Report Faults U.S.D.A. Survey Used To Set Nutrition Policy

October 30, 1991 1 min read

WASHINGTON--The survey the federal government uses to determine food and nutrition policy for child-nutrition programs is severely flawed, the General Accounting Office concludes in a new report.

The report found that the data collection effort was unreliable as a result of a low response rate and that the Department of Agriculture poorly managed the survey contract.

The report, conducted at the request of Representative George E. Brown Jr., Democrat of California, and released last month, focuses on the Nationwide Food Consumption Survey.

The survey, conducted by the U.S.D.A. Once every 10 years, is used to establish food plans for child-nutrition and food-assistance programs, such as the school-lunch program, the food stamp program, and the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

The U.S.D.A. spends about $34 billion a year on domestic food programs.

The 1987-88 survey was designed to determine the nutritional value of household and individual diets and to detect shifts in food use over the past decade. About 6,000 households nationwide at all income levels were questioned about their food-use patterns, and an additional sample of 3,600 low’income households was also studied.

According to the report, the survey’s data are incomplete. The 34 percent response rate for the general household sample is “so low that it is questionable whether the data [are] representative of the U.S. population,” the report concludes.

Another problem, the report states, is that the survey deviated from a requirement that an equal number of households be questioned in each of the four seasons to detect seasonal eating patterns.

The report also concludes that the department poorly managed the survey project, which was conducted by an outside consulting firm, Nutrition Analysts, a division of Booz-Allen & Hamilton.

The G.A.O. report recommends that the department improve the survey’s response rate, ensure that its responses are representative of the entire population, and improve quality-control methods before requesting funds for another food survey.

In the report, the U.S.D.A. says that it agrees with many of the findings and that it will address them in a report to the Congress. --E.F.

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Report Faults U.S.D.A. Survey Used To Set Nutrition Policy