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‘Cut, Relocate, Eviscerate’: Moving a USDA Research Agency Will Have Lasting Consequences, Employees Say

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The Economic Research Service collects data on how many Americans lack access to food. When the agency moves to Kansas City, former employees say all of it could be lost.

The Economic Research Service serves as data broker to the United States Department of Agriculture, providing information on food prices and farm forecasts. Some of its other contributions are less known: The agency, slated to move to Kansas City in September, also collects information that helps inform policy decisions on programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and school lunches. Although these programs serve more than 45 million people and claim the biggest share of the USDA budget, the ERS’ research on food assistance has not always been politically popular, and at times, the department has prioritized studies of production agriculture.

Former employees say the USDA’s decision to move the headquarters will do more than sideline food assistance work: It will bury it. “[The relocation] decimates the program, and it will take years to rebuild,” says Laurian Unnevehr, a former director of the ERS food economics division, which studies food nutrition programs, food prices, and food safety. 

The move has prompted more than half of the staff scheduled for relocation to quit, the department announced on Tuesday, and will spread the rest of the team thin, marooning them in the Midwest, away from the USDA and congressional staffers who used to seek their input on changes to programs or proposals. A USDA spokesperson says 72 ERS employees agreed to move to Kansas City, 76 would remain in the capital, and 99 quit, rather than relocate, although the numbers won’t be official until September 30th, when the remaining employees report for work in Kansas City and the department says it will “implement an aggressive hiring strategy.” 

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