Sunday, September 30, 2012

Growing pains for an open-air food market

Porta Palazzo: The Anthropology of an Italian Market is Boston University anthropologist Rachel Black's study of cultural changes in a large open-air market in Turin.

Black described her work at a dinner event hosted last night by Kitchn Table, a Boston-based event/class series organized by Wheeler del Toro (author of an ice cream cookbook, The Vegan Scoop).  

What happens if there is no Farm Bill?

Many farm programs and policies have never been permanently authorized, so, if there is no Farm Bill, policy reverts to a messy jumble of past authorities from more than 60 years ago.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has clear and detailed answers to 15 questions about Congress' failure this year to pass a Farm Bill.  Here is an example.
What happens if we ... revert to the 1949 Farm Bill?

If a new farm bill is not enacted or the current farm bill is not extended for a period of time, the farm bill commodity programs revert to permanent law contained in the 1938 and 1949 farm bills. Each successive farm bill since that time has suspended permanent law for the period of time provided for the newly enacted farm bill. But the permanent law provision is scheduled to pop back up and become the law of the land again if Congress does not enact a new bill or extend current law.

This peculiar feature normally induces Congress to get its work done on each new farm bill in a timely fashion. Without a 2008 Farm Bill extension or a new farm bill, dairy policy reverts to permanent law on January 1, and grain and other commodities do so once the new 2013 crop is ready for planting.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

After WIC package revisions, mixed changes in breastfeeding outcomes

A Tufts press release last week describes recent research by Ann Collins, Meena Fernandes and Anne Wolf at Abt Associates, and myself, which was published in the September 2012 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) (may be gated)
In 2009, the federal government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) changed the make-up of its food packages to meet several nutritional goals, including stronger promotion of breastfeeding. For new mothers participating in WIC, there were mixed outcomes after implementation of the policy change, according to an analysis from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science Policy at Tufts University and the global research and program implementation firm Abt Associates.

WIC provides three main food packages for mothers and infants: a full breastfeeding option with no infant formula but more supplemental food for the mother, a partial breastfeeding option with some formula, and a full formula option with less supplemental food for the mother. Among other changes, the new 2009 policy, called an “interim rule,” lowered the amount of infant formula in the partial breastfeeding option.

By studying administrative records of more than 206,000 mother-infant pairs from 17 local WIC agencies (LWAs) nationwide, the researchers found that more mothers received the full breastfeeding option after the 2009 package change but more mothers also received the full formula option. Fewer mothers received the partial breastfeeding option.

In the first four weeks following birth, the percentage receiving the full breastfeeding option increased from 9.8% to 17.1% and the percentage receiving the full formula option increased from 20.5% to 28.5%. The percentage receiving the partial breastfeeding option fell from 24.7% to 13.8%. The remaining mothers fell into other miscellaneous classifications.

After the implementation of the interim rule, there was a small increase in the amount of infant formula provided in the first month of life (548.6 fluid ounces to 559.6 fluid ounces per mother). The percentage of mothers who “initiated”, or reported trying to breastfeed the infant at least once, remained unchanged at approximately 65%.

“There had been some hope that breastfeeding initiation would increase after the policy change,” said Parke E. Wilde, Ph.D., corresponding author and an associate professor at the Friedman School. “While this did not happen, the good news is there was no decrease in the breastfeeding initiation, and more mothers did, at least, adopt the full breastfeeding package.”

The article in the AJCN also discusses opportunities for WIC to make further progress in breastfeeding promotion.

“We asked WIC participants about the point in time when they made their decisions about breastfeeding and what helped them when they made their choices about the decision to breastfeed,” said senior author Ann Collins, a principal associate at Abt Associates.  “More than three quarters of the women reported that they had decided before delivery how they wanted to feed their baby. What’s more, more than 84% of women reported that information on breastfeeding from WIC was ‘important’ or ‘very important.’ These findings suggest that special efforts by WIC agencies to reach out to WIC participants during pregnancy with information on breastfeeding could be very beneficial.”

The analysis does not account for all factors that changed during the same time period, for example the volatility of the 2009 economy. The study compared outcomes in the three months before the policy change and the nine months afterward.

The study also is a "recent featured journal article" on the Abt Associates front page.  The analysis was conducted with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service.  [Minor edit Sep 27:] The views and opinions expressed by the authors of the journal article do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There is a lot happening on the topic of further improving WIC's impact on breastfeeding.  Here are some links.  A longer report (.pdf) from this same research effort is available on the USDA FNS website.  An excellent literature review (.pdf) by Silvie Colman and coauthors helps put the new study in the context of a larger body of research.  In another report, Nancy Cole and colleagues explain the various detailed options selected by different states (.pdf), which is important for understanding how the changes actually were implemented.  A workshop summary (.pdf) posted on the FNS site describes a wide variety of ambitious options for future research.

Figure 1.  Food packages issued to new mothers, by age of infant.
(click for larger image)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Lawsuit challenges pork board purchase of "Other White Meat" slogan

A lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia charges that the $60 million sale of the pork industry's "Other White Meat" slogan illegally diverts money to the lobbying efforts of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

One of the plaintiffs is Harvey Dillenburg, a pork producer in Adair County, Iowa.  Mr. Dillenburg is not a member of the NPPC.  He is required by law to pay a portion of every sale to the National Pork Board, which is supposed to use the money for promotions and advertising.  The National Pork Board is not allowed to lobby.  In 2006, the National Pork Board agreed to pay the NPPC $60 million in return for the property rights to the "Other White Meat" brand.  The resulting payments of $3 million per year for 20 years help fund the NPPC's powerful lobbying machine.

Think about how this arrangement looks from the point of view of Mr. Dillenburg.  Although he does not choose to support the NPPC, the federal government forces him along with all other pork producers to pay the National Pork Board, which in turn pays the NPPC.

The other plaintiff is the Humane Society of the United States, a leading animal welfare organization.  As the Congressional Research Service (.pdf) explains, the HSUS recently brokered a successful agreement with egg producers, reaching a judicious compromise about what type of cages seem ethically acceptable for hens.  Although the leading trade association for egg producers is now working with HSUS to get this balanced policy approved by Congress, the agreement faces implacable opposition from the NPPC.  The egg agreement causes no harm to pork producers, but the NPPC is worried that the precedent of a successful egg agreement will generate unrealistic hopes for similar good-faith negotiations about gestation crates for pork.  It is not surprising that HSUS has been looking into how the federal government's pork board -- which is not supposed to support lobbying -- helps fund the NPPC's efforts to spoil the egg agreement.

This blog, U.S. Food Policy, began covering the tale of the "Other White Meat" sale in a June 2006 blog post, which called for greater transparency about the terms of the sale.  When nobody would give me the documents voluntarily, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.  USDA initially turned down my request, arguing that the information was "pre-decisional and deliberative".  When I appealed, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service in December 2006 released partly-blacked out versions of the key documents.

Although AMS hid critical details, enough information was revealed in 2006 to suggest that this was a poor use of pork producers' money.  For example, I pointed out accounting flaws in the supposedly independent appraisal upon which the $60 million sale price was based.  In the HSUS and Dillenburg lawsuit today, I learned for the first time that Mark Williams, who is largely responsible for pulling together the supposedly independent price appraisals, actually has been responsible for developing the "Other White Meat" branding since its inception. 

The HSUS explains further:
Through months of research, The HSUS uncovered glaring legal violations, conflicts of interest, and an exorbitantly over-inflated $60 million price tag associated with the deal. Much of the extraordinarily inflated value of the slogan resulted from 20 years of promotional campaigns funded entirely with pork producers’ own checkoff funds: roughly half a billion dollars. In essence, NPPC charged pork producers twice: once to make The Other White Meat successful, and again to pay for the value of that success.

Now, the case against this sale has only gotten stronger.  The National Pork Board has largely retired the "Other White Meat" slogan, in favor of the new "Be Inspired" slogan, and yet the pork board continues to pay the NPPC $3 million each year for the nearly worthless old slogan.  The NPB has an escape clause allowing it to cancel the payments, but it chooses not to exercise this clause.

The HSUS and Dillenburg lawsuit (.pdf) is well written, with astonishing details beyond what can be described in this space.  It was covered today in Feedstuffs and other trade publications.  I encourage everybody interested in U.S. Food Policy to read it in full.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hill District supermarket is delayed by multiple challenges

The supermarket that is planned for the Hill District neighborhood in Pittsburgh has been delayed by serious challenges. The project requires several million dollars in public and non-profit financing, in addition to the usual private sector financing, but not all of the expected money has been confirmed. The opening had been expected in November 2011 but is now scheduled for spring 2013.  Neighborhood residents are angry and frustrated.

This blog reported in July 2011 on early plans for the supermarket.  I viewed the cleared building site and took a long walk through the Hill District while visiting Pittsburgh for the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association annual meeting that summer.  I was interested in this particular supermarket because it will be the subject of economic analysis in Rand's Phresh study, comparing food and health outcomes before and after the introduction of the supermarket.

The Hill District is famous for its jazz history and as the setting for the plays of the great American playwright August Wilson.  There is some question about whether the Hill District meets official definitions of a food desert, because some parts of the neighborhood do have other supermarkets less than a mile away, but these official definitions cannot easily adjust for the steep hills that give the neighborhood its name.  Some federal financing sources seek to target neighborhoods that meet a technical definition.  Any visitor on foot would immediately recognize the Hill District as an exceptionally impoverished neighborhood, which seems like a food desert in laypersons' terms.

Even as recently as September 30, 2011, a report (.pdf) from the Reinvestment Fund, a neighborhood financing initiative, seemed to expect the store to open in November 2011.  However, the report did explain just some of the challenges facing the Hill House Economic Development Corporation (HHEDC), which played a central role in organizing the supermarket project.  About $6.8 million in financing was anticipated from multiple sources, which may have been difficult to coordinate.  The Reinvestment Fund wrote, "Despite a strong board and significant community support, a project of this scale was still a daunting task for HHEDC as a small [Community Development Corporation]."

These challenges have worsened.  Julie Matthews, who had led the Hill House development arm, was fired on February 9 this year, a day before she was scheduled to make a presentation about the project's financing.  In April, Matthews filed a whistleblower lawsuit, alleging that Hill House used restricted funds from the Reinvestment Fund and the Mellon Foundation in other unspecified ways. I have no information other than the news report about this allegation.  This week I noticed that the Reinvestment Fund's website has a whistleblower policy (.pdf), making clear that people involved in projects financed by the fund, who become aware of any misuse of funds, are obliged to report the misuse.

It seems likely that the project will go forward in 2013 despite these challenges.  Politicians and institutions in both local and national food financing initiatives would lose face if this high-profile project failed.  It is possible that resolving all the problems will require even more public and non-profit financing than initially expected.

Nobody should judge major national policies from one example, but this episode is likely to contain some cautionary lessons by the time it is over.  Though I fear some readers might think me an incorrigible economist for saying so, I think we should ask why supermarket chain managers could not make this project work using purely private financing, or even with just $1 or $2 million in public financing.  Supermarket chains are astute judges of local food retail conditions and market demand.  Just to take one example, they must recognize that not all Hill District residents will use the local market even after it arrives.  Despite the very high level of poverty, about a third of local resident households own an automobile, and even more have some access to shared automobile transport for grocery shopping.  One reason a supermarket may require a large public subsidy before choosing a particular location may be that they anticipate a tough competitive environment when they start operating. 

If the public bill reaches $6 or $8 million for a single supermarket, and even then the project is stressed by financial management challenges and delays, it raises hard questions about this supermarket-centered and high-budget approach to addressing food retail problems in low-income neighborhoods.

Pittsburgh, July 2011 (Wilde)