U.S. food programs help children and farmers worldwide

U.S. food assistance programs are feeding children around the world and helping farmers in developing countries boost productivity.

The United States, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food for Progress Program, delivered more than $351 million in food aid to developing nations in fiscal year 2019, providing meals for 4.1 million children, according to the USDA’s International Food Assistance Report. The 2019 fiscal year ran from October 1, 2018, to September 30, 2019.

“These contributions helped provide school meals and supported capacity building initiatives that improved agricultural production and economic expansion in developing nations,” USDA says in the report issued November 24.

USDA’s food aid programs also promote agricultural trade and bolster the United States as a preferred trade partner.

Aid distributed through USDA food assistance programs in FY 2019 reached more than 4.4 million people in 45 countries in Asia, Africa and South and Central America.

Working through volunteer and international organizations, USDA’s various programs fund school meals and nutrition programs around the world and offer training and technical assistance to boost farmers’ productivity.

USDA’s McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program provides food and helps developing countries create sustainable school meal programs. In FY 2019, agreements under the program brought $198 million in aid to nine countries including Cambodia, Haiti, Malawi, Mauritania, Mozambique and Uzbekistan.

USDA’s Food for Progress program, which seeks to boost farmers’ productivity and expand access to markets, worked in 33 countries in FY 2019, facilitating access to more than $131 million in agricultural financing and leading nearly 187,000 people to use improved farming practices or advanced technologies.

In Ghana, for example, Food for Progress helped 7,641 poultry farmers reduce production costs and earn more than $128 million in sales. The program’s aid also supported Indonesian spice farmers’ efforts to ensure their products meet the standards of international markets.


The changing face of the American heartland

Whether it’s for reasonably priced housing, higher-end jobs or proximity to the nexuses of manufacturing and technology, Americans are relocating to cities in the U.S. heartland.

The movement, especially appreciable among young adults and immigrants, places Midwestern cities among the fastest-growing in the United States — outside Florida and the Southeast coast — according to a report from the journal American Affairs.

The heartland, said to be where traditional values rule, is geographically the central portion of the country, not bordered by the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. The report notes that the fastest-growing heartland cities are Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; the Dallas-Forth Worth region of Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; Houston; Indianapolis; and Nashville, Tennessee.

Nearly 15 percent of the population around Des Moines, Iowa’s capital and largest city, is between 25 and 35 years old. Des Moines’ pull on young adults helps put it seventh in size among the 54 U.S. metropolitan statistical areas with populations between 500,000 and 1 million. Close to 53 percent of Des Moines’ millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) have earned at least a two-year associate degree.

Other heartland cities — in Texas, Michigan and Tennessee — are attracting educated millennials at a higher rate than major cities on the East and West coasts, the journal says. General Motors’ recent move to produce autonomous vehicles in the Detroit area underlines the unique technical skills in demand in the Midwest, an area known for industrial expertise.

The National Association of Realtors says that, in addition to Des Moines, four other heartland cities rank among the top 10 magnets for millennials in general: Grand Rapids, Michigan; Oklahoma City; Omaha, Nebraska; and El Paso, Texas.

American Affairs cites several companies locating facilities in the heartland and contributing to the population boom. Elon Musk is moving more SpaceX operations to Texas and has pledged to install an electric-vehicle factory in a semi-rural area near Austin. Apple opened a campus in the suburbs of Austin. And Uber Technologies built its second-largest office in the Dallas-Forth Worth region.

Meanwhile, the journal says, the Midwest has become a prime destination for immigrants. Newcomers to the U.S. are gaining a foothold as entrepreneurs in Ohio, for example, where they constitute one in five small-business owners.

A third group of American citizens moving to the heartland are Puerto Ricans. Companies in Ohio, Nebraska and Iowa are recruiting workers from Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States.


Baseball’s first female general manager makes history

Kim Ng made history when she was named the next general manager of the Miami Marlins baseball team on November 13.

Ng is the first female general manager of any Major League Baseball team in North America, making her the highest-ranking woman and Asian American in baseball history.

“I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to see the outpouring of just pure joy for a lot of people,” Ng said in her first press conference as general manager. “It made me realize that it really was a glimmer of hope and inspiration for so many, that if you work hard and you persevere and you’re driven and you just keep going, that eventually your dream will come true.”

Baseball general managers are usually responsible for player recruitment and development, trades, and overall management of the team. They hire the staff to support the team, including all managers and coaches.

Ng said for her entire life she has looked up to women such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova who have broken barriers and changed sports.

Ng has worked in Major League Baseball for more than 30 years. She got her first job as an intern with the Chicago White Sox after graduating from college. She has also worked for the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers.


How the U.S. promotes innovation for security and prosperity

As the world leader in technological innovation, the United States is working with international partners to advance a shared competitive edge.

The White House October 15 released the first National Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technologies, outlining how the United States will support and lead global innovation in fields ranging from artificial intelligence to advanced computing and space technologies.

“The United States will maintain clear leadership in the highest priority C&ET [critical and emerging technologies] areas and invite its allies and partners to join in those efforts,” the strategy says.

The commitment to technological innovation comes as authoritarian regimes are dedicating significant resources and targeting sources of U.S. and allied strength in their pursuit to become global leaders in science and technology, the strategy says. It calls for protecting scientific and technological innovation from regimes that illicitly acquire intellectual property developed in the free world.

“The United States will not turn a blind eye to the tactics of countries like China and Russia, which steal technology, coerce companies into handing over intellectual property, undercut free and fair markets, and surreptitiously divert emerging civilian technologies to build up their militaries.” — White House

The strategy focuses on two pillars of critical and emerging technology:

  1. Promoting the national security innovation base — to support development and innovation in academia, national labs and the private sector.
  2. Protecting technology advantages — to prevent strategic competitors from obtaining unfair advantages.

Each pillar of the strategy calls for working with international partners to develop norms and standards that protect sensitive technology and support democratic values.

The strategy credits U.S. innovation to a market-based approach that incentivizes new ideas and lays out a plan to collaborate with the private sector to invest in a strong science and technology workforce, build public-private partnerships and reduce regulations.

“Our market-oriented approach will allow us to prevail against state-directed models that produce waste and disincentivize innovation,” the strategy says.

“The United States, with its allies and partners who share common open, democratic, and market-oriented values, will continue to lead the world in [critical and emerging technologies].”


U.S. targets the stash houses of human smugglers

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is cracking down on human smuggling by focusing its efforts on rescuing migrants from stash houses.

Stash houses are where human smugglers put migrants until they can relocate them either within countries or across borders.

“The criminal activity associated with stash houses creates a danger and a health risk for neighboring residents,” said Matthew Hudak, the chief patrol agent for CBP’s Laredo, Texas, sector, on October 30 after the closing of a stash house.

“By working together, we are able to better enforce the law and protect our community and communities throughout the country from COVID-19 and other dangerous threats,” Hudak said.

Human smugglers frequently abandon immigrants in stash houses for many days before moving them to a new location. With dozens of immigrants held in small houses without proper sanitation, hazardous living conditions often develop, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Many times the smugglers extort additional money just to keep their human cargo in putrid, unsanitary conditions,” said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Kenneth Kroupa. And after the smugglers abandon them, the migrants “can’t escape because often they are locked in.”

Kroupa described scenes of dozens of migrants — weary after traveling thousands of miles — stuffed into small rooms without running water, electricity or access to food. Smugglers leave the migrants there without any contact with the outside world.

Between October 2019 and October 2020, CBP uncovered and shut down 397 stash houses. They were located along the U.S.-Mexico border from Texas to California, in towns like Yuma, Arizona, and Laredo.

CBP found over 100 of the houses in Laredo alone, and in Edinburg, Texas, CBP uncovered 141.

With the spread of COVID-19 across Mexico and the southern U.S., these stash houses become centers of illness, introducing the virus into groups of migrants and rendering the houses even deadlier.

The United States seeks to prevent migrants from ending up in stash houses by addressing root causes. In June, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo announced $252 million in additional U.S. foreign assistance for the Northern Triangle countries.

“This assistance will promote U.S. national security and further the president’s goal of decreasing illegal immigration to the United States,” he said.


U.S. Space Force swears in its first recruits

The first four recruits to the U.S. Space Force were sworn in October 20 by General David D. Thompson, the vice chief of space operations, at the Baltimore Military Entrance Processing Command station, Fort George G. Meade, Maryland.

Four hours later they were joined by three additional Space Force recruits in Colorado.

The recruits all hold a military occupation specialty in space systems operations, according to Stars and Stripes. They will focus on tasks ranging from detecting sea-launched ballistic missiles and tracking satellites to assisting in rocket launches and space flight operations.

“Today is an important milestone as we stand up the Space Force,” Thompson said. “Until now, we’ve been focused on building our initial ranks with transfers from the Air Force. With these new recruits, we begin to look to the future of our force by bringing in the right people directly to realize our aspirations of building a tech-savvy service that’s reflective of the nation we serve.”

All seven recruits are bound for seven-and-a-half weeks of basic training at Joint Base San Antonio—Lackland in San Antonio, Texas.

The recruits come from Colorado, Maryland and Virginia, and they range in age from 18 to 31.

By the end of fiscal year 2021, the Space Force is expected to have about 6,500 active-duty Space Force members.


Americans vote on more than a president in November

When Americans stream into polling places November 3, the presidential election will be the main attraction. But Election Day in the United States will give voters the chance to weigh in on so much more.

Leaders will be chosen at the federal, state and local levels. And policy decisions will be put directly to a vote under a ballot initiative system that allows citizens in many states to decide on questions that can affect their daily lives.

Beyond choosing a president

This year at the federal level, voters will choose a U.S. president, 35 members of the U.S. Senate and all 435 voting members of the U.S. House of Representatives. (Senators serve for six years, so each election cycle about one-third of the 100 seats are up for a vote. Every representative’s seat is up for election every two years, on the even years.)

At the state level, 11 governorships are up for grabs this year, as are more than 5,000 state legislature seats.

Graphic showing offices up for election in the U.S. at federal and state levels in 2020 (State Dept./B. Insley)

“What a president does on a day-to-day basis doesn’t affect people’s lives like local and state governments do,” said Stella Rouse, a government professor at the University of Maryland and director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement. “Most of the laws that are passed are passed at the state level.” That’s why this year’s state elections are particularly important.

Moreover, newly elected state legislators will take part in redoing the lines that determine congressional districts. It is an every-10-year overhaul (based on a decennial census) that can help one party or another. “It really matters who controls the state legislature,” says Josh Chafetz, a law professor at Cornell University.

State elected officials are important when gridlock among elected officials in Washington slows federal lawmaking.  “We should look to the states,” Rouse said. “They are filling the void in passing policies” in areas such as immigration.

Local officials like mayors and city council members get more consideration during a presidential election year, when voter turnout is high. That’s good because they govern issues close to voters’ hearts, like which streets get repaired, whether improvements are made to local schools and whether the regional economy gets a boost.

Policy by the people

Twenty-four states also let voters partly bypass the elected officials and have their say directly on issues through ballot initiatives. Initiatives became popular in 1978, when California voters slashed property taxes under something called Proposition 13. Other measures that have passed in some states tightened gun laws, raised the minimum wage for workers and created independent commissions to oversee redistricting.

Rouse said the theory behind ballot initiatives is to give more power to the people. But the costs of mounting ballot campaigns — including paying lawyers to draw up the wording and buying advertisements — have gotten so high they are less accessible today to individuals.

How will the winners govern?

The U.S. system of sharing power between different levels of government is based in the Constitution, which divides power between state and federal officials, with the states sharing their authority with local government.

“There are some things you want to coordinate at the national level,” Chafetz said, like national defense. “There are plenty of other policies [for which] there’s no reason they should be uniform everywhere. What federalism does, in theory, is allow both.”

Voters get to choose, for instance, whether they want a high level of services and higher taxes in their state, while voters in another state can pick the opposite.

Federalism can lead to conflict between state and national officeholders but also leads to better policies, according to Rouse. “Dividing power and the constant push and pull between national and state governments is a good thing,” she said. “When you go through that process, what comes out as policy is about as good as you can get.”


Swing states keep campaigns guessing

While each major U.S. political party has many states it counts on winning in November’s presidential election, a handful of states are too close to predict.

These “swing states” have populations that are closely divided politically. They have swung back and forth between Democratic and Republican candidates in recent years. They are the battleground states that candidates have targeted with campaign visits, advertising and staffing.

Experts don’t always agree on which states are swing states. The Cook Political Report sees Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as toss-ups. Other experts would add New Hampshire, North Carolina and a handful of others to the list.

Swing states and the Electoral College

Americans do not vote directly for their president in November, but rather choose members of the Electoral College who then meet in December and cast their votes based on how the majority of voters in their state voted the previous month. The number of electors each state gets is based on population. For example, Florida, with its large population, will determine 29 electoral votes. (That ties with New York for the most after California and Texas.) The presidential candidate who wins states like Florida has a better chance of winning the election, which requires 270 electoral votes.

The map on the left, below, shows the 50 states of the United States as you are used to seeing them. The map on the right shows the states sized according to how many electoral votes they have.

Florida’s special place

Unpredictable and large, like a St. Bernard puppy in the middle of a tea party, Florida is not to be ignored in the presidential election.

It swings between major parties — the state supported Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and Republican George W. Bush in 2000, for instance. “You don’t want to ignore a state with 29 electoral votes,” says Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer. The fact that the winner in the Sunshine State has won the presidency in every presidential race since 1964 lends it a special mystique.

“The margin is so razor thin in the state,” Greer said. “Mississippi you can call right now: It’s Republican. With Florida in presidential elections, we don’t know how it’s going to behave.”

In the past two presidential and governors’ races, the margin of victory in Florida has been 1 percentage point. And the state famously ended the 2000 election with a photo finish. It took weeks for Florida officials to recheck ballots and determine that George W. Bush, not Al Gore, was elected president — an outcome that was subsequently confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

About 37 percent of Florida’s electorate is Democratic, 35 percent is Republican and 27 percent don’t belong to a party, according to Susan MacManus, a political science professor emerita at the University of South Florida and a long-time expert on Florida voting patterns.

Independents contribute to the volatility of Florida’s voting behavior. Instead of basing decisions on party, they look at the ideology and authenticity of candidates, MacManus said. “They are very down on the two-party system, and they hate polarization,” she said.

While the state is known for its elderly population, that’s not a reflection of the electorate any more. “The idea everyone here is an older person is bunk,” MacManus said. In fact, the youngest three generations (born in 1965 and later) amount to 54 percent of registered voters. Many of the state’s younger voters are independents.

Women will be a big factor in the general election because they are a majority of the electorate, especially in the Democratic Party. Women make up 58 percent of Florida’s registered Democrats, compared to men’s 39 percent. Voters are diverse in other ways, according to Greer. Latinos, for instance, include Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans and Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans. The state has “snowbirds” registered to vote — winter residents who travel south each year from areas like the Midwest and Northeast. And Florida boasts rural areas and big cities. “Jacksonville is like the Deep South; Miami is more like Europe,” Greer says.

All that diversity means Florida is where candidates can try out their acts to figure out how to reach a national audience. “We’re sort of the guinea pig for how issues are going to play and how you communicate with different slices of that electorate,” MacManus said.


U.S. leads in fight against transnational corruption

An international anti-corruption group is praising the United States as a world leader in the fight against bribery and corruption.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Working Group on Bribery in a November 17 report commended the United States for bolstering its already strong enforcement of anti-corruption laws and encouraging others to follow the OECD’s Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions.

“The United States has further increased its strong enforcement of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), maintaining its prominent role in the fight against transnational corruption,” the report states.

The report from the OECD’s Working Group on Bribery finds that between 2010 and 2019 the United States convicted or sanctioned 174 companies and 115 individuals for foreign bribery or other offenses under the FCPA.

The working group includes 44 member nations and monitors how well countries implement anti-corruption measures. Representatives from Argentina and the United Kingdom evaluated U.S. anti-corruption efforts for the recent report.

The working group commends U.S. expertise and resources dedicated to fighting corruption and highlights successful policies, including coordination in investigating and resolving cases and training of foreign partners to bolster their anti-corruption efforts.

U.S. State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Cale Brown said that the United States works closely with the OECD and seeks to lead by example in the fight against corruption.

“The United States has long been a global leader in combatting foreign bribery, and our efforts are a key pillar of U.S. anti-corruption efforts,” Brown said in a November 17 statement. “Bribery hinders the clean and competitive functioning of the global economy, distorts markets, and raises the cost of doing business around the world.”


Meet the next astronauts to land on the moon

The newly announced members of the Artemis Team — the next astronaut missions to the moon — reflect the diversity of and range of opportunity in the United States. Of the nearly 20 astronauts announced, half are women and people of color.

NASA announced its latest selection of 18 elite astronauts — all of whom hail from its pre-existing corps — to the Artemis Team.

“The Artemis Generation are the heroes of American space exploration in the future,” said Vice President Pence at the eighth meeting of the National Space Council, of which he is the chairman, on December 9.

The crew has a wide range of experience, from relative newcomers to seasoned, record-breaking space veterans.

Stephanie Wilson has been an astronaut with NASA since 1996 and holds the record among African-American astronauts for spending the most time in space. And Christina Hammock Koch completed the longest single spaceflight by a woman at 328 days in space and six spacewalks.

Some are the children of immigrants. Dr. Jonathan “Jonny” Kim’s parents immigrated to Los Angeles from South Korea in the early 1980s. Kim enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating high school and went on to become a Navy SEAL, one of the top elite corps in the U.S. military. In 2016, Kim completed his medical degree from Harvard University and joined NASA a year later.

“We are dreamers, but even more so, we’re doers,” Anne McClain, one of the newly selected Artemis astronauts, said at the December 9 ceremony. “The doors are open, come on after us.”

It has been 48 years since the last U.S. mission to the moon’s surface. NASA is currently on track to launch Artemis astronauts to the moon or lunar orbit by 2024.

Before then, NASA says, the Artemis astronauts will help NASA prepare for coming lunar missions. Beginning next year, the Artemis team will work with NASA’s commercial partners to develop human landing systems, come up with a training plan and consult on the construction of technical equipment.