Wednesday, June 12, 2013

World Resources Institute: The Great Balancing Act

World Resources Institute has a new report series on food and environment issues.  The first installment is on balancing food needs, food production, and environmental constraints.  The second installment is on food waste.

The infographic below accompanies the first report.  Even more than this graphic, I liked the final Table 1 in that report, which contemplates a long list of proposed constructive responses and concisely summarizes how each proposed response might appear to people concerned more specifically with poverty reduction or gender justice, for example, in addition to the basic environmental concerns such as climate change and water pollution.  It is both substantially correct and politically astute to anticipate how proposed environmental measures will be received by people who care about diverse public interest goals.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Graeme Wood in the National Review on U.S. hunger

Graeme Wood writes in the National Review June 3 (gated, but inexpensive) about hunger in the United States.

Wood argues that the new documentary, A Place at the Table, overstates the extent of hunger.  Citing recent research by Hattori, An, and Sturm, Wood casts doubt on claims that food deserts are widespread or that they cause overweight.

Then, the later sections of the article draw on an interesting wide-ranging telephone conversation Wood and I had about the connections between hunger and poverty.  Wood quotes me saying food insecurity is not really just about food, but largely about poverty:
Wilde, the Tufts professor, says that we could theoretically just pay for the missing and potentially missing meals of the food-insecure, for a price of a few billion a year. But if you think, as he does, that the problem will persist as long as poverty does, then this solution won’t be enough.

“With the food-centered approach, the common theme is If only we had the heart,” Wilde says. “But hunger is a more daunting problem.” Whatever you think can be done to make people richer (tax cuts? tax increases?), that’s probably going to be your best guess about how to get rid of hunger. But given that we can’t agree on how to end poverty, we probably shouldn’t assume that the solution to hunger is any simpler.
In pursuing a poverty-centered approach to understanding hunger, I'm influenced by Mark Winne and Janet Poppendieck.  It could make some readers uneasy to see these ideas make their way to the National Review, where the predominantly conservative readership may receive these themes in a different key from their original transmission.  But, it doesn't bother me.  I am glad to see both conservatives and liberals thinking seriously about U.S. poverty.  And I talk to anybody.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Revolution Foods in school meals

At the Menus of Change conference in Boston this evening, I especially appreciated the presentation by Kirsten Saenz Tobey, the Chief Innovation Officer of the ambitious new school food service company Revolution Foods.

The presentation took the form of an interview of Tobey by her former business school professor Will Rosenzweig, whose questions led her through the remarkable growth of her company from social entrepreneurship projects at university to a multi-million dollar corporation serving millions of meals.

Although Tobey and her collaborators had originally envisioned a not-for-profit corporation, perhaps principally with foundation funding, an instructive turning point happened when they realized that the amounts of capital required for kitchen renovations and other investments could not be raised except on a for-profit basis.

The company has had good coverage recently by Forbes, Take Part, and the Economist.  A difficult challenge is cost.  Revolution Foods may cost more, and San Francisco columnist Dana Woldow has been pressing for transparency on the full cost of the company's contract with that city's school system (and also rapping the company's knuckles for run-of-the-mill puffery in hinting at claims of improving student test scores).

Tobey says the company soon wants to challenge a major brand-name provider of packaged lunch meals sold in grocery stores (I can only think of Lunchables).  That is a worthy villain, and, at the same time, one can't help wondering if plain lunch ingredients sold as non-brand-name ordinary food might really be the more sustainable competitor to over-packaged brand-name lunches.

This is a company whose progress I want to watch in coming years.

See for yourself

In a class session on hunger measurement each fall, I advise not relying on statistical measures alone.  These measures are important, but it also is valuable to "see for yourself," by visiting anti-hunger efforts on the ground, getting to know all neighborhoods in your community, participating in activities that involve people from diverse income backgrounds, and basically by living life in an unsheltered way.

Perhaps Betsy Comstock and Carolyn Pesheck were thinking of something similar when they decided to spend the first part of their retirement years working in at least one anti-hunger program in each of the 50 states.  I enjoyed meeting Betsy last week and hearing about this ambitious undertaking.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Ractopamine and the proposed Chinese purchase of Smithfield Foods

Helena Bottemiller reported at the end of May for NBC News that the proposed purchase of Smithfield Foods by a Chinese company may be related to the fact that China has stricter standards than the United States does for a growth promoting drug:
The proposed $4.7 billion sale of Smithfield Foods, America’s largest pork producer, to China’s biggest meat processing company comes amid significant trade friction between the two countries over meat and livestock.

China bans ractopamine, a controversial growth-promoting drug that is widely used by U.S. livestock producers. Russia also bans the feed additive and both countries have recently stepped up residue testing in meat, worried about the health effects of the drug. The actions have constrained American meat exports.
Bottemiller's feature was supported by the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

Friday, June 07, 2013

The 10th Anniversary Edition of Marion Nestle's Food Politics

For people in the nutrition world who care about public policy, Marion Nestle's 2002 book Food Politics is the single most useful source there is.

I thought about several other important sources before making that statement.  The federal government's dietary guidance may be authoritative, but it is tamed and diluted in ways that Nestle explains precisely.  Eric Schlosser covers labor issues passionately, Michael Pollan addresses the techno-skeptical mood of the local food movement, and Wendell Berry is poetic, but Nestle is the steadiest and most solid critic of the modern food industry and its nutritional shortcomings.

A highlight of Nestle's revised and expanded 10th Anniversary Edition of Food Politics is the new 50-page Afterword.  It brings the book up to date by covering MyPlate, Let's Move, front-of-pack labeling, children's advertising initiatives, school meals reforms, and soda taxes.  I will certainly add it to my course syllabus.

In some ways, these topics in the Afterword are new.  In other ways, they are minor variations on themes that already were central in the earlier 2002 edition.  These themes usually involve the food industry's success in resisting and reversing proposed improvements in food and nutrition policy.  Nestle insists that she remains optimistic, but the reason she gives has little to do with the nutrition policy initiatives she covers at greatest length, and more to do with the grassroots food movement that has grown up in response to dissatisfaction with the status quo:
I am often asked how I remain optimistic in light of the food industry's power to control and corrupt government.  That's easy: the food movement.  Everywhere I look, I see positive signs of change.
Though Nestle doesn't give up hope, re-reading this book ten years later tempts me to give up more profoundly on the "politics" in Food Politics.  Not yet, but maybe some day.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Agribusiness reviews Food Policy in the United States

In the forthcoming issue of the journal Agribusiness, Neal Hooker reviews my book, Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction (Routledge/Earthscan, 2013).  Neal is an economist, a nationally known food policy expert, and professor at The Ohio State University.  He recommends the book warmly for university classes in food policy at the upper-level undergraduate and graduate levels.
So returning to the goal of comprehension, does this book deliver? Having taught food policy courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels and being faced with the challenge of an appropriate text with a strong disciplinary base, I believe the answer is yes. Detailed and timely enough to give more than a cursory description of the economics of policy in an important and salient area (food, always a good pedagogical vehicle for students), the book encourages the reader to learn more. Clearly enthusiastic and knowledgeable, Parke has distilled his understanding of the often complex U.S. food policy environment for many to explore.

Asset limits for SNAP eligibility

Julie Siple at Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) this week discusses the role of asset limits in determining who is eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps.

To be eligible, according to USDA rules, program applicants generally must have net income below the poverty line.  Middle-income and high-income Americans are ineligible for SNAP.  This is uncontroversial. 

Program applicants also generally must have financial assets below $2000 (or below $3250 if they are elderly).  In recent years, states have been allowed some flexibility regarding this rule.  Many states effectively have set a more generous higher limit.  This is more controversial.

A provision of the farm bill in the U.S. House of Representatives proposes to reduce states' flexibility to determine what asset standard to use.  Siple's report for MPR explores several sides of this issue.

Without an asset test, conservative program critics say, the program may grow too big: "No one wants to see people bear financial hardship, but we have a real financial problem in this country, with the federal government running trillion dollar deficits," Siple quotes CATO scholar Chris Edwards saying. "You know, we can't keep subsidizing everyone like we have been in recent years or we'll simply go bankrupt."

On the other hand, with the strict asset test under the House proposal, imagine the hardship for an elderly person who must spend down her savings to a very low level before becoming eligible for nutrition assistance.  The radio report includes an interview with an 88-year-old Minnesota resident who lost much of her savings due to medical issues, and who worries about having to use up her remaining savings before becoming eligible for food stamps.  The question at stake: is it okay for somebody in her position to still hold $80000 in assets while applying for food stamps, or should she spend down her life savings to 3250 before becoming eligible?

Monday, June 03, 2013

AGree policy initiative encourages comprehensive immigration reform

The co-chairs of the AGree agricultural policy initiative today sent a letter to U.S. Senators encouraging comprehensive immigration reform.

Dan Glickman (former Secretary of Agriculture under the Clinton administration), Gary Hirshberg (Stonyfield Farm), Jim Moseley (former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture under the Bush administration), and Emmy Simmons (former senior U.S. international aid official) wrote:
We applaud the Senate Judiciary Committee’s leadership in moving forward on the bipartisan legislation. This presents a huge opportunity for foreign-born agricultural workers who want to build a better future for themselves and their families and for American farmers and ranchers struggling with serious labor shortages. AGree has initiated and supported efforts to overcome volatile and divisive differences that have doomed past reform efforts and we will continue to use our convening powers and work in tandem with other groups to help achieve a new national immigration policy.
AGree has four principles for immigration policy reform.  These principles seem politically astute, including key themes that one hears both from agricultural producer groups and from immigrant labor advocates:

  • Build a legal, more stable workforce in agriculture;
  • Develop a practical and economically viable guest worker program that allows employers to hire legal foreign workers and protects foreign and U.S. farm workers;
  • Ensure quality of life, good working conditions, and opportunities for food and agriculture workers; and
  • Provide more opportunities for farm workers to develop skills and advance their careers within the food and agriculture sector.
The Senate legislation that the AGree co-chairs support is the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, S. 744.  It is very much a compromise piece of legislation.  This week is critical in the Senate, and, even after passing the Senate, the House is even more challenging.

From the perspective of immigrant labor advocates, farm producers and managers are a complicated group of allies.  On the one hand, farmers are a terrific helpful voice, because they speak of immigrant farm workers with respect, articulate the great value that the workers bring to the American agricultural economy, and oppose a deportation-centered immigration policy.

On the other hand, the farm groups insist on an awful tough stipulation in their support for a path to legal status for illegal workers.  The farm groups insist that newly legalized workers be prohibited from moving quickly into non-farm jobs such as construction or food service.  For the farmers, the whole point is that these newly legal workers should stay on the farm, keeping wages in check.

By and large, the Senate bill represents the best possible compromise that immigrant labor advocates could strike with farm groups, so that they could speak with one voice in the political debate.  If immigrant labor advocates and farm groups split, they will be soundly beaten by the anti-immigrant and nativist folks in Congress.

I participate in AGree as part of its Research Committee, but had no role in the organization's immigration position.  For a scholarly but highly readable account of the current issues, see Philip Martin's article (may be gated) in the January edition of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.