Tuesday, December 28, 2004

This is what happens....

... when economists with weblogs write about food.

Restaurant labels

The Farm Policy weblog had high praise for the "refreshing editorial" about restaurant labels in today's Wall Street Journal. The editorial favored FDA's recent voluntary calorie labeling proposal over the mandatory approach of Senator Harkin and Rep. DeLauro in Congress: "As sure as New Year's resolutions follow holiday gorging, watch for 'mislabeling' lawsuits." (Perhaps the Journal has a low opinion of the honesty of the restaurant chains.) The editorial continues, "Watch too, for prices to go up; a legislative labeling mandate isn't cost-free for restaurant owners."

I don't imagine the Journal's editorialists will be convinced by a link to the Center for Science in the Public Interest's report on restaurant labels (even though the CSPI report has a nice feature called "Who would guess?," which shows how difficult it is to estimate calories without labeling). Instead, I should quote the view of the Journal's own favorites at FDA at greater length than the editorial did, because it somewhat rebuts the restaurant industry's whining about costs:

The [Obesity Working Group] recommends that FDA encourage restaurants to provide more, and more readily available, nutrient content information at the point-of-sale. The restaurant industry has voiced concern that requiring nutrition labeling for all menu items is infeasible because recipes change frequently, and patrons often request customization of their meals and the number of options available for customization is large.... Nevertheless, the OWG believes that the restaurant industry could provide some level of nutrition information to its patrons to enhance their ability to make wise food choices. Calculating nutrition information may have been a difficult task for most members of this industry in the past, when such information had to be determined by direct chemical analysis. This task, however, is easier today because nutrient composition databases and software for labeling are readily available.

Or, to pick another fairly mainstream source, here are two of USDA's intrepid economists writing in Choices, the magazine of the American Agricultural Economics Association:

One of the most widely discussed information blackout zones is for food sold at restaurants and fast-food establishments. Although the 1994 National Labeling and Education Act requires that manufacturers include a nutrition information panel on the label of almost all packaged foods, it does not require any similar disclosure for foods purchased at restaurants—food away from home (FAFH). This information requirement gap may be increasingly important as a source of information failure. Not only are Americans consuming large amounts of FAFH, but the nutritional content of FAFH tends to be less healthy than foods prepared at home.

The revolution in eating out is one leading suspect in the obesity epidemic. Whether mandatory or voluntary, restaurant calorie labels should be widely adopted. That would be refreshing.

Obesity and hunger

Here is Reuters on the paradox of obesity and hunger. The article includes a rare media mention of the federal government's Healthy People 2010 objective, which calls for reducing the prevalence of household food insecurity to 6 percent.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Does WIC work? Yes, again

Marianne Bitler and Janet Currie have a good rebuttal to recent criticism of a long tradition of WIC research. Previous research has usually found that WIC (the special supplemental food program for Women, Infants and Children) improves birth outcomes. The criticism, including the "provocative" commentary of attorney Doug Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute, suggested that previous positive results might be due to "selection bias." In this account, WIC might falsely appear to be effective, because researchers are accidentally comparing outcomes for poorly motivated nonparticipants to the highly motivated (and implicitly better off) women who take the trouble to participate. But, in the new 2005 issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, a highly respected refereed journal, Bitler and Currie find exactly the opposite. The women who participate are those with the most severe needs, while nonparticipants may choose not to participate in part because they are better off and need the benefits less. If anything, traditional research approaches probably understate the benefits of WIC. The conclusion, at least for the effects of WIC's benefits for pregnant women, is the usual one: WIC works.

Supermarkets, food prices, and the poor

USDA's Economic Research Service today released the latest installment in a series of interesting reports over several years about food prices and the poor. The issue is more complicated than you might think. Everybody assumes the poor pay more for food than other people do, but is that true? For any category of food (say, "fresh meats" or "canned vegetables"), it turns out that low-income people generally pay less per unit than other people do, because of economizing behavior such as choosing lower-quality or less-desirable foods. When researchers hold everything constant -- comparing the prices paid for the same foods in similar stores, for example -- they still usually find no evidence that the system sticks it to the poor. But maybe that comparison is overcompensating and holding too much constant. It is certainly true that prices are frequently higher and quality lower in small corner stores than in suburban supermarkets.

The most novel contribution of today's ERS report, by Robert King, Ephraim Leibtag, and Ajay Behl, is to pay close attention to the reasons why grocery prices might in principle be higher in low income neighborhoods. Most importantly, it studies differences in retail operating costs and finds no evidence that stores serving the poor (i.e. having high rates of food stamp redemption) have higher costs than stores serving the more prosperous. If you have trouble believing anything but the worst about food prices in poor neighborhoods, consider a couple other twists the authors raise. For one thing, small traditionally managed (wholesale supplied) stores occur in the wealthiest neighborhoods as well as the poorest. Also, while food costs are higher for some urban stores that serve the poor, labor costs for such stores are lower.

The authors don't quite put their foot down and make a strong claim that there is nothing to worry about in food price differentials. Instead, they mildly state their conclusion with an if/then structure: "If the poor do pay more, factors other than operating costs are likely to be the reason." But, except for citing previous research on the well-established pattern that prices are higher in corner stores than in supermarkets, they seemed to find little evidence of discrimination.

The final paragraph asks some good questions, which might be taken as a warning to "be careful what you wish for." For low-income urban neighborhoods, the arrival of new and better managed supermarkets is as two-sided as other aspects of gentrification. It brings good things that newcomers and long-time residents alike have long desired, but it may do so by displacing less-efficient local retailers with a long history of service to the neighborhood.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Hunger, crowding, and other hardships...

... are widespread among families in poverty, according to a report today from Arloc Sherman at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Shedding light on the "snack tax"

I see that the USDA/ERS report on "snack taxes" was picked up by a tax law weblog this Fall. Kudos to authors Fred Kuchler, Abebayehu Tegene, and Michael Harris at USDA's Economic Research Service for shedding some light on this issue. Various forms of the snack tax have been proposed (for example, Battle and Brownell in 1996). The cleverest (like Nestle's book Food Politics in 2002) suggest spending a snack tax on nutrition education or physical activity programs. This feature provides a "heads we win/tails we still win" quality to the proposal. If the tax causes people to stop eating junk food, then it provides a health benefit to the public. If instead the tax has little impact on consumption -- which is what the ERS economists predict -- then it is all the better for generating revenue that... you guessed it... provides a health benefit to the public.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Supreme Court tackles beef checkoff

News reports indicate that the U.S. Supreme Court's oral argument about the beef checkoff, on December 8, came close to raising the same question I asked about the "government speech" defense of checkoff advertising programs. How can "Beef. It's What's for Dinner" be "government speech" if all government speech is supposed to adhere to the Federal Government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans? According to one report, Ruth Bader Ginsburg tackled this issue:

Ginsberg [sic] expressed some concern that checkoff promotions are advocating eating beef, when there are efforts being made by the U.S. Surgeon General, another federal government official, to promote eating beef in moderation as part of a balanced diet. She indicated that could be a conflict of interest for the government.

Frankly, I have never really lost any sleep over the farmers' First Amendment rights in this case. But consider the absurdity of the government claiming that all of these messages are the government's own. I will post a link to the full oral argument transcript when it becomes available in a few more days.

Speaking of blaming the Pyramid....

Since I mentioned Jeanne Goldberg exonerating the Food Guide Pyramid from making us fat, I can't help giving space to Dave Barry for the opposite view:
Yes, real Americans need a more effective dietary aid than the Food Guide Pyramid. Here's my idea: We should use farmers. Lord knows we pay them enough. In the past five years, the Department of Agriculture paid 92 BILLION TAXPAYER-SUPPLIED DOLLARS in subsidies to farmers, including such hardscrabble sons of the soil as (I am not making this up) Scottie Pippen, who makes $18 million a year playing basketball, and who got $131,575 in farm subsidies; and Ted Turner, who is worth more than $6 billion, and who got $176,077 in subsidies. So here's my proposal: Any farmer who (a) receives taxpayer money, and (b) is worth more than $1 million, should be required to spend 10 hours per week actively preventing taxpayers from eating so much. Picture the scene: You're in the convenience store. You grab a package of Hostess brand Ding Dongs. You're heading for the checkout counter, and . . . BAM, you're grabbed from behind by Ted Turner!
Want the facts about those subsidies to millionaire farmers? See the large database posted online by the Environmental Working Group.

Who made America fat?

In the cover article by Julie Flaherty, the Fall issue of Tufts Nutrition magazine collects one piece of the puzzle from each of five of my colleagues at the Friedman School (the issue is out in print, but not yet at the online site as of this writing). Jim Tillotson, who knows the food industry from the inside, blames bad policy and the food industry at least in part. Katie Tucker raises questions about processed foods and simple carbohydrates. Susan Roberts addresses variety, "one of the things that makes people overeat." My boss, Eileen Kennedy, raises some of the same issues as Jim and Susan, but perhaps gives somewhat greater emphasis to exercise and personal responsibility: "If I had to rank priorities, I would say it is harder to get anywhere near a balance with the low levels of physical activity we have in both adults and children." And Jeanne Goldberg exonerates one of the suspects sometimes mentioned. Her recent article in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association is: "The Obesity Crisis: Don't Blame It on the Pyramid."

Friday, December 17, 2004

Agricultural economics -- it's not just production functions anymore

In recent years, the American Agricultural Economics Association (AAEA) has provided a forum for researchers interested in economic and policy issues related to food safety and nutrition. There is now an AAEA Food Safety and Nutrition Section (a sort of subsidiary specializing in these topics). The section's leadership includes:
The section's liaison to the full association is the well-known food economist and former head of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Per Pinstrup-Andersen.

The full association's annual summer meeting has been increasingly hospitable to research that is way downstream from the farm gate. The deadline for proposed papers for the 2005 summer AAEA meeting is January 14. The association also sponsors sessions at the annual meetings of the Allied Social Sciences Association (ASSA), which is where mainstream economists throw their wild and crazy avant garde parties every January. In a nice gesture of support for research in this weblog's area of interest, AAEA is sponsoring a session on food assistance programs and food security at the January 2005 ASSA meetings in Philadelphia. In that session, I will give a paper with Mark Nord about whether the Food Stamp Program improves food security. Watch this space in the near future for the answer.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

USDA's self-evaluation on hunger reduction is "deferred"

In a cruel and unusual case of government accountability, federal law requires executive departments like USDA to report each year on whether they have met their main goals and objectives. For example, USDA must explain its progress toward meeting a key outcome stated in eloquently plain language: "reduce hunger and improve nutrition." For fiscal years 2002 and 2003, USDA declared that its targets for this objective were "met" even though food insecurity was rising in those years. Basically, the department quantified its progress toward its target by measuring its success in delivering food assistance program benefits rather than actually reducing hunger (see here for my critique of that approach). In the new accountability report for fiscal year 2004, released last month after USDA confessed yet another year's increase in food insecurity, the department says its self-evaluation under "Objective 4.1.1" is "deferred" due to lack of data. Perhaps, the department can find the data it needs to assess its progress in an earlier post on this weblog.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Consumers Union says "not in my food"

Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, has started a new food safety website: www.notinmyfood.org. The site provides text boxes for writing a letter to USDA. In case you have writer's block, the boxes provide draft language for your own vociferous complaint:
I am writing to express my concern about the safety of the USDA's recall system as it relates to meat. The USDA should have mandatory recall authority on tainted meat so that the public health is not compromised by producers or processors who do not voluntarily come forth when their meat is contaminated with E. coli, listeria, or mad cow disease. Furthermore, I am shocked that the USDA keeps secret the names of retailers that are selling recalled meat. That seems almost criminal. I am appalled that the USDA, an agency charged with protecting the safety of the food supply, has entered into secrecy agreements with a reported twelve states regarding recalled meat.
The language is sufficiently fierce that I will provide a follow-up post with the case in favor of the current policy, if anybody can make it. Write me. The new website also has a nice newsroom with national press on food safety policy.

School food and public policy

The new issue of Informed Eating also reproduces Marion Nestle's recent editorial on school food, from the Center for Ecoliteracy website. The highlight:
What particularly disturbs me about commercial intrusions into school meals is that they are so unnecessary. Schools are perfectly capable of producing nutritionally sound foods that taste good and are enthusiastically consumed by students as well as teachers. From my own observations, a healthy school meals program (in every sense of the word) requires just three elements: a committed food service director, a supportive principal, and devoted parents. It just seems so obvious that the future of our nation demands each of these elements to be in place in every one of the 95,000 schools in the country. These are, after all, our children.
See www.foodpolitics.com for Marion's mix of sober analysis, personal reporting, and understated outrage at book length.

Johanns will replace Veneman at USDA

The latest issue of the sharp web magazine, Informed Eating, wishes "good riddance" to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. The magazine's writer/editor Michele Simon says:
Public health advocates certainly won’t shed any tears over the loss of these two corporate apologists. Veneman’s legacy includes how, upon the discovery of the first U.S. cow infected with mad cow disease, she cheerfully encouraged Americans to go back to eating their hamburgers, while nearly a year later, testing remains woefully inadequate thanks to cattle industry pressure.

But Thompson wins the prize for most quotable quotes in favor of food industry interests. Who can forget how, at a 2002 meeting of the Grocery Manufacturers of America (a powerful trade association), he told members to “go on the offensive” against critics blaming the food industry for obesity.

Simon says it won't matter who replaces Veneman -- "as long as they are on the Bush team, just expect business as usual" -- but some of us can't help following the news. Here is the farm policy weblog's summary of news coverage about Agriculture nominee and Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Food security worsened steadily after 1999

Each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates how many American households are "food insecure" and hungry. The most recent annual report is dated October, but it was actually released after the Presidential election in November. The upbeat abstract says 89 percent of American households were "food secure" in 2003, which was not significantly worse than the previous year. But some historical perspective would help here. The new report's 35 references do not include this 2002 USDA report about progress toward the official federal target of 6 percent food insecurity by the year 2010. The old report was happy about rapid progress through 1999. Unfortunately, food insecurity has increased every single year since 1999. Here is a better chart, consistent with the 2002 USDA report, illustrating recent "progress" toward reducing food insecurity in the United States.

How many food stamp participants get WIC?

The federal government spent a record $41.6 billion on food assistance programs in 2003. The 15 food assistance programs are administered separately with only partial coordination. Still, to understand their impact we should think of these programs as a bundle of services. In the early part of this decade, I was USDA's project officer for an effort to coordinate administrative records for the Food Stamp Program and WIC in three states, so that program operators would know how many participants in one program are also getting help from the other. The project's excellent team of contract researchers at Abt Associates, Inc., has just completed their series of three reports. The third report shows that 84-94 percent of food stamp infants also received WIC benefits at the same time. But only 50-57 percent of food stamp children under age 5 also received WIC benefits at the same time.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The cost of good nutrition

The Boston Globe's Stephen Smith considers the cost of good nutrition. Research from Brigham and Women's Hospital finds that a culturally appropriate and heart-healthy diet would cost almost $700 each month in Boston. Smith also quotes researchers who discuss barriers other than food costs, such as the high cost of housing and utilities (my emphasis), the shortage of good supermarkets in some neighborhoods (Paul Geltman of the Whittier Street Clinic), and psychological and social barriers (Milagros Rosal, a clinical psychologist).

USDA speaks about beef, pork, cheese, and obesity

The USDA recently told the Supreme Court that checkoff promotions -- like "Beef. It's what's for dinner" -- are USDA's own message for consumers. This position overturns the usual view of these programs as private campaigns by farmers on their own behalf. If these advertisements are "government speech," then shouldn't they be consistent with the Federal Government's Dietary Guidelines? Read about the controversy here.