Without credentials, citizens can’t access the office areas of either of these main buildings. A photo ID and some patience will, however, get them through to the USDA cafeteria. Visitors enter the South Building’s Wing 3, maneuver their way through security scans, and arrive in an airy dining hall that has garnered a four-star rating on Yelp and that sports long rows of tables spread with everything from pasta salad to peach foster, and teriyaki pork to jambalaya. Overhead and in the hallway, banners give a glimpse into USDA workplace culture: “Top 10 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” and “Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender Pride Month.”
Surely, with all this space, the USDA complex has room for SNAP administrators. After all, until the Pentagon came onto the scene, the USDA’s South Building, with some 4,500 rooms and halls that stretch the length of a football field, was the largest office building in the world. But all of that space is not enough to accommodate the Food and Nutrition Service, manager of SNAP and other hunger safety net programs. That agency requires 14 stories of office space all its own at the end of tree-lined Park Center Drive in Alexandria, Va., 7 miles away.
The extent of the USDA’s Washington-area holdings may point to bureaucratic bloat, but their spatial separation is also symbolic of something else: the odd coupling of farm and welfare concerns. What began in 1939 as a simple effort to transfer farm surplus to malnourished city residents has morphed into something more like a limited partnership. The USDA’s agriculture and SNAP interests are a legislative combo deal in which SNAP supporters on congressional committees support sugar subsidies in exchange for support of their huge welfare programs, and vice versa.
Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has studied poverty for three decades and says the USDA isn’t interested in behavioral conditions that create a need for food assistance. In his view, the transfer of authority over SNAP to the Department of Health and Human Services would be a good place to start the ball of reform rolling. “The food stamps program shouldn’t be run by a secretary whose main concern is soybeans,” he maintains. “It’s an anti-poverty program, not an agricultural program.”
President Donald Trump’s pick for the top ag spot might disagree. When Sonny Perdue became secretary of agriculture in April, the former farmer, veterinarian, and governor of Georgia chose a motto to mollify: “Do right and feed everyone.” Reaching that lofty goal seems almost possible for the likable Perdue, who tosses his jacket and works auditoriums as though he’s handing out blue ribbons at a state fair. His one-on-one skills aren’t bad either. Pulling from his experience as a grandfather of 14, Perdue recently talked school lunch programs and pizza-improving suggestions with a student at the Catoctin Elementary cafeteria in Leesburg, Va.: “Thicker crust and real sauce? I’ll pass it on.” But his ability to parley with Congress, not kids, will likely define Perdue’s tenure.