Friday, September 29, 2006

Where is the dairy checkoff program's 2006 report to Congress?

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the commodity checkoff programs to get us Americans to eat more beef, pork, and cheese -- "Beef. It's What's for Dinner," "Pork. The Other White Meat." "Ah, the Power of Cheese." -- is required to send a report to Congress each July about the milk and dairy promotions .

Last year, even though the expert panel for the federal government's Dietary Guidelines found insufficient evidence to endorse dairy weight-loss messages, USDA's annual report boasted that dairy weight-loss messages were central to the milk and dairy promotions.

This year, the July 1 report has not yet been posted to the USDA/AMS website. AMS staff offered to send the report a while ago, but I have received nothing, and it seemed appropriate to start pressing a little harder.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Who is Kevin J. Martin?

Okay, so he looks like a regular clean-cut guy, but what kind of pinko radical activist would dare to blame television advertising for the rise of childhood obesity (.pdf)? Has he no respect for the American Way?

Read this:
Today, children watch two to four hours of television per day and view 40,000 ads per year. And the majority of these commercials are for candy, cereal, soda and fast food. And while the amount of television watched by American kids has been increasing in the past twenty-five years, so have their waistlines. Just this month the Institute of Medicine found that one-third of American children are either obese or at risk for obesity. This is consistent with the Center for Disease Control'‘s findings a few years ago that, since 1980, the proportion of overweight children ages 6-11 has doubled and the number of overweight adolescents has tripled.

While children's television viewing has significantly increased, their susceptibility to television ads has not decreased. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children under 6 cannot distinguish between programming content and advertising. And children under 10 do not have cognitive ability to understand a commercial's persuasive intent.

Small children can'’t weed out the marketing messages from their favorite show, especially when marketing campaigns feature favorite TV characters like SpongeBob and Scooby-Doo. There is no doubt that children├é’s advertising is big business. The Kaiser Family Foundation also found that fast food companies alone spend $3 billion per year targeting kids.
Wait, there's a hint in the next sentence of this rant:
The research linking childhood obesity with media and advertising to children troubles me as a parent and as Chairman of the FCC.
That's right, President George W. Bush named Kevin J. Martin to chair the Federal Communications Commission. Martin spoke yesterday to announce a new Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity (see AP yesterday via Washington Post).

Chicago Council on Global Affairs calls for agricultural reforms in the 2007 Farm Bill

From today's provocative report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs:
[C]urrent agriculture policies are not sufficient for addressing the challenges facing farmers and the nation as a whole. Federal farm programs, while remaining popular with many producers, are not serving U.S. agriculture as well as in the past and are having unintended consequences. These programs have traditionally been justified as a way to provide insulation against market fluctuations and keep more small farms in business. Current programs do, in fact, increase incomes and provide some protection against sharp market changes. But rather than keep smaller farmers on the land, they have contributed to farm consolidation and higher land prices. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for younger farmers to enter farming. In many cases the programs also discourage producers of program commodities from switching crops as markets change and undermine the incentive to innovate and develop the specialty products today’s consumers want.

Continued U.S. backing of our current farm programs is also one of the major reasons for the recent collapse of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Doha Round of negotiations. The view of this as a positive development by some U.S. farm groups is shortsighted. If it can be restarted, the Doha Round could be a catalyst for expanding markets for U.S. food and agricultural products. Additionally, our current farm programs are vulnerable to WTO litigation for breaking current international trade rules. We run the risk of losing these programs through litigation without receiving the benefits that a negotiated Doha Round agreement would provide. Farm programs that serve a smaller and smaller portion of farmers may also be vulnerable to Congressional budget-cutting because of their continuing high cost and perceived inequity at a time of historic deficits.

To be efficient and environmentally sustainable, agricultural production must be flexible and responsive to market opportunities. The biggest opportunity for American farmers today is in the new markets created by dramatically changing patterns of demand:
  • Economic growth in developing countries
  • Population growth and evolving consumption patterns in both the United States and developing countries
  • The expanding role of agriculture in energy production
To secure these new markets, farm production must reorient itself to today’s changing world, and public policy must support this goal.

Sabbath and Jubilee by Richard H. Lowery

My new subway reading is Sabbath and Jubilee by Richard H. Lowery, a recent gift from my parents. Somehow lost in the close alliance between the Religious Right and secular contemporary political conservatives is the awkward fact that ancient Jewish and Christian teachers spoke up boldly for the welfare of the poor. Lowery offers both a scholarly summary of the scriptural principles of Sabbath (a day of rest) and Jubilee (periodic forgiveness of debts). It is full of insight on economic justice issues surrounding food and agriculture in the ancient world and today.

Since I haven't finished reading yet, here is my parents' nice summary:
Chapter 2 tells how the monarchy [in the time of Saul and David] disrupted the self-sufficient agricultural households and then the monarchs had to try to act or appear beneficently to patch up the broken system. Each of the chapters has an effective summary. It leads up to chapter 8 on Jesus' understanding and acting out of Sabbath and Jubilee. A remarkable chapter 9 concludes on a modern spirituality of Sabbath and Jubilee.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Way to go, Mike

Way to go, Mike. It looks like more fun than a career in banking. I wish I could have joined this 3,476 mile jaunt with bike4peace. I kid you not -- my wife and I have children that are close in age to each other, specifically (in part) so that we will still be young enough for such a bike ride when they grow up.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Whose fault is this?

All modern industrial farmers who think their interests are being well represented by the ag biotech industry's anti-regulatory lobbying machine should read the Washington Post today. Is there nobody in the industry who wishes their lobbyists had been frank in acknowledging the more severe regulatory framework that would have been required to keep biotech genes from being released into the crop at large?
The disclosure last month that American long-grain rice has become widely contaminated with traces of an experimental, gene-altered rice has provoked an economic crisis for farmers and reignited a long-smoldering debate over the adequacy of U.S. oversight of biotech food.

Already, Japan has banned U.S. long-grain imports, noting, as have other countries, that the genetically altered variety never passed regulatory muster. Stores in Germany, Switzerland and France have pulled American rice off their shelves. And at least one ship last week remained quarantined in Rotterdam, awaiting word of whether its contents would be diverted or destroyed."

Until this happened, it looked like rice farmers were finally going to make a profit this year," said Greg Yielding, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association. Instead, U.S. rice prices have slumped about 10 percent, and some expect market losses to reach $150 million.
It reminds me of the beef industry, whose hired guns "protected" the industry until December, 2003, from mild feed price increases that would have accompanied rules and prohibitions on certain kinds of animal feed to prevent "Mad Cow Disease." Surely some beef farmers are now asking why their hired guns didn't protect their exports from this (link to ERS report; the bottom line in this somewhat blurry reproduction shows beef export volume over time):

None of the above, please

"What new features would you like to see in future supermarkets?," is the question from Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution today and from the New York Times yesterday, following an article on how supermarkets are changing to compete with Wal-Mart.

Tyler suggests ready-to-buy cooking stocks, beef and chicken. The comment choir at the Times is up to 168 comments so far.

I say, "None of the above, please." No new features, and get rid of the old features. I'd like a modest-sized very local supermarket with less of almost everything:
  • fewer brands
  • less packaging
  • absence of chaotically placed stock for impulse purchase
  • no misleading health claims
  • low prices.
Just good food, please.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Putting the farm subsidy, earmark, and campaign donor databases together

A number of useful open government resources have been appearing on the internet in recent years. For example, the farm subsidy database from the Environmental Working Group, the "Pig Book" earmark reporting from Consumers Against Government Waste, and the campaign finance database from C-SPAN.

But what happens if we begin putting these resources together?

For example, I am especially interested in the money politics of districts whose Congressional representatives sit on the majority side of the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee, such as Representative Tom Latham (Republican 4th District Iowa).

Latham and his district show up in dark brown in the Environmental Working Group's map of Congressional districts that receive the heaviest subsidies ($4 billion in one district in ten years!). From this link, you can see the names of the individual farm subsidy recipients in the district, the largest of whom received over half a million dollars in 2004. Just for example, here is a detailed listing of the $840,000 received over ten years by Berg Farms.

The C-SPAN campaign finance file for Latham shows, of course, that the agriculture industry is his biggest source of Political Action Committee (PAC) donations and that farming is a leading occupation for individual donors (after doctors and the two non-revealing categories of "retired" and "homemaker"). Here is the list of individual farmer donors to Latham in the most recent cycle.

Not surprisingly, Latham can also be found prominently in the "Pig Book" summary for 2005, which lists relevant earmarks for Iowa that year:
$9,630,000 for projects in the state of Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee member Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and the district of House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee member Tom Latham (R-Iowa), including: $1,789,000 for the Iowa Biotechnology Consortium; $688,000 for the Midwest Poultry Consortium; $655,000 for human nutrition research; $600,000 for the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development; $419,000 for food chain economic analysis; $268,000 for livestock waste research; $250,000 for the Iowa Vitality Center; $231,000 for dairy education; and $100,000 for the Trees Forever Program. The Trees Forever Program, in partnership with the Aquila Company (formerly Peoples Natural Gas), distributes grants to groups and communities that are planting trees in their neighborhoods. A major component of the program is making sure that people are aware of the type of injuries trees can sustain during the winter from heavy loads of ice and snow. This project should be called the Deficits Forever Program.
Of course, it is almost unfair to poor Mr. Latham that he happened to be the first House agriculture appropriations subcommittee member whose name I found in the other databases. I would welcome it if somebody can figure out a more systematic way to automate the cross-linkages between these information sources, to find the most egregious examples of the subsidy - earmark - donations political nexus.

These are very active times for efforts to rationalize democratic public policy making through better exposure and public information -- see, for example the recent work of the Sunlight Foundation.

School breakfast opens new possibilities -- for both health and marketing

Tom Philpott at Grist this month asks some tough questions about nutritional quality in new public/private/nonprofit partnerships to promote and market school breakfast programs. He comments on Berkeley school chef Ann Cooper and recent articles about school meals in the Wall Street Journal (behind pay wall) and New Yorker (link can't be found).
The calculation goes like this: 29 million U.S. children eat federally subsidized lunch every day, while only 9 million eat breakfast. "Those 20 million unserved breakfasts translate into nearly $2 billion in federal money that could be claimed from school-feeding programs, but has been left on the table each year," the Journal reports.

To capture that $2 billion, corporate marketing departments are cooking up some predictable schemes. Here is the Journal again: "Earlier this month, Kellogg Co. began selling its own breakfast-in-a-box to schools, which includes cereal, a Pop-Tart or graham crackers, and juice. Tyson Foods Inc. is adapting its popular lunchtime chicken nuggets and patties into smaller sizes for breakfast. Scores of other companies also are pitching breakfast items to schools."

One entrepreneur, Gary Davis, may have the giants beat. Davis' company, East Side Entrees, "was already a player in the school-lunch program, supplying products like SpongeBob SquarePants milk and Batman cheese pizza," the Journal reports. Now, East Side Entrees hopes to bring in $100 million in the 2006-2007 school year alone selling "Breakfast Breaks" -- ready-made boxes of processed juice, crackers, and cereal, made by the likes of General Mills -- to school districts nationwide. To do so, Davis (described by the Journal as a "former food broker") has lined up a formidable phalanx of anti-hunger NGOs, lobbyists, and industry groups to promote his product.

At a press conference promoting his "Got breakfast?" marketing push last winter, Davis flexed his might. Share Our Strength and the Alliance to End Hunger, a pair of well-heeled D.C.-based nonprofits to which Davis has pledged a cut of his breakfast take, showed up in support. Farm-state worthies Bob Dole and George McGovern offered platitudes about breakfast's status as the day's most important meal. The California Milk Processor Board blessed Davis' twisting of the iconic "Got milk?" slogan to his own use. The USDA, which oversees the federal school-lunch and -breakfast programs, sent Kate Coler, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, to applaud the effort. Before swinging through the USDA's revolving door, Coler served as chief lobbyist for the Food Marketing Institute (a trade group for supermarket chains) and as legislative liaison for the American Bankers Association in its dealings with USDA officials and congressional agricultural committee members.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Encouraging retailers to help with food stamp outreach

The news digest from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) reported yesterday about a new project from the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to encourage retailers to help with food stamp outreach. This seems a clever way to leverage the retailers' own financial interest in promoting the food resources of their customers.
The Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed a toolkit designed for retailers who wish to increase the nutrition of low-income Americans and decrease food insecurity by providing information to their customers about food stamps. The toolkit is intended for retailers of any size, whether chain or independent stores, and contains information about how to promote food stamps to families in need who are eligible for the program but not participating. It also features outreach efforts through partnerships and explains how retailers can help educate their customers about the nutrition benefits of food stamps. The USDA's Food and Nutrition Service presented its first Golden Grocer Hunger Champions Award to Pathmark Stores, a regional supermarket operating 141 stores primarily in the New York-New Jersey and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. The award recognizes the company├é’s contribution to promoting participation in the Food Stamp Program and its efforts to improve service to food stamp recipients and encourage healthy eating habits.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

GBIO, Massachusetts health care, and the unique courage of Deval Patrick

Every major Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate was invited to stand up in front of the 1000-person action meeting of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) today to answer about eight tough questions on 3 topics: affordable health care, affordable elder care, and stopping the violence.

Any hardened observer of American politics in recent years would have to predict that no candidate would accept the invitation.

Imagine how hard it would be, two days before the primary, for a sensible modern would-be Governor to face 1000 members of dozens of Jewish and Christian congregations, from every walk of life and bridging every politically convenient division of our community, each one passionately committed to the absurdly simplistic rusty ancient prophetic principle that the almighty creator of the universe cares what happens to every person, no matter where from or how low in economic and social status.

Imagine how impossible it would be, moreover, for political handlers to agree to the three non-negotiable meeting ground rules stipulated by these zany radicals in the tradition of Saul Alinsky: (1) any candidate who accepts the invitation would have to sit still and listen to the testimony of three ordinary people whose lives have been personally touched by one of the three hardships the meeting would address -- one woman who could not afford the price of the even the subsidized premium proposed for the Massachusetts health care reform, one woman struggling to care for an elderly parent, and one woman who recently sat on a city bus as a gunman shot first the young woman to her left and then the young woman to her right. Then, as if that weren't enough, (2) the candidate will have only two minutes for an opening statement, after which (3) he or she will have to answer pointed yes-or-no questions from the community about his or her commitment to solving three of our most difficult social problems.

In other words, imagine a politician, two days before the primary, having the courage to cede control of the day's agenda, give up his right to speak, and genuinely listen to the people he may next year be governing.

One candidate attended today: Deval Patrick.

He was eloquent, passionate, entertaining, and sensible. He addressed his time limits with wit -- reminding the pastor who moderated the forum that the minister had not had congregation members holding up yellow and red time cards when last Patrick had heard him preach -- and with grace. With the grace of a man who seemed to understand and relish the idea of being an executive in a democracy, a public servant of the citizenry.

Neither GBIO nor U.S. Food Policy makes political endorsements. If more than one candidate had had the courage to attend, I might have faced difficult decisions about how to write this post with balance and fairness. But, as it is, I can give equal treatment to every candidate who attended. Today's action meeting between GBIO and Deval Patrick inspired me to remember a dream I once held about how government in our democracy might work.

The Massachusetts primary is this Tuesday.

Friday, September 15, 2006

E. coli outbreak in spinach?

Get the story from David Brown at the Washington Post today ...
The Food and Drug Administration yesterday warned American consumers not to eat commercially bagged fresh spinach because it may be the source of a worsening outbreak of foodborne illness that so far has caused one death.

In the past week, nine states have reported a total of 50 cases of severe diarrhea caused by Escherichia coli 0157:H7. Eight of the cases have led to a severe complication that causes kidney failure.

... and from Kate at the Accidental Hedonist weblog.
One of the more frustrating things about the bagged spinach/E.Coli outbreak is that there's very little specific data out there at the moment. When there's very little specific data, it sets up an environment of fear, ignorance and speculation. In other words - a panic....

E.Coli, or more distinctly - Escherichia coli O157:H7, is a nasty thing. According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 73,000 cases occur each year, leading to 61 deaths. It is caused by fecal transmission, and in the case of vegetables, most likely due to not cleaning the products efficiently. People here in the State of Washington get antsy about E. Coli. Back in 1993, three Washington children died and 600 others were sickened due to poisoning from E. coli O157:H7 served in undercooked Jack In The Box hamburgers. This happened due to Jack in the Box avoiding safety rules in cooking beef.

Here's where lettuce and beef part ways (not to mention the difference between state and federal approaches to food safety) - Washington State regulations required hamburgers be cooked to an internal temperature of 155 degrees. In not soing so, Jack in the Box broke the law, and people died.

For prepackaged lettuce, there are no laws or regulations, only guidelines - guidelines created by the lettuce industry. Guidelines are suggestions, not requirements. In short, there's no weight of law if some company decides not to follow them.

My suggestion if you have plans for spinach this weekend? Buy fresh. Short of that - buy local. Sure, the chance of you getting E.Coli is small, even if you do buy a nationally distributed brand. But why would you give your business to anyone who plays fast a loose with food safety in order to save money?

The truth will be postponed until after the election

First, Foodlinks America reports that key appropriations decisions will be postponed until after the November mid-term elections (see here for free subscription):
Appropriations Decisions Likely to be Postponed

With Congressional leaders eager to adjourn by the end of September in order to return to their districts to campaign, it is appearing increasingly likely that appropriations decisions for fiscal year 2007 will be put off until after the November 7 elections. Up to eight of the 11 bills necessary to fund government programs next year will not be completed before the adjournment.

Congress is expected to pass a stopgap continuing resolution to keep programs going through November. Most of the spending bills – including legislation covering food programs administered by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services – will see action during a lame-duck session of Congress scheduled to begin in mid-November. And if Democrats win control of either or both houses of Congress, appropriations decisions will probably be delayed until the start of the 110th Congress in January 2007.
Second, I hear that USDA's annual report on the extent of hunger in America will be postponed until after the election, and that it will replace the word "hunger" with the term "very low food security." No, that wasn't a joke. Is there a pattern here, in which this annual report is published in October most years, but November in certain election years?

Institute of Medicine: Progress in Preventing Childhood Obesity

The Institute of Medicine this week released its report on Progress in Preventing Childhood Obesity, a follow-up to earlier publications on childhood obesity and food marketing to children.

The headline message from the report summary is characteristically bland (admirers of the IOM's work in this area have learned that articulate observations and criticisms can be found buried in the chapter texts). For the new report, the headline message that was picked up in the media may be paraphrased:
We are not trying hard enough as a nation to solve the problem of childhood obesity.
But, isn't that message to the nation a little like the long-discredited practice of lecturing obese people that they should exercise some will power?

My sincere and friendly recommendation to the IOM and to this report's funders at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is that, one way or another, they should to come to grips with the futility of voluntary industry restraint on selling children bad food. Telling the industry to forego profits is like telling a hungry person not to eat -- it is a psychological impossibility.

Healthy eaters use a wealth of self-imposed constraints on their future eating decisions, and then find it easy and entirely agreeable to eat well later. Just so, I think well-meaning captains of industry who have developed an uncomfortable conscience on the issue of childhood obesity must begin to advocate for government regulations that bind their decisions in a sensible way without bankrupting their business. The IOM report reviews a drum-beat of failed industry attempts to introduce healthy options (McLean Deluxe, Taco Bell Border Lite, ...) without having the courage to admit the logic of the developing pattern. If one company (McDonald's, say) pursues a set of healthy menu options, a competitor (Hardees, say) will run them through with a scimitar. The people at McDonald's corporate responsibility must at some point call for well-designed binding rules to provide clear and prominent nutrition facts information, restrict fraudulent health claims, and restrict marketing to children, or they should admit to themselves that they are just hired grifters.

In a highly competitive industry, the companies face pretty much the same profit picture whether regulations on children's marketing are strict or lenient. To use another analogy, the game of soccer might be a great sport under current rules, and it might be an equally great sport if goalies were denied the right to catch the balls with their hands. No team could ever single-handedly (ha) forego the use of a goalie's hands, but so long as both teams were subject to the new rule, the game might be no worse for the rule change.

The IOM report has some fairly mild language about improving the Children's Advertising Review Unit, but it largely fails to call for sufficiently strong medicine to address the disease. Instead, it almost sets the necessary conversation back through undeserved praise for a wide range of industry efforts to brand healthier products, market smaller servings with more packaging at the same price (really), offer trivially more healthy variations on current unhealthy offerings (blech), and so forth. A low-point of the report is the favorable description of the Healthy Arkansas awards given to McDonald's, Subway, and Yum! brands restaurants like Pizza Hut.

I hope my criticism hasn't been so sharp that I have sacrificed the chance to get an open-minded hearing from the authors and sponsors of this report. Please hear my friendly and sympathetic suggestion. The big conceptual shift that is required is not a more elaborate evaluation framework (click below for larger image), but a clear vision for how shared agreement on stronger rules of the game can liberate the aggressive competitors on the field to better serve the goal of providing a healthier future for our children.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is holding its fifth annual summit in Boston, October 26-28.

Presenters will include: Alvin F. Poussaint,MD, Harvard Medical School and Judge Baker's Children's Center; Enola Aird, The Motherhood Project; Robin Blair, Children's Center for the Common Good; Michael Brody, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; Brita Butler-Wall, Seattle School Board and Citizen's Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools; Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Lesley University; Richard Daynard, Public Health Advocacy Institute; Walter Eddie, Boys Club of New York; David Elkind, Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child; Lisa Fager, Industry Ears; Julie Frechette, Worcester State College; Roberta Friedman, Massachusetts Public Health Association; Jon Hanson, Harvard Law School; Allen Kanner, The Wright Institute; Joe Kelly, Dads and Daughters; Jean Kilbourne, author of Can't Buy My Love; Velma LaPoint, Howard University; Diane Levin, Wheelock University and author of Remote Control Childhood; Susan Linn, Judge Baker Children's Center and author of Consuming Kids; Alex Molnar, Commercialism in Education Research Unit; Sharna Olfman, Point Park University; Julie Taylor, United Methodist Church, Women's Division; Michele Simon, Center for Informed Food Choices; and Rob Williams, Action Coalition for Media Education.

Ronald McHummer

I am officially undecided on a leading food policy question of our times: Can fast food restaurant chains engage in labor, nutritional, and environmental reforms in response to public pressure, or does their corporate constitution make them structurally incapable of real improvement, such that all one can ever expect is lies and public relations?

But I may not remain undecided for long.

As McDonald's introduced salads, better nutrition labeling information, and half- hearted progress on trans fats (not eliminating trans fats, but at least ending the corporate falsehoods about trans fats), my family began to visit occasionally while traveling by road. But, as a passionate advocate of cycling, tiny cars, and public transportation, I was nauseated by the recent Hummer toy in my boy's Happy Meal and the corresponding girlie toy that was given to my daughter. My family will now return to full boycott status.

See boingboing for a link to a funny website called Ronald McHummer, which lets you create your own McDonald's road sign.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Bedtime stories: the Little House series

For several years, a colleague has been recommending the Little House on the Prairie series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, to incoming graduate students in food policy. These true stories of frontier life from a young girl's perspective offer minute detail about every aspect of 19th century food and agriculture.

I have been reading a couple chapters nightly to my kids, who seem completely engaged. We are now on the third book, On the Banks of Plum Creek. Of course, the gritty and irrepressible main character of Laura provides much of the appeal for them. She tries half-heartedly to be an "angel" like her far less interesting sister Mary, but when pressed to the limit by the cruelty of a snobby girl in town, extracts a just revenge with the help of some bloodsucking leeches.

For my part, I want to sign up for Pa's fan club. What a man. On a patch of prairie in Indian Territory, after the family builds a perfect home and farm through a year of hard manual labor, simultaneously backbreaking and profoundly skilled, Pa bravely acknowledges defeat when the federal government, in a rare and temporary attack of honest dealing, forces the settlers to return to their home country. (The case of American frontier settlement suggests a new perspective on contemporary arguments about illegal immigration.) As the family leaves for its return trip, on the long trail by which it had arrived 12 months earlier, Pa observes wryly that at least they are returning with more than they came with. Ma is astonished at this comment, considering that they are sitting in the same covered wagon filled with exactly the same possessions as before. Sure, Pa points out, one of the two ponies pulling the wagon had given birth to a colt.

Will the family's next endeavor be more successful? In the book we are currently reading, after Pa takes on debt to build another perfect home on a Minnesota farmstead, and yet more backbreaking labor to plant a large wheat field, the grasshoppers arrive. Had enough, Pa? A chapter later, the grasshoppers lay eggs in such quantity to make the land useless for the next season also. And Pa must leave to walk several hundred miles on foot in search of several months of wage labor while Ma and the girls struggle to get by on the farm.

I haven't seen the TV show for years, but I certainly don't recall it having such guts. What a fine set of stories to entertain and inspire kids and adults together at reading time.

Promoting breastfeeding

A front-page article by Jodi Kantor in the New York Times last week described the "2-class system" for working mothers who breastfeed: one class has improving though still imperfect options for professional women in office settings, while the other class offers awful few options for most other women.
Nearly half of new mothers return to work within the first year of their child's life. But federal law offers no protection to mothers who express milk on the job -- despite the efforts of Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, who has introduced such legislation. "I can't understand why this doesn't move," she said. "This is pro-family, pro-health, pro-economy." ...

Public health authorities, alarmed at the gap between the breast-feeding haves and have-nots, are now trying to convince businesses that supporting the practice is a sound investment. "The Business Case for Breastfeeding," an upcoming campaign by the Department of Health and Human Services, will emphasize recent findings that breast-feeding reduces absenteeism and pediatrician bills.

In corporate America, lactation support can be a highly touted benefit, consisting of free or subsidized breast pumps, access to lactation consultants, and special rooms with telephones and Internet connections for employees who want to work as they pump, and CD players and reading material for those who do not. According to the nonprofit Families and Work Institute, a third of large corporations have lactation rooms....

In contrast, said Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on breast-feeding, her patients cannot afford a basic $50 breast pump -- an investment, she said, that "could prevent a lifetime of diseases." The academy urges women to breast-feed exclusively for six months and to continue until the child turns 1.

Many of her patients learn about breast-feeding through the government nutrition program Women, Infants, and Children, which distributes nursing literature to four million mothers, and also provides classes and lactation consultants. Because of this and similar efforts, 73 percent of mothers now breast-feed their newborns, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But after six months, the number falls to 53 percent of college graduates, and 29 percent of mothers whose formal education ended with high school.
Here is a link to the status of Rep. Maloney's breastfeeding promotion bill, currently stalled in Congress.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Nation tackles food policy

I read at Accidental Hedonist that the Nation this week offers a special issue on food, with input from Alice Waters, Peter Singer, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and many more.

Tired of the politics? Take heart.

Reflecting on the debates over the School Wellness Policy here in Arlington (see previous post), and on some recent excruciatingly long arguments about arcane provisions of a faculty appointments policy, I began to get discouraged about how "politics" were taking too much time and distracting me from "important work" such as research and teaching.

Then, as part of class preparation this morning, I read John Roche's 1961 article, "The Founding Fathers: A Reform Caucus in Action" (anthology link). While we are accustomed to thinking of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention as brilliant inventors of a new federalist political theory, Roche describes them as mere democratic politicians hammering out clumsy compromise after compromise in exhausting detail. It had me laughing out loud to imagine that something good could come from this type of painful labor.
The Constitution, then, was not an apotheosis of "constitutionalism," a triumph of architectonic genius; it was a patch-work sewn together under the pressure of both time and events by a group of extremely talented democratic politicians.... For two years, they worked to get a convention established. For over three months, in what must have seemed to the faithful participants an endless process of give-and-take, they reasoned, cajoled, threatened, and bargained amongst themselves. The result was a Constitution which the people, in fact, by democratic processes, did accept, and a new and far better national government was established.