Friday, December 07, 2018

Let's see the research before reversing school lunch standards

After years of effort to strengthen nutrition standards, based on scientific reports from the National Academies and others, leading to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, USDA yesterday published a final rule that rolled back the proposed standards in three ways: (1) delaying implementation of interim standards for sodium, and giving up on the eventual more ambitious standards; (2) allowing sweetened flavored low-fat milk, and (3) relaxing rules to encourage whole grain content.

It is good to base major child nutrition policy decisions on the best and most recent research. Every few years, USDA publishes a major School Nutrition Dietary Assessment (SNDA) and a school meals cost study. The last SNDA, in 2012, found that many school meals fell short of targets for whole grains and sodium, for example.

For the most recent such research, USDA funded a major study by Mathematica Policy Research that for the first time would combine the previously separate studies into a single more coherent School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study (SNMCS). The Mathematica website lists the study as running from 2013-2017. The study has long been awaiting clearance at USDA.

For sound science-based policy-making, an appealing option for USDA could have been to first publish this important study and then afterwards publish the final rule on school meals standards. However, this week the order was reversed, with policy decision first. We will read the scientific report with great interest when it is published.






Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Seeking grant proposals for research on USDA nutrition assistance programs

The Tufts/UConn RIDGE Program seeks to support innovative economic research on domestic nutrition assistance programs and to broaden a network of researchers applying their expertise to USDA topics. The RIDGE Program seeks applications from a diverse community of experienced nutrition assistance researchers, graduate students, early career scholars, and established researchers who bring expertise in another research area.

Full details are available in the 2019 Request for Proposals (RFP). Additional information will be provided during the RIDGE Informational Webinar for ApplicantsMonday, December 17, 2018 at 12PM EST

Important Dates for the 2019 Submission Cycle

Request for proposals release:                       November 28, 2018
Informational webinar for applicants:              December 17, 2018 12PM EST
Concept paper due:                                        January 25, 2019
Full proposal (by invitation) due:                     March 29, 2019
Funding period (up to 18 months):                 June 1, 2019 – November 30, 2020

For additional questions, contact ridge@tufts.edu.


Saturday, July 21, 2018

How old is the term "coconut milk"?

In the New Republic this week, Emily Atkin reviews the renewed Trump administration interest in restricting the word "milk" on labels for products such as "soy milk" and "coconut milk."
“As the [FDA] Commissioner noted, the dictionary definition of the word ‘milk’ does include coming from nuts, and this is not a new concept,” the Plant Based Food Association said in an emailed statement. Indeed, Gottlieb on Tuesday acknowledged that “if you open up a dictionary, it talks about milk coming from a lactating animal or a nut.” This is one of several reasons why non-dairy milk companies reject the idea that they’re misleading consumers.
The argument made me wonder how old is the use of "milk" for products other than cow's milk? Here are a couple entries from Merriam-Webster (which seemed to require sign-in after the first few lookups):
I also looked up 100 Bible verses with the word "milk" in English translation (Hebrew and Greek may be another matter). For the dairy industry, the good news is that most verses did refer to excretions from a lactating mammal. Isaiah provided the most metaphorical use I could find: "You shall suck the milk of nations; you shall nurse at the breast of kings." And the dairy industry may hope that Isaiah was just being aspirational in some of his comments: "He who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price."

Others have recently pointed out the many names of food products that could get caught up in an overly literal FDA rulebook, if it were applied consistently.
  • Hamburgers (contain no ham ... and aren't from Hamburg either).
  • Hot dogs (contain no dog).
The comment period for the FDA proposal will soon open, and I suspect there will be plenty of submissions on this topic.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Can we improve the nutrition quality of the food supply by restraining international trade?

Because the Donald Trump administration is rolling back U.S. commitments in major trade agreements, our trading partners are retaliating with import restraints on U.S. food and agricultural products.

For example, the European Union (EU) may erect new trade barriers on peanut butter, sweetcorn, and orange juice. Canada may impose barriers on yogurt, processed meals with meats, pizza, maple syrup, cucumbers, and many other products.

Notice the diversity of nutrition profiles for these products. Food that would have been sent to Europe or Canada will instead remain on the U.S. market.

The question for my new video (fourth in a series) is: Can we improve the nutrition quality of the food supply by restraining international trade?

Parke Wilde - Nutrition Quality and International Trade from Tufts Friedman School on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Massachusetts reinstates the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) effective tomorrow

In a significant win for community food security advocates, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker yesterday signed into law a supplemental budget with funding to extend the statewide SNAP Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) through the end of the fiscal year.

This decision reversed a funding-related pause in the popular incentive program for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) purchases of fruit and vegetables in local food retail outlets, including farmers' markets. The federal government's funding source, the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives (FINI) program, required a local match, and program uptake in Massachusetts was so enthusiastic that money ran out earlier than expected. Longer term funding remains uncertain.

With funding from the supplemental budget for this fiscal year, the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) announced today that HIP will be reinstated effective tomorrow, Wed. May 23. The announcement acknowledged, "The suspension of HIP was an unpleasant reality for many.... As with news of the suspension, the Department is committed to mitigating client confusion for the reinstatement of the program."

FINI and HIP build in part on the evidence base from the earlier USDA-funded Healthy Incentives Pilot in Hampden County, Massachusetts, which included a 30% incentive on targeted fruits and vegetables purchased using the SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. A series of evaluation studies was led by Abt Associates; I served as director of design and contributed research especially on the food spending outcome results. Results from the pilot are available in a 2015 final report to USDA/FNS and articles in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Applied Economics Perspectives and Policy. New evaluations of the FINI programs in Massachusetts and elsewhere will be forthcoming.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Should the federal government stop encouraging Americans to eat more beef, pork, and cheese?

The question for this new video (third in a series) is: Should the federal government stop encouraging Americans to eat more beef, pork, and cheese?

For more information about reform of the federal commodity checkoff programs discussed in this video, see the bipartisan Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act of 2017, introduced last year by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

 
Parke Wilde - Federal Commodity Checkoff Programs from Tufts Friedman School on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The House Farm Bill will make it harder (not easier) to work while on SNAP

The House Farm Bill (H.R. 2) passed the Committee on Agriculture with only Republican votes and will soon go to the floor, where it faces strong criticism from Democrats who are concerned about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provisions.

The provisions in question are widely described as "enhancing work requirements," which sounds like a good thing, but these provisions are very tough on working participants. An analysis by Dottie Rosenbaum at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) today persuasively argues that the changes "are a bad deal for states and low-income households."

  • One provision would require state agencies to ramp up employment and training programs to an unprecedented level, and it would reduce their ability to design these programs to meet local needs. 
  • Another provision would require up to 7 million working-age SNAP participants to report their weekly wages and hours is much greater detail, in order to enforce new benefit penalties for those who fall short.
I fear this could yield a bureaucratic charade, with enormous investments in documenting the appearance of trying to work, taking participants away from their actual efforts to get on their feet in the private sector and taking program managers away from the main job of helping families get the resources they need to eat.

The House proposal overlooks the great accomplishment of SNAP in recent decades, transforming a program that once had been just about safety net support for non-working families into a much more labor-market-friendly program that is open and accessible to working families as well. For example, at one time years ago, as Nader Kabbani and I found in the Journal of Human Resources, SNAP policy had perverse incentives for states to make the program less accessible to working people, in order to avoid the appearance of "errors" in benefit amount determination for families with fluctuating incomes. Later, important policy reforms streamlined the program's bureaucracy and simplified paperwork by allowing state agencies to determine the SNAP benefit amount for 6 months at a time, with less need for frequent reporting of minor changes in earnings. The new Farm Bill draft in the House reverses these changes, increasing the burden for program managers, and quite possibly deterring participation by working families with fluctuating incomes.

I recognize that thoughtful people want able-bodied SNAP participants to stay connected with the labor market as much as possible, and I entirely agree. Recently, in a Q and A about the Farm Bill in Nutrition Today, Ph.D. student Mehreen Ismail and I summarized some of the research on this issue.
Does SNAP discourage work?
More than 30% of all SNAP households had earnings from work in fiscal year 2015. This proportion was 55% among households with children. Most working SNAP participants are employed in low-wage occupations. By design, the SNAP benefit formula supports working households through its earned income deduction and benefit reduction rate. For every additional $1 of earned income, working households experience a $0.24 to $0.36 decrease in SNAP benefits, preventing a steep ‘‘cliff effect.’’ The 2014 Farm Bill authorized $200 million to pilot SNAP Employment and Training (E and T) programs. The E and T programs connect SNAP participants with skills training, job search assistance, subsidized employment, and more. Integrating strategies in a comprehensive, individualized way may enhance the E and T programs’ ability to lift unemployed or underemployed SNAP participants out of poverty.
The best work-friendly safety net is one in which low-wage working people can participate in SNAP with a minimum of fuss, while working as hard as they can.

In my view, the House Farm Bill seems less likely to make SNAP participants hard-working, and more likely just to make them hungry.