Thursday, July 28, 2005

Restaurant hygiene grade cards

Ginger Zhe Lin and Phillip Leslie write in the latest issue of Choices about restaurant hygiene grade cards, in which Los Angeles restaurants were required to post a report card showing how they scored in city health inspections. Their clever study analyzes the reasons why many restaurants had poor hygiene in the period before the new report cards were introduced in 1998. Even in this early period, consumers had some information about hygiene, such as could be seen in bathroom cleanliness for example, but they were ignorant about most of the shortcomings health inspectors could identify. Also, restaurants with a tourist clientele appeared to do worse than restaurants with predominantly repeat customers. Then, after the new policy was instituted, hygiene improved sharply. The authors even compile data on hospitalizations to suggest that lower foodborne illness resulted after 1998.
In conclusion, the use of restaurant hygiene grade cards in Los Angeles has been a great success. By increasing the provision of information to consumers, powerful economic incentives are created for restaurants to improve hygiene, leading to a significant improvement in public health outcomes. Moreover, because the DHS already perform inspections, the grade cards create negligible additional cost for the government.
Economists tend to perceive many food safety issues as information failures -- the problem is that sellers know something about the quality of the product that buyers don't know. The delightfully non-bureaucratic solution to many information failures is to make sure that customers get the information they deserve.

So when are we going to get nutrition information for restaurants? Currently, leading companies such as McDonald's and Subway provide such information on the internet and frequently on information sheets available in-store upon request. In the past, for different reasons, we happened to report in U.S. Food Policy that Fuddruckers and Quizno's (also here) appear to hide much of their nutrition profile from their customers. In the case of Quizno's, I wrote management to ask for nutrition information with no success. Do you think nobody cares? Think again! An informal review suggests that the two most frequent search items that lead people to read U.S. Food Policy -- bringing perhaps a couple dozen hits daily -- are "Quizno's nutrition" and "Fuddruckers nutrition."

Go ahead, Fuddruckers and Quizno's. Please take my traffic away. Establish nutrition information sites to provide customers with much-desired nutrition information for your whole product line. Maybe they'll stop reading further down the list of results on their search engine and never look here for opinion and commentary.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The economic advantages of obesity

Slate's Daniel Gross posted a half-sarcastic article on Thursday last week about the business opportunities presented by an increasingly overweight U.S. population. Thanks to James Chapman for suggesting the link in an email message while I was away.

Like the discussion a couple weeks ago about including breast milk in national income accounts, Gross' article reminded me of a professor's explanation many years ago about some of the quirks of computing gross domestic product: for example, if the government printed money and buried it in deep holes, so that people had to shovel the money out again, all of this activity would appear to add positively to GDP.

Similarly, I have been wondering recently about the role of meat consumption in answering a question I frequently hear in nutrition circles: do USDA farm subsidy programs contribute to obesity? The argument is often that corn subsidies in particular may encourage overconsumption of products such as high fructose corn syrup. But I think the majority of corn is used as animal feed in the United States. To the extent that any farm program lowers market prices for corn, it would make meat production less expensive. Meat is such a resource inefficient way of producing calories. I wonder if such farm programs would actually promote less obesity.

Suppose there were a "national income account" for food calorie production, import, export, and consumption from all farm commodities. In this "national calorie account," would subsidizing meat production through lower corn prices be equivalent to burying currency in holes in the ground? Would it generate lots of unnecessary economic activity (and producer income) while squandering calories and lowering the total amount of food energy consumed in the United States?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

AAEA annual meeting in Providence

The annual meeting of the American Agricultural Economics Association starting today here in Providence, RI, offers an exceptional number of program items about U.S. food safety and nutrition issues, along with the more traditional fare of agricultural economics topics. Jim Tillotson, Ben Senauer and I are speaking tomorrow (Monday) at 3:30 pm in a symposium session about food industry responses to obesity. Interestingly, the session is sponsored not by the association's Food Safety and Nutrition section, but by the Food and Agricultural Marketing Policy Section (FAMPS). Food manufacturers and retailers, and the economists who work with them, are very interested in nutrition topics lately. The Food Safety and Nutrition Section also has many sessions throughout the conference.

For diversion and education, some folks are meeting local food advocate Noah Fulmer at the Providence Monday farmers' market downtown at 5:20 p.m. Monday at the information table, for a tour and introduction to the produce of local farmers.

Kathleen Merrigan from the Friedman School at Tufts, and former chief of USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service, is the luncheon speaker at the main extension event at noon on Tuesday.

Update (7/27/2005): Corrected spelling of Fulmer's name.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Essential nutrients: food or supplements?

Alice Lichtenstein and Robert Russell offer a remarkable essay on food and dietary supplements in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The authors, colleagues on the faculty of Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, cast doubt on the value of dietary supplements and emphasize the health advantages of a wholesome diet based on real foods.
The consumption of adequate levels and proper balance of essential nutrients is critical for maintaining health. The identification, isolation, and purification of nutrients in the early 20th century raised the possibility that optimal health outcomes could be realized through nutrient supplementation. Recent attempts using this approach for cardiovascular disease and lung cancer have been disappointing, as demonstrated with vitamin E and beta carotene. Moreover, previously unrecognized risks caused by nutrient toxicity and nutrient interactions have surfaced during intervention studies. The most promising data in the area of nutrition and positive health outcomes relate to dietary patterns, not nutrient supplements. These data suggest that other factors in food or the relative presence of some foods and the absence of other foods are more important than the level of individual nutrients consumed. Finally, unknown are the implications on public health behavior of shifting the emphasis away from food toward nutrient supplements. Notwithstanding the justification for targeting recommendations for nutrient supplements to certain segments of the population (eg, the elderly), there are insufficient data to justify an alteration in public health policy from one that emphasizes food and diet to one that emphasizes nutrient supplements.
Lichtenstein and colleague Miriam Nelson have recently completed the latest book in Nelson's "Strong Women" series: Strong Women, Strong Hearts.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

How much energy does it take to make ethanol?

From Robert Bryce at Slate today:

The stickiest question about ethanol is this: Does making alcohol from grain or plant waste really create any new energy?

The answer, of course, depends upon whom you ask. The ethanol lobby claims there's a 30 percent net gain in BTUs from ethanol made from corn. Other boosters, including Woolsey, claim there are huge energy gains (as much as 700 percent) to be had by making ethanol from grass.

But the ethanol critics have shown that the industry calculations are bogus. David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.

Monday, July 18, 2005

A math problem for you

What is the next element in the following set: {July 1 2002, July 1 2003, July 1 2004, ...}? You're right! So, it makes me wonder, where is the 2005 annual report that USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service must submit to Congress each year, describing the activities of the advertising and promotion campaigns for milk, cheese, butter, and so forth? While the beef, pork, and dairy industries were delighted by the recent Supreme Court decision upholding their constitutionality, this annual report may be more difficult to write this year than in past years. Now that everybody acknowledges these advertising campaigns are the federal government's own work, it may be difficult to explain in a report to Congress exactly what the campaigns do. The challenge is to make the dairy industry happy with the program's aggressive marketing and yet avoid emphasizing the tension between the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the advertisements promoting increased consumption of high-calorie and high-saturated-fat foods (with fad weight-loss claims).

Update (7/19/2005): edited a run-on sentence.

Mothers' milk and measures of economic output

This recent abstract from Julie Smith and Lindy Ingham in the journal Feminist Economics suggests that national income and product accounts should include the value of breastmilk in the category for food production:
Thoughtful economists have long been aware of the limitations of national accounting and GDP in measuring economic activity and material well-being. Feminist economists criticize the failure to count women's unpaid and reproductive work in measures of economic production. This paper examines the treatment of human milk production in national accounting guidelines. Human milk is an important resource produced by women. Significant maternal and child health costs result from children's premature weaning onto formula or solid food. While human milk production meets the standard national accounting criteria for inclusion in GDP, current practice is to ignore its significant economic value and the substantial private and public health costs of commercial breastmilk substitutes. Economic output measures such as GDP thus are incomplete and biased estimates of national food production and overall economic output, and they distort policy priorities to the disadvantage of women and children.
Okay, mother's milk on its own might not compete in quantity or economic importance with the major industrial contributors to our national well-being, such as Cargill or Coca Cola. But most economists would acknowledge that national income accounts don't handle home production of goods and services very well.

The abstract is a reminder about how difficult it is to quantify the value of the goods and services that count most. Take parenting, for example. Faced with the two income trap, many middle-class families I know -- including ours -- have lowered their stress and improved their quality of life by scaling back to one wage or salary. In many of these families, but still surely far short of half, the father is the main daytime caretaker for children. For all its faults, modern American society seems to offer a number of options for fathers to be full-time caretakers and still be men by whatever definition they like (I was reflecting on this yesterday afternoon while struggling up a grueling rocky mountain bike trail, far behind a friend who is a full-time dad, who just popped his front wheel over the boulders and sailed right up). In another fraction of these families, the father is the main salary earner, but the division of parenting and household labor is fair to both parents. Breastmilk may not have a market price, but it provides a nice example of a valuable home produced good. And it's not the only one. I think many families that put one person's full-time work into home production could only look poorer than a comparable two-salary family when viewed through green eye shades.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Soft drink warning labels?

Jack from Fork and Bottle writes us to point out that conventional news coverage generally requires nearly equal space for public interest group suggestions and the industry response. One side claims sugary soda is unhealthy, and the other side claims you should let your kids get 15 percent of their total daily calories from sugary soda (I'm not making this up -- that's the average daily calories from soda among teens who drink soft drinks). The matter is disputed and who knows what to believe? I enjoyed reading the actual text of the Center for Science in the Public Interest's recently proposed labels:
  • The U.S. Government recommends that you drink less (non-diet) soda to help prevent weight gain, tooth decay, and other health problems.
  • To help protect your waistline and your teeth, consider drinking diet sodas or water.
  • Drinking soft drinks instead of milk or calcium-fortified beverages may increase your risk of brittle bones (osteoporosis).
  • CSPI also said that caffeinated drinks should bear a notice that reads "This drink contains x grams of caffeine, which is a mildly addictive stimulant drug. Not appropriate for children."
Incidently, the ubiquitous industry response line in the Reuters coverage argues that individuals, not the government, should be allowed to make decisions about food and beverage consumption. Nice slight of hand, eh? The proposal was for truthful warning labels, not food police.

Summer reading list for food lovers

Rebecca's Pocket links to a summer reading list for food lovers, from Rachel Forrest of the Portsmouth Herald.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Failed self-regulation of children's advertising

From the advance text of Senator Tom Harkin's speech yesterday to the Federal Trade Commission about advertising to children and the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), the marketing industry's toothless effort at self-regulation:
I understand that the Grocery Manufacturers of America is set to unveil new, supposedly tougher proposals for voluntary restrictions. Based on a story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, GMA will offer many perfectly fine ideas. For instance, it would limit product placements in TV shows, and the use of licensed characters in ads and food packaging. I’m all for it.
I have not seen details of the GMA proposals, so I will withhold any final judgment. But based on what I have read so far, there appears to be no meaningful enforcement mechanism . . . no truly independent body with the will and the power to crack down on offenders.
If CARU is the model, that is a non-starter. CARU, frankly, has become a poster child for how not to conduct self-regulation. Time and again, it has shown itself to be a captive of the industry. It has no real independence. No sanction authority. No teeth.
The current situation is like a game with a rule book, but no real referee. CARU is a tiny group tasked with oversight of a multibillion-dollar industry. To me, the deck seems a bit stacked.
And the proof is in the pudding. Look at the deluge of junk food advertising aimed at kids that we see today. CARU has given the green light to all of it!
The Public Health Advocacy Institute has a new report, which includes convincing examples of advertisements that CARU allowed to proceed despite their clear failure to meet the review unit's own standards. The Center for Science in the Public interest today reiterated its call for stronger protections for children.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Growing meat in a laboratory

Here's the conclusion of Effect Measure's commentary on the recent scientific paper describing new methods for culturing meat:
Let's assume for the moment some untoward consequence doesn't come along to spoil the party. Will future generations look back on the twentieth century and early twenty-first as a time of high barbarism where gigantic industrial killing machines ("the food industry") were used to feed the ravenous maw of a world population out of control, spawning the seeds of mass extinction by zoonotic disease? Or will mass extinction via a "natural" population crash make the point for us?
Tigers and Strawberries has a long and entertaining post, essentially about what good-hearted people should do until such time as laboratory grown meat becomes a reality. For one thing, she says they should stop complaining that meat looks like it was once alive:

I suspect that I will never stop hearing that particular complaint, at least until humans figure out how to safely clone and culture animal muscle cells in vats, like they do in some of Lois McMaster Bujold's science fiction novels. I jokingly made reference to that last week, and then this week, was surprised to see a news story on the issue at Sustainable Table.

In her book several years ago, Chicken Little, Tomato Sauce and Agriculture: Who Will Produce Tomorrow's Food?, Columbia nutritionist Joan Dye Gussow had no patience with this type of industrial development. She would not have been surprised by this week's news.

AAEA's Choices Magazine explains trade policy

The latest issue of Choices Magazine, the lay publication of the American Agricultural Economics Association, has a wonderful explanation of how recent trade negotiations and court rulings will affect U.S. agriculture.

First, Timothy Josling summarizes the Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations. These global negotiations have increased the pressure on the United States and European Union to reduce their trade-distorting domestic agricultural subsidies. Second, Mechel Paggi, Lynn Kennedy, Fumiko Yamazaki, and Tim Josling review regional trade agreements, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). A particularly interesting article, by Darren Hudson, C. Parr Rosson III, John Robinson, and Jaime Malaga discusses the implications of the recent WTO ruling against U.S. cotton subsidies, which may in fact call into question a broader range of domestic farm programs.

The authors begin:
Once in a while, an event comes along that portends to reshape agricultural policy. Brazil's complaint in the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the United States on domestic support for cotton, export credit guarantees, and export subsidies could be one such event....
And conclude:
US farm policy is formed in a dynamic setting. Agriculture is becoming an ever-shrinking share of the US federal budget; demographic trends make the population further removed from the farm and rural life. As international problems and goals consume more time and money, agriculture will increasingly become the residual claimant for federal resources. Agriculture may increasingly become the carrot for the United States to use in trade negotiations, because agriculture is a larger relative share of the economy of developing and less developed countries.

Although US agricultural tariffs are already among the world's lowest, its trade-distorting domestic farm support ranks near the top, along with the European Union and Japan. The farm programs of all three countries may be targets of challenge in the future. A successful conclusion to the Doha Round would likely mitigate this outcome, whereas failure in Doha will almost certainly ensure a future fraught with litigation.
I've recently added KickAAS ("Kick all agricultural subsidies"), a strongly anti-farm-program weblog, to my regular reading schedule. It reports that most national leaders at the recent G8 summit in Scotland gave tepid statements rehashing earlier positions in favor of agricultural trade negotiations, but without firm deadlines, while President Bush more boldly offered a specific deadline of 2010 for changing U.S. farm programs if other aspects of international negotiations meet U.S. agreement. For balance, the progressive Institute on Agricultural and Trade Policy (IATP) covers recent developments on the same topics from a well-articulated position much less favorable to the trade agreements.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Farmers and estate taxes

Protecting farmers is an important part of the rhetoric that has been used to promote emasculating or entirely repealing federal estate taxes. David Cay Johnston reported in the New York Times yesterday:

The number of farms on which estate tax is owed when the owners die has fallen by 82 percent since 2000, to just 300 farms, as Congress has more than doubled the threshold at which the tax applies, the Congressional Budget Office said in a report released last week.

All but 27 farmers left enough liquid assets to pay taxes owed, the budget office found, although it hinted that the actual number might be zero. The study examined how much in cash, stocks and bonds these farmers left to pay estate taxes, but the report noted that no data existed on how much life insurance the farmers had put into trusts. Virtually all wealthy farmers own life insurance in trusts, say estate tax lawyers who specialize in working with farmers.

These findings come as the Senate is poised to vote this month on repeal of the estate tax. Advocates of repeal have begun showing commercials criticizing senators who oppose repeal, like Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington. Many of the criticisms focus on a supposed threat to family farms.

The link to the Congressional Budget Office report is here (.pdf). Thanks to Jonathan Weiler of the Gadflyer weblog for the link. Weiler challenges readers to uncover just one farmer nationwide whose farm was lost to his or her descendents due to the estate tax.

Update (7/19/2005): fixed typo in Johnston's name.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Would the farm lobby betray the Food Stamp Program?

Dorothy Rosenbaum of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities writes today:
Some agricultural commodity groups have suggested that the House and Senate Agriculture Committees meet their $3 billion reconciliation instruction by cutting each program area that the Committees control in proportion to that area’s share of overall Agriculture Committee spending. These groups have circulated documents showing that under this approach, the Food Stamp Program would be reduced by $1.7 billion over five years and bear 57 percent of the cuts in the House, and $2 billion over five years (bearing 67 percent of the cuts) in the Senate. The purpose of this proposal is clear — to shift the majority of the cuts from farm-related programs to food stamps.

This self-serving proposal assumes that the task at hand for the Agriculture Committees is a simple matter of arithmetic that does not entail any setting of priorities. But priorities are inevitably involved. And it should be noted that the proposal these commodity groups are pushing departs sharply from the priorities in the President’s budget. Moreover, the proposal is sharply inconsistent with the position these groups took in 2002, when the Farm Bill was being considered and the Congressional budget made money available for increases in Agriculture Committee programs. These groups did not suggest in 2002 that the increases be distributed proportionately, but rather that the lion’s share go to farm programs.
Rosenbaum's argument is clever in several ways. She shows that the farm lobby implicitly seeks food stamp cuts much deeper than President Bush's compassionately conservative budget calls for -- a potentially telling argument in the Republican Congress. She pins the inconsistency between the farm lobby's view of a fair distribution of budget cuts this year and budget increases in earlier years. And in classic "Getting to Yes" fashion, she proposes a more fair distribution of the cuts, following principles the President has endorsed in the past.

In a radio interview in April, an Illinois radio journalist asked me if the current budget environment would tempt the major commodity lobbies to press for food assistance cuts. I was skeptical. I replied that the farm lobby would do so at its own grave risk, considering that a stable coalition of urban and farm-state legislators has for several decades provided the political muscle behind both the Food Stamp Program and the farm programs.

Rosenbaum Figure

Partisanship, sugar, and CAFTA

Partisanship, sweetened by heavy donations from the sugar lobby, has led many Democrats in Congress away from free trade principles, according to an article and on-line conversation by the Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman today. The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) passed the Senate last week, but is threatened in the House of Representatives. Weisman points out that many Democrats who oppose CAFTA supported the earlier North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) -- which is a much bigger deal for the U.S. economy.

A sample:

Raleigh, N.C.: Do you find it ironic that American business interests as well as politicians are screaming "unfair" to China not allowing their currency to float and flooding our markets with cheap goods, yet this is the same argument that developing countries make concerning American and European agricultural subsidies? Though I do not support CAFTA, I am not against "free-trade" just as long as it is "fair-trade". I only wish the Democrats would take a stand on this issue based on the merits of the agreement, and not to spite Bush and the Republicans.

Jonathan Weisman: The West's stand on agriculture subsidies undermines every position is takes on trade in goods and services. There is simply no way you can legitimately demand one country lower its export subsidies or currency manipulation while you blatantly protect your farmers. The next round of international trade negotiations, the Doha round, is supposed to get to this point, but given the difficulty is easing sugar barriers the tiniest amount, I'm not holding my breath.

I hope not to lose friends in the public-interest-minded readership of U.S. Food Policy if I put in a good word for well-designed trade agreements. The combination of protectionism and massive subsidies for the U.S. sugar industry makes no sense on economic, environmental, or nutritional grounds. The hard working Central American farmers who would benefit from the agreement count for something with me. And on the U.S. side, I guess I care as much for the winners in these trade agreements (U.S. consumers of Central American produce and industries around the country who export goods and services to Central America) as I do for the losers (for example, U.S. growers of sugar cane, sugar beets, and high-fructose corn syrup).

Weisman's article and interview are worth reading in full. For another sample, here's a funny exchange:

Dale City, Va.: How on earth does the sugar industry have so much politcal power that politicians barely dare touch protective measures that have no rational basis and indeed are harmful to everyone in the country that isn't a sugar producer?

Jonathan Weisman: For a very long time, the sugar industry has understood the tenuousness of its position. Sugar cane is not particularly conducive to the U.S., even in Louisiana and Florida, and sugar beets are a costly way of producing what is basically a very cheap product. So they have protected themselves with political campaign contributions that are by far the most generous in the ag industry. It is no coincidence that Bill Clinton interupted one of his trysts with Monica Lewinsky to take a call from one the the Fanjul brothers, the legendary South Florida sugar barons.

Update: Other webloggers have taken Weisman's piece as their starting point for a conversation about CAFTA. Daniel Drezner speaks up in favor of the agreement, and links to Matthew Yglesias (who raises reasonable concerns about the heavy-handed intellectual property rights provisions in the agreement) and Tyler Cowen (who also worries about how these provisions would affect anti-AIDS drugs for Central Americans, but who gives the agreement a lukewarm endorsement in the end). Drezner also notes Brad DeLong's disagreement with Drezner's post, mainly a difference of opinion about the role of Democrats in opposing the treaty. Nobody pays much attention to Weisman's comments on the role of sugar protectionism.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Paul Krugman on obesity

From Paul Krugman's column in the New York Times yesterday, "Girth of a Nation":
The Center for Consumer Freedom, an advocacy group financed by Coca-Cola, Wendy's and Tyson Foods, among others, has a Fourth of July message for you: worrying about the rapid rise in American obesity is unpatriotic.

"Far too few Americans," declares the center's Web site, "remember that the Founding Fathers, authors of modern liberty, greatly enjoyed their food and drink. ... Now it seems that food liberty - just one of the many important areas of personal choice fought for by the original American patriots - is constantly under attack."

It sounds like a parody, but don't laugh. These people are blocking efforts to help America's children....

So what can we do?

The first step is to recognize the industry-financed campaign against doing anything for the cynical exercise it is. Remember, nobody is proposing that adult Americans be prevented from eating whatever they want. The question is whether big companies will have a free hand in their efforts to get children into the habit of eating food that's bad for them.

Link thanks to the Public Health Advocacy Institute's weblog.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A non-economist muses on a headline: "Grains, Soybeans Advance."

Fancy Robot imagines the article following that headline:

WASHINGTON--In a marriage of convenience, barley, oats and quinoa from across the country joined scores of the nation's soybeans Sunday and marched toward Washington, demanding that the FDA put a stop to the low-carb craze. "Think of your arteries!" shouted a protester who called himself Amarenth. Another named Millet grumbled about his placement alongside the wheat flakes, invoking his superior digestive properties, but marched nonetheless. The grains and soybeans were flanked by rows of cattle, lending security and moral weight to the proceedings.

The link includes the less interesting actual article as well, with Fancy Robot's own editorial comment: "Economics sucks the fun out of everything." Well, as an agricultural economist who reads with interest and sympathy what non-economists think of us, I've heard worse. Here is Wendell Berry's truly profound essay, "What are people for?":
It is apparently easy to say that there are too many farmers, if one is not a farmer. This is not a pronouncement often heard in farm communities. Nor have farmers yet been informed of a dangerous surplus of population in the "agribusiness" professions or among the middlemen of the food system. No agricultural economist has yet perceived that there are too many agricultural economists.

Community Nutrition Institute's CFNP work "winding down"

The Community Nutrition Institute's online periodical CFNP Report includes a helpful menu of news about food assistance appropriations, obesity policy, and helpful advice for grantees and potential grantees of the federal government's small progressive Community Food and Nutrition Program. The latest issue includes a kind word of introduction by Barbara Vauthier about Sheila Foley -- the hard-working organizational talent who has backed up Rodney Leonard's leadership of the small institute for decades, and who was den mother to a series of young food policy advocates (including me in 1990-1992) who passed through the role of editing the institute's late weekly, Nutrition Week. Vauthier's article also includes (in somewhat buried form) the sad news that CNI's work with the Community Food and Nutrition Program may be winding down.

Who is Sheila Foley and how does she know so much about the Community Food and Nutrition Program?

In June 2002, a request for applications was issued by the Office of Community Services (OCS) for a three-year cooperative agreement to “identify the characteristics, practices, and needs” of the network of agencies providing services to low-income people under the Community Food and Nutrition Program (CFNP). The Community Nutrition Institute (CNI), a Washington D.C.-based non-profit with a 30-year history of involvement with CFNP, answered the call.

Rod Leonard, founder and Executive Director of CNI, knew exactly what his organization could deliver, “Resources, information, technical assistance and networking,” he said; and the Nationwide Initiative was born. By February 2003, a cooperative agreement was in place between CNI and OCS, grant funds began to flow, and services were initiated.

In March 2003, the first issue of the CFNP Report was emailed to 75 people and included articles on the reauthorization of child nutrition programs, produce giveaway pilot projects at schools, implementation of food stamp improvement and expansion provisions, farm-to-school projects, and the annual updating of federal child nutrition income eligibility guidelines. Since that time, Zy Weinberg, principal writer and editor of the newsletter, has provided a wealth of information on food issues and added features such as grantee profiles, the enormously popular “Small Bites,” and the “Obesity Round-Up,” examples of which are included in this issue.

Today, there are more than a thousand subscribers who further distribute the newsletter to additional thousands of readers. Joanne Heidkamp of the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger wrote Sheila, “I just want to let you know how much I appreciate the CFNP Reports you send out. I realized I hadn’t deleted them since summer, because there’s so much useful information.”

In April 2003, CNI’s CFNP web site at
was initiated with “the most complete information currently available on state formula grantee and sub-grantee activities,” according to website developer, Shacy Rivera. Since that time, the website has been expanded almost continuously and includes archived issues of CFNP Report, a Resource page with funding and information links, a separate Obesity Resource Section, a Nutrition Assistance Question and Answer Forum, and other features.

A “What’s New” section of the website highlights important news, such as the release of the CFNP request for applications (RFA), the current status of CFNP appropriations, and program advice such as when reports are due. CNI tracks web site usage on a monthly basis by the number of actual visitors to the site rather than hits, which may be random in nature. Usage peaked in April this year with 8,440 visitors during the month. Jim Couts of the Appalachian Nutrition Network emailed Shacy, “I just spent time reviewing all the potential sources of funding you list. I hope you know what a wonderful resource you folks provide.”

CNI publicizes the release of the RFA for CFNP discretionary funds each year, including an analysis of the request and tips on how to write a competitive proposal. One-on-one assistance is offered to any eligible applicant who requests it. Technical assistance also includes helping funded grantees with project operations and reporting requirements. This year, CNI staff answered 61 requests for assistance on the RFA and critiqued 11 proposals, mostly for applicants new to the CFNP competition. Dana Harvey of the Environmental Science Institute wrote Zy, “Just wanted to thank you and your staff again for your assistance today – you all really came through.”

CNI also drafted Reports to Congress on the CFNP for fiscal years 2002 and 2003, providing detailed information on every state formula and discretionary project funded during those years. CNI reviewed state plans, discretionary applications, and progress reports for all grantees and sub-grantees throughout the nation, collecting further information directly during site visits to grantees and by interviews conducted on the phone and by email.

In February 2005, CNI hosted the first national CFNP workshop in conjunction with the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. Representatives of more than 30 grantees from around the nation gathered to discuss how CFNP helps to improve food and nutrition resources for low-income individuals and communities through improved coordination, expansion of child nutrition programs, and innovative solutions to hunger.

CNI’s CFNP Nationwide Initiative is winding down; funding ceases at the end of September. CNI is honored to have worked with and served the active and extensive network that the Community Food and Nutrition Program has developed over the years. For thousands of low-income Americans, CFNP is clearly making a difference.

Who is Sheila Foley? For more than twenty years, Sheila has been CNI’s link to agencies around the U.S. that help low-income people. Sheila is circulation manager for CFNP Report, copy editor, technical advisor, and “friendly voice” of CNI, and over the years she has heard just about all there is to know about CFNP.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Tufts Nutrition magazine on the Dietary Guidelines

The online edition of Tufts Nutrition magazine, posted just recently, includes interviews with several graduates about the new Dietary Guidelines. For example, Amy Barr, M.S., Ed.M., R.D. (G78):

For decades, we have been promoting the concept of balance, variety and moderation (BVM). True, considering the growing problems of global obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease—not just in First World countries, but in developing nations and cultures as well—suddenly, it seems, we’ve realized that the triple concept of BVM has fallen short of achieving better health and nutrition.

Yet could the pendulum be swinging back wildly in the direction of dining denial, self-righteous eating and nutrition nannyism? As a registered dietitian who is proud to say that I’ve been involved in nearly every aspect of the food world from furrow to fork, I was taken aback recently when a colleague suggested that we designate certain products “hazard foods.” The comment followed a discussion by dietitians who claimed that, indeed, there are “bad” foods and “good” foods and that the former should be avoided, period!

The magazine also includes Dean Eileen Kennedy's preview of a possible new fellowship for excellent incoming Ph.D. students.

Berkman presentation on food weblogs

Business weblogging expert Bill Ives led a lively discussion of food weblogs last night at the weekly Thursday weblogging meeting hosted by Harvard's Berkman Center on the Internet and Society. Ives discussed innovative weblog marketing efforts by restaurants, such as Horsefeathers in North Conway, NH. Other food weblogs discussed include VanEats, the Radical Chef, the late Julie/Julia Project, the Tasting Menu, Chez Pim, and Cooking for Engineers. One interesting detour in the conversation covered the sociology of regional barbeque styles in the United States. The weekly Berkman meeting brings together webloggers with a wide variety of interests, from Lisa Williams' local interests to Beth Kanter's weblogs on technology and Cambodia.