Friday, August 29, 2008

Community food program faces funding hiatus

The complexity of the Farm Bill comes to the fore again in Barbara Vauthier's report this week for Foodlinks America (available also by free email subscription):

A glitch in the legislative language of the 2008 Farm Bill may prevent the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from distributing nearly $5 million in grants to low-income communities to build and improve food systems under the Community Food Projects (CFP) program. USDA officials have notified fiscal year 2008 applicants for CFP funds that the Department does not currently have the authority to make awards.

The CFP is authorized by the food stamp section of the Farm Bill and a food stamp provision of the bill, unrelated to the CFP, was worded in a way that prevents disbursement of fiscal year 2008 CFP funds. More than a hundred applications for $4.6 million in CFP funds are pending until the issue is resolved. The money would support community food, planning, and training and technical assistance projects this year.

“Through our advocacy on the Farm Bill, we are certain that it was the intent of Congress to ensure that there was not an interruption in funding for Community Food Projects,” Andy Fisher, executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition (CSFC) in Portland, OR told Foodlinks America. “Unfortunately the legislative language was not clear in this regard,” he added.

Fisher noted that a technical amendments bill is being prepared in Congress to correct this and other Farm Bill problems. It is not unusual for clean-up legislation to follow the passage of a measure as massive as the Farm Bill, which ran more than 670 pages. An error of even greater magnitude – the inadvertent deletion of a section on international trade – caused the final Farm Bill to be passed by Congress, vetoed by the President, and that veto overridden twice. A corrections bill must pass before the end of September in order for USDA to get its CFP grants out.

Since 1996, the CFP has pumped more than $40 million into low-income communities through 276 grants to non-profit groups in 47 states, the District of Columbia, and one territory. Activists hope to prevent a break in the funding. “CFSC and its partners have been working hard with the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and USDA to ensure that a technical fix passes, to allow that the full $5 million is allocated to deserving community groups this fiscal year,” concluded Fisher.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Wal-Mart and local food

High fuel prices make it more expensive to lug food -- especially fresh food -- all around the continent. The prices encourage even the most mercenary food manufacturing and retail businesses to think more about shortening their transportation lines.

A case in point is Wal-Mart's recent interest in expanding local food sourcing. Marc at Ethicurean calls Wal-Mart's effort to maintain profits by saving on fuel costs a "less lofty" motivation, but the motivation doesn't bother me. I get more frightened when the cut-throat retail competitor tries to pass for a charity in its feel-good advertising. Marc goes on to point out that only large low-cost regional farm operations, not your friendly farming neighbor, are likely to become Wal-Mart suppliers. Still, that new source of sales for large producers may improve price and market conditions for smaller local producers as well.

For more information, see the Wal-Mart public relations materials, BloggingStocks, the U.S. News and World Report account, an NPR story this week, and Sam Fromartz' coverage of Wal-Mart.

Friday, August 22, 2008

ERS posts the Farm Bill side-by-side

The 629-page text (.pdf) of the 2008 Farm Bill is so complex and unreadable that the U.S. food policy community has been on the edge of our seats waiting for the USDA/ERS side-by-side comparison unveiled today.

The ERS side-by-side tool compares the new Farm Bill with current law, title by title, so we can finally begin to understand what the law really means.

ERS accompanied today's unveiling of the side-by-side tool with a web video that strikes the dramatic tone of a documentary by Kenneth Burns or an account of a manned mission to the moon. And given the challenge of explaining U.S. farm policy, it seems surprisingly appropriate.

Marion Nestle's forthcoming book, Pet Food Politics

I look forward to reading this, forthcoming in September from nutrition expert and blogger Marion Nestle.
Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine

... the gripping story of how, in early 2007, a few telephone calls about sick cats set off the largest recall of consumer products in U.S. history and an international crisis over the safety of imported goods ranging from food to toothpaste, tires, and toys. Nestle follows the trail of tainted pet food ingredients back to their source in China and along the supply chain to their introduction into feed for pigs, chickens, and fish in the United States, Canada, and other countries throughout the world. What begins as a problem "merely" for cats and dogs soon becomes an issue of tremendous concern to everyone. Nestle uncovers unexpected connections among the food supplies for pets, farm animals, and people and identifies glaring gaps in the global oversight of food safety.

More fun with Google Trends

The Google engine seems to attribute a late November 2006 spike in searches for "turkey" to the following Nov. 29 headline: "Pope seeks 'brotherhood' in Turkey."

Any other theories?

An annual cycle in Google searches for "nutrition"

At what time of year do you think people DON'T want to know about nutrition? Here's the Google trend.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Consumers use food labels less frequently

Jessica Todd and Jay Variyam from USDA/ERS this month reported:
[A]lthough a majority of consumers report using nutrition labels when buying food, use has declined for most label components, including the Nutrition Facts panel and information about calories, fats, cholesterol, and sodium. By contrast, use of fiber information has increased. The decline in label use is particularly marked for the cohort of adults less than 30 years old.
There's also a podcast.

Upcoming events

Slow Food Nation 2008 is Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 in San Francisco. In connection with this event, the people who created the Eat Well Guide have published Cultivating the Web (.pdf), a guide to high-tech tools for the sustainable food movement.

The Consumer Federation of America's 2008 annual food policy conference, Sept. 8-9 in Washington, DC, will focus on food prices.

The 2008 Fall conference of the Association of Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) gathers in Los Angeles, Nov. 6-8. I will be presenting work on the Thrifty Food Plan.

Olympic sponsorship does not always boost the brand

After Argentina's Olympic soccer team became the second to strike a racist pose in Beijing, the Consumerist blog pointed out the sponsorship. Of course, Coca-Cola couldn't have known in advance, and isn't to blame. Still, if a brand gains unmerited goodwill from association with a winning athlete, it may expect to take the damage from the losers.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Does it cost too much to eat healthy?

Find your own best answer with the new Thrifty Food Plan calculator.

This calculator is a tool for learning about tradeoffs between the nutrition quality and costs of foods available in the United States. Your challenge is to create a nutritious, affordable, and tasty food plan that meets your own nutrition policy goals.

This challenge is similar to the task faced by USDA nutritionists and economists when they developed the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP). The maximum benefit level in the Food Stamp Program is based on the cost of the TFP. Every several years, USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) revises the TFP to take account of new trends in food prices, food characteristics, and consumer spending behavior. USDA's most recent TFP revision is: The Thrifty Food Plan, 2006. This report is available on the CNPP website ( To create this food plan, USDA used a mathematical algorithm that selected quantities for each food group. The quantities were chosen to be as similar as possible to the current average consumption of low-income Americans, while simultaneously meeting a cost target, nutrition standards, target levels for broad categories of foods (such as meats, dairy foods, fruits, and vegetables), and other constraints.

Our TFP Calculator is based on the same price, consumption and nutrition data that USDA used to create the official 2006 food plan. You can design your own new food plan by choosing monthly spending levels for 58 food groups. The TFP Calculator provides information on how your plan performs in terms of cost, dietary quality, and similarity to current consumption.

My coauthors are graduate students Joseph Llobrera and Flannery Campbell. We released the TFP Calculator this week as part of the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition (FPAN) working paper series at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts Univeristy. We are grateful for financial support from a USDA/ERS RIDGE small grant, although we are responsible for all opinions and errors. The Microsoft Excel file TFPCalculator.xls contains the TFP Calculator worksheets and brief instructions. The Word file UserGuide.doc contains a longer User Guide (the graphics only show up in Word's "print layout" view).

Directions are provided at the end of the User Guide to send us feedback on the worksheet itself, and also on what you learned from this tool about the affordability of nutritious food in the United States. You can also post comments here and on your own websites. Please share this tool widely.

Fuel prices now really affecting behavior

I'll admit it requires a topical stretch to justify covering cycling on U.S. Food Policy. Pick one of the following:
U.S. Food Policy --> food overconsumption --> factors that affect obesity --> active lifestyles --> cycling
U.S. Food Policy --> eating locally and with a low carbon footprint --> personal behaviors that help the environment --> cycling
U.S. Food Policy --> fast food nation --> automobile culture --> cycling.
But the topic is too much fun to resist. You gotta love it when a reader in College Station comments that she has started bike commuting in the Texas summer weather. Or when my friend and neighbor Phil Goff, who showed me my current bike route to work on the marvelous bike lanes in Cambridge, is featured on local television talking about a new bike lane in Boston (the coverage highlighted some negative comments from motorists, and I wish it had pointed out that widespread cycling and transportation make driving more pleasant, too). I have been enjoying Boston's Bike Fridays, which offer newcomers a chance to try bike commuting with a police escort and free breakfast. Boston's Hub on Wheels event on September 21 will also be fun.

I sense some momentum, here. Economist and blogger James Hamilton, who gave a brilliant keynote speech at the AAEA / ACCI conference last week, believes that high fuel prices are mostly here to stay and that -- especially just in the last half year -- they have finally reached the point where they strongly influence consumer behavior. Does that seem plausible to you?

U.S. Food Policy in Wordle

Having fun with Wordle:

Is there an upside for humanity in high food prices?

The Economist is having a fascinating debate on the proposition:
There is an upside for humanity in the rise in food prices.
Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution says "yes," because higher prices encourage greater food production, reduce the incentive to use food crops for fuel, raise incomes for poor farmers, and encourage economic development in rural areas of low-income countries.

Joachim von Braun of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) agrees that moderately high prices have these benefits, but argues that the drastic price spike in the past couple years will be devastating. For example, he notes, an episode of childhood hunger caused by the food crisis can lead to stunted physical development and a lifetime of poorer health for millions of children.

The debaters wisely agreed not to be too lenient in defining "an upside." Both sides interpreted the proposition to say that high prices are a good thing on balance.

Slightly more than half of online voters at the site agree with the proposition, with good comments on both sides.

After we discussed a similar question here a couple weeks ago, Half Changed World and its interesting commenters took up the thread.

I will be giving a short briefing on food prices for Congressional staff in Washington on or near Sep. 22, arranged by the Council on Food, Agricultural, and Resource Economics (C-FARE). Advance commments and reading suggestions are welcome. On today's reading list: the World Bank report, finally released to the public, which greatly raised estimates of the impact of biofuels on food prices.