Saturday, July 21, 2018

How old is the term "coconut milk"?

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

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

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Massachusetts reinstates the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) effective tomorrow

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, April 07, 2018

Gershoff Symposium, April 27

The 2018 Gershoff Symposium, on April 27, will feature 4 presentations:
  • "Food Labeling Chaos" (Keynote). Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of Sustainability and Professor of Public Policy at George Washington University. Merrigan was Deputy Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration. She led a fascinating workshop on sustainability in dietary guidance in 2014, leading to a 2015 commentary in Science (whose co-authors included my Tufts colleague Tim Griffin and myself), which was part of the discussion and debate around sustainability issues in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
  • "Deal or No Deal, What Do You See in a Label?" John Bernard, Professor, Department of Applied Economics & Statistics, University of Delaware. John is an old friend from graduate school at Cornell. His recent research addresses fascinating topics in food labeling, including (a) one article in Food Policy anticipating what will type of mess will happen if cloned meat and dairy products enter the marketplace without labeling rules, and (b) another article in Food Quality & Preference with amusing results about how much more highly consumers rate the taste of equivalent food products when they are labeled organic compared to when they are not labeled.
  • "State of the Evidence: Organic vs. Non-Organic." Qi Sun, Associate Professor of Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
  • "Creating a Sustainable Food System: What Matters and What Counts?" Amanda Beal, President and Chief Executive Officer, Maine Farmland Trust. Beal is a Tufts Friedman School alum and a great source of insight about local farming and fisheries in Maine.
A registration link and more information about this annual symposium, in honor of former dean Stanley Gershoff, are here.


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Does the United States have a "cheap food policy"?

In connection with the second edition of Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction (Routledge/Earthscan, 2018), here is the second video in a series.

Today's question is: Does the United States have a "cheap food policy"?


Parke Wilde - Does the United States Have a Cheap Food Policy? from Tufts Friedman School on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) releases report on SNAP and nutrition

Whenever thoughtful Republicans and Democrats and non-partisan analysts get cajoled into spending significant time in a room together to focus on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) policy, they tend to come up with some common themes:

  • placing a high value both on food security and nutrition goals (not just one or the other);
  • encouraging SNAP to play a constructive role in a labor market centered strategy for poverty reduction (not just focusing on food provision alone); and
  • broadly supporting SNAP overall (not thinking of SNAP as an excessively generous welfare program).

The Bipartisan Policy Center's SNAP report this week in 2018 follows in the shoes of earlier conversations, such as the 2017 joint work of the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings, and the 2016 work of the National Commission on Hunger.

My Tufts Friedman School colleagues Norbert Wilson (as panel member) and Jerry Mande (as advisor) did great work on the BPC report, titled Leading with Nutrition: Leveraging Federal Programs for Better Health. Another panel member was Mariana Chilton, who also had made valuable contributions to the earlier National Commission on Hunger.

Most readers likely will focus on the BPC's recommendation to limit sugar sweetened beverages. But it also is good to notice the broad bipartisan support for SNAP, which contrasts with current winds from the administration:
Task force members shared an appreciation for the importance of SNAP in reducing food insecurity and poverty among low-income Americans. The program plays a positive role in supporting families and communities across the country; thus, it is our strong view that any changes to increase SNAP’s focus on nutrition and healthier food choices must be undertaken in ways that strengthen the program and make it more effective. Given that existing SNAP benefits are relatively meager (less than $1.39 per person per meal), we strongly oppose any changes that would reduce the value of SNAP benefits or make them more difficult for qualified individuals to access.
You may think such reports bland, but I think quite well of them. I would be happy to trade our current political environment for the more sedate political world these commissions inhabit. The BPC could not have anticipated -- and certainly did not directly comment on -- the administration's entirely distinct budget proposal, including harsh SNAP cuts and a Harvest Box proposal, which may be more central to the national SNAP policy argument this year.


Saturday, March 10, 2018

U.S. Food Policy: An Introduction (Second Edition)

The book Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction, whose second edition has just been released in the Earthscan Food and Agriculture Series (Routledge), prepares readers to make their own distinctive contribution to a lively conversation about our food system.

There is no reason why food policy debate should continue to mirror the current dysfunctional state of our national political debate. We can do better.

The first in a series of related videos asks: Who should study U.S. food policy?


Routledge provides a free sample chapter on the author Q&A page.




Friday, February 02, 2018

Federal court stops $3 million annual checkoff payments for obsolete "Other White Meat" slogan

The federal district court in Washington, DC, yesterday stopped the $3 million annual payments that the federal government's semi-public pork checkoff program makes to the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), a private trade association, for the purchase of the "Other White Meat" slogan.

The ruling confirms something that I have been reporting for a dozen years. In 2006, the pork checkoff program first announced plans to purchase the industry's own slogan from NPPC for $60 million, in payments of $3 million per year for 20 years. At the time, I noted that USDA was keeping the financial appraisal secret. I had serious doubts that the slogan could be worth such a sum, because who else but the pork board would want to buy it? Were the artichoke producers vigorously bidding up the price for the "Other White Meat" slogan?

It seemed clear what was really going on. The semi-public checkoff program, which is established by Congress and overseen by USDA, must follow rules such as never using its money for lobbying or other types of political influence. The inflated payments circumvented these rules, allowing the checkoff program to shift $3 million each year to the private trade association, without expecting any actual goods or services in return.

This pork industry plan seemed bad for the public interest and bad for pork farmers whose mandatory payments fund the checkoff program. A new report this week from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says more broadly that checkoff programs have shortcomings in transparency and in USDA oversight of contracting.

Over the years, I requested the appraisal under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but USDA refused my request and then on appeal just sent censored documents with the actual financial details blacked out. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was finally given the actual appraisal many years later, and, as expected, it fell far short of justifying the sale price.

Many years have passed, and the federal district court yesterday said the initial 2006 sale -- however bad it may be -- now falls under a statute of limitations. But, the court allowed the plaintiffs, including HSUS and a pork farmer in Iowa, to question a USDA decision in 2016 to continue the payments. By that time, USDA had a new appraisal, which had the same problems as the earlier appraisal.

In yesterday's ruling, the federal district court sharply summarized why the sale fails to meet the standards of the federal government's Administrative Procedures Act (APA):
The Secretary approved spending $3 million per year for the purchase of the trademarks for another ten years based on an expert’s determination of their replacement cost, that is, what it would cost to develop and market an entirely new promotional campaign today. But neither the agency nor the expert adequately explains why this calculation sheds any light on what the 2016 review was supposed to ascertain: the current value of the set of four trademarks to the agency. The fundamental problem is that the three trademarks that include The Other White Meat slogan have been declared to be obsolete, and they have been retired from active use. So their value is minimal, or at best, undetermined. And the record contains no effort to ascertain the value of the fourth mark – the “Pork and Design” logo that consists of the word “pork” written across a blue triangular “pork loin silhouette” – at all. 
The Secretary’s 2016 decision also fails to explain why it makes sense to predicate future payments on the cost of replacing The Other White Meat when the cost of replacing The Other White Meat has already been incurred. Moreover, while the agency states that the expert endeavored to calculate the value of the marks based upon the cost of developing a new trademark with the same level of effectiveness as the old trademarks, “as measured by aided awareness studies of the percentage of people who are aware of the trademark,” there is no data in the record underlying the expert’s selection of 40% awareness as the target measure. The expert simply cut the high level of awareness garnered by The Other White Meat slogan in its heyday in half and calculated what it would cost to buy something else that effective now. But without any analysis of how much The Other White Meat still resonates in the consumer consciousness today, or, more important, whether the blue triangular logo has gained any traction in the market at all, this approach to quantifying “current value” is completely arbitrary and cannot pass muster under the APA.
Although the pork industry and USDA surely will appeal the decision, it is pleasing to see the problem with this payment stated so clearly by a federal court.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Consumers who value nutrition, animal welfare, and the environment tend to purchase less beef

New research released yesterday from leading agricultural economists Glynn Tonsor, Jayson Lusk, and Ted Schroeder finds that growing media coverage and consumer concern about climate change and the environment would lead to lower demand for beef.

The new report somewhat pushes back against a long tradition of economic research emphasizing prices as a key determinant of consumer demand. The authors, economists at Kansas State and Purdue, show that the impact of beef prices has declined over the years. They find that pork and chicken prices affect beef demand less than one might expect from prior research. They argue that media coverage, consumer demographics, and consumer "values" may matter more.

The study is based in part on consumer survey data and in part on an econometric analysis of beef sales data, market prices, and indices of media coverage for many topics.

The survey analysis found that consumers who value convenience, taste, and appearance have higher demand for ground beef. By contrast, consumers who value nutrition, animal welfare, naturalness, and the environment have lower demand for ground beef.

Source: Tonsor, Lusk, and Schroeder, 2018.

The econometric analysis found that beef demand declined in the 1990s and again in the Great Recession, but it has been rebounding recently from 2011-2017. In older years, much of the coverage in the media data concerned nutrient content issues such as zinc and protein. In recent years, the leading topic in the data is climate change. The study reported elasticities, showing the percentage change in quantity demanded in response to each 10% change in an explanatory variable. In recent years, each 10% increase in coverage of beef taste, tenderness and flavor was associated with a 5% increase in beef demand. By contrast, each 10% increase in coverage of climate change was associated with a 2% reduction in beef demand.

The study paid attention to the amount of media coverage, and to variation from one month to the next. Although media coverage of climate change was high in recent years, it did not jump around much from one month to the next. So, the study could not show definitively whether climate change coverage will strongly influence future changes in beef demand. Much depends on whether media coverage of climate change stays constant or increases over time.

The findings about environmental values and climate change are notable, because consumers may become more aware in the next several years that climate change is a critical global challenge. The journal Climatic Science reported in 2014 that reduced beef and dairy consumption is "indispensable for reaching the 2 °C target with a high probability, unless unprecedented advances in technology take place."

The findings about nutrition also are interesting. There is strong evidence to recommend reduced consumption of some meat products, such as processed meat. The nutrition science community has a vigorous ongoing debate about recommendations about meat intake more broadly. The most recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report recommended a healthy dietary pattern that is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and several other components, and "lower in red and processed meat."

The beef demand report released yesterday was funded by the Cattlemen's Beef Board, one of several major federal government checkoff partnerships designed to increase consumer demand for beef, pork, and dairy products. These checkoff programs were established by Congress, are overseen by USDA, managed by an industry board, and funded by a mandatory assessment or tax on producers. The federal government enforces collection of the assessment. With total funding of more than half a billion dollars annually, these boards are much larger than any federal initiatives to promote healthy eating or consumer lifestyle change to protect the environment.

The Cattlemen's Beef Board and its primary contractor, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), heard preliminary results in 2017 and were "invited to provide feedback guiding the remainder of the project." In the final report, the authors advise the industry on how to keep increasing beef demand.

Because the study found that values and consumer demographics, rather than prices, were key determinants beef demand, they advised the industry to focus on "sources of current demand strength." For example, the authors advised the industry to market beef to African-American and Hispanic consumers:
One specific household characteristic of note is how African-American and Hispanic residents exhibit strong desire for beef. As the share of the U.S. population comprised of these two races is projected to grow refined focus on specific desires of these groups is warranted.
As an economist in a nutrition school, I think the federal government's semi-public checkoff programs should avoid that approach [edited Feb 1], during a time of great concern about health disparities for Americans of different races and ethnicities. But, one can see how the analysis would tempt the beef industry to consider this approach.

On the flip side, the authors advise the industry on how to address "drivers of weakening demand":
Issues including safety and climate were found as current demand detriments. Ultimately the feasibility of impacting these areas must be considered before final decisions regarding industry investment are made.
As the climate changes, it is conceivable that media coverage will ignore the impact of food choices, and that consumer awareness will be stagnant. It also is possible that more sectors of the media will  take climate change seriously, and more consumers will come to appreciate the flavors and nourishment of lower-carbon food choices. In this second scenario, this study shows that the agricultural economy may need to accept and adapt to a reduction in per capita beef demand.

Friday, January 26, 2018

What makes a neighborhood thrive? Looking beyond proximity to the nearest supermarket

The United States has a largely automobile-centered approach to grocery shopping. Most Americans shop at their primary retailer using their own automobile.

There are some interesting differences by income. According to data from USDA's Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS), about 95% of comparatively well-off households do their primary grocery shopping in their own automobile. By contrast, for low-income households, only about 65% do this grocery shopping in their own automobile. Clearly, there are more low-income Americans than high-income Americans who lack easy access to grocery shopping. Yet, when we diagnose the problem of "food deserts" and contemplate new public policies to attract supermarkets to low-income neighborhoods, we must recognize that the local consumers are not a captive audience. Many people at all income levels have choices and mobility, and they can use their spending power to seek the prices they want at distances greater than a mile from home.

In a new study in Current Developments in Nutrition, my colleagues Michele Ver Ploeg, Abigail Steiner, and I find no association between the risk of household food insecurity and having a nearest supermarket as close as 1 mile or less from home. In one sense, this result is surprising, because the "food desert" literature is heavily focused on the presence of supermarkets at very close distances to home. In another sense, this result is consistent with other recent research about the effects of introducing a new supermarket.

A long time ago now, in 2011, this blog described a visit to the Hill District in Pittsburgh, where residents had long awaited a new supermarket to fill an empty lot in the middle of the neighborhood. Over the subsequent years, researchers studied changes in the neighborhood in comparison to another Pittsburgh neighborhood that did not get a new supermarket. The study found some improvements in resident food choices and perceptions in the Hill District, but many residents continued to shop elsewhere, and the changes in choices were not limited to those residents who patronized the new store. Some of the most important effects of a new supermarket may relate to the local economy and land use in low-income neighborhoods. [Note: edit Jan 30] It's not just about the food in the supermarket.

NPR's Marketplace this month described a controversy over the closure of a Safeway supermarket in Greeley, Colorado. Local officials were upset that Safeway put a clause in the property sale document, preventing the new owner from opening a new supermarket. For Marketplace, Safeway's "restrictive covenant" appeared as the villain in the story. And yet I found myself sympathizing with Safeway, which has other nearby stores that would have to compete with not just a new store on the old property but also two Walmart supercenters in town, less than 5 miles away. See this Google map. It is a rough lot in life to compete against Walmart for the grocery business of a mobile car-owning public, as in Greeley. Sometimes, it is not realistic to expect the local economy to sustain more and more supermarkets. If we want to retain supermarkets in smaller lots in a downtown neighborhood, policy-makers may need to show restraint in the number of supermarkets zoned city-wide. When we seek to address food deserts in low-income neighborhoods, we don't just want supermarkets to locate in a particular place, we want them to locate where they will thrive.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Coalition Building and Alliances in Andy Fisher's Big Hunger

In Andy Fisher's ferocious condemnation of anti-hunger organizations -- titled Big Hunger: the Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups (MIT Press, 2017) -- there is much to appreciate.

The book rightly uses a poverty-centered lens to diagnose the causes of food insecurity and hunger in the United States. It skewers a narrow type of charitable anti-hunger work that focuses only on food delivery without looking upstream at the causes of hunger. It provides a perceptive and engaging account of the relationship between national organizations, such as Feeding America and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), and their regional allies, such as Joel Berg of Hunger Free America. It recounts an array of silly tone-deaf hunger-themed corporate marketing campaigns, such as the Snickers Bar Hunger campaign. It offers an astute history of the cooperative but tense conversation between public health nutrition advocates and anti-hunger advocates about SNAP reforms designed to promote dietary quality.

Still, I doubted the sincerity of the closing chapters' wishes to "foster increased dialogue across the movement" or to build "new alliances" between groups with diverse public interest goals. By and large, this book is a highly public wallop, bloodying the nose of the leading advocacy organizations that have for decades rallied political support for essential U.S. anti-hunger programs. This book makes lively reading, and has some good reporting, but I'll be surprised if it becomes the reading-club book for any constructive cross-sectoral dialogue.