Thursday, May 23, 2013

On Point covers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) today

An episode today from the syndicated NPR radio show On Point, with Tom Ashbrook, is titled, "Food Stamps: Fighting Hunger or Draining Resources?"

The guests include AP reporter Mary Clare Jalonick, Boston Medical Center researcher and nationally known child health advocate Deborah Frank, and UC Davis agricultural economist Daniel Sumner

There are good reading suggestions on the On Point website.  The episode is at 10 am Eastern.

For further context, the Senate is considering moderate cuts to SNAP of about $4 billion over 10 years.  The House of Representatives is considering cuts perhaps five times as large.  Here from C-SPAN is Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) arguing unsuccessfully for an amendment to make deeper cuts in the Senate, which would make the two bills more similar.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Food Police by Jayson Lusk

For fifteen years, Oklahoma State University economist Jayson Lusk sought to study food regulation issues in a balanced way.  As he recounts:
I tried to approach the study of food regulation from an objective standpoint by comparing the costs and benefits of the policies in question -- seeing which actions and policies made the best use of our scarce resources given all our competing desires.  I labored under the assumption that this was the key issue in determining the merits of a regulation.  I was naive.
The Food Police (Crown Forum, 2013) is the new book Lusk wrote after he outgrew this foolish impartiality.

In the Food Police, every government initiative to address any environmental or social problem within the food system represents misguided overreach.  There may be an exception, but I couldn't find one.

In the Food Police, the conventional food system is fine as it is.
  • Food is highly affordable.  There is no need to spend much ink on commodity price spikes, the growing world population, or environmental constraints on food production.
  • Organic agriculture is foolish, conventional pesticides are safe, and farmers in recent years have replaced dangerous pesticides with safe ones.  (How the farmers found any dangerous pesticides to replace is a mystery to me).  
  • Americans live longer because of our "abundant, diverse, and nutritious food supply."  Moderate overweight is fine; it probably extends our lives.  The connection between obesity and diabetes is doubtful, and diabetes may be genetic, so don't worry about diabetes either.
  • It would be unhealthy to reduce salt consumption.
  • Crop yields increased from 1900 to 2010. There is no need to mention that yield growth has slowed in recent years or that agricultural economists are greatly distressed about declining public investment in agricultural research.
Very briefly, at sporadic intervals, Lusk vaguely refers to imperfections in the food system. On page 20, he says, "I'm not saying all food trends are heading in the right direction."  On p. 35, he says, "None of this is to say there aren't problems associated with our modern food system."  But, in each case, the reader never gets to hear any details about these problems.  Lusk quickly moves on to decrying how the Food Police exaggerate whatever problems there might be.

A long-standing principle of the U.S. Food Policy blog is that reasonable people ought to be able to agree on the toughest food policy controversies of the day.  When possible, we should avoid letting food policy debates get caught up in the broader divisions that have made American politics so dysfunctional in recent years: Democrat and Republican, heartland and coastal states, religious and secular, black and white.

At every turn, Lusk chooses instead to tie his food policy arguments to seemingly unrelated flame wars.  He writes, "The progressives' plan for slow, natural and organic food production has been tried.  It's called Africa."  The food police ignore personal liberties, even though these are "many of the same people who scream, 'It's a woman's body,' any time the subject of abortion comes up."  Lusk calls the food police "fascists."  Lusk accuses the San Francisco board of supervisors of astounding hypocrisy for regulating toys for kids in restaurant meals, because the same city values other liberties highly: "'In the City by the Bay, if you want to roller skate naked down Castro Street wearing a phallic -symbol hat and snorting an eight-ball off a transgender hooker's chest while underage kids run behind you handing out free heroin needles, condoms and coupons ... that's your right as a free citizen of the United States.'"

Jayson Lusk is a leading agricultural economist.  He co-edited a book from Oxford University Press, to which I contributed a chapter on food security in developed countries.  Yet, the new book reminded me of right-wing bloggers, such as Michelle Malkin.  I was going to bite my tongue and avoid mentioning this similarity, but then I noticed in footnote 3 of chapter 1 that the casually and irrelevantly homophobic San Francisco anecdote was a direct quote from the blogger Michelle Malkin herself.

The footnote provides reassurance that I may offer my frank summary of this book without giving offense.  Jayson Lusk's Food Police is like a Michelle Malkin blog post, but it's 190 pages long and about food policy.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Using the Visual Understanding Environment software from Tufts University to illustrate food industry input-output flows

This new visualization tool allows you to explore resource flows between industries.

For example, you can see how much meat and poultry flows into the restaurant food industry, and then how much restaurant food flows to the final consumer (all measured in billions of dollars per year). You can create your own diagram showing the industries and flows that you select, in any order you choose.

This project extends the capability of Tufts University’s Visual Understanding Environment (VUE).  I worked on this with Rebecca Nemec, Graham Jeffries, Mike Korcynski, and Jonelle Lonergan.  Our working paper (.pdf) gives instructions for using several practice data sets, or for downloading your own data from the federal government's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).  Accompanying data files and a processing program are available on my department's working paper series page.

The best way to understand the capabilities of this visualization tool is to watch this video, also available full-size on Vimeo.

Visualizing Input-Output Data Using VUE from Tufts University - Online on Vimeo.

House and Senate mark up farm bills

At long last, the House Committee on Agriculture and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry both marked up farm bills this week.  But there are many miles to go before this legislation ever reaches home.

The Associated Press has a summary of several key differences in the main provisions (with dollar amounts stated on a per year basis).

In a partisan division that we saw already last year, when this legislation was still over-optimistically known as the "2012 Farm Bill," the House committee proposes deeper cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) than the Senate committee does.  The House committee proposes to cut $2 billion per year, while the Senate committee proposes to cut $0.4 billion per year.  The Republican committee leaders in the House sought the deeper SNAP cuts in part so they could move slower on budget cuts to direct payments for cotton farmers (largely in the South), and in part so they could accommodate the strong anti-food-stamp sentiment among some Republican legislators on the floor.  Yet, these deep SNAP cuts may make it difficult to reach eventual agreement with the Democratic-led Senate, leading to possible continuation of the years-long impasse over U.S. food and farm policy.

For the Senate committee bill, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition summarizes provisions of interest to producers interested in sustainable production practices, especially at the local and regional level.  For the House committee bill, Politico reports on the political angles.  The Hagstrom Report (gated, but valuable) is working overtime this week, and the FarmPolicy blog links to many national and regional media sources.

Monday, May 06, 2013

A good question about food aid

Continuing to follow the food aid reform issue that we discussed in April and last year, it is worthwhile to consider the toughly worded question that Cornell professor Chris Barrett asks on this week:
How many of us read a story of disaster striking people half a world away and respond by getting out our checkbooks? Tens of millions of us in any given year, and Americans are especially generous. ... But is anyone foolish enough to go to the local grocery store, buy food and ship it to communities devastated by disaster? Of course not. That would cost much more, take too long to reach people in need, risk spoilage in transit, and likely not provide what is most needed.

Yet with only minor oversimplification, this is precisely what our government’s food aid programs have done since 1954.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Revitalizing Detroit with food and agriculture

Some amazing good things are happening in Detroit's food system.

Betti Wiggins, Director of Nutrition Services for Detroit Public Schools, is carrying out her vision for converting underutilized land to vegetable gardens.  Hear it in her own voice, from the Detroit Stories project.

The Detroit Eastern Market, operating continuously since the 1890s, offers a major regional event each Saturday and serves as a focal point for food business initiatives throughout the city.


See also the Detroit Food Policy Council, whose annual report (.pdf) provides greater detail about food system initiatives; the Colors Restaurant, an experiment in good food and worker justice; the Kitchen Connect project from Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice; the food system work of Detroit's youth movement; and the role of food initiatives in the broader Detroit Future City community planning initiative.

Any visitor to Detroit is struck by the depth of economic distress, visible in the physical environment and people one meets throughout the city.  The city population has declined by 25% in recent years.  Detroit is on the brink of bankruptcy (npr) and an emergency manager has been appointed (nytimes).

The remarkable entrepreneurs and innovators who are driving forward with new investments in food businesses and public initiatives are some of the most faithful, dauntless personalities I have ever met.