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 140ยบ 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.