Monday, October 30, 2006

Kraft Capri Sun Sport Thunder Punch

As she points out in her comment on an earlier post, Michele Simon will speak tomorrow to a special public session of my U.S. Food Policy class at the Friedman School, on the topic of her new book, Appetite for Profit.

Open to the public at 4 p.m., October 31, in Auditorium B of the Sackler Building, on Tufts' Boston Campus.

Simon's book describes Kraft's nutrition marketing through its "Sensible Solutions" label and logo. To be granted this honor, a beverage for example "must be free of or low in calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, or sodium, or must have 25 percent less of one of these in comparison to the base product or an appropriate reference product; and must be reviewed by Nutrition Department."

The key word in this mumbo jumbo is "or."

In much clearer English, a product that is all sugar may be labeled a Sensible Solution because it is low in fat. Or, a product that is all fat may be labeled low in sugar.

Following up on a hilarious example Simon mentions, I notice that the Capri Sun Sport Thunder Punch drink, heavily marketed to children, has 60 calories per 200 ml serving, according to the Nutrition Facts label [note, 7:30 p.m.: this sentence was edited to remove a previous suggestion that 200 ml was a misleading small serving size -- it is actually the size of the small 6.75 oz. packages]. Because the product is all sugar, it has no fat, and hence qualifies for the "Sensible Solution" label.


The label carries the astonishing claim: "hydrates kids better than water." I'd like to know if those kids were drinking only 200 ml!

I am sympathetic to the hope that Kraft and other leading reputable food and beverage companies, who know their products and their consumers better than anybody, could in principle help solve nutrition problems through their own private voluntary efforts at consumer education. But, truly, we must first look their current nutrition marketing straight in the face and call it false.

Friday, October 27, 2006

North Shore, MA, office receives award for being a food stamp hunger champion

Congratulations to our almost-nearby North Shore Transitional Assistance Office in Salem, MA, for winning a top "hunger champions" award from USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. In a state that has one of the ten lowest rates of food stamp participation among eligibles, the North Shore office stands out as an example of what is possible.

Nationally, the FSP caseload has been increasing even during a time period classified by economists as economic expansion (source: USDA Economic Research Service). One reason may be that the current "expansion," unlike the economic expansion of the 1990s, is not helping low-wage Americans very much. Another reason may be the Food Stamp Program's efforts to encourage greater access among eligible people. Still, protecting the legal rights of low-income Americans, and helping them navigate the program assistance bureaucracy, can sometimes be a dreadfully difficult task that takes great energy and imagination on the part of organizations such as the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI).

The most authoritative indicator of state-level success in providing access is the "participation rate" among eligible people, which is computed a couple years after the fact. Nationally, by this measure, only about 60% of eligible people get food stamps. Because of the time lag for the authoritative statistics, USDA's Food and nutrition Service (FNS) uses a simpler "Food Stamp Program access index" to evaluate progress at the state level more quickly. It would be a great idea for FNS to post the results of this index to its main food stamp data page, but in the interim, the easiest place I know to find these data each year is the website of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Kraft Foods: a case study in public relations and food marketing to children

Kraft Foods, the largest food manufacturer in America, earned sweet media coverage in 2003 when it announced voluntary steps to address childhood obesity. The Altria (Philip Morris) division, which had $34 billion in 2005 sales, promised to reduce portion sizes and end in-school marketing.

Yet, according to an article published and released free online this week in the Journal of Public Health Policy, "Kraft's efforts appear to be a mix of small improvements and business as usual."

In the article, Alexandra Lewin, Lauren Lindstrom, and Marion Nestle compare and contrast the voluntary nutrition measures and overall marketing strategies of Kraft (as a leading manufacturer) and McDonald's (as a leading quick service restaurant chain). The paper responds to a request by the World Health Organization as part of a research effort that has also included articles about global health and the food business more broadly.

For readers who want to evaluate the article's argument for themselves, let's include some links. For example, Lewin and her colleagues note the contrast between the public relations campaign surrounding the low-sugar reformulation of Alpha-Bits cereal -- promoted as a childhood literacy tool of all things -- and the real-world marketing, instead, of the high-sugar Oreo O's with Marshmallow Bits. Follow the links to compare the Nutrition Facts panels for the two products, and then enter your zip code in Kraft's convenient "Find Store" query box at the bottom of each page, to discover how many stores near you carry each product.

Similarly, while Kraft has promised to end in-school marketing, that promise does not imply an end to the company's vigorous efforts to reach children. Evaluate for yourself the sites whose mix of advertising and children's entertainment Lewin and colleagues discuss, including,, and

Do Kraft's voluntary efforts to improve its nutrition profile offer a promising low-burden market-oriented solution to contemporary nutrition problems, or just empty public relations? Comments are open.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Economically sensible soil and water conservation: "The Farmer's Decision"

The Soil and Water Conservation Society is promoting a book that seems to take seriously the farmer's economic needs as well as conservation goals.

The Farmer’s Decision: Balancing Economic Successful Agriculture Production with Environmental Quality.

Things I don't bother to wish for...

Things I don't bother to wish for: that restaurant chains would, on their own initiative, start serving smaller portions than their customers desire.

A series of studies in recent years has found that restaurant serving portions have increased in the past several decades. As people consume ever higher fractions of their calories in restaurants, these increases are implicated in the growing rates of overweight and obesity.

Yet, in Nanci Hellmich's USA Today article yesterday about restaurant portion sizes, an Applebee's executive explains why a business cannot on its own initiative just reduce these portion sizes:
Kurt Hankins, vice president of menu development for Applebee's, the nation's biggest casual dining chain, says portion sizes are determined by asking guests to rate meals for their size as well value and taste. "A simple portion reduction for no apparent reason would not be well accepted."
Readers of this weblog know we keep an eye out for economically feasible steps that businesses might take to improve their nutrition profile (I was going to say "incentive-compatible steps," but I can't find a link to a good definition of that economic jargon, so will leave an explanation for a later post).

Unlike many restaurant chains, the Applebee's website currently appears not to disclose nutrition facts for most foods on the menu, while disclosing only a few non-representative Weight-Watchers items (am I wrong?). Suppose Applebee's began to disclose nutrition facts information for all products on menus or another prominent place. To avoid being skewered by competitors, the chain might want to take steps to encourage similar disclosure by the remaining laggard chains, to level the playing field. Instead of secretly supporting the anti-consumer attack dogs at the Center for Consumer Freedom, as has been reported, Applebee's would want to work with more reputable public interest groups to promote the widespread availability of the information consumers really need.

Then, as Applebee's continues to collect information about what portion sizes consumers like, they might see a change in consumer desires. With the nutrition facts hidden, it is economically mandatory for restaurants to offer oversized portions. It may be the case that widely available nutrition facts would liberate fiercely competitive companies to offer healthier portion sizes.

Applebee's current posture -- non-disclosure of the nutrition facts and then blaming the consumer for poor nutrition choices -- is pretty ironic, don't you think? Dear Applebee's, the solution may be right in front of you. If your consumers resist a move to healthy portions "with no apparent reason," then perhaps you should start letting your consumers know the reason.

[Hat tip to a student who emailed the news link that led to this post].

FDA unable to reach food safety emergency contact people in one third of test attempts

From Libby Quaid of the Associated Press (via Ag Weekly on October 20):
WASHINGTON — A warning system meant to alert food companies in the event of a food poisoning outbreak failed one-third of the time in a recent government test.

The Food and Drug Administration was able to reach an emergency contact for a food facility in every two out of three cases.

Developed in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the system is supposed to help the government track the source of an outbreak of foodborne illness and help notify companies that might be affected.“As a result of this test, FDA believes that it is imperative that immediate steps be taken by FDA and owners, operators and agents in charge of domestic and foreign registered facilities to improve the accuracy of the information in the Food Facility Registration Database,” the agency said.
FDA's report was posted to the agency website on October 12.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lester Crawford, vigilant champion of FDA ethics

In light of recent news, this 2004 press release on the FDA website carries some unintended irony:

FDA Review of "Outside Activity" Requests Identifies No Additional Approved Outside Activities of Concern
Acting Commissioner Dr. Lester M. Crawford Nevertheless Strengthens FDA Ethics Oversight

Dr. Lester M. Crawford, Acting Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), today announced the results of a comprehensive review of all "outside activities" performed by FDA employees. In responding to the findings of an internal review at FDA of approved outside activities, Dr. Crawford said: "I am pleased to report, based on the review of all approved outside activity requests submitted by covered employees, that the review team did not identify any additional approved outside activities of concern beyond the one exception that was previously identified and promptly remedied last month upon discovery. I commend all FDA employees and Center management for upholding the highest ethical standards. This review has verified and validated my belief that FDA employees understand the importance and need for the rules and regulations applicable to the Agency's outside activities...."

"This review shows that the aggressive disclosure and review process designed to prevent conflicts of interest is working well," said Dr. Crawford. As a public health and regulatory agency, FDA has consistently lived up to the highest ethical standards. Nevertheless, I am further strengthening our disclosure and review program so that the impartiality of FDA's science-based regulatory decisions will continue to be above question."

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A New York Times trifecta

Jack from Fork & Bottle, one of our favorite correspondents here at U.S. Food Policy, sends three links to sharp reporting in the New York Times recently.
Mickey junkfood might be history (but only "might"?).

And then this is scary: Kindergarteners start puberty. Good thing none of these kids could get any hormones in the food they eat, huh?!

And, another reason not to drink Coke.
This last article, suggesting an association between cola consumption and lower bone density in older women, draws on the recent work by Dr. Katie Tucker, director of the epidemiology program at my school, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The Times writes:
“Our study is just one epidemiological finding, and it doesn’t prove causation,” said Katherine L. Tucker, the lead author of the paper and director of the nutritional epidemiology program at Tufts. Still, she added, “women who are concerned about osteoporosis should avoid drinking cola regularly.”

Former FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford to plead guilty to hiding ownership of stock in Pepsico

Marc Kaufman of the Washington Post reported today:
Lester M. Crawford, who resigned mysteriously last fall just two months after being confirmed as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, will plead guilty today to charges that he hid his ownership of stock in food and drug companies that his agency regulated, his lawyer said.
As an example of the conflict of interest, Crawford or his wife held previously undisclosed Pepsico stock during the period that he chaired FDA's Obesity Working Group, which released a 2004 report with fairly mild policy proposals, such as increasing the font size for the calorie count on the Nutrition Facts label for manufactured foods and encouraging entirely voluntary nutrition facts disclosure for restaurants.

A veterinarian by background, Crawford was administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service during the late 1980s and early 1990s. My boss at the Community Nutrition Institute during part of that period, Rodney Leonard, had been administrator of FSIS some years earlier, and was glad to speak on the topic of Lester Crawford with perhaps more fiery clarity than impartiality. Sometimes hearing just one end of such telephone conversations from the adjoining office, I would be astonished. Here is a brief from the Multinational Monitor in the early 1990s on the occasion of Crawford's resignation from FSIS to take a job with the National Food Processors Association:
Food safety advocates are not surprised by Crawford's move. Rod Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute and a former administrator of FSIS, says that Crawford has pursued a "typical career of industry representation," working first for the poultry and drug industries, then coming to Washington to work for the Food and Drug Administration and FSIS and now returning to an industry association.

Crawford served business well, Leonard says. "Rather than try to improve the quality of poultry inspection and therefore the wholesomeness of food," Leonard argues, Crawford "worked in exactly the opposite direction" by heading up "the effort of the Reagan and Bush administrations to deregulate meat and poultry inspection."

Leonard believes that Crawford probably chose to leave the Department of Agriculture because he had "used up his credibility with Congress" and was "no longer ... useful to industry or to the administration."

New report to Congress from USDA's fluid milk and dairy promotion programs

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service recently posted to its website its long-awaited 2005 annual report, dated July 1, describing the operation of the government's fluid milk and dairy promotion programs, sponsor of the Milk Mustache and similar campaigns to increase American cheese and butter consumption.

According to the new report, these checkoff programs collected mandatory payments from producers, in 2005, of $280 million for dairy promotion and another $100 million for fluid milk promotion. The programs have traditionally been considered semi-private producer organizations, but following litigation in recent years, the promotions are now recognized legally as "government speech" in their entirety. The fluid milk and dairy campaigns are larger than similar checkoff programs for beef and pork and far larger than any government support for promoting fruits or vegetables or other nutrition messages.

Like last year's report, the new report describes the program's use of dairy weight loss claims, which are controversial in nutrition science circles and are not consistent with the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as a "central theme and focus point" for the campaigns. Here is the first paragraph of the first chapter:
In 2005, the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board (Dairy Board) and the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board (Fluid Milk Board) continued to develop and implement programs to expand the human consumption of fluid milk and dairy products. Each promotion program has many unique activities. In 2005, the Fluid Milk Board continued to use the role of calcium-rich fluid milk products in successful weight management as a central theme and focal point for its activities. The Dairy Board focused on the away-from-home market to promote the expansion of flavors and a greater range of packaging in foodservice and restaurants.
The report describes continued collaborations with fast-food restaurants to drive sales of new products such as yogurt and flavored single-serving milk, and older products such as the cheese in pizza:
Also, DMI helped increase cheese use by partnering with national restaurant chains to introduce cheese-friendly items and drive innovation. Pizza Hut (R), the Nation's top pizza chain, featured three new cheese-friendly items that DMI helped to develop and promote. During the four-week promotion of the new product "Dippin' Strips," Pizza Hut(R)'s cheese usage was up 3 million pounds over the previous 4 weeks.
The checkoff programs argue that they require government assistance to collect the contributions for such campaigns, because advertising levels for these products would be sub-optimal without government assistance.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Forbes: "We do not have a 'smoking cow' at this point."

One possible explanation for the e. coli outbreak in spinach last month traces the source of the contamination to cattle manure. See, for example, Nina Planck or Treehugger, and see Cattle Network for an alternative view.

Since it was disconcerting to experience a microbial outbreak in a favored green leafy vegetable, it would spare the conventional wisdom about food safety if it turned out that animal agriculture was to blame after all. Such an account seemed almost too convenient, so I have been keeping an open mind, and regularly read the links from Accidental Hedonist's continuing coverage to see how this turns out.

A student today sent a link to this story from Forbes this week -- not ordinarily classified with the environmentalist vegetarian rabble:
Three samples of cattle fecal matter from one ranch in California's Salinas Valley have tested positive for the same strain of E. coli bacteria that sickened 199 people in 26 states and left three dead after they ate contaminated spinach.

It's not certain that the ranch was the source of the outbreak, but it's an important lead in the continuing investigation, U.S. and California health officials said during a Thursday evening teleconference.

"We do not have a 'smoking cow' at this point," said Dr. Kevin Reilly, deputy director of the prevention services division for the California Department of Health Services. "We do not have a definitive cause-and-effect, but we do have an important finding."
It will be interesting to see how this important finding pans out.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Federal government's beef checkoff program promotes Cowboy Ranch Steak Dinner; but what is in it?

The federal government's beef checkoff program in July announced an ambitious campaign to promote beef sales through restaurants at TravelCenters of America, a leading highway retail chain.

The beef program's press release said the campaign "has gone off like a rocket, selling nearly 40,000 Ranch Steak meals nationally in the first 20 days of the campaign."

In response to repeated requests over several weeks, neither the retail chain, nor the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, nor USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service would provide complete nutrition facts for menu items such as the Cowboy Ranch Steak Dinner.

Here is the gushing advertising description:
Try our new 9 oz. Cowboy Ranch Steak. This lean steak is chargrilled to order, brushed and topped with tasty Cowboy Butter, and partnered with our huge trucker-sized baked potato, and your choice of vegetable. Dinner starts with a salad and warm rolls and butter.
Wow, I thought. That's quite a meal. Steak, Cowboy Butter (?), trucker-sized potato, rolls, more butter, and yet more, all for one low price.

In response to my first inquiries, the director of restaurant marketing for TravelCenters suggested I contact their partners at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a private trade association that serves as a contractor for the federal government's beef checkoff program on such campaigns, for information about the steak itself. Meanwhile, she provided the following information about the meal, "based on comparable meals we've analyzed":
Ranch Steak Dinner: less than 430 mg sodium, less than 160 mg cholesterol, less than 15 g fat, less than 500 calories, less than 10 g carbohydrates
These amounts seemed far too low if they were supposed to refer to the full meal described above. One interpretation of the correspondence was that these amounts represented everything except the steak, whose data I was supposed to get from the cattlemen.

The cattlemen offered the following information for the 9 oz. steak:
  • 337 calories
  • 13 g fat
  • 4 g saturated fat
  • 51 g protein
At first glance, I thought these nutrient amounts for the beef alone still seemed far too small. Even if the steak were very lean, 9 oz. would have to contain much more than 337 calories. But, my correspondent from the cattlemen revealed that the steak -- which was advertised without asterisk as 9 oz. -- lost weight in preparation and was really only 6.75 oz. as served. Without any external fat, let alone Cowboy Butter, it is possible for a very lean 6.75 oz. steak to have 337 calories.

At this point, the cattlemen and the TravelCenters decided that they could not give me a tally for the full meal. From the advertised description, my hard-working nutrition students estimate this meal would contain perhaps 1200 calories, but who really knows?

I asked USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which is supposed to have approved this promotion as it approves all beef checkoff promotions, for better information. After all, the federal government encourages voluntary disclosure of nutrition facts information, so it would make sense for the feds at least to insist on such disclosure for meals the government itself promotes. They passed me from one person to the next, and finally stopped returning my (very polite!) email and telephone inquiries.

So, the story ends here. In its advertising campaign -- marked with the beef check mark indicating official status as "government speech" -- the federal government encourages Americans to patronize TravelCenters of America and at a rocket-like pace gobble many tens of thousands of the enormous Cowboy Ranch Steak Dinners. But don't be nosy about what's in the meal or what it might do for your health. Neither your government nor its business partners will tell you that.

I hope potential restaurant partners read this coverage before pursuing similar checkoff collaborations in the future. Taking comparatively small sums of money from the government's checkoff program brings scrutiny and expectations of nutrition disclosure that they might have avoided as ordinary private-sector companies pursuing strictly private-sector advertising messages.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Atlanta Journal-Constitution takes on farm subsidies

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this month joined a number of other national newspapers in extensive and critical reporting on the current farm subsidy system. The headline October 1 was, "How your tax dollars prop up big growers and squeeze the little guy." American Farmland Trust suggests the trend in recent reporting reflects a new mood about national prospects for genuine policy reform.

From the Journal-Constitution:

Farmers from Georgia to California planted millions of acres of cotton last spring knowing their crop will probably sell at a loss this fall.

But they planted anyway, confident that American taxpayers would bail them out with billions of dollars in subsidies. Just as they did last year, and the years before that.

U.S. subsidies for cotton and selected other crops, born in the Great Depression to protect against the occasional bad year, have become a multibillion-dollar entitlement. The program undermines free trade and props up big farmers at the expense of small growers both here and abroad.

At least 30 types of subsidies insulate many of the nation's 2.1 million farms from loss or disaster, a degree of government protection unsurpassed in private industry. Last year the subsidies cost $23 billion, almost all from taxes. Of that, cotton growers collected $3.4 billion.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association agreement on snack foods

While we're on the topic, the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association this week also reached an agreement with food manufacturers on guidelines for snack foods in schools. As with the beverage agreement, I looked over the guidelines and my first inclination was to like them, although I defer to colleagues on the nutrition science details. Both the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Commercial Alert raised concerns.

The Washington Post reports:

Five snack food makers including PepsiCo, Mars Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc. have pledged to replace Doritos and doughnuts with healthier products in school vending machines and snack bars under a voluntary agreement brokered by former resident Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association.

The agreement is the latest attempt to improve the nutritional content of food sold in schools, which has come under intense scrutiny because of rising rates of childhood

Yesterday’s agreement is modeled after one brokered by Clinton and the AHA earlier this year with Coca-Cola Co., Pepsi and Cadbury Schweppes PLC to stop selling non-diet soft drinks in schools. A 2001 USDA study found 56 percent to 85 percent of children consume soft drinks on any given day.

It was unclear whether yesterday’s agreement would have the same effect as the previous pact because snack food makers do not have as much influence over how their products are distributed as soft drink makers.

Still nursing my bruises from the last such agreement, I'd like to wait and see the new products that result from this agreement.

A test case for the Clinton Foundation / American Beverage Association agreement

We discussed earlier the mixed feelings that public health observers have expressed about the voluntary agreement announced by the Clinton Foundation and the American Beverage Association to remove soda from schools and replace them with healthier offerings.

I offered some cautious praise for the agreement, while others warned that it was just a public relations scam. Here is an interesting test case, illustrating the limits of the agreement.

The candy industry is crowing about the 3 Musketeers Slammers milk beverage from Bravo! Foods, which appears to meet the standards of the agreement for use in all schools, even vending machines in elementary schools.

Note also the Real seal, from the federal government's dairy checkoff program (the one that still seems to be withholding its annual report to Congress).

How can this sewn-together Frankensteinian multi-brand candy marketing vehicle possibly meet the new standards for elementary school children, you may ask? A look at the Nutrition Facts label reveals the answer: lowfat milk, carrageenan, cellulose gel, and Splenda artificial sweetener. With these ingredients, the calories per 8 oz. serving fall just under the required 150 [Note 10/08/2006: I missed that the package contains 2 servings! Correction in the comment section].

Problems include: using artificial fillers to mimic that mouth feel of fats rather than letting children become accustomed to the natural lowfat product, using artificial sweeteners rather than letting children become accustomed to the naturally perfect barely-sweet product, and misusing schools to market candy to elementary-age children.

I suspect the Clinton Foundation's reputation with sensible moderate pro-nutrition parents will be ruined if products like this are the ultimate fruit of the agreement with the American Beverage Association. If container-side advertising for 3 Musketeers is permitted under the Clinton agreement, it will push school districts that care about their children toward stricter standards. For example, a nice simple set of rules would be based on a short list of permitted products: water and 8 oz. containers of lowfat unsweetened milk or perhaps 100% fruit juice.

[Hat tip to the sharp and engaging weblog Weighty Matters, which I only recently started reading and will now add to my RSS subscriptions.]

Friday, October 06, 2006

Touring New England -- "Three voices: what fair trade means to farmers"

If you live in New England and would be interested to hear about fair trade principles from farmers around the world, see the Red Tomato news page:
Three Voices: What Fair Trade Means to Farmers
New England Speakers Tour Oct 23-28, 2006

Monday, Oct 23 Burlington, VT

Tuesday, Oct 24 Tufts University, Medford, MA
Fair Trade Banana Banquet, Haley House, Roxbury, MA

Wednesday, Oct 25 Smith College, Amherst, MA

Thursday, Oct 26 Harvard University, Boston, MA

Friday, Oct 27 Putney, VT

A banana farmer from Ecuador, a watermelon and vegetable farmer from Georgia, and an apple grower from New England may seem worlds apart, but they share common challenges as small farmers trying to make it in a global food system.

Join us for this rare opportunity to hear three real-life farmers from three very different farms talk about their struggles to stay on the land, their experiences in the market, and the impact of consumer support for fair trade and family farms. The program will tour New England Oct. 22-28, 2006, and is presented by Oke USA and Red Tomato, with support from Equal Exchange.

Celebrate this ‘fair trade fruit salad’ with fresh fruit tastings, fair trade chocolate fondue, tossed together with the provocative and inspiring stories of three farmers.
The program is presented by Oke USA and Red Tomato, with support from Equal Exchange. See also the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The danger of straying from the topic

Nicholas at the beer and food weblog Pint and Fork offers a lively commentary about off-topic digressions by otherwise-appealing food policy advocates.
People have asked me why I haven't supported groups like the Organic Consumers' Association or the Family Farm Defenders. These groups have admirable goals but their voice is deleteriously affected by "off topic" opinions.

Before I dish, let me say that I have the greatest respect for these groups when they are "on topic."... It would seem odd, then, that these groups would go out on a limb to do things that are politically controversial, completely unrelated to their mission statements, and divisive.
For example, Pint and Fork objected to a link on the Organic Consumers' Association website to an article about what Karl Rove may be planning in terms of an "October Surprise." I can see the point. It might be wiser for the Organic Consumers' Association to pitch itself as progressive but non-partisan.

As another example, Nicholas criticized Family Farm Defenders for linking to the pacifist farmers' group Farms Not Arms. Here, however, I found the alliance more reasonable and on-topic. Both are small progressive farmers' advocacy groups, and pacifism is not really a partisan position. Nicholas wrote, "I consider pacifism a radical political idea, and one that is extraordinarily divisive." But that's quite an ironic accusation. Pacifism may be divisive, but the warriors of the world aren't exactly sitting around together holding hands and singing Kumbayah.

In a class on U.S. Food Policy, I teach the advocacy coalition framework, which deals with the sometimes strange and temporary alliances between very different groups that find themselves on the same side of a particular policy debate. Think of ACLU and Nazis, for example. The danger with these coalitions is that liaison with a sometimes hated enemy can alienate core loyal constituencies. The Pint and Fork commentary provides a good example of this type of hazard.

Comments are open for your thoughts about which of Pint and Fork's criticisms you agree with. Feel free, while we're at it, to voice any objections to my own occasional off-topic commentaries. I am happy to listen and even change my ways.

Sukkot agricultural festival

The joyous celebration of Sukkot begins tomorrow at sundown.

Rabbi Scheinerman explains the meaning of this seasonal harvest festival:
Sukkot marks the autumn harvest time. It is a festival devoted to thanksgiving for the abundance of life. In ancient times, the final agricultural harvest took place in the beginning of the autumn and following the intensely busy work of harvesting people would celebrate their abundance and give thanks to God. In time, the festival of Sukkot came to be associated with the Forty Years of Wandering in the Wilderness, as well. Since crops must be harvested quickly, once they ripen, farmers often built for themselves small temporary booths out in their fields so that they could take advantage of every minutes of daylight once the crops were ready to be picked. These temporary booths were associated with the temporary shelters built by our ancestors after they left Egypt when, for 40 years, they wander through the wilderness of Sinai, before entering the Land of Israel.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Dependent upon our local place...

Wendell Berry says:
"Put the interest of the community first. Love your neighbors--not the neighbors you pick out, but the ones you have. Love this miraculous world that we did not make, that is a gift to us. As far as you are able make your lives dependent upon our local place, neighborhood, and household--which thrive by care and generosity--and independent of the industrial economy, which thrives by damage."
I heard this passage quoted today from the pulpit of the church that my family happily found three years ago this Fall, not by "shopping" for the place of worship that best satisfied our desires or reinforced what we already thought, but rather by visiting our local church -- the church whose corner we passed every day.

The passage made me reflect on my weekend bike ride the previous day, in the captivating early New England autumn. With camera in pocket, too (click for better images). This ride always exercises my mind as well as my body. Here, in a distance from our urban home that can be covered without gasoline power, one finds all the elements of Berry's proposal.

Here are the generous souls of the Food Project -- who work to connect urban youth with good food and agriculture -- harvesting sweet potatoes.

Here is the bustling farmers' market in Concord...

... with the table of volunteers who are trying to preserve Thoreau's Farm, the writer's birthplace. Isn't that appropriate to the day's theme?

Back home on the Minuteman Bikeway, a delightful world-class urban rail-to-trail that passes near our street (alas, Blogger is not letting me add any more photos!).

Brownfield Ag News: "USDA IG blasts FSIS oversight of state meat inspection"

Peter Shinn of Brownfield Ag News describes the report Friday from USDA's Inspector General (.pdf):

The USDA Inspector General this week issued a scathing report on Food Safety and Inspection Service oversight of state meat inspection programs, finding FSIS decisions that state programs are equal to the federal meat inspection program “may be inappropriate.” 28 states have their own meat inspection programs, and according to the IG, FSIS has conducted on-site inspections in just eight of those states since the Agency wrote new oversight rules in 2003.

Moreover, the IG found FSIS approved state meat inspection systems, even when the FSIS on-site inspection of those systems found serious discrepancies....

The IG report comes amid widespread support among farm groups and lawmakers for ending restrictions on state-inspected packing plants, restrictions that currently prevent them from selling their products across state lines.

More about Brownback's FCC task force on childhood obesity

Prompted by a student's further digging, here are some more links about that task force on childhood obesity, announced last week by FCC chair Kevin Martin at the urging of Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS).

As the earlier post noted, Commissioner Martin did not mince words in linking the growth of childhood obesity to the explosion in children's television advertising messages about food in recent years. Other speakers at the announcement similarly seemed to succeed in disentangling themselves from the purely free-market dogma that has characterized the conservative response to the childhood obesity epidemic (and I say that as a card-carrying economist with profound respect and admiration for markets!). For example, Commissioner Deborah Tate's comments at the announcement (.doc) include both the expected admonitions to mothers -- no mention of fathers -- to take the lead role in educating their children about nutrition. And, yet, she offers fascinating observations on the limits of the doctrine that this problem is purely a family matter:
Parents cannot do it alone. Pediatricians, teachers, food companies and the media cannot do it alone. Like I have said many times before, borrowing from "It takes a village," it will take an entire society to solve this epidemic.
Similarly, Senator Brownback's press release says:
"Studies show that children eight and older are exposed to over six hours a day worth of media," continued Brownback. "Judging by the sheer volume of media and advertising that children consume on a daily basis, and given alarming trends in childhood obesity, we're facing a public health problem that will only get worse unless we take action."
Other members of the Task Force include the advocacy group Children Now, whose interesting website I had not previously visited. They have done work especially on internet advertising in addition to television advertising.

Another group on the task force, which the student brought to my attention, is the conservative Christian Beverly LaHaye Institute (BLI), which shares a web address with the Concerned Women for America. This paranoid and factually challenged tract on the danger of solving world poverty caught the student's notice.

Let's give this task force a wait and see.