Coburn asks USDA to explain spending thousands on alcohol and free lunches

There is such a thing as a free lunch – just ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Whether it’s fair or not is another question.

The department is facing criticism from Republican Sen. Tom Coburn for shelling out massive amounts of money on subsidies for island homes for the wealthy, vodka and celebrity chef junkets. Also getting funded are free lunches for people who don’t seem to be in need.

Coburn, the resident congressional waste watcher, outlined four programs in a letter dated June 19 to Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack that he believes squanders taxpayer dollars.

Coburn says since the sequester, the Agriculture Department has blown $45,000 on a West Virginia Bloody Mary mix company and spent thousands more to help vineyards across the country.

In his letter, Coburn asks Vilsack to explain to taxpayers why he threatened to cut off funding for food for more than 500,000 needy women and children as part of sequestration, but had no problem dipping into the department’s Market Access Program/Global and Broad-based Initiative to put on an Asian chef competition on March 26.

Coburn says the wasteful spending doesn’t stop there.

“Just last month, USDA awarded over 100 value-added producer grants for questionable projects, such as social media for pickles, marketing of pizza and ice cream and researching fish food,” Coburn said.

Coburn says he also has a problem with the department subsidizing island homes in the tony town of Martha’s Vineyard, located south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

“This is not the type of community one would expect needs public assistance or would be negatively impacted by sequestration,” Coburn writes. “The ‘cheapest home’ listed for sale on the island is ‘a two-bedroom condo listed at $260,000. ‘ As it turns out, Martha’s Vineyard is actually receiving federal housing and other assistance dispute sequestration.”

Martha’s Vineyard has been deemed a rural area eligible for taxpayer-backed home loans by Vilsack’s department.

Another Coburn complaint is that the USDA is picking up the cost to provide free lunches to all children 18 years or younger -- regardless of need -- as part of a Tulsa, Okla., Summer Food Service Program.

“While most Americans would support ensuring every kid has a nutritious meal, it  makes little sense to be giving free meals to those not in need while cutting assistance to 600,000 women and children who rely on WIC for food and health care services,” he said.

Coburn’s latest letter is just one of more than a dozen he’s fired off to various government agencies and departments that he thinks are wasting taxpayer money.

Three calls made to the Department of Agriculture for comment Thursday were not immediately returned.