Saturday, October 29, 2005

Food insecurity worsens and House Ag Committee cuts food stamps

Charles Abbott of Reuters has the story:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - On a party-line vote, a Republican-run U.S. House of Representatives committee voted to cut food stamps by $844 million on Friday, just hours after a new government report showed more Americans are struggling to put food on the table.

About 300,000 Americans would lose benefits due to tighter eligibility rules for food stamps, the major U.S. antihunger program, under the House plan. The cuts would be part of $3.7 billion pared from Agriculture Department programs over five years as part of government-wide spending reductions.

Agriculture Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte defended the decision, saying only a sliver of food stamp spending was affected and, for the most part, the cuts would eliminate people not truly eligible.

"This is not a giveaway program that results in windfall profits," said North Carolina Democrat G.K. Butterfield in opposing the cuts. "That is not moral. That is not American."

Antihunger activists said hunger rates were up for the fifth year in a row, so the cuts were a mistake.

Abbott's story quotes me about how this year's new USDA food security statistics compare to previous years' numbers.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Household food insecurity deteriorated in 2004 by a record amount

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported today that household food insecurity increased by a record amount in 2004, and now equals the worst levels since data collection began. Household food insecurity improved from 1995 until 1999, and then worsened steadily every year from 1999 until 2004. USDA said today that 11.9 % of U.S. households were insecure in 2004, up from 11.2 % in 2003. This increase represents the largest one-year deterioration in U.S. food insecurity since data collection began in 1995.

USDA reported that 3.9 % of U.S. households experienced "food insecurity with hunger" in 2004, up from 3.5 % in 2003.

Household food insecurity is measured with a battery of 18 survey questions about symptoms of food-related hardship. According to the official definition, "food security" means access by all household members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. "Food insecurity" means the household was not classified as food secure.

In the Fall of 2004, the Bush administration delayed release of food insecurity numbers from October until after the election in November. In this Friedman School policy point last October, I tried to press USDA to make the results public before the election, but with no success. This year, the statistics were released in October as scheduled.

The 37 references in today's USDA report do not include this 2002 USDA report about progress toward the official federal target of 6 percent food insecurity by the year 2010. The omitted 2002 report described the solemn commitment the United States made to improve food security:
At the World Food Summit in 1996, the United States, along with 185 other countries, adopted the “Rome Declaration,” which begins with this commitment:

"We pledge our political will and our common and national commitment to achieving food security for all and to an ongoing effort to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015."
Here below is a chart showing how today's new statistics compare to the federal government's official goals, as expressed in the "Rome Declaration," the Healthy People 2010 objectives, and USDA's strategic goals.

Moving in the WRONG Direction:
Household Food Insecurity Deteriorates
Faster than Ever

The top line shows actual rates of household food insecurity, and the bottom line reproduces the trend line contained in the 2002 USDA report describing intended progress toward the national goals. Because the .jpg image did not work so well, here is a better Acrobat version of the same image.

For more information on how household food security measurement can be used by federal policy makers, see my report to a panel of the National Academies last summer. For information on food stamps and food security, see this conference paper, published in the Review of Agricultural Economics, which I wrote in collaboration with Mark Nord, the lead author of today's USDA report.

Update: I think this story may be a U.S. Food Policy scoop. It does not appear to be on the wires yet. But this AP story was posted to the Fox website a couple hours ago -- the Agriculture Committee in the Republican controlled House of Representatives apparently is considering a cut in food stamps today.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Befuddle an economist

I am drafting a two-minute “stewardship moment” speech that I have been asked to give in church this coming Sunday.
Some of you know that I am by profession and training an economist. It is not always something I am eager to mention in church.

Many lay people think economics is the study of money or finance. Economists themselves define their science as a particular outlook on the social world. For example, one of the best and simplest ways to understand the behavior of businesses is to imagine that the business owners seek to pay as little as possible for their raw materials, and to earn as high a price as possible for their products, thereby making as much profit as possible within the constraints of existing technology. Similarly, economists typically imagine that families like yours and mine seek to maximize our happiness by buying as much as possible within the constraints of our budgets. Everybody wants to maximize something as much as possible within their constraints.

Sometimes this thinking is carried to extremes. An economist got a Nobel Prize in part for an economic model in which men and women choose between marriage and divorce based on a comparison of their likely earnings as married people or single people, with some adjustment for whatever pleasure they might take in each other’s company.

So you can imagine that economists have sometimes been befuddled by our common practice as people of faith, in synagogues, mosques, and churches, of giving away large fractions of our money – larger fractions, I believe, than people give away in the wider secular society. Perhaps, our donations are a form of assistance to our extended clans, frequently related to us by blood. Perhaps, some economists have suggested, these donations are part of a quid pro quo, in which I help you now in return for your help later. Perhaps, some have suggested, these donations are just part of an informal mutual insurance scheme. The problem is that some people are giving more money away, to more distant beneficiaries, than can be explained by these theories.

Perhaps, some economists have suggested, some people just get happy giving their money away, so that’s why these selfish church people give and give and give. But even other secular economists realized this argument had become a tautology, begging the question of why some people are happy giving their money away.

Two weeks ago, in one of these “stewardship minutes,” Mike P___ eloquently offered some of the most common reasons why people of faith say they give generously. He explained that his wife gives simply out of heartfelt gratitude for the many gifts she has been given. He explained that he himself gives from a feeling of the importance of stewardship, knowing that God wants these gifts to be used for God’s purpose.

Since the important reasons have already been taken by Mike, let me offer my own humble additional reason. Have some fun! Befuddle an economist! Give generously! Somewhere, some day, in some windowless room, in front of a flickering computer screen, some economist will scratch her head and wonder what she is missing.

Former FDA chief Lester Crawford held biotech stocks

Following on our earlier coverage of Lester Crawford's sudden resignation from FDA, Reuters reported yesterday that the former administrator or his wife had owned stock in companies regulated by his agency. Reuters cited a Wall Street Journal article that we cannot find free online, so we quote the Reuters report:

An ethics official sought more information on the June disclosures and noted on the form that Crawford's broker would be sending more information, the report said.

Unlike prior disclosures, the June form lacks an ethics official's signature. A signature would indicated that the information complied with laws and regulations, the paper reported.

It is not known whether ethics officials viewed the holdings as a conflict of interest or whether these transactions were a cause of Crawford's decision to leave the agency.

Both the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the FDA, and Crawford declined to comment, the paper said.

And in other surprising news ....

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

"Cheeseburger Bill" passes the House of Representatives

The U.S. House of Representatives last week passed the federal "Cheeseburger Bill," to protect restaurants and other food sellers against obesity related litigation. Sponsors say the bill would still permit lawsuits when manufacturers or advertisers broke a contract or a law in selling their product, such as by lying in nutrition information provided about the product. Critics fear the law is drawn too broadly and will protect companies from legitimate lawsuits in addition to its intended effect of preventing frivolous lawsuits. The bill is supported by the administration, but may not have sufficient support to pass in the U.S. Senate.

The bill's lead sponsor in the House, Rep. Rick Keller (R-FL), "was unable to vote on his own legislation because he was in an Orlando hospital for treatment of a heart condition," according to an article by Bob Dart in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"There are no plans in the works for lawsuits against the fast food restaurants" that his boss has frequented, joked the congressman's spokesman, Bryan Malenius. He said the surgical insertion of a heart monitoring device was "non-cheeseburger related."
Thanks to the CalorieLab weblog for the link. According to the weblog:

“I have a choice to make when I visit my favorite fast food restaurant,” the rotund, 41-year-old Rep. Keller has said. “Do I order the triple cheeseburger and ice cream sundae? Or do I order the grilled chicken salad and Diet Coke? Obviously, my waistline tells you which choice I make more often. But that’s the point — it’s my decision to make.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Associated Press: Senate rejects food stamp cuts

The House and Senate Agriculture committees were under instructions to find $3 billion in cuts over five years from programs under their jurisdiction. This led to suggestions by the farm lobby that the cuts should come disproportionately from food stamps. As recently as yesterday, there was talk that the fiscal conservatives were gaining the upper hand over W. Bush conservatives in budget arguements. Yet, today, the more sober house of Congress seems to have rejected these food stamp cuts.

According to an AP report this morning (via the Washington Post):

Senate Republicans have dropped plans to cut the popular food stamp program, as the chamber's leaders scrambled to assemble a $35 billion spending cut measure to implement the budget plan it adopted in April.

After protests from Agriculture Committee members Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and James M. Talent (R-Mo.), panel Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) dropped more than $500 million in food stamp cuts from a farm and food subsidy measure coming to a committee vote today. The cuts could have meant a loss of benefits for 300,000 working families benefiting from more generous eligibility rules in some states.

No more "donkey bollocks"

Following up on an earlier post, New York Magazine reported recently:
‘Naked Chef’ Cafeteria Duty
No more “donkey bollocks” for kids! Jamie Oliver’s on NYC schools recon mission.

Naked Chef *Jamie Oliver* is thinking of bringing his school-lunch crusade to New York. Earlier this year, he did a four-part TV show in England called /Jamie’s School Dinners/, during which he blendered entire chickens to show where nuggets come from and danced around in a corn-on-the-cob costume. Eventually, he got *Tony Blair* to set aside $536 million to improve school meals. “America’s kids have some of the worst health issues because of eating junk and not exercising,” he says. “I thought maybe we could help here. Help them eat real food instead of packaged lies. You know, turkey which is real turkey and not donkey bollocks.” Brokers at Mark David rented him a five-story West Village townhouse (at over $35,000 a month) as his headquarters for a monthlong recon of the city’s cafeterias (most of which are presumably far from Greenwich Village). —Beth Landman

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Timothy Wise argues for "a little more rigor and a little more honesty" on farm statistics

In an earlier post, U.S. Food Policy discussed with great interest Timothy Wise's working paper (.pdf) on "Six Common Errors in Presenting Farm Statistics." I defended the traditional conclusions many readers draw from these statistics -- farmers are as prosperous as the average American, while farm programs benefit the few and fail to serve the many.

In correspondence today, Wise offers a response. He takes to heart some of my comments, and is tough on others: "In general, people seem to want to cite statistics that bolster their policy arguments, and dismiss statistics that don’t. I’m arguing for a little more rigor and honesty about the presentation of farm numbers as they relate to family farmers."

Here is the response in full:

Parke Wilde’s response to my working paper on the uses and misuses of farm statistics echo those of a few others I received. That either means I was unclear and/or imprecise in my own presentation, or we are each using the data to show different things. I would suggest that it is a little bit of both.

As to my own imprecision or lack of clarity, several people in addition to Prof. Wilde commented to me that they thought I was devaluing the contributions of part-time farmers. Indeed, that was not my intention, and I may have been unclear or misleading in trying to rebut the overgeneralizations about the farm sector that come from the predominance of part-time farmers in the sector. As I responded to those people (including two part-time farmers) directly, I mean no devaluing of such work, nor the subsidy payments – especially conservation payments – that seem very well-placed among part-time farmers, who are in a position to be excellent stewards of the land precisely because they are free of the market-driven impetus to make as much off their land as they can.

As to the uses of the data to show different things, it seems Prof. Wilde wants to show that current US farm policy is flawed and that the critiques of it are valid. Though he and I might not agree on the specific flaws or the policy reforms that might correct them, we can agree that current policy is a disaster – for family farmers, for the environment, for the federal budget, for developing country farmers. My paper, though, took no position on those issues, only on the misleading presentation of data in regards to family farmers. Those commonly heard myths are:

1. Farmers are better off than the rest of the population, so they don’t need farm programs. Analysts regularly cite data on the farm sector that include the 65% of farmers who don’t farm as their principal occupation. I argue that when most of us hear the first statement, we envision full-time family farmers, not hobby farmers, and that looking more closely at the data gives us a better picture of how those farmers are doing, and they are not doing as well as the aggregate numbers suggest. If the question is, how are family farmers doing, the answer should not rest on data heavily skewed by part time farmers, and to some extent by large commercial farms. I think that point stands.

2. Because farmers are relatively well-off, the farm economy must be working pretty well. I argue that incorporating off-farm income in an analysis of the functioning of the farm economy is misleading. That’s fine for a discussion of income policy, but not farm policy. It’s a little like saying that US dumping of corn on Mexico hasn’t hurt Mexican families much because the migrants they’ve sent to the US send a lot of money back home. That’s interesting for income policy, but not for trade or agricultural policies. It’s misleading, since it hides the way the farm economy is truly functioning. It is important to know that even large family farm households are getting only half of their disposable income from farming, the other half coming from off-farm sources. Many honorable people may think that is just fine, and they are entitled to that opinion. I would argue they are not entitled to present farmers who are making half a living from their farming as if they were making a full living, as if the farm economy were sustaining them well.

3. Only a minority of farmers get payments, mainly the rich ones (and absentee ones, as Prof. Wilde repeats from the large base of anecdotal evidence). Again, I argue that this is overstated. Many part-time farmers don’t get payments, but why should they? A significant majority of full-time farmers do, and that makes some policy sense. Payments are indeed skewed at the very top 2%, but even that data is misleading. If we want to know if full-time family farmers are benefiting from federal farm programs, they are, more than the aggregated numbers would suggest. That’s no endorsement for current programs, but things aren’t as skewed as Environmental Working Group and others might suggest.

Those are not circular arguments, but they are a reinterpretation of the available data to answer the questions that I think many people are asking: How are family farmers doing? And how are US farm programs affecting them? The message is fairly simple: If the question is about family farmers, use the data about family farmers.In general, people seem to want to cite statistics that bolster their policy arguments, and dismiss statistics that don’t. I’m arguing for a little more rigor and honesty about the presentation of farm numbers as they relate to family farmers. Those figures still suggest the need for a major overhaul in farm policy, in my estimation. But I do not think they support the easy arguments some make about getting the federal government out of the farm sector because there is no further need for US farm programs.

Tim Wise
October 18, 2005

Monday, October 17, 2005

Undersecretary Eric Bost to speak at 2007 Farm Bill forum in Boston, October 28

USDA's Under Secretary for Food and Consumer Services, Eric Bost, will participate in one of the 2007 Farm Bill forums, on October 28 at the Boston Public Library, from 10 am to 1 pm. This event has received almost no publicity from USDA (for example, it was only recently added to this press release). Under Secretary Bost oversees the U.S. Food Stamp Program, other federal nutrition programs, and the USDA agency that produced the Dietary Guidelines and the new MyPyramid.

Sample questions to ask:
-- Will you, Mr. Bost, formally ask that all USDA-sponsored advertising messages be reviewed by USDA/CNPP for consistency with the Dietary Guidelines?
-- Do you, Mr. Bost, approve of high-calorie soda sales to school children, while in school, in direct competition with the healthier offerings of the National School Lunch Program? If not, then why did USDA recently refuse to enforce existing regulations against selling foods of minimal nutritional value during lunch time in schools?

Transcripts of Farm Bill forums are being posted to the USDA website. Here is the president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation in a forum with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns recently in Florida:
MS. ELIZABETH PIVONKA: Good afternoon. My name is Elizabeth Pivonka, and I'm president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation. We're a national organization who works in partnership with the federal government to try to increase fruit and vegetable consumption nationwide for better health. I hope you're familiar with it, because USDA is one of our partners, and we really appreciate that.

I'm also speaking as a dietician, and I'm speaking as a mother, and I'm speaking as a taxpayer, and I will submit formal comments at a later point in time. But my point today really is the fact that we have now, thanks to USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, the strongest dietary guidelines that we've ever had. I'm very excited about that as a dietician. What's terribly frustrating to me, however, is that so little funding is actually spent on the promotion and consumption of fruits and vegetables. And you probably will hear a little bit more about that as you go over the next few months about the fact that in our country today the one big gap between what people eat and what they should eat -- the biggest gap is with fruit and vegetable consumption. It is the one food group that you can eat almost as much as you want and not gain weight. So given the obesity epidemic that we have in the country, given the rising health care costs we have in the country, it's really in your best interests and the country's best interests to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. In fact, we know that people who eat more fruits and vegetables spontaneously eat fewer other foods. So it's a really positive message and one that is important for our country.

Friday, October 14, 2005

A tough choice: payment limits for the best-paid farmers or cuts to conservation programs?

Aimee Witteman, a family farm activist and student in my U.S. Food Policy class, has a commentary yesterday in Rodale's New Farm. In a budgetary environment where something must be cut from the agriculture account, Witteman compares the merits of limiting payments to the farmers with the largest subsidies or cutting the Conservation Security Program (CSP).

Payment limits --
Payment limitations are not an elimination of subsidies; rather, they are a way to discipline the $10 billion-$20 billion dollar a year commodity programs in a way that targets only those farmers already reaping well over $250,000 from the government. The savings from payment limitations could ease the pressure on food stamps and conservation programs while also preserving rural communities and keeping family farmers on their land by reducing land-price inflation. Utilizing payment limitations is clearly a more equitable and rational way to produce the needed budget savings.
Cutting the CSP --
The CSP represents a positive example of an alternative direction in agriculture. Unlike any other federal program, the CSP payments are available to all farmers and ranchers who develop a plan to protect resources of concern. We have hardly begun to see how this new program, passed in the 2002 Farm Bill, can flourish if implemented and funded adequately so that farmers can actually take advantage of it. Environmental and energy costs, strengthening hurricane storms, and pressure from our World Trade Organization (WTO) trading partners are impacting and being influenced by the way we produce food in the United States. The CSP seeks to achieve energy conservation and riparian protection, and is also accepted by the WTO for its non-trade-distorting status. Perhaps most importantly, the CSP is supported by a growing number of consumers who are demanding food that is produced by farmers taking concrete steps to ensure the sustainability of the land for future generations.
Tough choice!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

What is missing from USDA's 2007 Farm Bill Forums?

USDA Secretary Mike Johanns and his senior deputies are attending listening sessions around the country in advance of the 2007 Farm Bill debate in Congress. The Farm Bill reauthorizes programs under USDA jurisdiction, including federal farm programs, rural development programs, food safety oversight, and -- with the largest budget -- food assistance and nutrition programs.

Please attend the listening session closest to you and speak up for the public interest in U.S. food and agricultural policy, including nutrition policy. You may also submit written comments to USDA electronically here. Read our archives to jog your memory of the policy issues at stake. If the cynic in you suspects these inputs are ignored by the powers in Washington, then at least ask yourself why the industry lobbies take them so seriously and speak as much as possible. The USDA website is posting transcripts of the oral comments, but it is somewhat difficult to get to the reading room in Washington to see the written comments. If you send electronic comments to USDA, please save them first and use the comment feature in U.S. Food Policy to share them here.

I notice something funny missing from USDA's request for comments. Here are the five strategic goals in USDA's strategic plan (.pdf):
1: Enhance economic opportunities for agricultural producers,
2: Support increased economic opportunities and improved quality of life in rural America,
3: Enhance protection and safety of the nation's agriculture and food supply,
4: Improve the nation's nutrition and health, and
5: Protect and enhance the nation's natural resource base and environment.

Now, for comparison, here are the topics for the six questions on which USDA requests written comments in advance of the 2007 Farm Bill:
Question 1: The challenges facing new farmers and ranchers as they enter agriculture.
Question 2: The competitiveness of U.S. agriculture in global and domestic markets.
Question 3: The appropriateness and effectiveness of the distribution of farm program benefits.
Question 4: The achievement of conservation and environmental goals.
Question 5: The enhancement of rural economic growth.
Question 6: The opportunities to expand agricultural products, markets, and research.

Which strategic goals get double-counted in the six questions? Which strategic goals are missing? Right. But feel free to share your views on how the Farm Bill can influence progress on USDA's strategic goals for food safety and nutrition, even if USDA officials seem to have forgotten to ask about them. I hope USDA will add additional questions on these topics to the department's request for input.

Boston Vegetarian Food Festival

On October 22 at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center in Boston:
The Boston Vegetarian Food Festival is a full day of fun, good food, and learning! It brings together exhibitors of vegetarian natural foods from across the country and locally, offering free food sampling and "show special" discounts. It provides a welcoming environment in which to explore a wide variety of delicious, healthy, and readily available vegetarian foods.

Boston Vegetarian Food Festival, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2005

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

New York Times tackles food aid policy

The New York Times has been hammering away at the poisonous politics of food aid, in which Uncle Sam's charitable donations partly support the economic interests of U.S. producers and shippers at the expense of program goals. As in Philpott's article in the previous post, the Bush administration is the protagonist of Celia W. Dugger's hard-hitting opinion piece today:

It seemed like a no-brainer: changing the law to allow the federal government to buy food in Africa for Africans facing starvation instead of paying enormous sums to ship it from the American heartland, halfway around the world. Not only would the food get to the hungry in weeks instead of months, the government would save money and help African farmers at the same time. The new approach had an impeccable sponsor in Republican-dominated Washington. The Bush administration, famous for its go-it-alone style, was trying to move the United States - by far the world's biggest food donor - into the international mainstream with a proposal to take a step in just this direction. A lot of rich countries had already done so, most recently Canada.

So why is this seemingly sensible, cost-effective proposal near death in Congress?

Fundamentally, because the proposal challenges the political bargain that has formed the basis for food aid over the past half century: that American generosity must be good not just for the world's hungry but also for American agriculture. That is why current law stipulates that all food aid provided by the United States Agency for International Development be grown by American farmers and mostly shipped on United States-flag vessels. More practically, however, it is because the administration's proposal has run into opposition from three interests some critics call the Iron Triangle of food aid: agribusiness, the shipping industry and charitable organizations.

Wait a minute (sound of rustling class notes while I find my place).... The political scientist's "Iron Triangle," a predecessor of the more contemporary if less eloquent "policy subsystem," usually refers to the executive agency (USDA), the Congressional committee, and the industry lobbyists. That's pretty bitter rhetoric to for Dugger to include charitable organizations in an "Iron Triangle"! Charitable organizations that work with donated funds face a painfully high standard for serving the needs of the beneficiaries alone, but that is fair enough. In the case of food aid, all participants must be acutely aware of the ways the aid can harm as well as help.

The New York Times article quotes Christopher Barrett (a prolific and thoughtful agricultural economist at Cornell). Barrett and Daniel Maxwell (from CARE, but visiting the Famine Center at the Friedman School at Tufts this Fall) released an important new book on food aid this year. In their article for Choices magazine last Fall, the two writers addressed current food aid regulations, which require the food to be purchased in the United States and shipped in U.S. ships, even if there are more efficient, affordable, or beneficial ways of supplying food assistance. A figure from that article shows how little benefit goes to the destination market under these rules.

Tom Philpott writing for Grist

Tom Philpott, the farmer, weblogger, and mad-scientist inventor of genetically modified bitter greens (just kidding about that last part), has started a cool gig writing for the online environmental magazine Grist.

Philpott offers fair praise for the Bush administration's comments on farm subsidies:
Long the bane of environmentalists and sustainable-agriculture proponents, the U.S. agriculture-subsidy system has drawn some unlikely new critics: top Bush administration officials. Speaking before a food-industry trade group last week, USDA chief Mike Johanns, the reliably pro-Big Ag former governer of subsidy-rich Nebraska, complained that in fiscal year 2005:

92 percent of commodity program spending was paid on five crops -- corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice. The farmers who raise other crops -- two thirds of all farmers -- received little support from current farm programs.

Later, he deplored what he called "trade-distorting subsidies. " And Monday, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman published an op-ed in the Financial Times offering to slash farm support, so long as Europe and Japan follow suit.

Looking around Grist, I see lots to like. Here, advice columnist Umbra Fisk offers a nice informative account of the environmental advantages of vegetarian diets over meat-centered diets.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

World Food Day October 16

World Food Day is Sunday, October 16. Some observances, including a teleconference with Frances Moore Lappe, will take place on Friday, October 14.
World Food Day (WFD) is a worldwide event designed to increase awareness, understanding and informed, year-around action to alleviate hunger. It is observed each October 16th in recognition of the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1945. The first World Food Day was in 1981. In the United States the endeavor is sponsored by 450 national, private voluntary organizations.

How to influence your school district's child nutrition wellness policy

After the recent progress for school nutrition reform in Britain, North Americans are asking why their own children can't have some of the same. For example, this article from the Toronto magazine NOW explores whether there are any celebrity chefs in Canada who could accomplish what television cook Jamie Oliver did in highlighting the need for better school meal programs in the United Kingdom.
Waterloo – There's a rush on for celebrity chefs who can do for Canada what Jamie Oliver did for England: be the flashpoint for a lightning campaign to abolish junk food from schools. Late in September, England's Labour government agreed to ban bad food from school vending machines and school meals. The ban follows several months of television campaigning by the popular TV chef, adored as much for his breezy boy-next-door looks and style as for his flair for cooking and passion for healthy eating.
Perhaps the closest thing in the United States is the Edible Schoolyard, the school garden and food education program founded by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in California.

All politics are local, and school nutrition policies in the United States are even more local than other politics, due to the local nature of school financing and governance. When the federal government passed child nutrition and WIC program reauthorization last year, Congress did not mandate national child nutrition reform, but did provide a vehicle for local action in this area. By that start of the 2006-2007 school year, each school district must establish a formal local "wellness policy" that meets certain minimal criteria.

The Center for Ecoliteracy has released an inspiring report (.pdf) full of suggestions for school wellness policies that exceed the minimum. The report's format is draft language that parents can bring to the attention of their school district leaders, for adoption or modification to suit local needs. Here is a sampling:
  • No student in the _______ School District goes hungry during school;
  • An economically sustainable meal program makes available a healthy and nutritious breakfast, lunch, and after-school snack to every student at every school so that students are prepared to learn to their fullest potential;
  • Each school in the district shall establish an instructional garden (tilled ground, raised bed, container, nearby park, community garden, farm, or lot), of sufficient size to provide students with experiences in planting, harvesting, preparation, serving, and tasting foods, including ceremonies and celebrations that observe food traditions, integrated with nutrition education and core curriculum, and articulated with state standards;...
  • At each school site, students shall play a role in a recycling program that begins with the purchase of recycled products and maximizes the reduction of waste by recycling, reusing, composting and purchasing, recycled products;
  • Meals will be attractively presented and served in a pleasant environment with sufficient time for eating, while fostering good eating habits, enjoyment of meals, good manners, and respect for others;
  • Students at the K–8 level will not be involved in the sale of candy, sodas, cookies and sweets at any school sponsored event or for any fundraising activity;
  • A full-service kitchen will be installed at school sites where public bond money is expended to repair or remodel a school....

Read the whole thing. Some of it is far out, but catch yourself short and give yourself a scolding if you find yourself dismissing it as unrealistic. Which one of these proposals is more than your own children deserve?

Friday, October 07, 2005

U.S. Food Policy and the War on Science

Chris C. Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science (discussed in an earlier post here), today posted a kind review of U.S. Food Policy on his weblog.

A Very Good Blog

I want to give a shout out to U.S. Food Policy, which has very substantive content covering dietary issues and is written by a real expert, Parke Wilde. This post, about the contradiction between the Department of Agriculture's food pyramid eating recommendations on the one hand, and its promotion of the food industry on the other, is typical of the quality. Check it out.

Chris' readers visiting here for the first time may be interested in earlier posts about the use and misuse of science:
If you are interested, do bookmark us or use the buttons for Bloglines or My Yahoo in the sidebar. Visit again.

Timothy Wise: Six Common Errors in Presenting Farm Statistics

In casual chit-chat before the debate last month at the Consumer Federation of America, former Congressman Charlie Stenholm (D-TX) showed me a working paper (.pdf) he liked and was carrying in his brief case, by Timothy Wise from the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. My graduate students have also been reading it with interest.

The tartly written working paper criticizes statistics from the Environmental Working Group and others, who disparage farm subsidies and emphasize the concentration of farm payments to the largest farmers. Wise's paper is entitled, "Understanding the Farm Problem: Six Common Errors in Presenting Farm Statistics."

For example:
  • One commonly hears that only 40 percent of farms get federal farm payments. Wise argues that, if one excludes "rural residence" farms (including "hobby farms"), then more than half of farms get farm payments.
  • One commonly hears that farm household income is higher than the average U.S. household income. Wise argues that, if one excludes very large commercial farms, the average household income falls below the U.S. average.
  • One commonly hears debates about farm household income that (as in the previous example) count both off-farm and on-farm income. Wise argues that farmers appear much poorer and more deserving of support if one considers their on-farm income alone.
And so forth for the six cases. Wise has harsh words for those who quote the commonly heard statistics: "All of the above statements are true – and truly misleading. The same data present a very different story when treated more carefully."

That's a bit too rough. Like those he criticizes, Wise chooses statistics carefully to make rhetorical points.

In each of the examples above, there are equally legitimate reasons to quote the original statistic. One could equally well argue, in response to Wise's three examples above:
  • It is circular to consider a class of farmers most likely to get farm payments -- by excluding "rural residence farms" from consideration -- and then make a big deal of the fact that many of those farmers do indeed get farm payments.
  • It is circular to consider a class of farmers with modest income -- by excluding the largest and richest farmers -- and then make a big deal of the fact that these farmers do indeed have modest household income. Why exclude the richest farmers from the farm half of the computation, but not exclude the richest non-farmers from the non-farm half of the computation?
  • It would be a recipe for bad public policy to consider on-farm income alone and ignore off-farm income. We might not want to subsidize Hollywood stars with Montana farms, just because those farms grow some wheat. Or, to take a more common case, consider a farmer in any part of rural America who has both on-farm skills and off-farm skills (say, as a mechanic or a school-teacher). If her overall household income is adequate, why should we send a price signal that her farming work is worthwhile, but her work as a mechanic or schoolteacher is not?
One could read Wise's paper and think that the critique of current farm subsidy programs is based on misleading statistics. But, the critique has much merit. The major farm programs encourage over-production of field crops (used largely as inputs to meat and dairy production and, in the case of corn, for high-fructose sweeteners), while offering little support for fruit and vegetable production. They damage the interests of developing country farmers, harm the environment, and largely benefit farmers with household incomes above the U.S. average.

Note to readers: Short break. Will post again on Tuesday.

Trade negotiations and budget cuts

A good week in Washington. Libby Quaid of the Associated Press reported yesterday on Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns' call for reform of farm subsidies, in order to improve the U.S. negotiating position in World Trade Organization talks. Quaid reported Wednesday on the Senate Agriculture Committee's decision to postpone indefinitely consideration of a bill that would cut food stamps while simultaneously protecting wealthy farmers from caps on their crop subsidies.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Eric Hentges discusses Dietary Guidelines and dairy weight loss claims at the Friedman School

In today's session of the highest-visibility weekly school-wide lecture series at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, Dr. Eric Hentges gave a nice review of the science and policy process behind USDA's Dietary Guidelines and the new MyPyramid graphic. Dr. Hentges is the current director of USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and former vice president of the National Pork Board.

We treat our guests politely, but I did ask one hard question. As you know, under instructions from Congress, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service sponsors and endorses the "checkoff" advertising programs, which encourage us to eat more beef, pork, and cheese. In their nutrition messages, these checkoff programs directly contradict the mainstream calorie balance message of the Dietary Guidelines. For example, scientifically doubtful high-calcium dairy weight loss claims have been a centerpiece of the fluid milk and dairy checkoff programs, as described in USDA's annual report to Congress. Or, as another example, consider the low-carb fad diet logo and motto of Hentges' former employer, the National Pork Board.

I asked Hentges if he ever has in the past, or ever would in the future, ask the Agricultural Marketing Service to allow the able nutritionists on Hentges' staff at USDA/CNPP to review the checkoff messages for consistency with the Dietary Guidelines. After all, Hentges has said previously, and said again today, that these guidelines represent the federal government's "one voice" on nutrition communication.

Hentges answered that the dairy weight loss message appears consistent with the dietary guidelines. While I do want to be polite, Hentges' answer is false.

Hentges referred to the fact that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, while explicitly declining to endorse the dairy weight loss claim, did mention that dairy products are not distinctly fattening relative to other foods with similar calories. That is a very different matter. To say that dairy food is not distinctly fattening is to be entirely consistent with the mainstream federal scientifically-based advice about calorie balance. By contrast, for Hentges to say that dairy weight loss claims are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines is to dishonor the hard work and true convictions of his staff at USDA/CNPP and the scientists USDA recruited to give Americans the best possible advice on nutrition and health.

Plum torte from local farmers

Nobody will ever mistake me for a real food weblogger. I read the culinary adventures and view the photographs of the food weblogs in the sidebar with humility bordering on chagrin. Far from seeking to emulate them, I hope only that U.S. Food Policy serves these citizen journalists well as a source of food policy news and commentary that complements their other food interests.

Still, let me share -- with entirely misplaced pride -- this evening's plum torte, made with locally grown plums from our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share, which we pick up weekly at the Waltham Fields Community Farm (pictured in the title frame above). The plums and the recipe both come from Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, MA.

Hearing on junk food in Massachusetts schools

At the press event before today's hearing about junk food in Massachusetts schools at the State Capitol in Boston, State Rep. Peter Koutoujian challenged the notion that policy-makers should allow children to choose junk food. "Who's in charge here?," Koutoujian asked. "The adults or the children?"

Similarly, 15-year-old Raquel Pena spoke eloquently about the difficulty of pursuing a healthy lifestyle in today's school food marketing environment: "If we had less junk food, I would go for the cafeteria food. If we had healthier options, I would feel more supported."

Koutoujian, the lead sponsor of bill H. 1457, which would exclude sodas and set nutritional standards for foods in vending machines and a la carte lines, took some hard questions from reporters. One asked why his bill didn't do something about the food served in through the National School Lunch Program in the same schools. His answer was jurisdictional, that his bill could not address the federal lunch program. I think a more vigorous answer would be to say that Koutoujian's bill strongly supports good nutrition through the National School Lunch Program.

Removing junk food from vending machines and a la carte lines greatly strengthens both the financial position and the marketing position of the National School Lunch Program. For one thing, the federal program is not allowed to sell sodas, so the federal program will be able to compete more strongly under the new bill. Second, the food service authorities would be able to serve healthier food in the NSLP if it were better protected from unhealthy competition in the a la carte line. Having more paying customers for the full lunch in the NSLP improves the finances of the school lunch program, and permits it to undertake other healthy food offerings that might be more expensive. It sounded weak for the bill's sponsors to talk about Federal and state jurisdiction, as if the school lunch program were bad but they were helpless to fix it. The NSLP is far better than the vending machines and a la carte lines, and furthermore, the Massachusetts bill improves the economic feasibility of further nutritional improvement in the nation's biggest child nutrition program.

We do not allow tobacco sales in high school vending machines, despite the fact that they might bring needed revenue to schools and teenagers of legal age might enjoy them. The point, paradoxically, is that more choice makes our children less healthy and less happy.

Ask Raquel Pena.

Update 10/6/2005: A student sends this BBC report, about a study in Britain that was mentioned in the press conference, arguing that students who eat school cafeteria lunches are as healthy as students who bring lunches from home.

Monday, October 03, 2005

October 5 hearing on school nutrition in Massachusetts

Don't forget this event about junk food in schools on October 5, described in an earlier post.

Turn people out on October 5th. We need to make a strong showing at the State House - both at the hearing and at a press event we're holding beforehand. Please contact friends, colleagues, family - anyone and everyone - and urge them to join us. Please click here [.pdf] to view a flier announcing the hearing.

Help Our Kids Eat Right!Press Event and Hearing for An Act to Promote Proper School Nutrition Wednesday, October 5. Press Event - 9:15 am, Beacon Street in front of the State House. Hearing - 10:00 am, Gardner Auditorium, the State House.

USDA headline: "Carbs Up; Meat Takes a Hit in First Quarter 2005"

USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) on Friday reported declines in consumption of pork, poultry, fish, and beef between the first quarter of 2004 and the first quarter of 2005, "perhaps due to waning interest in low-carbohydrate diets." By contrast, ERS food marketing expert Ephraim Leibtag and nutrition economics expert Lisa Mancino reported fruit consumption increased more than any other category during the same period.

The authors discussed the consumption changes in the context of the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January 2005, saying the new recommendations "spur the sales of whole grain foods." They compared sales of whole grain products during an 8 week period after the release of the guidelines with sales for the same products during an earlier comparison period. To avoid complications from seasonal consumption patterns, they also compared the post-guidelines period with the same period one year earlier. In both comparisons, consumption of whole grain breads and ready-to-eat cereals jumped dramatically after the release of the Guidelines.

whole grains

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Jack at Accidental Hedonist

Jack from Fork and Bottle, who frequently suggests good posts for U.S. Food Policy, is sitting in for Kate at the Accidental Hedonist weblog. And he's not holding back! See his comparison of big chain supermarkets and Whole Foods. Interesting discussion in the comment section about labor issues in the latter chain.

The real world of school lunch

Loyal reader Ted Wilde writes: "This is a really good article on the realities of school lunch leadership by a highly creative food service director in a multicultural setting." From Matthew Pinzur at the Miami Herald:

The vast majority of the 4,100 students buy some sort of lunch. Between 1,200 and 1,300 stream through the main cafeteria. Most wait in line 10 to 15 minutes for daily specials such as Thursday's roast pork, beefaroni and rice with beans.

Hundreds more move along the salad bar, stocked daily with more than 20 fresh vegetables.

''Kids love a home-cooked meal, and lot of them don't get it at home,'' said Brookins, who often tweaks district-approved recipes to suit her students. One of her most popular inventions is special fried rice -- she adds ham and scrambled eggs to an arroz con pollo recipe and packages it in Chinese take-out containers.

''All we do is pizazz it up, jazz it up,'' said Brookins, 44, who has also worked for fast-food companies, casual restaurants and the companies that cater airline flights.

The rest of the students prefer to eat at one of the a-la-carte kiosks in a large, open-air courtyard outside the cafeteria. They primarily sell food from the school kitchen -- hoagies, chicken sandwiches, light salads -- but also bring in prepackaged snacks and nearly 300 pizzas from Papa John's, Dominoes and a local restaurant, Steve's

Those choices became popular in the late 1990s, when the school district closed high-school campuses and cut off students from their favorite fast-food runs. Bringing some of those foods onto campus was a stab at compromise.

''We can't tell them what they want,'' Brookins said.

A large share of Miami-Dade students are foreign-born, and their tastes are more worldly than the burgers and Sloppy Joes of a generation ago. Last week's menu included chicken fajitas, Mexican tacos and Jamaican empanadas in addition to hot dogs and deli sandwiches.

The insightful article describes a student population that is genuinely diverse in its eating goals. Some students value a healthy hot cooked meal that they miss in their home life, some have peanut allergies, some are vegetarian and desire more imaginative vegetables than the salad bar offers, and some press the cafeteria for more branded fast food -- "'They need to catch up with the times,'" said one.