Thursday, November 18, 2010

NYT had it right, Daily Yonder wrong

The Daily Yonder thinks the earlier New York Times article about checkoff promotions is mistaken. Here is my comment on the Daily Yonder site:
This post understates the federal government role in the checkoff promotions, such as the Dominoes cheese pizza campaign.

The federal government established the dairy checkoff program, the Secretary of Agriculture appoints the board members from a slate of candidates proposed by the industry, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service must approve every promotion campaign in writing, and the federal government uses its power of taxation to enforce the collection of the funds that sponsor these campaigns. If a cheese producer fails to pay, the U.S. Department of Justice takes them to court.

Your post says, "Industry Group Uses Its Own Funds To Promote Its Products." That is incorrect. A minority of producers -- especially those who produce a distinctive product and benefit little from general commodity advertising -- object to these checkoff assessments. It is not they themselves who decided to pay, and it is not an "industry group" making them pay, it is the federal government making them pay.

When dissident producers took the checkoff programs to court, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the checkoff programs, only because the federal government attorney convinced the justices that these programs are from top to bottom federal government programs, and their every message has official status as "government speech."

Other products sponsored by these checkoff campaigns: McDonald's McRib, Quiznos Steakhouse Beef Dip sandwich, Wendy's Bacon Cheesburger, and Pizza Hut Stuffed Crust Three Cheese Pizza. The checkoff programs encourage us to eat more beef, more pork, and more cheese all at the same time.

This blog post is full of misdirection -- saying the checkoff programs are not using "your tax money." This is like telling me that the government is not using "my tax money" for the war in Iraq or welfare checks or whatever you object to -- sure, the government is collecting the tax that funds those activities but they can reassure you that your particular tax payment was not the actual dollars used. Who cares which tax dollars were used for which purpose? If the federal government collected the tax, and the purpose is bad, we have a right to object.

Congress should either: (a) stop having the federal government enforce the checkoff assessments, or (b) expect that the checkoff messages serve our public health goals at a time when health care costs are threatening to bankrupt the government.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Three healthy Happy Meals that satisfy the proposed San Francisco rule

The San Francisco rule that would allow toys only in comparatively healthy Happy Meals still seems to be in limbo following a mayoral veto.  The rule is widely and erroneously described in the media as a ban on Happy Meals.  This is untrue, assuming that it really is possible for restaurants to market attractive and affordable kid meals that satisfy the rule.  At CalorieLab yesterday, Susan McQuillan laid out three appealing meals that McDonald's could consider.  Perhaps the Happy Meals could become even happier. If these meals turn into bestsellers, perhaps we could moderate the shrill tenor of the debate over this rule.

Boston Bounty Bucks program supplements SNAP benefits in farmers' markets

On the NPR radio show Living on Earth last week, Friedman School alum Jessica Smith reported on the Boston Bounty Bucks program, which provides a financial incentive to food stamp (SNAP) participants for fruit and vegetable purchases in farmers' markets.  A highlight of the segment was the demonstration of how food stamp Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards work in farmers' markets.
The program has become a model for other cities. Farmers' markets around the country are starting to add EBT stations and a few other programs offer financial incentives. The goals are the same: to improve health and nutrition in traditionally underserved populations.
The Boston Globe in June wrote about this program, and the Food Project website provides more details and a list of sites where the benefits can be spent.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Food insecurity in the United States remains at record high levels

USDA reported today that about 17 million households (or 14.7% of all U.S. households) were food insecure in 2009.  This level equals the record high level set the previous year, in the midst of recession.

Washington Post coverage today discussed the role of the economy and federal food assistance programs in influencing food insecurity:
"It's a considerable reflection of what is going on in the economy," said Kevin Concannon, USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services....  Concannon said he was somewhat hopeful since the number of families suffering from hunger and nutrition problems stabilized last year even though the population of unemployed Americans rose from 9 million in 2008 to 14 million in 2009.

He attributed the stabilization to successful outreach and enrollment of many of these families into USDA-funded food programs. Fifty-seven percent of the families in the survey are enrolled in one or more of these programs. And one in four households have at least one family member participating in an USDA feeding program, up from one in five just two years ago.
Participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been increasing rapidly in the past two years.  Average monthly participation in this leading anti-hunger program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, was 33 million people in 2009, up more than 5 million from the preceding year.  However, increased SNAP participation itself reflects increased economic hardship and does not necessarily mean reduced food insecurity and hunger.  In the most recent USDA food insecurity report, the rate of household food insecurity was 55% among SNAP participants, but only 31% of low-income non-participants.

Because the annual USDA report no longer describes severe food insecurity as "food insecurity with hunger," the clearest national survey-based measure of hunger in the United States is the simple question about whether any adults in the household went hungry.  The estimates reported in appendix A of the new report indicate that 4.6% of U.S. households in 2009 experienced hunger in this sense, unchanged from the preceding year.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

SNAP (food stamp) purchase amounts at individual Massachusetts retailers

The website MuckRock has posted a remarkable data set showing SNAP (food stamp) purchase amounts at individual Massachusetts retailers.  A clever Google Maps application makes the data easy to access.  By clicking on each red dot, one can see the redemptions data for fiscal years 2006 through 2009.

In general, the federal government shares information about the location of SNAP retailers but not the amount of redemptions at each retailer.  According to the Boston Globe today, it is possible that the data were released in error, and MuckRock may have to take down the data.  This would be too bad.  Just as the farm subsidies received by individual farmers are subject to freedom-of-information rules, and can be shared with the public, it seems reasonable to think of SNAP benefit payments to retailers as public information rather than fully private business information.  Perhaps a reasonable compromise would be to stipulate a threshold for small retailers below which the exact dollar amount need not be made public.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Generic advertising for fruits and vegetables

In light of the recent controversy over commodity checkoff advertising for cheese, some may wonder why there is no similar advertising for fruits and vegetables.

A recent working paper (.pdf) by a team of economists from Cornell and Arizona State uses a laboratory experiment to estimate the potential consumer response to several different fruits and vegetable advertising strategies.  The paper by Jura Liaukonyte, Bradley Rickard, Harry Kaiser, and Timothy Richards found, in this consumer laboratory setting, that broad-based advertising for the entire category of fruits and vegetables seemed more promising than separate advertisements for particular products.  Separate advertisements for each product could cannibalize each other.

An earlier study in Australia estimated positive impacts of a fruit and vegetable advertising campaign.  The authors concluded: "Sustained, well-executed social marketing is effective in improving nutrition knowledge, attitudes and consumption behaviour. The Go for 2&5 campaign provides guidance to future nutrition promotion through social marketing."

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Despite Dietary Guidelines, federal government promotes high-fat cheese through dairy checkoff

For many years, there has been a tension between the federal government's recommendations for a nutritious diet and the government's promotion of high-fat beef, pork, and cheese through the federal commodity checkoff programs.

For example, in 2005 U.S. Food Policy described the dairy checkoff program's cheese promotion efforts in collaboration with fast food restaurants.
According to USDA’s report to Congress, the Dairy Board’s campaign with the motto, "Ahh, The Power of Cheese," is targeted at "cheese lovers," with an emphasis on "cheese enhancers" and "cheese cravers." The "enhancers" use cheese in their cooking, while the "cravers" eat cheese straight on its own. The USDA report to Congress emphasizes the Dairy Board’s success with cheese promotions through fast food restaurants: "DMI also worked closely with top national restaurant chains, including Pizza Hut ® and Wendy's ®, to drive cheese volume and ensure that cheese was featured prominently in menu items. For example, Wendy's ® introduced two new sandwiches, the Wild Mountain Chicken sandwich and the Wild Mountain Bacon Cheeseburger, nationwide. Both included a slice of natural Colby-Jack cheese and a smoky Southwestern pepper sauce. These new menu items were developed through a partnership between DMI and Wendy's ® that tested consumer acceptance of these sandwiches in select test markets. "

To take the most recent example, last month (April, 2005) the Dairy Board began a collaboration with Pizza Hut to promote a 3-cheese stuffed crust pizza (Figure 5). This pizza features an exceptional amount of cheese. A single slice of the plain cheese version contains 35 percent of the federal government’s recommended daily value for saturated fat and 39 percent of the daily value for salt, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. The Dairy Board features this pizza on the front page of its website, with the address
The federal government's dietary guidelines promote a diet with more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and more lowfat milk, while still maintaining a moderate total level of food energy.  By subtraction, the recommended diet includes less high-fat beef, pork, and cheese than Americans consume on average.

Michael Moss in the New York Times today provides a fascinating and thorough expose of the dairy checkoff program's role in marketing high-fat cheese:
Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese.

Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate. Cheese has become the largest source of saturated fat; an ounce of many cheeses contains as much saturated fat as a glass of whole milk.

When Michelle Obama implored restaurateurs in September to help fight obesity, she cited the proliferation of cheeseburgers and macaroni and cheese. “I want to challenge every restaurant to offer healthy menu options,” she told the National Restaurant Association’s annual meeting.

But in a series of confidential agreements approved by agriculture secretaries in both the Bush and Obama administrations, Dairy Management has worked with restaurants to expand their menus with cheese-laden products.
There are many more great stories about checkoff programs that an enterprising journalist could explore (our checkoff tag in the side-bar has 38 items going back five years).  For background, I summarized some of the nutrition policy tensions in a 2005 article for the journal Obesity.  One remarkable story that U.S. Food Policy followed was the $60 million sale of the pork industry's "Other White Meat" slogan from the National Pork Producers Council to the federal government's pork checkoff program.  My questions about that sale have never yet been answered.

Update (3 pm): On this topic, see the Volokh Conspiracy and the extensive discussion in comments at the NYT site.  For a while today, this issue ranked at the top of the Google Blogsearch business page.