Thursday, October 29, 2009

Healthy choices for school meals

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) at the National Academies on October 20 published new guidelines, which may lead to more healthy meals in federal school nutrition programs.

The recommendations, if implemented by USDA, will bring school meals standards in line with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In light of current concerns about overweight and obesity, the IOM report suggests food energy maximum levels as well as the current minimum levels. It also suggests upper bounds on salt and saturated fat.

The report, titled School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children, seems astutely focused and un-fussy. It recommends a drastic simplification in the way nutrition standards are used in meal planning and determining a meal's eligibility for federal reimbursement. It suggests nutrient benchmarks for developing federal standards, but it recommends that actual meal planning and reimbursements be based primarily on foods instead of nutrients. Rather than pursue a long list of distracting micronutrient benchmarks, the report promotes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

In a special child nutrition issue of Choices Magazine from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), published today, Iowa State University economist Helen Jensen comments: "the recommendations are consistent with a growing body of research, as well as encouragement from stakeholder groups to change the school meals to be consistent with the dietary needs of school children today." Jensen is editor of the special issue and also a member of the IOM committee that produced the new report.

Today's special issue of Choices also contains gently contrasting views about measures that school food services might take to improve school meals, while remaining financially viable. Cornell economists David Just and Brian Wansink use principles of behavior science to suggest nudges in the direction of healthier meals:
Thus, the object of using behavioral economics in school lunch rooms is to guide choices in a way that is subtle enough that children are unaware of the mechanism. These subtle changes often have the advantage of being relatively cheap and easy to implement. This is a clear advantage given the financial climate. However, behavioral economic instruments cannot achieve 100% compliance. For example, the only way to eliminate soda consumption in a school is to eliminate the soda. If we instead approach the problem by allowing choice but place the soda at some disadvantage in the marketplace, we can reduce soda consumption substantially but not eliminate it. To preserve choice, we will necessarily have to allow some individuals to purchase items that are less nutritious. But we can make these choices less convenient or less visible, by moving the soda machines into more distant, less visited parts of the school.
(Wansink was interviewed at U.S. Food Policy in 2007).

On the other hand, I have an article in Choices, with Friedman School graduate student Mary Kennedy, discussing the economic environment in which school food services must operate. Because of interactions between student demand for more and less healthy options, we suggest that reining in less healthy competitive foods may give school food authorities more room to maneuver in providing better choices.
The Just and Wansink article in this theme warns against unintentionally increasing the appeal of unhealthy products by banning them outright. Nevertheless, placing some reasonable limits on competitive food is not really economic heresy.

For centuries, economists have admired markets as a coordinating tool for economic decisions in communities composed of households, but economists have always acknowledged beneficent non-market decision-making within households. Schools are not marketplaces but educational institutions responsible for the welfare of their charges.

If schools are expected to respond to the current epidemic of childhood obesity by improving the school food environment, and taxpayers are reluctant simply to provide more resources, then there is some merit in considering measures to enhance the relative competitive position of healthy meals served through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Kitchen Gardeners International

The non-profit group Kitchen Gardeners International has a video celebrating the success this year of the campaign to establish a White House garden, and looking forward to new projects promoting kitchen and yard gardening around the world.

Roger Doiron, a Tufts alum and founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, spoke at the Friedman School this past week.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Colpaart earns award from American Dietetic Association

U.S. Food Policy contributor Ashley Colpaart this week received the 2009 Award of Excellence in Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, a dietetic practice group award from the American Dietetic Association.
Ashley’s work and commitment to the field of hunger and environmental nutrition is broad and diverse. She serves as the Nutrition Services Coordinator for the Meals for Kids Intervention where she brought healthful meals to lowincome, at-risk populations in East and South Austin (Texas). As the Legislation & Public Policy Chair for the HEN dietetic practice group, she has worked tirelessly to educate HEN members on a variety of important public policy issues, such as: farm and food policy, the food system’s connection with nutritional health, Child Nutrition Reauthorization, the effect of industrial farming on the environment and food safety, conflicts of interest, country of origin labeling (COOL), and genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops.

To disseminate her message to a wide audience, Ashley has used a variety of venues including the HEN-listserv, the HEN DPG newsletter, her personal blog, and a joint blog with professor Parke Wilde, PhD at Tufts University.

“I’ve no doubt that the contributions that Ashley has already made in academia and in the field will gain her notoriety in the world of dietetics. I’m equally certain that down the road, Ashley will be leaving her mark on the future – one that will be a whole lot brighter for us all, because of her effort and devotion.”
-- Loretta Jaus, an Organic Valley Family of Farms dairy farmer

East Arlington Livable Streets (EALS), November 4 at the Capitol Theatre

Of interest to local readers in the Boston area. . .

The East Arlington Livable Streets (EALS) Coalition will host a fun and educational event to promote:
  • traffic calming throughout the neighborhood,
  • a safer environment for everyone (walkers, motorists, cyclists, children and the elderly), and
  • an enhanced quality of life throughout East Arlington.
The featured speaker for the evening will be Jackie Douglas, Advocacy Director for the Cambridge-based LivableStreets Alliance, whose moniker is "Rethinking Urban Transportation." Ms. Douglas will present a 30-minute presentation about the need for sustainable transportation policies and street design throughout the Boston region. Following Ms. Douglas' presentation, the EALS Coalition will facilitate a short discussion about our advocacy work, including our support for the current plan to enhance Mass Ave.

If you are interested in promoting a more walkable, bikeable neighborhood free of speeding traffic, or if you want to know more about the work of the EALS Coalition, this is the event for you!

Wednesday, November 4 at the Capitol Theatre

7:00 - meet and greet, refreshments and raffle tickets
7:30 - Rethinking Urban Transportation presentation

The event is FREE and open to the public, though seating is limited so arrive early.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Inflation-adjusted food spending fell, and food insecurity worsened, for low-income households in 2000-2007

A USDA report this week suggested that U.S. families spent less on food as their housing costs increased from 2000 to 2007, leading to increased risk of food insecurity.

The report by USDA's Economic Research Service said that inflation-adjusted median food spending fell by 6 percent from 2000 to 2007. Meanwhile, ERS said, the national prevalence of very low food security (the condition formerly called "household food insecurity with hunger") increased from 3.1 percent of households in 2000 to 4.1 percent of households in 2007.

In other words, people were spending less in real inflation-adjusted terms, and they were experiencing higher rates of food-related hardship.

When I first read this study, I wondered if ERS was correct to imply a connection between these two trends. The report's author, Mark Nord, strengthens the argument by disaggregating the data according to income strata. It turns out that the second-poorest fifth of households experienced both the greatest fall in food spending and the greatest increase in food-related hardship.

Moreover, the food spending and food insecurity trends were connected in a plausible way to overall spending trends: "The declines in food spending by middle- and low-income households were accompanied by increases in spending for housing and, in the two lowest income quintiles, by declines in income and total spending."

Still, one should resist the temptation to think of food insecurity as primarily a problem of low average food spending. The food security survey that is used for classification asks households about their experience of particular hardship events, such as skipping meals or going a whole day without food, in the preceding 12 months. If a family runs out of food occasionally, it can seem to have adequate average food spending, but still experience food insecurity. Participation in the SNAP (food stamp) program seems to be associated with higher food spending, holding other factors constant, but associated also with higher rates of food insecurity (presumably because people with greater needs for food are more likely to take the trouble to participate). It is not clear whether increased average food spending is itself a cure for food insecurity.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Smart Choices suspends operations

In an effort to better coordinate with the Food and Drug Administration, the Smart Choices front-of-pack labeling program today announced that it would suspend operations for the present time.

The labeling program had been criticized for giving a stamp of approval to marginal products, such as a somewhat reformulated version of Froot Loops. This blog had previously covered both this criticism and the response from the program's supporters, including leading nutrition experts at the Friedman School and elsewhere.

In today's announcement, Mike Hughes, chair of the Smart Choices Program and vice president for science and public policy at the Keystone Center, stood by the actual nutrition criteria used in the program. "Our nutrition criteria are based on sound, consensus science," said Hughes.

We suggested in the previous post, "the program could have considered stricter criteria in some areas, such as sweetened cereals. More importantly, it could have achieved a different emphasis even with the program's current criteria. It could have more strongly highlighted fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while giving a lower profile to products that have been slightly reformulated and artificially enriched to just barely meet the nutrient criteria."

In either case, the FDA may be in a better position than the manufacturer-led Smart Choices Program to referee this question. In today's announcement, Hughes said, "[W]ith the FDA's announcement this week that they will be addressing both on front-of-package and on-shelf systems, and that uniform criteria may follow, it is more appropriate to postpone active operations and channel our information and learnings to the agency to support their initiative."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Home Ec at the Faster Times

In the most recent edition of her Home Ec column at the Faster Times, Sarah Sliwa considers Mark Bittman's vision of how on-line shopping services, such as PeaPod, could evolve to provide much more information about ethical and local sourcing for food.
I think Mr. Bittman sees online shopping as a way to correct informational asymmetries in retail. He seems to be saying ‘There are people who would pay to know this stuff. Why don’t we let them.’ Our food system is wanting for greater transparency. But what preparation would consumers need to sift through that onslaught of information? Would those willing to chip in for traceback merely be the same individuals who pay attention to that anyway?
But Sliwa has some doubts:
Even if online shopping emerges as a means to control unplanned food purchasing, I fear this will be undermined as manufacturers grow savvy to online shoppers’ behaviors. For years, marketing researchers have been studying ’shelf-effects’ online and the relationship between relative screen placement, sequence, and shopping behavior. Virtual store layouts also matter. The more we learn about consumer behaviors online, the more tactical placement of ads and products we’ll see.
Sliwa is a graduate student at the Friedman School at Tufts.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Growing Green awards from NRDC

The Natural Resources Defense Council is taking nominations through December 4 for its second annual "Growing Green" awards program. See Jonathan Kaplan's blog for more information. There are four categories: food producer, business leader, thought leader, and water steward. There is a cash award for the food producer category and non-pecuniary praise for the other award recipients.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hispanic farmers seek class action status for discrimination suit

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been compensating Black farmers who sued for past discrimination in USDA programs over many years, Hispanic farmers who allege similar discrimination have not been certified as a legal "class" that can jointly bring a lawsuit. The Hispanic farmers are still permitted to bring individual lawsuits alleging discrimination, but these are expensive and have little chance of success.

NPR's All Things Considered yesterday afternoon emphasized similarities between the two legal disputes, suggesting that the Hispanic farmers are being treated unfairly by comparison to Black farmers in similar circumstances.
Soon after President Reagan took office in the early 1980s, the USDA's civil rights division was quietly dismantled. Nevertheless, the agency continued to tell farmers that if they felt they weren't getting loans because of their color or gender, they should file a complaint.

But for the next 14 years, those complaints were put into an empty government office and never investigated. By the 1990s, black farmers filed a lawsuit — Pigford v. Glickman. Because the USDA failed to investigate years of discrimination complaints, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman certified the black farmers' case as a class action. And with that ruling, rather than risk a trial, the federal government settled with 15,000 black farmers for $1 billion.

The next year, Hispanic farmers filed their lawsuit. And although their discrimination complaints had been thrown into the same empty USDA office, the judge in their case decided the Hispanic farmers would not be allowed to sue as a class.
I looked up the 2006 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals, to see if the court mentioned any differences between the class-action petition of the Hispanic farmers and the earlier lawsuit by Black farmers. That appeals court decision centered on a debate about statistics. Because the USDA program rules on their face seemed to be non-discriminatory, the lawyers for the Hispanic farmers needed to show that there was systematic discrimination in practice.

First, an econometrician, Jerry Hausman, showed that Hispanic farmers seemed to get USDA program support at lower rates than non-Hispanic farmers. But, opposing attorneys and their experts pointed out that many of the Hispanic farmers may have never applied for support, in which case USDA could not be blamed if the farmers did not receive report. Second, the farmers presented another statistical analysis that appeared to show differences in USDA data for Hispanic and non-Hispanic loan applicants. But, opposing attorneys argued that some of the Hispanic applicants might not have been citizens, or they may have had deficient applications in other respects that were not "controlled" using regression analysis.

However, details such as citizenship information were not provided in the USDA data that were available for the second analysis. At one point, the author of this analysis, Karl Pavlovic, gave vent to his frustration (.pdf):
Dr. Freedman [the opposing expert] is simply using the myriad deficiencies in the databases produced by USDA to play a speculative game of 'gotcha' against the simple analyses that can be performed with the limited data produced. USDA produced some boards and a few nails. Dr. Freedman then criticizes my analyses for being a serviceable raft and not the Queen Mary.
As with many policy arguments, the question turns on where one places the burden of proof when absolutely clear answers cannot be found. The USDA and the court of appeals place the full burden on the plaintiffs to provide proofs that rule out alternative explanations for the disparate treatment of Hispanic farmers by USDA programs.

Because the chosen standard of proof is essentially impossible, this approach would mean that a farmer who faced real discrimination would not in fact be able to pursue a remedy through USDA or the courts.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Baseball gets dietary supplement regulation back in the game

In part due to Major League Baseball, members of Congress are re-considering how the $25 billion U.S. dietary supplement industry is regulated.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs heard testimony on whether current laws and regulations are sufficient to protect consumers from ingredients that may appear in supplements, but not on their labels. The interest of Chairman Arlen Specter (Dem-PA) is due in part to the court case of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher J.C. Romero, who was suspended for 50 games this year after testing positive for a banned substance. Earlier this year, Romero sued the manufacturer of an over-the-counter supplement, blaming the company for his suspension on the claim that it misrepresented ingredients in its products.

Under current law, no government agency evaluates the contents of dietary supplements to confirm the presence of ingredients listed on the label (or to discover those unlisted). Furthermore, dietary supplement manufacturers do not have to prove the safety or efficacy of the product to gain Food and Drug Administration approval prior to marketing. Rather, companies must submit some evidence that the product has a history of use or benefit 75 days before selling it. The safety burden falls on the FDA: if it believes a supplement to be unsafe it must demonstrate the public health risk in court. NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle covers the history of this issue in detail in her book, Food Politics, as well as on her blog.

In his testimony, Michael Levy, the Director of the Division of New Drugs and Labeling Compliance at the FDA, describes this as, “a painstaking investigative and analytical process to show that [the products] are violative.” He states that the process can take many months, during which the product in question remains on the market, limiting the FDA’s ability to effectively protect consumers.

The largest trade association for the natural products industry, the Natural Products Association, also supported stricter enforcement of supplement contents. However, rather than questioning the effectiveness of current procedures, Interim Executive Director Daniel Fabricant called for increased money and manpower to enforce current law. He argues that sufficient resources would enable the FDA to pursue a larger number of investigations and court cases.

Batting averages are not the only outcomes at stake in this regulatory debate. Use of steroid-like compounds has been associated with kidney failure, liver injury, and stroke.

It will be interesting to see how the debate unfolds. The Major League Baseball Players Association is reported to be lobbying Congress to require that a federally certified lab analyze all supplements to identify the ingredients that should be listed on the label. Professional athletes may hit a regulatory home run that consumer safety advocates have sought for more than a decade.

Written by Natalie Valpiani, a graduate student at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. Cross-posted from a University of North Carolina food seminar blog, Eats 101.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Can data alone increase government transparency?

Among blogs, as well as the mainstream media, Congress generally gets all the attention, at least where policy is concerned, and I've found most food blogs to be no exception. And among the public--forget it. It's pretty clear that as little as people understand how a bill becomes a law, most people are even more clueless when it comes to what happens after a bill becomes a law.

So for us food [and other] policy wonks out there, the recent attempts by the Obama administration to open up the process to make it easier for blogs and others to follow the post-bill signing policymaking process via the Federal Register, can only help begin to expose the public and facilitate more input.

As a non-tech expert myself, I don't quite know what it means that as of today, the Federal Register is available in XML. But I do know that it has allowed for the development of a host of new websites and applications which utilize the daily updated data in the federal register to allow better tracking and communication.

One of these websites is called FedThread, and my first reaction was that it bares a striking resemblance to the way Jews traditionally study and comment on rabbinic texts, like the Talmud, comparing several annotated versions of the text. In the latter case, this allows the text to operate almost as a living document, with controversial yet accepted differences of opinion among highly revered scholars.

More about the features of FedThread from the site:

  • collaborative annotation: Attach a note to any paragraph of the Federal Register; start a conversation.
  • advanced search: Search the Federal Register back to 2000 on full text, by date, agency, and other fields.
  • customized feeds: Turn any search into an RSS or email feed, which will send you any new items that match the search query.

While I haven't seen it in action yet, the site seems like it will allow individual register notices to read like a cross between a bulletin board and a Wikipedia entry, and may present an opportunity for government regulators to get feedback from the public in real time.

Whether they will actually do that, and whether there are concerns that people will post to the site instead of submitting actual comments to the relevant agency, remains to be seen. The site explicitly states that posting comments on FedThread does not substitute for sending in an official public comment, and government regulators are under no obligation to read or take note of comments posted on FedThread.