that turned out, the financial return was high enough that Grossen remains optimistic. “If it had all been that way, we would be fairly good off,” he said.

‘Don’t Bet The Farm’

Liz Binversie, an agriculture educator with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Brown County Extension, urges cautious optimism for dairy farmers considering diversifying with hemp.

The infrastructure and the plants themselves can be very expensive, so start-up costs are substantial. There’s also a lot of labor involved in growing it, from managing weeds in the plot to harvesting it, which often must be done by hand if the hemp is for CBD. There’s also risk involving the quality of the plants farmers obtain—the market is young, and farmers can easily inadvertently purchase seeds that don’t meet state quality standards or won’t perform well in their location.

Binversie warns that hemp is not for everyone, particularly farms in financially precarious situations. At a recent information session the extension ran, one farmer described growing hemp as like having a second full-time job—a heavy burden for already overworked dairy farmers to take on.

“I just hate for anyone to think that it’s just this easy-going crop,” Binversie said. “That’s definitely not the case from what we’ve seen.”

hemp farmer working at GroHubFarm tending hemp plantsTending hemp. (Photo courtesy of GroHubFarm)

It can also be hard for hemp producers to sell their harvest, as there are not many processors in operation yet. But Kurtz, the state lawmaker, expects that as the nascent sector matures, it will become easier for farmers to find buyers. The number of applications for hemp processing licenses in Wisconsin jumped from 100 last year to nearly 700 this year.

A farmer himself, Kurtz planted his first fiber hemp crop this year, adding it to his rotation of soybeans and corn. But despite his optimism, when other farmers ask Kurtz about getting into the business, he sounds a note of caution.

“You need to take it slow,” he said. “Don’t go bet the farm on it.”

Will The Bubble Burst?

Attracted by the financial promise of hemp amid sustained low milk prices, second-generation dairy farmer Joel Pominville planted 13 acres of hemp for fiber at his Middlebury, Vermont, farm in 2017. The next year, he grew 22 acres for CBD production.

But Pominville won’t grow it again. With more producers entering the market, he believes that the bubble may soon burst. Vermont’s hemp industry has grown exponentially since its launch in 2013, when there were only 175 acres registered with the state. In 2018, that number had risen to nearly 3,300 acres.

Vermont Agency of Agriculture official Cary Giguere notes that dairy farmers in the state often experiment with side crops, like milkweed for fiber and sunflowers for oil. Giguere sees hemp as another promising option.

But Pominville disagrees. The cannabis plant, he recalled, was “miserable” to work with. The fibrous plant got tangled in his equipment, which meant time spent modifying his gear. The “tremendous” workload, on top of milking 200 cows, required him to bring in 30 workers at harvest time. He also had to dry the crop with a heater that cost thousands of dollars in propane to run. Pominville estimated he spent half a million. He’s sold off some of his equipment. Some of it, like an old combine, is so beat up he’ll just dismantle it for parts.

From Pominville’s viewpoint, hemp is an unrealistic side crop for dairy farmers. “That’s crazy talk,” he said.

But others are more optimistic. In Wisconsin, GroHubFarm is gearing up for its second season. They’re drawing on lessons from their first try; for example, they’re using clones, not seeds, which is a better guarantee of the plant’s quality. Hubbard expects better results: “This year’s a totally different situation,” he said.

Grossen, who recently decided to sell his herd this fall after 35 years of running the farm, advises other dairy farmers considering diversifying with hemp to start small. The best harvest GroHubFarm got last year came from a single-acre plot, he said. There’s a high learning curve, he explained.

“We’re trying it this year because, well, do we fold up? Or do we continue and do it better yet?” Grossen said. “We’re getting a little smarter every year, I’m hoping.”

U.S. consumer debt is now above levels hit during the 2008 financial crisis


U.S. consumer debt is now above levels hit during the 2008 financial crisis

U.S. consumer debt hit $14 trillion in the first quarter of 2019

By Mark DeCambre             June 25, 2019

Students pull a mock “ball & chain” representing the $1.4 trillion outstanding student debt. Getty Images.

Consumer debt is growing to worrisome levels.

Ben Mohr, senior research analyst of fixed income at investment consultant Marquette Associates, calculated that total U.S. consumer debt hit $14 trillion in the first quarter of 2019, surpassing the roughly $13 trillion of leverage accumulated in credit cards, auto loans and mortgages and other debt back in 2008, when those souring loans and securities pegged to them helped to send global markets into a tailspin (see attached chart).

Mohr told MarketWatch that the increase in student loans — often cited as a source of consternation for economists and strategists — saw a notable increase. At the end of the first three months of 2019, student loan debt hit $1.486 trillion, according to credit data from the New York Federal Reserve. By comparison, student loan at the height of the financial crisis was $611 billion and has been mostly rising since, Mohr said. “It has ballooned and that’s a dramatic increase,” the fixed-income analyst said of the student-debt expansion.

Analyzing growing consumer leverage another way, Mohr said the ratio of debt compared against the U.S. population estimated at 327 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, translates to a record per-person debt ratio at $41.77, surpassing the ratio of $41.68 back in 2008.

Concerns about ballooning debt come as U.S. equity markets have been trading at or near records, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average 0.4% short of its all-time high, and the S&P 500 index notching its first record since April 30 on Thursday, while the benchmark 10-year Treasury note is hovering not far from its lowest levels in months at 2.06%.

Those market moves come against a backdrop of a Federal Reserve that is considering reducing borrowing costs for individuals and corporations from an already relatively benign range of 2.25%-2.50%.

So, should we be worried about rising consumer debt?

Mohr says there are some mitigating factors. Gross domestic product, the official scorecard of the U.S. economy, demonstrates an economy in far better shape than it was during the financial crisis. GDP, which includes all goods and services produced, expanded 3.1% in the first quarter of 2019, compared against 2008 when the overall economy contracted at an annual rate of 6.3%, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The Marquette analyst also noted that defaults on debt are tame, suggesting that investors aren’t being overwhelmed by the growing obligations. A pickup in loan delinquencies was a telltale sign that the economy was beginning to crack under the weight of debt, but Mohr said consumer delinquencies today are trending near historic lows.

Defaults on first-mortgage loans also are lower than pre-2008 financial crisis.

Historically low interest rates have helped consumers to manage debt and the Fed may further help that cause soon by complying with market wishes for yet-lower borrowing costs.

That said, if the economy does begin to contract into recession as some economists fear, the debt load could be a more pressing matter. “We are starting to see some chinks in the armor,” Mohr said.

Mark DeCambre is MarketWatch’s markets editor. He is based in New York. 

Supreme Court’s Ruling on Making SNAP Retail Data Public Has Broad Public Health Implications

Civil Eats

Supreme Court’s Ruling on Making SNAP Retail Data Public Has Broad Public Health Implications

At issue is USDA’s longstanding practice of shielding how much money retailers, including big box stores like Walmart, make from SNAP.

By Cassie M. Chew, Food Policy, Nutrition          June 24, 2019

(Update, on June 24, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against the Argus-Leader, limiting public and media access to government records such as store-level SNAP sales data.)

Open for business every Sunday between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., the Takoma Park farmers’ market makes it easy for recipients of food-assistance benefits—including Maryland’s Independence Card, and Washington, D.C.’s DC EBT card—to shop for healthy food.

At the center of market, surrounded by farmers’ stands, a high school student runs table where shoppers can swipe their cards to convert Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars into tokens that they can use to buy locally grown produce and pasture-raised meats from the market’s dozen or more vendors.

Although the market will match SNAP users’ first $5, less than 1 percent of its 2,000 or more Sunday visitors are SNAP shoppers. Even at larger markets that match more SNAP funds, in Maryland and around the country, farmers’ markets are distant competitors to the roughly 250,000 big food retailers authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) to accept SNAP funds for purchases. While the 3,600 authorized farmers’ markets nationwide redeemed nearly $16 million in SNAP benefits in 2017, the nearly 51,000 authorized grocery stores, supermarkets, and superstores redeemed nearly $52.7 billion in SNAP benefits through the program.

SNAP farmers' market tokens photo CC-licensed by Seacoast Eat Local

Photo CC-licensed by Seacoast Eat Local.

The USDA has refused to share with the public the individual SNAP sales data from those food retailers, although the outcome of arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court this session could raise the curtain on that information. Some advocates hope to shine a light on just how much companies like Kroger and Walmart are benefiting financially from the SNAP program, while also employing many SNAP users. If made public, this data might offer a clearer picture of the challenges associated with food access across the country.

The case, Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, pits the trade association for chain and independent food retailers against the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Argus Leader newspaper. The case has been brewing since 2011, and in its oral arguments the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) asked the Supreme Court to reverse a November 2016 district court decision that, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), required the USDA to disclose individual store sales data on its retailers authorized to accept SNAP funds for purchases.

In the wake of two decisions in favor of the Argus Leader, the USDA in January 2017 announced that it would comply with the court ruling and promptly begin releasing the data to the public. The FMI then intervened, first taking the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals, then appealing its loss there to the Supreme Court. In its opening statement, the FMI asked the Court to reverse the decision and keep its members’ SNAP food sales confidential.

“Our injury in fact is the disclosure of our members’ store-level sales information that they keep secret,” argued Evan Young, an attorney for the FMI, which represents 33,000 retail food stores and 12,000 pharmacies. Young, along with an attorney for the Department of Justice, told the nation’s highest court that retail sales from taxpayer-funded SNAP should be considered trade secrets and confidential financial data that the USDA, in their more than four-decade long partnership with retailers, has to date agreed not to disclose.

“We are exercising our discretion in a matter of good government,” Anthony Yang, Department of Justice (DOJ) assistant to the solicitor general, told the court. “The government is trying to keep its word, given over 40 years, in the most official form possible, that we’re going to keep this information confidential.”

Meanwhile, the Argus Leader argued that SNAP sales data are agency records under FOIA and presumptively open records.

“How the government spends its own money is critical information that the press and the public need to know,” Richard Loeb, attorney for the newspaper told the Court. “It’s the type of information that FOIA has been used for decades to reveal.”

The USDA has said that FOIA exemptions prohibit it from disclosing data that retailers have shared with the agency in confidence. But since the information the newspaper has requested is automatically stored in USDA’s Store Tracking and Redemption database, the Argus Leader says USDA’s argument is misleading.

“USDA’s imprecise use of the term ‘redemption data’ … creates the mis-impression that USDA must depend on retailers to furnish SNAP payment information,” the Argus Leader wrote in court filings. Further, the newspaper’s lawyers say the agency’s claims are “disingenuous” since it already has the data.

SNAP Fights Hunger, but Should it Also Support Healthy Eating?

The difference between using SNAP for purchases at farmers’ markets and using them at a Walmart Supercenter are significant—farmers’ markets rarely offer much in the way of processed, packaged foods. And while the overarching goal of SNAP is to reduce food insecurity, there’s a growing interest in simultaneously improving people’s health. Governments and health advocates at all levels are increasingly advocating the design of food assistance programs that will boost nutrition, improve health, and maybe even reduce the cost of healthcare associated with the chronic illnesses that arise from an unhealthy diet.

To food access advocates, keeping secret the data about where SNAP dollars are being spent doesn’t make sense.

Takoma Park and other Maryland farmers’ markets receive funding through statewide grants, partnerships with private business and fundraisers at individual markets like Takoma Park’s annual pie contest. Despite the fact that Maryland has among the highest per capita household income in the country, as many as one out of eight residents experience food insecurity. Food access advocates have been active in developing programming that promotes greater consumption of healthier foods by creating incentives for SNAP shoppers at individual farmers’ markets and say they don’t keep their work a secret.

“It’s very unfortunate when we have a program that’s fairly transparent [while] large food retailers don’t have to share the same amount of information,” said Amy Crone, founder and executive director of the Maryland Farmers Market Association(MDFMA).

At the Takoma Park farmers' market. (Photo by Cassie Chew)

At the Takoma Park farmers’ market. (Photo by Cassie Chew)

Since 2014, Crone and the MDFMA have raised more than $700,000 in funding, which they’ve used to increase food access and farmer sales through its statewide farmers’ market matching program for SNAP shoppers.

“We found that 90 percent of SNAP shopper purchases go toward fruits and vegetables,” Crone said. “We know our incentive program is making a difference.”

With a $65 billion budget supporting food purchases of 40 million people in 2018, roughly one out of every seven Americans, food access advocates and scholars at the intersection of agriculture, economics, and policy have long wanted to use SNAP to improve health status among individuals at the lower end of the economy.

Getting more data on nationwide SNAP purchases could help achieve that goal. In its 2011 FOIA request, the Argus Leader asked for five years of store-level data; two years prior, the USDA’s own research suggested more data on consumers’ connection to stores would improve analysis of the availability of nutritious food.

“The data would definitely help, so that we can incentivize healthy eating,” said Crone.

Experts at the intersection of food access and health say there needs to be greater innovation in food assistance policy.

“SNAP is an effective program for reducing hunger in the United States … Yet, compared with both income-eligible nonparticipants and higher-income individuals, SNAP beneficiaries have significant disparities in diet quality and diet-related health outcomes,” wrote cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian and two of his colleagues at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy in a March 2019 paper published in JAMA.

Expressing disappointment with what he says is a lack of SNAP policy innovation in the 2018 Farm Bill, Mozaffarian wrote that the current $1 per person per year food insecurity nutrition incentive (FINI) grant program that subsidizes low-income Americans’ produce purchases is too low.

“Expanding FINI to allow a 30 percent subsidy for all SNAP fruit and vegetable purchases would have cost $11.5 billion over five years—a far larger expenditure, but one that is estimated, based on a modeling study, to be cost-effective over a lifetime for reducing cardiometabolic diseases.”

Agricultural economist Parke Wilde, also at Tufts’ Friedman School, says that SNAP sales data might be useful to help identify food desserts, understand how SNAP contributes to healthy food environments and determine whether policy innovations in retail could increase the beneficial impact of SNAP.

“It seems to me it is useful to understand all of the retailers in the vicinity of where people live. We spend a lot of time thinking about how far it is to the closest supermarket, but I often find myself curious about how far do people travel to the supermarket that’s actually getting a lot of their business. So you can see how knowing the SNAP sales is potentially helpful,” said Wilde, who focuses on U.S. food and nutrition policy, consumer economics, and federal food assistance programs.

What We Learned from the Supreme Court

With the disclosure of SNAP retailer sales data hinging on how the court interprets FOIA exemptions, it is unclear how the Court, with its conservative majority, might rule on the case.

Conservative justices on the Court were less active in their questioning. Justice Neil Gorsuch asked the attorney for the Argus Leader for greater insight into how the word “confidential” has been interpreted in the prior cases and Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked the DOJ attorney about the legal threshold for keeping the sales data from disclosure.

“Can it be deemed confidential even in cases without government assurance?” Kavanaugh asked, exploring the potentially broader implications of the Court’s decision.

In one of her questions to Young, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg discussed whether the USDA can avoid sharing the data just because of its agreement with retailers. “To say the government can control this by making a promise that it won’t disclose, that seems to run counter to the whole idea of FOIA,” she said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the most active in questioning the attorneys, reminded the attorney for FMI and DOJ that the USDA has lost two prior cases for keeping retail data confidential, and asked whether FMI had standing in the case—the requirement to bring a lawsuit in court based upon a stake in the outcome—especially after the USDA announced that it would comply with the district court’s November 2016 decision.

When Yang told the Court that USDA would not release the data as a matter of good governance, Sotomayor responded, “Mr. Yang, you are going to tell me that you were going to be in contempt on the order?”

More questions came when the attorneys discussed whether the FOIA exemption required retailers to show releasing the data would have a “competitive harm”—or negative impact—on their business.

Loeb argued that courts in the past have ruled that companies must demonstrate harm in order to request an exemption from disclosing information under FOIA. “We know trade secrets required under the common law a showing of competitive harm,” Loeb said, adding, “confidential business information also required a showing of competitive harm.”

But unlike the attorneys from the two prior court proceedings, who argued on behalf of the USDA that revealing store sales information would lead to “substantial competitive harm,” the FMI asserted that that food retailers didn’t have to demonstrate competitive harm to prevail in this case.

The line of questioning from the justices hinted at the case’s larger implications: Should the Court decide that businesses can withhold data without showing competitive harm, it could set a precedent for companies across industries to withhold any and all data.

While the Court is expected to announce its decision at the end of June, food policy analysts reiterate that, in keeping with the spirit of the goals of the SNAP program, the information should become available.

“This is really a public investment,” Wilde said. “The public has made an investment in preventing hunger through the SNAP program. I think of this as being not so much the government sharing [companies’] trade secrets but really about sharing the government’s own investment in food retail by location.”

Leaked Documents Prove Trump’s Cabinet Is as Big of a Clusterf*ck as We All Knew It Was


Leaked Documents Prove Trump’s Cabinet Is as Big of a Clusterf*ck as We All Knew It Was

Unfortunately, none of what Axios got hold of is at all surprising.

By Charles P. Pierce        June 24, 2019


Axios got a leak of documents like you dream about over the weekend. Hell, they got a leak like Seymour Hersh would dream about. Somebody handed over the vetting materials prepared by the transition team at Camp Runamuck, which rhymes with clusterfck, which is what it was.

“To be honest, the process was such a disaster and such a shit-show and there were so many unqualified people coming through that the issues with [future HUD Secretary Ben] Carson don’t really stick out to me,” said one RNC vetter. “You know, I’m like, ‘Oh gentle Ben is unqualified and thinks that pyramids store grain or whatever. Great. At least he’s not beating his wife and his wife’s not appearing on Oprah.'”

“We’d be sitting around and Trump would be like, ‘Oh, hey, I’m bringing like Joe Shmoe up to Bedminster for Department of Interior,’ and then we were like, ‘F—, we need to run a vet on this guy to make sure he’s not a kid-toucher,'” said one source involved in the vetting. “It was just a clown show.”

“I think I truly understood what less than half of the people were being vetted for,” said another source involved in the vetting. “Totally inadequate resources for the overall process. … We would probably run through dozens [of contenders] a day.”

And from this shitshow, we got:

One red flag for Gen. David Petraeus, who was under consideration for Secretary of State and National Security Adviser: “Petraeus Is Opposed to Torture.”

Mick Mulvaney, who became Trump’s Budget Director and is now his acting chief of staff, has a striking assortment of “red flags,” including his assessment that Trump “is not a very good person.”

One heading in the document about Kris Kobach, in the running for Homeland Security Secretary, listed “white supremacy” as a vulnerability. It cited accusations from past political opponents that he had ties to white supremacist groups.

Seema Verma, who Trump appointed as the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, had this paragraph near the top of her vetting form: “Verma was simultaneously advising Indiana ($3.5 million in contracts) on issues impacting how it would spend Medicaid funds while she was also being paid by a client that received Medicaid funds. Ethics experts have called the arrangement a conflict of interest that potentially put Indiana taxpayers at risk.”

Sonny Perdue, Trump’s pick for Agriculture Secretary, had a vetting form with sections labeled “Business conflicts of interest” and “Family conflicts of interest.” It noted that “Perdue is the owner of Houston Fertilizer and Grain, a company that has received contracts from the Department of Agriculture.”

A lot of the “red flags” in the documents refer to the applicant’s previous doubts about the president*’s character, his qualifications, and his general unfitness for office. A lot of the people being vetted got jobs anyway because, a) they were willing to swallow whatever vestigial consciences they had, or b) that the Camp Runamuck team didn’t have any better ideas.


Ties to “white supremacy” is listed as one of Kris Kobach’s vulnerabilities. Getty Images

But the real tragedy in all of this is that there is nothing in any of these documents that wasn’t obvious during the Cabinet confirmation hearings into all of these boobs and rounders. I sat through a lot of them, and most of them functioned as the first evil omens that the Republican congressional majorities had sold their souls to this president* and that congressional oversight was a thing to be laughed at.

Nobody could have watched Betsy DeVos’s calamitous hearing and believed she had any business running anything more complicated than a yard sale. Mnuchin’s vetting file is fat with horror stories about his career with OneWest, the foreclosure mill he helped run. But there were hearings with his actual victims, and those people meant no more to the Senate than they had meant to Mnuchin and OneWest. He practically spit in the Senate’s eye when they asked him about $95 million in real-estate Mnuchin had neglected to list on his disclosure forms. He said he was confused by the term “investment assets.” And everyone who believes that, please stand on your head until further notice.

This is an undeniable scoop for Axios. What it’s not is the slightest surprise.

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Charles P Pierce is the author of four books, mostly recently Idiot America, and has been a working journalist since 1976.