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.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Boston Tree Party

The Boston Tree Party is a new, fun, lively local movement for fruit tree planting in the Boston area, originally an art project by recent Tufts graduate student Lisa Gross.  Learn more from TuftsNow, Lisa's Tedx Boston talk, and the Boston Tree Party website.


Coup d'etat in the beef industry: Tom Jones resigns as chairman of Cattlemen's Beef Board

Tom Jones resigned this week as chairman of the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB). This follows the resignation of Tom Ramey as CEO two weeks ago.

The CBB oversees the beef checkoff program, which uses the federal government's power of taxation to collect $70 to $80 million in mandatory assessments or taxes each year from beef producers, for use in research and promotion activities such as the advertisements with the slogan, "Beef. It's What's for Dinner."

The real power behind the throne has long been the industry's private-sector trade association, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), which serves as the principal contractor to the CBB, receiving most of the checkoff money, and which simultaneously controls most decision-making for the program.  The CBB had tried to re-organize the checkoff program to provide more accountability, but the NCBA opposed these changes.

The industry trade press has mostly been absent from duty.  The Rod Smith article for Feedstuffs about the Ramey resignation ignores the multi-million dollar questions about financial management, but spends whole paragraphs on an accusation that Ramey listened in on a conference call to which he was not invited.  That seems to me like a trivial matter.  Smith's brief today editorializes that Jones "was also caught up in the apparently now-failed maneuvers by the board's executive committee to restructure how beef checkoff programs are approved and funded by trying to pull the Federation of State Beef Councils out of the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA)."  I imagine most beef producers must be appalled at the anti-reform spin and will seek their information elsewhere.  Won't somebody in the trade press give this story the real investigation it deserves?  Or will it all be swept under the rug?

In his resignation letter today, Jones cites family concerns and also writes:
I am so sorry to the members of this Board who truly want what’s best for every producer.  Keep doing the right thing.  Doing what’s right is all that matters.  Some board members put their allegiance to their chosen association before their oath of obligation to serve all producers who pay the checkoff.  This is a dangerous position to take.  The checkoff program could benefit from positive change and it is difficult to work for that when your allegiance causes you to wear blinders to the change that is needed.  It will also be impossible to defend those attitudes if or when this program is challenged.

I have never in my life seen as much public defamation and misrepresentation as I’ve seen lately.  I know many of you as friends.  This kind of behavior is beneath us as people of agriculture.  When I see that kind of action, I look for the real purpose behind it.  More often than not, that purpose is fear – fear of change, fear of the future.  Fear may cause someone to want to hide the true issues, which are often based on the desire for money and power.  My resignation from this Board certainly won’t solve all of the issues before the Board.  You still have a lot of work to do and empty calls for “getting along” won’t get you anywhere.
The Agwired coverage mentions Jones' family reasons for resigning, but did not include these two sharp paragraphs. There is extensive coverage of recent events on the independent beefcheckoff blog.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland

Barry Estabrook's new book Tomatoland is getting great coverage.  The NYT review is by Dwight Garner, who grew up not far from the heart of the Florida tomato industry.  Here also is an NPR interview on Fresh Air.

From the publisher's site:
Estabrook traces the supermarket tomato from its birthplace in the deserts of Peru to the impoverished town of Immokalee, Florida, a.k.a. the tomato capital of the United States. He visits the laboratories of seedsmen trying to develop varieties that can withstand the rigors of agribusiness and still taste like a garden tomato, and then moves on to commercial growers who operate on tens of thousands of acres, and eventually to a hillside field in Pennsylvania, where he meets an obsessed farmer who produces delectable tomatoes for the nation’s top restaurants.
I described my visit to Immokalee in this blog in 2009.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Where is the dairy checkoff report to Congress?

This is not the first time we have run this headline.

Every July, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service is supposed to submit a report to Congress detailing the activities of the fluid milk and dairy checkoff programs.  These programs are responsible for the cheese promotions described in the Michael Moss NYT article last year.  The most recent report on the AMS website is the July 2009 report, which described the programs' 2008 activities.  The July 2010 report has not yet been posted as of July 2011.  My gentle email requests to AMS go unanswered.  Even though the good folks are busy, perhaps they will forgive a more public nudge.

A particular place

Here is a view of a particular place in the middle of the vast Great Plains.

Although I have never been there, I frequently think of this place around Independence Day, when churches sing the lovely Katharine Lee Bates hymn that some people say should be our National Anthem.  The later verses persuasively combine progressive principles, a theologically sound measure of humbleness, and patriotism.  But, it is the first verse that reminds me of this particular place.  For some reason, I feel nearly weepy when the hymn reaches the images of mountain, fruited plain, and amber waves of grain.  I will be embarrassed if this is something that happens only to agricultural economists.  Perhaps this song affects other folks also.

Right in the middle of the image, if you zoom in, is the place my father was raised.  A preacher's kid, he and his brother grew up in the parsonage of Canaan Moravian Church, in the little green rectangle.  The graveyard served as their playground.  If I am reading the image correctly, the gravestones are all laid flat in the Moravian egalitarian tradition.  The brothers attended a one-room school not far away.

Many rural communities like this are struggling.  The farms that remain have grown large in size and few in number.  My dad says that, in his childhood, many farmers had one section (640 acres).  Some farms back then had a half section.  A typical farm now might be 3,000 acres.  The production is good, but the changes are hard on community life.

After looking at this particular place, hit the "zoom out" button a few times.  There are so many places like this particular place.  This is an amazing country.

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Beef checkoff CEO Tom Ramey resigns

The Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB) chief executive officer (CEO) Tom Ramey resigned this week, throwing the checkoff program into turmoil.

The independent beefcheckoff blog pointed out that, during Ramey's time as CEO, the beef board investigated billing errors and financial misappropriation by the industry's powerful trade association, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA):
On March 24 of this year, NCBA leadership filed charges of misconduct with the CBB Executive Committee against CBB leadership. The sequence of events speaks for itself. Who wins with this resignation? NOT checkoff-paying cattle producers.
Congress should hold hearings to investigate the beef checkoff program, DTN ag policy editor Chris Clayton suggested this week.  The beef checkoff is the semi-governmental program that collects a mandatory assessment or tax from beef producers and sponsors advertisements such as "Beef.  It's What's for Dinner."

Clayton describes the intensifying arguments between the CBB (which is appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to oversee the checkoff funds) and the NCBA (which eventually receives about 90% of the checkoff program's $70-$80 million annual funding stream by serving as a contractor to carry out the program's operations).
Recent documents from the Cattlemen's Beef Board and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association reveal a wide-ranging rift over possible reforms and changes to the checkoff. Columnist Alan Guebert highlighted those problems last month, and posted related documents on his website.
Over the years, U.S. Food Policy has given extensive coverage to the strange world of federal government checkoff programs. For more information, see the long archives under the checkoff tag and, for a discussion of the tensions with federal dietary guidance, a 2006 article in the journal Obesity.