Monday, November 21, 2011

Spinning dairy weight loss claims

The USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) provides the Nutrition Evidence Library, a clear and transparent source of systematic evidence reviews about all sorts of nutrition and health issues.

For example, here is the evidence review summary for claims about dairy consumption and weight loss:

Strong evidence demonstrates that intake of milk and milk products provide no unique role in weight control.
That seems clear enough: no unique role in weight control.

Meanwhile, the federal government's semi-public dairy checkoff program offers its own distinct review of the evidence.  Although many people do not realize it, the National Dairy Council is an arm of this checkoff program.  Its review says:
A growing body of research illustrates that enjoying three servings of milk, cheese or yogurt each day as part of a nutrient-rich, balanced diet may help maintain a healthy weight.
The first study mentioned is by Michael Zemel, the researcher who won a patent on dairy weight loss claims, which allows dairy industry organizations to collect royalties from food companies that use such claims. 

Buried deep in the subsequent studies, one finds contradictory evidence.  For example, a study by Wagner and colleagues in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition finds, "there were no significant differences in weight loss between groups.  The milk group showed significantly less reduction of body fat than the placebo group."  But you would not know that from the Dairy Council's summary statement.

The National Dairy Council -- whose messages have official status as "government speech" -- seems to be contradicting the more impartial review of USDA's scientists.  Why should the federal government be willing to play the role of "enforcer" for the National Dairy Council, collecting the millions of dollars in mandatory assessments that support the Council's industry-friendly spin on the evidence?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

USDA posts the 2010 dairy checkoff report

The federal government's dairy checkoff program just today released the July 2010 Report to Congress, which was the subject of my earlier Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The report, 16 months overdue, says that $108 million were collected in 2009 for fluid milk promotions, and another $283 million were collected for other dairy products (principally cheese).  The checkoff programs use the federal government's power of taxation to collect mandatory assessments, essentially taxes, from producers.  All the advertising and promotion messages count as "government speech."  The expenditures vastly outweigh anything the federal government does to promote healthy eating.

The introduction emphasizes the controversial Domino's campaign:
The Dairy Board continued to develop and implement programs to expand the human consumption of dairy products by focusing on partnerships and innovation, product positioning with consumers, and new places for dairy product consumption. One such endeavor was accomplished through a partnership with Domino’s Pizza and the creation of the American Legends pizza line.
The report later explains in greater detail:
The pizza industry plays an important role in the dairy industry. Twenty–five percent of all cheese manufactured in the U.S. is used on pizza, and Mozzarella comprises 49 percent of all cheese volume in the foodservice industry. Research showed that negative pizza cheese volume trends were having an impact on the dairy industry. As a result, dairy producers partnered with Domino’s to reinvigorate the pizza category and launch American Legends, a line of six specialty pizzas that use up to 40 percent more cheese than a regular Domino’s pizza.
The report shows that a large fraction of affiliated advertising expenditure goes toward cheese.

Professor Harry Kaiser at Cornell University wrote the accompanying economic analysis, showing the great effectiveness of the checkoff program in expanding dairy consumption on both a nonfat and fat basis (increasing intake of milkfat).  Professor Kaiser (a good colleague for whom I was a teaching assistant at Cornell) has previously written U.S. food policy to explain his view of the nutritional impact of the checkoff programs:
[W]e continue to believe that the nutritional state of consumers in the United States would be worse without generic food advertising programs. 
I am not convinced.  The checkoff programs should rein in the fast food collaborations and bring the promotions in line with the dietary guidelines, or they should let free markets work on their own and let producers contribute voluntarily to the checkoff programs.  The status quo, with the federal government promoting Domino's Pizza, is terrible.

The July 2011 report has not yet been released.  It is not clear whether USDA simply didn't submit the report to Congress as required, or instead whether USDA submitted that report but is not yet willing to share it with the public.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Making sure schools can serve our children badly

Although appropriations bills are supposed to be about spending -- not policy-making -- Congress took extra special care this week to make sure child nutrition programs do not have to follow the very reasonable and temperate guidelines recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

The conference committee report for next year's agricultural appropriations overturns key elements of USDA's proposed guidelines for child nutrition programs.  The proposed guidelines had included strong support for whole grains, a recommended limit on salt, and a stipulation that not too much of the vegetables served would be white potatoes.  Currently, school lunch programs contain far more salt than recommended limits, and many school systems use french fries and other forms of white potatoes as by far the dominant vegetable.

In a step that reminds us all of the Reagan administration's heroically foolish effort to define ketchup as a vegetable, the appropriations committees also intervened to make sure that the tomato puree in pizza counts toward vegetable requirements.

USDA officials were sharply critical, and I imagine that the hard-working staff throughout the department are upset.  The Associated Press coverage says:
USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said Tuesday that the department will continue its efforts to make lunches healthier.

"While it's unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America's children, USDA remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals," she said in a statement.
It is fun to read the fine print of the conference committee report (.pdf).  See sections 743 and 746 on page H7443.  Although they have no expertise in meals programs or nutrition, the appropriations committee members were quite willing to do the food industry's bidding on these arcane provisions:
SEC. 743. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement an interim final or final rule regarding nutrition programs under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1751 et seq.) and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (42 U.S.C. 1771 et seq.) that—
(1) requires crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume;
(2) implements a sodium reduction target beyond Target I, the 2-year target, specified in Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, ‘‘Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs’’ (FNS–2007–0038, RIN 0584– AD59) until the Secretary certifies that the Department has reviewed and evaluated relevant scientific studies and data relevant to the relationship of sodium reductions to human health; and
(3) establishes any whole grain requirement without defining ‘‘whole grain.’’
A graduate student and I are taking a look at the diversity of comments that were submitted in response to USDA's proposed guidelines.  I will do a follow-up post in a couple weeks, noting which organizations suggested the policy reversals that Congress made this week.

In my children's schools, I see the need for well-written and reasonable guidelines.  The status quo is not good enough.  I believe the IOM and USDA did the best possible job in balancing nutrition and economic considerations.  Readers know very well that I will speak up against government overreach.  But these guidelines did not look to me like government overreach.  They looked judicious.

As a policy researcher, I think the public interest would have been better served by deferring to IOM and USDA.  As a parent, I am angry about Congress' intervention.  It seems clear that Congress is doing the food industry's bidding at the expense of our children.

National League of Cities passes a farm bill resolution

Modeled on an earlier proposal from the Seattle City Council, the National League of Cities yesterday passed a resolution (.pdf) encouraging the federal government to adopt a variety of public interest principles for the farm bill.

The resolution includes planks for:
  • a health-centered food system,
  • sustainable agricultural practices,
  • community and regional prosperity and resilience,
  • equitable access to healthy food,
  • social justice and equity, and 
  • a systems approach to policy-making.
New political constituencies are taking interest in the farm bill. Paradoxically, this year, it seems farm bill decision-making power may be concentrated in fewer hands than ever.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Tyler Cowen on agriculture policy and corporate bailouts

Here is the latest NYT column from Tyler Cowen, who I generally think of as a market-oriented libertarian economist.  Cowen generally prefers to let the deserving rich be rich, and yet he can see why the demonstrators at Zuccotti Park have "so much resonance."
The first problem is that higher status for the wealthy can easily lead to crony capitalism. In public discourse social status judgments are often crude. Critical differences are lost, like the distinction between earning money through production for consumers, as Apple has done, and earning money through the manipulation of government, which heavily subsidized agribusinesses have done. The relevant question, in my view, is not about how much you have earned but about how you have earned it. To further confuse matters, many right-wing Republican politicians supported corporate bailouts and corporate welfare far beyond what was necessary to stabilize the economy, in doing so further muddying the difference between productive and predatory capitalism. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011


In connection with Juliet Schor's book last year, Plenitude, I appreciated this video, posted four months ago. 

In our neighborhood (east Arlington, MA), my family and I have been exploring similar themes through a free dinner series (which we call "Living Richly" dinners) at our local church (Calvary Church, United Methodist), a community supported agriculture (CSA) pick-up site (from Enterprise Farm), a bike-to-school train to our neighborhood elementary school (organized by the East Arlington Livable Streets coalition), and in other ways.  I'll try to share more about this experimentation in future posts in the coming year.

New Dream Mini-Views: Visualizing a Plenitude Economy from Center for a New American Dream on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

New Rudd Center report on marketing beverages to children

Would you say Coca-Cola, the parent company for FANTA, is marketing to children here?

Would you say Coca-Cola is marketing to children in these lesson plans for elementary school students?

If you say "yes" to either question, then do you think Coca-Cola is breaking its pledge not to advertise to children?

Coca-Cola's pledge says:
We have a global Responsible Marketing Policy that covers all our beverages, and we do not market any products directly to children under 12. This means we will not buy advertising directly targeted at audiences that are more than 35% children under 12. Our policy applies to television, radio, and print, and, where data is available, to the Internet and mobile phones.
I can think of some ways that Coca-Cola could say these marketing efforts are consistent with the pledge. Perhaps one could find research showing that the FANTA cartoon characters are designed to appeal to 13-year-olds but not 11-year-olds. Perhaps the websites where these characters appear have a children's audience share under 35%.  Perhaps the lesson plans don't qualify as "marketing." Perhaps the use of the word "directly" is supposed to give the marketers some wiggle room.

Still, under any of these explanations, the detailed defense only serves to show how empty the pledge is. 

This post was provoked by reading the Rudd Center's new report on marketing sugar-sweetened beverages to children (.pdf).

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The SNAP (food stamp) explosion

Every couple years, we update this dynamic interactive graphic showing how Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participation changes in response to economic conditions and federal and state policies.  (Thanks to graduate student Dan Hatfield for data processing in this new 2010 edition, and to Hanqi Luo and Joseph Llobrera for data processing in earlier versions).

With this Google Gadget, you can track a particular state of interest, or watch all states move together. Of course, the real drama is in the final two years.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Farm policy and the Super Committee

It is possible -- but not certain -- that the major "Farm Bill 2012" decisions will be made sooner than expected, in November, 2011.  Critics of the process are calling it the "secret Farm Bill" with "no accountability."

Everybody involved in farm policy had been expecting the next Farm Bill to pass in 2012 or 2013. However, the strange new Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction -- the "Super Committee" -- may make the important decisions very soon.

The Super Committee process is confusing.  Here is my summary of the key points.

If the Super Committee succeeds, Congress promises to swallow a laxative.

As part of the recent fight over raising the debt ceiling, Congress delegated a peculiar and almost unprecedented decision option to the bi-partisan Super Committee. This committee's power comes from its option to make a recommendation before Thanksgiving on $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years. If the committee succeeds in making a recommendation, Congress has agreed to give the proposal an up-or-down majority vote, with no filibusters.

If the Super Committee fails, Congress promises to swallow a poison pill.

If the Super Committee fails to make a recommendation, there will be ferocious mandatory across-the-board deficit reductions.  Congress has already passed these reductions, with a conditional trigger stating that they kick in when the Super Committee fails to make a proposal.

The Super Committee process may or may not leave the Agriculture Committees out of the loop.

Out of the $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years, the Super Committee is expected to take perhaps $23 billion in savings from farm subsidies and nutrition programs that are normally included in the Farm Bill.  Leaders on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are tempted to move quickly in the next two weeks on their own Farm Bill proposals, so that at least the composition of the cuts will be decided by traditional farm policy leaders rather than by the non-farm-policy people on the Super Committee.  Philip Brasher reports this week that deficit hawks suspect that the traditional farm policy leaders can find a way to sneak weaker and more easily reversible cuts into the supposed $23 billion savings.

If the Farm Bill is essentially decided this month, what will it look like?  It would in that case probably include cuts or elimination of direct subsidy payments (which don't depend on commodity prices).  It might or might not include some traditional deficiency payments (which pay farmers only if market prices are lower than a target price), but these subsidies don't matter much right now one way or the other, because commodity prices are currently high and quite likely to stay that way for a while.  The most interesting open question is whether a rushed Farm Bill will include some type of strange insurance mechanism, perhaps even more convoluted than the complex ACRE program.

What to monitor:

So here are the three decisions to watch in the next month, one of the most exceptionally intense periods of food policy decision-making I have ever witnessed.

1.  Will traditional farm policy legislators in the House and Senate Agriculture Committees this month submit their own proposed Farm Bill, with about $23 billion in cuts over ten years, in time for the Super Committee to consider it?

2.  Will the Super Committee exercise its option to make a highly influential deficit reduction proposal of $1.5 trillion over ten years before Thanksgiving?

3.  If the Super Committee does succeed in making a proposal without Agriculture Committee input, will traditional farm policy legislators fight it, or will it represent a sort of coup-d'etat in U.S. farm policy, demoting the traditional deal-makers to bystanders?

And here is one more decision to watch in the longer run.

4.  If the Super Committee does not succeed in making a proposal, how will the slower Farm Bill process in 2012 be affected by the across-the-board mandatory cuts?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Federal policy and the McRib

The McDonald's McRib is back in the news again. A mocking Twitter feed is under way.  Now is a good time to revisit the federal government's role in this industrial concoction, a perfect symbol of a food system gone mad.

The McRib was originally developed with support from the federal government's pork checkoff program.  Of all the things this federal program has accomplished over the decades, the McRib deserves mention right up front.  The National Pork Board's 2006 annual report (.pdf) boasted in its first paragraph:
The Pork Checkoff celebrated 20 years of progress in 2006. Taking a look back and reflecting on where we are today, I am reminded of the impact that the Pork Checkoff has had on the industry, such as moving from being a net importer of pork to one of the largest exporters of pork in the world; creating new products like the very successful McRib; developing education programs such as Pork Quality Assurance™ to help producers ensure consumers of a safe, wholesome product; and repositioning pork from a second thought to top-of-mind awareness.

The pork checkoff program sometimes is mistaken for a private sector trade association.  It is not.  Like all the federal checkoffs, it uses the federal government's power of taxation to collect a mandatory assessment or tax from all pork producers, whether they voluntarily want to pay or not.  The checkoff is managed by the National Pork Board, whose members are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture.  Program oversight is provided by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.  Every marketing message is approved by the federal government, with official status as "government speech."

The McRib stands for the proposition that the federal government should help the pork industry promote any product, no matter how contrary to the government's own dietary guidance efforts in the midst of an epidemic of overweight and chronic disease.

Here is the nutrition facts panel, with 450 Calories, 40% of a day's saturated fat, 37% of a day's sodium, and an overall grade of "D" from Caloriecount.

I can understand why McDonald's wants to market this kind of stuff.  I am sure it is profitable.  But, why can't the federal government exercise more discretion in its own choice of products for the federal checkoff programs?  Isn't there anybody in the whole chain of oversight for the pork checkoff who is embarrassed to be associated with the McRib?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Agricultural economists say excise taxes for soda appear to be good policy

The new issue of Choices Magazine, the outreach publication from the agricultural economics profession, has a special policy theme on excise taxes for soda.  Although there are some interesting differences across the several articles, the final article by Carlisle Ford Runge, Justin Johnson, and Carlisle Piehl Runge, sums up:

Excise Taxes Appear to Be Good Policy

Taxing soda will reduce its consumption and raise revenue; by one recent estimate a 1 cent/oz. national U.S. excise tax would cut soda calorie consumption 8-10% and raise $15 billion per year (Brownell, et al., 2009). Moreover, from a theoretical perspective, the cross-subsidization from non-consumers of soft drinks to consumers resulting from such a tax is not large, and both classes of consumers can be shown to be better off (O’Donoghue and Rabin, 2006). Even if the caloric reduction in soft drinks is offset by whole milk consumption, the nutritional and metabolic advantages of milk versus soda are clear. If such consumption is of plain, reduced-fat milk, these advantages are amplified. Finally, a 1-for-1 substitution of milk for soda on a per volume basis is unlikely, due to milk’s digestibility relative to soda. For these reasons, wide adoption of such excise taxes appears to be good policy. Even if they fail to reduce caloric intake in young people, the quality of those calories will improve.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Where is the dairy checkoff report to Congress? (Update)

Despite a requirement in federal law to submit an annual report to Congress, the dairy checkoff program has not yet produced the report for July 2010 or July 2011, both of which are now long overdue.

Because earlier requests for a copy of the July 2010 report had been turned down by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in September for the two most recent missing reports.  However, AMS turned down the request today, saying that the material was classified as "pre-decisional" and "deliberative."  The AMS response said that the reports were still in USDA clearance, and that the 2010 report will be released shortly.

The Dairy Production and Stabilization Act of 1983 (.pdf) says:
Not later than July 1, 1985, and July 1 of each year after the date of enactment of this title, an annual report describing activities conducted under the dairy products promotion and research order issued under this subchapter, and accounting for the receipt and disbursement of all funds received by the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board under such order including an independent analysis of the effectiveness of the program.
Likewise, USDA's Dairy Promotion and Research Order (.pdf) requires the agency:
To prepare and make public, at least annually, a report of its activities carried out and an accounting for funds received and expended.
The dairy checkoff program uses the federal government's power of taxation to collect a mandatory assessment of more than $390 million per year from farmers, in order to support research, promotion, and advertising activities, such as the "Got Milk" campaign.  The checkoff program promotes increased high-fat cheese consumption through support for fast food pizza marketing campaigns.  The program's management corporation, Dairy Management Inc., boasts of the fast food collaborations.  Notwithstanding the tension between these advertisements and healthy dietary guidance, every checkoff program message is endorsed by the federal government (in legal terminology, the advertisements must be approved as "government speech").

I think dairy farmers and the public deserve more timely transparency in this federal program, which is vastly better funded than anything the federal government does to promote healthy eating.

May 2012 workshop on the "food environment"

Colleagues in the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) and its European sister organization are organizing an upcoming workshop on food retail, food access, and the food environment.  I am assisting with the local organizing for the workshop, here at Tufts.

Here is the open request for abstracts.
Abstracts submissions are due November 1, 2011 for the Food Environment: The Effects of Context on Food Choice conference jointly organized by AAEA and EAAE. The conference will take place May 30-31, 2012 at Tufts University in Boston.

The conference is aimed at providing insights into the influence of the food environment on the quality, price, and availability of food, associated health or environmental impacts, and to uncover the impact of policies aimed at influencing the food production and choice. For more information, including abstract submission instructions, please visit the conference website.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cereal boxes from pop artist Ron English

A student points out these cereal boxes from pop artist Ron English, reportedly on a shelf in a Ralph's store. The Popaganda blog says: "Find a box, send it to Ron and he'll sign it."

Monday, October 10, 2011

Prevention Institute: "We're not buying it."

A video and petition from the Prevention Institute, about food marketing directed at children.

NYC shares restaurant inspection information online

New York City last year introduced an online data utility that provides great detail about health inspections of restaurants. The application cleverly combines Google Maps with data from health inspector reports.

It has always been the case that health inspectors could shut down restaurants that failed to meet a certain threshold for adequate hygiene.  The most distinctive thing about this "report card" approach is that it provides consumers with greater information about inspections that found some problems, but not enough problems to shut down the restaurant.  In economic terms, this approach remedies an "information asymmetry," in which the consumer lacks some key information about food production practices. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing to do on this site is to visit "advanced search" and then browse the worst-scoring restaurants that were not shut down.  For example, the restaurant "La Trattoria" in the screen shot below was not closed.  Here are the recorded violations:

Violations recorded in the following area (s) and a Notice of Violation issued at the reinspection conducted on 09/02/2011.
Tip! "Critical" violations are displayed in red.
Violation points: 79

Sanitary Violations
1) Hot food item not held at or above 140º F.
2) Appropriately scaled metal stem-type thermometer or thermocouple not provided or used to evaluate temperatures of potentially hazardous foods during cooking, cooling, reheating and holding.
3) Evidence of mice or live mice present in facility's food and/or non-food areas.
4) Hand washing facility not provided in or near food preparation area and toilet room. Hot and cold running water at adequate pressure to enable cleanliness of employees not provided at facility. Soap and an acceptable hand-drying device not provided.
5) Toilet facility not provided for employees or for patrons when required.
6) Food not protected from potential source of contamination during storage, preparation, transportation, display or service.
7) Food contact surface not properly washed, rinsed and sanitized after each use and following any activity when contamination may have occurred.
8) Facility not vermin proof. Harborage or conditions conducive to attracting vermin to the premises and/or allowing vermin to exist.
9) Accurate thermometer not provided in refrigerated or hot holding equipment.
New York's effort is the latest in a series of similar innovations around the country.  In the past, we described similar but lower-tech health inspection report cards in Los Angeles.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Sprout's October issue

The October issue of Sprout, the Friedman School's graduate student publication, has just been posted.

Sarah Gold draws on material from an International Food Information Council (IFIC) presentation at a dietetics conference to point out many merits of processed foods.  Although sodium and sugar content of processed foods are mentioned in passing, a major theme of the presentation seemed to be that Americans would be malnourished without processed foods.
“This is a very confusing aspect of the debate,” says Victor Fulgoni III, PhD of Nutrition impact and speaker at the FNCE session.  “Some of the discontent is fueled by some that want only local and fresh foods to be consumed. While this is a very laudable goal it is just not possible for most of Americans for either time or economic constraints,” adds Fulgoni.

Sadly, only about 300 calories per day come from minimally processed foods in the American diet, according to the data presented by Fulgoni at FNCE. Not surprisingly ready-to-eat (RTE) foods make up the largest portion of calories consumed (about 600 calories) and the top RTE foods consumed include soda, candy, potato chips, and juice drinks. This did not include food eaten at restaurants.

Processed foods contribute more dietary saturated fat, sugar, and sodium than minimally processed foods. However, they also provide the largest source of fiber, B vitamins, folate, iron, and potassium for many Americans. According to the study, most American’s would not meet the daily recommendations for essential vitamins and minerals without processed foods.
In another article, Rachel Perez discusses the new Harvard food plate with my colleagues Jeanne Goldberg, Tim Griffin, and me.
Certainly no single icon—whether pyramid, or plate—can effectively portray every nutrition message, let alone change behavior.

To the casual observer, the USDA vs. Harvard plate controversy may amount to mere academic banter or wholesome collegiate competition.  But for nutrition professionals, the plates offer a sobering challenge. Dishing out nutrition messages requires both appropriate policy to back food recommendations, along with clear nutrition communications.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A skeptical question about financial speculation and food prices

Tom Philpott at Mother Jones blames food price increases since 2007 on financial speculators.  He is quite harsh on the fools like me, who thought rising food prices reflected resource scarcity.

Here is my question in his comments section:
I don't understand how speculation could raise food prices for more than a few months. 

The financial speculators are placing bets on the futures market.  If they expect prices to go up in January, they will buy a contract today that guarantees them a certain amount of commodity in January.  When January comes around, they sell their paper commodities on the ordinary spot market.  If they are correct that prices rose, they make a profit, because their January sale is more than the price they originally paid. 

An essential feature of this game is that the speculators do not want to take possession of a ton of corn or soybeans.  For speculators, the game is not "buying and more buying," it is "buying and then selling."  The buying drives up prices, and the selling drives down prices.  Commodity futures are different from "dot com" stocks, which can be held for a long time.

Basically, I find it much more plausible -- as an economist and as an environmentalist -- to see rising food prices as a symptom of real resource scarcity.

But I'll keep an open mind.  Can somebody explain more clearly: beyond the first few months of a speculative boom, how can financial speculators keep driving the price higher and higher?

Mark Bittman asks if junk food is really cheaper

Mark Bittman's column this week in the New York Times argues that junk food is not really cheaper.  For a reader who is skeptical, Bittman's rhetorical method is to provide an array of examples, each of which has different advantages. 
In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.) 
The column concludes with both a cultural agenda and policy prescription.  Do you like one, or the other, or neither, or both?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Harvard's new Healthy Eating Plate

The new Harvard Healthy Eating Plate ...

... clearly is a modified version of USDA's MyPlate,...

... just as the earlier Harvard "Healthy Eating Pyramid" ...

 ... clearly was based on USDA's first pyramid graphic.  Harvard's experts in nutritional epidemiology agree with USDA's graphic designers on many key points.

Still, the Harvard researchers do make some distinctions.

One difference is that Harvard's new plate graphic requires 2 times as many words to communicate its message [Update, same day: edited the number of words to count USDA's accompanying text].  This may be helpful in dietary guidance targeting audiences with strong reading skills.

A second difference is that Harvard's new graphic substitutes water in place of dairy as the beverage placed outside of the plate.  The Harvard plate is more austere than the earlier Harvard pyramid, which was accompanied by a wine glass, and which also emphasized dairy.  The wine and the dairy are now gone from the new Harvard graphic.

A third difference is that the new Harvard graphic includes what looks like a very large amount of salad dressing oil, while recommending limits on red meat.

I see nutrition merit in the Harvard graphic, but wonder if it is more successful at emphasizing distinctions with USDA than at communicating dietary guidance to a general audience.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The bigger story behind the food-stamp-hating videos from Mr. EBT and Chapter

Obama Foodorama this week links to two rap videos showing Black people abusing their EBT cards from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The videos exploit every possible racist stereotype for a laugh.  Some journalists are accepting them as straightforward satire, by artists who are themselves African American, but self-directed satire is not the whole story.

The conservative media is giving lots of attention.  The Drudge Report on Monday linked to the first video, by Mr. EBT, showing the singer buying junk food with an EBT card belonging to somebody else.  Fox News covers the same story.

The second video is far worse.  In it, the singer Latoya "Chapter" Hicks adopts the fanciful character of Keywanda, a foul-mouthed, sexaholic, beer-swigging, chain-smoking Black mother of 10 children.  She sings that "all you gotta do is f---" and 9 months later you get lots of government benefits.

Chapter's website, which hosts the video, and "Creative Indie Artists," which produced her song and video, are both projects of Christopher A. Jackson, a White man from California whose other job is as an executive for KROQUE, a military apparel contractor.  The Fact Evangelist found the link to the apparel contractor raised questions about the origin of this music project.

Digging a little further, I found an old MySpace page for Christopher Jackson. 

On the same MySpace page, there is a 2-year-old comment from Chapter, the singer in the video, introducing herself:



I wrote Jackson, seeking further information about the collaboration with Chapter. He responded today:
Chapter and I wrote the lyrics and Chapter produced and arranged the song. She is releasing another video this Saturday 9/24 and will continue to release a new video each month.
When I asked if this was hard-hitting anti-welfare social commentary, Jackson described the video as "a hard-hitting anti welfare-abuse-program pro social lesson."

An Ohio blog discusses whether the Chapter video is racist. This whole episode reminds me of the tiff in May, when Newt Gingrich called Obama the "food stamp president" and then successfully parried accusations that he was tooting a racist dog whistle.  The episode also brought to mind something very strange that I had noticed in the readership logs for this blog.  One of the highest-traffic posts in my archives is an old post about race and food stamps.  It turns out that hundreds of people on the internet are Googling the topic "race and food stamps."  Try it yourself and you can find truly depraved and racist discussion lists.

I hope Obama Foodorama and others who link to these videos will explore them a little further than they have so far.  Because these videos purport to be satire, I know I run the risk of seeming humorless.  But I'm not laughing yet. 

[Update, same day: deleted one intemperate sentence.]

Monday, September 19, 2011

A fine last paragraph about environmentally sound food choices

Charles Kenny at Foreign Policy writes a fine last paragraph about environmentally sound food choices:
So how should you eat as a responsible global citizen? Consume less meat and oppose Western farm-subsidy programs -- especially if they focus on livestock. Campaign against U.S. biofuel programs, which divert corn into grossly inefficient energy production. Embrace further testing and analysis of GM crops. Encourage public funding of research and intellectual property laws that ensure that poor farmers are not priced out of the potential benefits of GM seeds. Spend only on organic food that is as energy- and land-efficient as conventional production. And be a smart consumer: Local produce grown out of season and meat raised on imported feed isn't friendly to you, the environment, or the developing world. 
Regarding the last sentence, it is important to add that local produce grown in season and local meat raised in an environmentally sound way are a true gift.  One of the most exciting developments in all of U.S. food policy in recent years has been the experimentation, initiative, and entrepreneurship of the local food movement as an alternative to the most over-processed and unhealthy excesses of industrial food production.  I could imagine the scope of local food consumption in rich countries doubling or tripling without any notable sacrifice in the efficiency of the food system as a whole.  It would be a good thing for the world.

The sad thing about Kenny's article is the road it takes to reach this final paragraph. Read the snotty tone of his exaggerated, overly broad, and fundamentally unsupported dismissal of the local food movement as a whole: "these First-World food fetishes are positively terrible for the world's poorest people."  What is he trying to say by throwing some German into his criticism of "locavorism and organics über alles"?  These passages of the article are harsh and pointless.

I wish that the same writers who have the insight to write a balanced paragraph about environmentally sound eating also had the courage to resist the demands of our tabloid media culture. 

Update (9/20/2011): Classy tweet from Charles Kenny in response:

Charles Kenny . OK with conclusion to Got Cheap Milk but thinks middle is snotty. May well have point about middle.

Friday, September 16, 2011

What foods fail to meet new voluntary standards for marketing to children?

In response to a request from Congress, a federal interagency group has proposed new voluntary standards for what foods can be marketed to children (.pdf).

A food industry campaign believes the voluntary standards will become essentially mandatory in practice, raising the industry's fears of regulatory overreach and loss of first amendment rights.  Other legal experts on public health law and policy emphasize that the proposed standards really are voluntary.  My own instinct is to see voluntary standards as a reasonable compromise between empty wishes for self-regulation and heavier mandatory regulation.  So I am tempted to see the industry's legal concern as overwrought.

But that still leaves open the question of whether the proposed nutrition standards are too weak, just right, or too strict.  Marion Nestle says her initial reaction was the the proposals were "much too generous."  The food industry's "sensible food policy" coalition says the proposed standards would prohibit marketing for nearly all commonly consumed foods.  In other words, the industry thinks the nutrition standards are too strict.

Now, here comes the arcane and detailed part of the post.  The industry group listed 100 commonly consumed foods (.pdf), and claimed only 12 of them met the standards.  The acceptable foods included fresh fruits and vegetables.  The industry group's table lists 100 comparatively broad food categories (column A), and then picks a particular food within each category (column B), and then in most cases claims that the particular food failed to meet the federal proposal's voluntary standards.  Some of the failures seem totally reasonable.  For example, nobody thinks donuts or cake should count as healthy foods.  But, the industry group claimed the standards also excluded popular and reasonably healthy foods.  For example, in the category of "all family cereal," the industry picked one particular cereal, and said it would be "banned" because it had too much sodium. 

At first, I suspected the group was cheating, by picking "column B" foods that did not really represent the broader "column A" food category, but I was mistaken.  I suspected the group of picking unusually unhealthy foods that failed the standards, just to make the standards look unreasonable.  However, after questioning a representative of the sensible food policy coalition by telephone today, and working through the details for the cereal example, I had to retreat a bit.  For example, unsweetened cheerios and corn flakes really do fail the proposed voluntary standards for sodium in the long run, even though one could argue that it is possible to have a bowl of cheerios every day and still meet the Dietary Guidelines recommendation for sodium (the cheerios provide 190 mg of sodium per serving, relative to the daily recommendation of 1,500 mg).  In the short run, the proposed rules would be more permissive, allowing cheerios for a few years.  The long-run voluntary standards use a fairly strict criteria that the marketed foods should qualify as "low sodium," which excludes cheerios.

For myself, I would have been happy if the proposed voluntary standards had allowed cheerios and ruled out highly sweetened cereal.  Perhaps the federal interagency working group was pushing the envelope on the details of the nutrition standards?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Rudd Spark offers resources for parents who care about school food

The Rudd Center at Yale offers a new website called SPARK -- Supporting Parent Advocates with Resources and Knowledge.
Whether you are a seasoned advocate or just getting started, SPARK provides parents with suggestions for building community, garnering support of key stakeholders, gathering information, and proposing policy changes to make school food healthy.
A highlight is the helpful Questions and Answers page, which could be a great help for newcomers to these sometimes-arcane programs.

StrongWomen national tour

Miriam Nelson is the author of the StrongWomen series of books and a related program of nutrition education and physical activity.  She is a faculty colleague here at the Friedman School.  She also was a member of the most recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.  She writes this week about her new national tour of StrongWomen programs across the country:
Beginning this month, I will start a journey across America working to actively change the physical activity and food environment across the country.  America is at a crossroads.With over 67% of Americans either overweight or obese, the nation is facing a problem of epidemic proportions.  Beginning in Kenai, Alaska and traveling east to Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania, the StrongWomen Across America tour will focus on eight small communities with active StrongWomen programs.  Each community has developed what I call a Change Club – a group of 15 to 20 motivated women who will work to change the physical activity and food environments in their own communities.  It is my hope that this work will not only impact those individual communities, but will create a ripple effect that will reach communities across the nation.
Mim's newest book, with Jennifer Ackerman, is the Social Network Diet.

USDA tackles 6 additional strains of E. coli

Since the 1990s, it has been illegal to sell raw ground beef contaminated with one particular strain of bacteria, called E. coli O157:H7.  Almost any other type of pathogen is allowed for sale in raw beef, unless it actually causes an outbreak of illness. 

The food industry has long argued that banning more pathogens would represent overreaching government regulation, because many pathogens (such as salmonella and other varieties of E. coli) are found on a significant percentage of beef sold, it would be expensive to get rid of all the pathogens, and the beef will be sufficiently safe if consumers handle it and cook it well.

Today, the New York Times reports that USDA for the first time will ban six more strains of E. coli.  Raw beef with these pathogens would be considered adulterated, and unfit for sale.  William Neuman quotes USDA officials explaining the change:
“This is one of the biggest steps forward in the protection of the beef supply in some time,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, the head of food safety for the Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat. “We’re doing this to prevent illness and to save lives.”  
Neuman also quotes representatives from the American Meat Institute saying that it would be better to continue to keep these strains of E. coli legal for raw beef:
The American Meat Institute, an industry group, was highly critical of the new policy. “Imposing this new regulatory program on ground beef will cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars — costs that likely will be borne by taxpayers and consumers,” the group said in a statement. “It is neither likely to yield a significant public health benefit nor is it good public policy.” 
Under the new policy, if the six additional strains of E. coli are found on beef, the product need not be destroyed.  Instead, the beef may legally be redirected for use in cooked beef products.  The meat industry would in this case bear the cost of ensuring that meat containing these strains of E. coli is correctly channeled to the cooked meat manufacturing process.

Congress is also looking at this issue. Helena Bottemiller at Food Safety News reports on legislation proposed in Congress that would broaden the definition of adulterated meat and egg products.

Friday, September 02, 2011

"As goes profit, so goes the plow."

The New York Times today explains the agricultural economics of the distinctive Gravenstein apple in Sonoma County, where the more dominant wine industry competes with orchards for scarce land.

UC Davis economist Dan Sumner -- a great source of mentoring to me during my recent year of study in California -- has the funniest line of the article.
“You can say the culprit is wine grape growers, but I would say the culprit is wine drinkers,” Mr. Sumner said. “If my wino friends were to decide en masse that Sonoma County wine wasn’t as good as they thought it was, and the snobs went in the other direction, the Gravenstein would come back.”

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chipotle advertisement

Willie Nelson covers an eloquent Coldplay song in this new advertisement from Chipotle. 

The animation makes us hunger for a simpler time when farms were small and animals were free to go wherever they chose, without fences, before there were assembly lines and food was transported in tractor trailers on highways.

What year was that exactly?  I'm not quite sure.  But whenever it was, I want the time machine to that year.

Yet, I can see for myself that Chipotle makes its burritos on an assembly line right in front of the customer. Chipotle's "Food with Integrity" position on animal production is quite good, but surely the meat comes from very large farms with thousands of animals.  I know Chipotle food reaches the restaurant in tractor trailers on highways.  Perhaps the imagery overreaches what a fast-food restaurant can be expected to achieve.

The song makes me want to go to my town's farmers market, which is open on Wednesdays.  I will still eat at Chipotle, sometimes, but I know what I'm buying.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Are food price increases always bad?

From my interview this week by Gail Bambrick in TuftsNow.
Does it seem like you need a second mortgage to fill your cart at the grocery store these days? Are these price spikes that hit us at the checkout line for real, or not as bad as they seem? A lot depends on which prices you consider.

Take the old standby of meat and potatoes. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over the past two years a pound of ground beef went from an average of $2.23 per pound to $2.77, an increase of almost 25 percent. By contrast, potato prices rose over the past two years from $.63 to $.69 per pound, an increase of only 8 percent.

According to Parke Wilde, an associate professor and food economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, U.S. food prices are more complicated than they appear at first glance....

Are those increases going to harm the economy?
This is the hardest thing for economists to express to people, because it sounds on the face of it totally loony: not all food price increases are bad. You have to ask yourself, is the food price increase a mistake or does it reflect a genuine scarcity? If things are really scarce, economists think prices ought to be high, because that sends the right message to everybody. It indicates to consumers that they should moderate their consumption, and it indicates to producers to innovate and produce more efficiently. These are all good things that can happen. Moderating consumption should not mean people going hungry, but perhaps going a little easier on the meat consumption, because that uses more resources than raising fruits and vegetables and grains.
A price change has two effects. It changes how well-off we are. And it changes the market's assessment of relative scarcity.

First, in thinking about how well-off we are, consider producers that you care about as well as consumers. Higher prices make producers better off and consumers worse off. They help some people and hurt others. Now, for a moment, set aside this issue of being richer or poorer.

Second, in thinking about relative scarcity, ask yourself if you think food really is becoming more scarce. Don't panic about it, just acknowledge that there are strong environmental reasons for thinking of food as scarce. In this setting, are you sure you would want food prices in the marketplace to stay forever low?

Here is the full interview.

Photo: Emily Zilm.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Summertime Food Smarts

The American Dietetic Association (ADA) and ConAgra Foods are jointly sponsoring an initiative to get bloggers to write about food safety.  In return, the bloggers are entered to win an iPad in a raffle.

To be eligible, the blog entries must be at least 400 words, and they must link back to the ADA / ConAgra sponsored website  This website offers advice on how consumers can protect themselves from foodborne illness by washing hands, heating cooked foods to the right temperature, chilling foods properly, and throwing food out at the appropriate time.

The ADA / ConAgra sponsored website makes no suggestion whatsoever that food manufacturers should take care to ensure that their food is safe.  There is no mention of past food safety problems for ConAgra.  I could find no advice for consumers on what foods or food sources have the highest rate of contamination with pathogens.  There is a ticker applet in the right sidebar of the website, listing recent food recalls from USDA.  Yet, for this website, the burden of ensuring food safety rests with the consumer's kitchen practices alone.

Participating blogs adhered to this same uncritical convention, as far as I can see.  You can find all the participating blogs by googling "summertime food smarts" and "iPad" together.  The blogs were required to disclose their participation in the raffle.  If any reader can find any mention in any participating blog post that manufacturers share any responsibility for food safety, please report your findings in the comments.

In 2002, ConAgra recalled 19 million pounds of beef trim and fresh and frozen beef products (.pdf) in connection with an E. coli outbreak that involved 28 illnesses and 1 death.  This was one of the top 6 worst such recalls ever.  I believe ConAgra subsequently spun off its beef operations.

Although this post would have been eligible, U.S. Food Policy did not enter the ADA / ConAgra raffle as compensation for writing on this topic.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Cargill recalls 36 million pounds of ground turkey

Cargill is recalling 36 million pounds of ground turkey, following an outbreak of Salmonella that is resistant to multiple antibiotics.  The Cargill website says the source is not yet confirmed, but may be a single plant near Springdale, Arkansas.  Tom Philpott writes, "I have trouble visualizing 36 million pounds of dodgy ground turkey."  Me, too. 

On such occasions, I pull out Google Maps to get a sense of what a production facility on this scale looks like. From the search function, I think this may be it thought this might have been it [but see Update 2].

Update: For more detail on diseases that are resistant to antibiotics (including Salmonella), and their possible connection to animal production methods, see the scientific literature review that was briefly posted to the USDA website and then removed.  I learned of this from the Center for a Livable Future.

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Update 2: My uncle writes from North Carolina to say these images look like a feed plant that supplies the farms. He suggests the following address as a more likely processing plant. I am not sure whether to look on the north or south side of the road, and hope a reader can clarify.

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The cost of nutrients

Pablo Monsivais, Anju Aggarwal, and Adam Drewnowski have a fascinating new study out today in the journal Health Affairs.  Using data from surveys in Seattle, it found that diets were more expensive for people who consumed higher amounts of certain nutrients, such as potassium, and lower amounts of other food components, such as saturated fat.
Our findings highlight a stark economic dimension to observed imbalances in diet. Based on the diets reported by a representative sample of King County, Washington, residents, our analyses indicate that people attempting to bring their diet closer to recommended consumption levels for the nutrients we studied would probably have to pay higher food costs.
The nutrients themselves are not expensive.  In a 2009 study of diet models using the framework of USDA's Thrifty Food Plan, Joseph Llobrera and I explored different types of economic and nutritional constraints that one could try to meet. While choosing diets that are as similar as possible to current consumption patterns, it is fairly inexpensive to meet just nutrient constraints (like getting enough calcium and sufficiently low saturated fat).  It is a bit more expensive to meet Pyramid food group constraints (like getting enough fruit).  And it is more expensive still to meet idiosyncratic food-specific constraints (like getting enough of particular red meats).

The Health Affairs article is getting nationwide coverage today from the Associated Press, under the headline: "Healthy Eating is Privilege of the Rich, Study Finds." I am quoted for opposition to the main thesis.  Journalists do this in part because of the intrinsic value of multiple points of view, and also for narrative tension, quoting one scholar against another.  It is more fruitful to see this as an ongoing conversation in a community of researchers, trying to identify the economic and non-economic sources of unhealthy eating patterns, and reading each other's work with great interest and appreciation.

Addendum: Still mulling over this discussion, a good way to think quantitatively about these questions is to fiddle with our Thrifty Food Plan Calculator, on the Friedman School website.  For example, the tab titled "good sources of..." has a list of the food groups that provide the most potassium per dollar, the most fiber per dollar, and the least saturated fat per dollar.  These are the nutrients that featured most prominently in the Health Affairs article.  Enjoy exploring.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Ration: food and health reporting from UC Berkeley

The Ration, a new video-centered online magazine from the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, has a terrific early set of features.  I really enjoyed the thought-provoking brief documentary about an earlier generation of food idealists and their communal farm in Tennessee.

The Farm from News21 Berkeley 2011 on Vimeo.

Feeding 9 billion

H. Charles J. Godfray and colleagues in the UK contributed a fine summary of the global food challenge to a special issue of Science last year. It strikes the right tone of concern falling short of panic.  It does well in selecting the most important literature to summarize.  It avoids partisanship in the well-drawn battle-lines over productivity-oriented solutions such as GMOs and conservation-oriented solutions such as low-meat diets.  The authors are happy to explain both approaches in a sensible way.  And yet the recommendations are substantial, not wishy-washy.  Here is the abstract.
Continuing population and consumption growth will mean that the global demand for food will increase for at least another 40 years. Growing competition for land, water, and energy, in addition to the overexploitation of fisheries, will affect our ability to produce food, as will the urgent requirement to reduce the impact of the food system on the environment. The effects of climate change are a further threat. But the world can produce more food and can ensure that it is used more efficiently and equitably. A multifaceted and linked global strategy is needed to ensure sustainable and equitable food security, different components of which are explored here.

Monday, July 25, 2011

AAEA Food Safety and Nutrition Section conference sessions

Here is the "track" of sessions offered by the Food Safety and Nutrition Section of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, at AAEA's annual meeting in Pittsburgh this week.  Today, I will participate in a session on food assistance programs, and a session to honor the economist Jean Kinsey.

Solving the Healthy Eating Puzzle
          Mon. July 25, 10:15-11:45 AM, Conv. Ctr. Rm. 316
Recent and Upcoming Innovations in Food Assistance Programs
Mon., July 25, 1:30-3:00 PM, Conv. Ctr. Rm. 310
Standing On the Shoulders of a Giant: The Broad Reach of Professor Jean Kinsey
Mon., July 25, 4:30-6:00 PM, Conv. Ctr. Rm. 407
Food Consumption Challenges in the 21st Century: Trust, Technology, Food Safety and the Demand for Food
Tue., July 26, 8:00-9:30 AM, Conv. Ctr. Rm. 315
Moving Toward Risk-Based Food Safety Systems: US, Canada, and WHO Experience
Tue., July 26, 10:30-noon, Conv. Ctr. Rm. 407
Front of Package Nutrition Labels-EU and USA Industry and Consumer Response
Tue., July 26, 1:30-3:00, Conv. Ctr. Rm. 315
Food Safety Issues in China and its Impact on US Markets Through Trade
Tue, July 26, 4:45-6:15, Conv. Ctr. Rm. 406

Food deserts in Pittsburgh

The Hill District of Pittsburgh has long struggled to attract a supermarket.  It is a true food desert, very poor, heavily burdened by empty lots and abandoned buildings, geographically isolated by steep hillsides from surrounding more prosperous Pittsburgh neighborhoods, and lacking in good secondary retail that might compensate for the lack of a supermarket.

Pittsburgh, July 2011 (Wilde)
Finally, after years of effort, a new major food supermarket is under construction.  I took this photo while on a long walk this week through the Hill District to visit the site of Rand's ongoing PHRESH study, one of the country's most ambitious research efforts to measure the effect of changes in local food retail on the ground in two low-income urban neighborhoods.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described this study last year.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

First Lady Michelle Obama announces new food desert initiative

Continuing this week's coverage of food deserts, the First Lady, several leading retail chains, and the Partnership for a Healthier America today announced a new initiative to increase food access in low-income areas.

Obama Foodorama reports:
At the White House this afternoon, First Lady Michelle Obama will be joined by corporate chiefs from Walmart, Walgreens and SuperValu, and smaller regional market chains as she announces a new initiative to support the Let's Move! campaign, an East Wing official tells Obama Foodorama. The corporate giants have agreed to open or expand 1,500 stores in underserved communities--identified as food deserts--to make affordable, healthier food options more accessible to more than 9.5 million customers. The First Lady will speak about not only the health benefits of combating food deserts, but the jobs that these new projects will create in their communities. Leaders from foundations and small businesses will also join Mrs. Obama in the East Room for the 2:00 PM announcement.

Mrs. Obama in 2010 announced a Let's Move! goal of completely eliminating food deserts in the US over the next seven years, and the new initiative is designed to meet that goal, and comes as the US unemployment rate hovers at 9.2%. USDA defines a food desert as a Census tract where 33% or 500 people, whichever is less, live more than a mile from a grocery store in an urban area, or more than ten miles away in a rural area.

Partnership for a Healthier America, the foundation set up to monitor and continue Mrs. Obama's work, arranged the corporate partnerships for the campaign, an East Wing official says. They will select locations for where the stores are built. There is no federal financial commitment to the partner corporations, although in 2010 Mrs. Obama established the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a $400 million fund to combat food deserts, financed by Treasury, USDA, and HHS. It was not funded in the President's 2011 budget.
As somewhat of a counterpoint, the Obama Foodorama blog also points out the same study that our U.S. Food Policy commenters noticed.
The First Lady's announcement comes on the heels of a major study on food deserts and food access published on July 11 in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The study tracked the food purchasing habits of thousands of people in Birmingham, Ala., Chicago, Minneapolis and Oakland for fifteen years, and found that "greater supermarket availability was generally unrelated to diet quality and fruit and vegetable intake, and relationships between grocery store availability and diet outcomes were mixed."

Monday, July 18, 2011

Diagnosing supermarket deserts

USDA's new Food Desert Locator offers a lot to think about.  At least in U.S. cities, I think the reaction of many viewers will be surprise that food deserts appear so few and far between.  Most poor neighborhoods in most cities do not appear to be food deserts.

For example, here is my home town of Washington, DC.  Even Ward 8, across the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington (in the bottom middle of the map, near the southern point of the DC diamond, north of the Maryland border), has only one fairly small census tract colored in pink.  Ward 8 was highlighted as a problem area in a report from D.C. Hunger Solutions on the "Grocery Gap."

Faced with surprising data, two good responses are: (a) to read the data definitions carefully, and (b) to see for yourself.

(a) The data definition for a "food desert" in USDA's mapping utility is "a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store," meaning more than a mile to such a store.

(b) The part about "seeing for yourself" is more fun.  On a business trip to USDA this week (disclosure: some of my funding for research on food economics comes from USDA), I checked out a bike from the super-terrific new Capital Bikeshare program in Washington, and took it on a tour of food retail store fronts.  I was impressed that the Capital Bikeshare kiosks are located all over town, including low-income neighborhoods as well as tourist destinations.

This corner store does not count as a "supermarket or large grocery store" under the USDA definition, and yet I always give these non-chain retailers some thought when I do this type of food retail tour.  I would have mixed feelings if new supermarkets, supported by tax incentives, put out of business these retailers that stuck with a low-income neighborhood even in the toughest years.  Coincidentally, when I passed by on my shiny red rental bike, this corner store had a lovely bright poster advertisement for ... Capital Bikeshare.

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Although I did not visit them on this trip, here are the three larger food retailers in this part of Washington, and the reason why most of Ward 8 did not show up as a food desert on the USDA mapping utility.

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There is no conclusion to this post.  Just material for longer contemplation, while following the current policy debate about food deserts.

Reactions to beef checkoff upheaval

The U.S. agricultural industry continues to react to the recent upheaval in the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB), the federal government's checkoff program for research and advertising to promote beef.

Larry Dreiling writes in the High Plains / Midwest Ag Journal:
Even though Cattlemen's Beef Board Chairman Tom Jones and CEO Tom Ramey have resigned in the aftermath of an eavesdropping scandal, there's still plenty of concern from several state livestock groups that the scandal has eroded the very purpose of the CBB.
The National Farmers Union suggested a complete separation of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the Beef Checkoff Program:
It is impossible to build a firewall strong enough when you have one organization that picks the members of the committees that make all of the funding decisions for the checkoff and are also involved in program evaluations. The ongoing firewall breaches are no longer allegations, but have been proven in a compliance audit review that has uncovered multiple financial irregularities and misappropriations of checkoff funds.
The U.S. Cattlemen's Association -- a competing trade association without the NCBA's heavy reliance on federal checkoff money -- published an editorial on Friday:
On July 1 the United States Cattlemen's Association (USCA) formally requested that the Secretary of Agriculture initiate a full investigation into circumstances surrounding the expanding contractor financial irregularities within the national mandatory beef checkoff as well as those circumstances surrounding the resignation of the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB) CEO. Since then, unfortunately, circumstances have grown even more serious with the resignation of the CBB Chairman, Tom Jones. It is unprecedented in beef checkoff history for the CBB chairman and chief executive officer to have been driven out of office. As USCA president, I want cattle producers to understand what USCA has discovered and what is behind USCA's decision to ask for the Secretary's intervention. Please become engaged in this very important process because what happens in the next few weeks will directly impact the future of the beef checkoff.
I spoke today (.mp3) with Don Atkinson, the farm news editor for the Voice of Southwest Agriculture (VSA), which is part of the Clear Channel radio networks, providing farm news coverage through affiliates in Oklahoma, Texas, and several other states. I have no idea what beef producers will want do next, but it does seem like the program needs to be changed. Cattlemen might want to convert the program to a private-sector program with voluntary contributions, or they might want to accept greater oversight and greater separation between the federal program and the NCBA.  Either option seems more reasonable than the status quo.