Monday, November 25, 2013

Bread for the World publishes 2014 Hunger Report

The faith-based anti-hunger advocacy organization Bread for the World today released its 2014 report on Ending Hunger in America.  This organization stands out for its economically sensible poverty-centered approach to thinking about the problem of hunger. 

It is right for such an organization to press for greater generosity in federal nutrition assistance programs (as Step #3 out of 4 steps).  But it also seems wise for Bread for the World to give jobs and education their proper place (as Steps #1 and #2). 

The #1 plank has the tag-line: "The best defense against hunger is a good job."

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Report and audit from the Fair Food Standards Council

The Fair Food Standards Council this week published its first report and audit from the Fair Food Program.

This report explains the operations, monitoring, and auditing of the agreements that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has reached with selected major food manufacturers, restaurant chains, and food retailers.  Through these agreements, farm workers are able to protect their rights and earn a wage premium for part of their work (for example, they may earn a bonus per bucket on tomato harvest).  The report includes inspiring accounts of the difference these agreements can make, on issues ranging from getting paid for the full amount of time on worksite to protecting women from risk of rape by a crew boss. 

Previous posts on this blog describe my visits to the CIW in Florida in 2009 and 2012, which have affected how I think and teach about labor issues in the U.S. food system.  Barry Estabrook includes an engaging account of these labor issues in Tomatoland.

The new report on the Fair Food Program includes more detail than I have previously seen about how the fair food premiums are recorded, distributed, and audited.  I had been wanting to read about these audits, which increase my confidence in the pass-through mechanism for the premium -- the brand-name companies must pay tomato grower enterprises, which must pass along the correct amount to the workers (minus a specified deduction for the paper-work and transactions costs).  The CIW is able to reach such agreements with brand-name food and restaurant companies (which have a public reputation to protect), while it would have been more difficult to win agreement on a premium directly from the growers (who operate in a cut-throat competitive market).  I found it illuminating to see an exhibit with a photograph of an actual pay stub recording the premium.  Understanding this slightly convoluted system better, it is easier to think of it as a feasible business model worth expanding to other areas of U.S. farm labor.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Coca-Cola's "Cap the Tap" campaign

The MyPlate consumer education materials (.pdf) from the U.S. government wisely encourage folks to "drink water instead of sugary beverages."

The message from beverage companies is something else altogether.

Through its "Cap the Tap" campaign and related materials, Coca-Cola encourages restaurants to talk customers out of choosing tap water and instead to choose higher-profit items such as Coke, Minute Maid juice, Dasani bottled water, or an alcoholic drink. I read about this campaign recently in a hard-hitting post by Andy Bellatti at Civil Eats. A related link to Coca-Cola's CokeSolutions website appears to be broken now, but I found you can still read about the company's message for restaurants on Google Cache. [Note 11/18/2013: the basic link to CokeSolutions is working.  Bellatti points out by Twitter that the "Cap the Tap" graphic from that site is only available now in a Huffington Post screenshot.  Nice work.]

Bellatti also linked to this great, blunt, fascinating page by graphic designer Pen Williamson, with proposed posters that Coca-Cola could use to get restaurants to discourage healthy and inexpensive tap water as a beverage choice [Note: this sentence edited slightly Nov 15 afternoon]. The poster suggests, "provide tap water to guests upon request only."  I don't know if this poster or another similar poster was used in Coca-Cola's "Cap the Tap" campaign.

There is nothing the government can or should do to restrict this type of marketing to restaurants. Yet, I think it is terrible marketing from a nutrition standpoint, which gives us useful context as we interpret the public policy debate over the potential role of beverage companies as part of the solution to the nation's health and nutrition challenges.

WCRF policy strategies to reduce non-communicable disease around the world

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) this month published a new 2-page document (.pdf) summarizing the organization's recommendations on using food policy to address the problem of high rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

The recommendations encourage clear nutrition labeling, healthy school meals programs, well-targeted taxes and healthy food subsidies, and restrictions on advertising for breastmilk substitutes and for unhealthy foods (especially to children).

The WCRF is an international not-for-profit umbrella organization for a network of cancer prevention organizations. WCRF literature reviews on dietary patterns and cancer risk are used by the U.S. federal government as one of several evidence sources for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The WCRF policy recommendations are bolder and more activist than some policy-makers would be ready to consider in the United States, but the WCRF approach nonetheless offers a lot of insight.  For example, a background document on law and obesity prevention (.pdf) carefully considers both advantages and disadvantages of legal approaches to addressing public health nutrition challenges.  It acknowledges not just the political power of food and beverage manufacturers to thwart such policies but also the constitutional protections for commercial speech and the serious concerns consumers may have about policy interventions that limit their autonomy.

For perspective on U.S. food policy debates, it is illuminating to hear an international perspective that is (not surprisingly) comparatively interventionist, but which at the same time fully recognizes the challenges and tradeoffs involved in such policy proposals.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Greenhouse gas emissions flows

I recently had cause to remember and appreciate this 2008 graphic from the World Resources Institute (WRI).  Ordinarily, there is confusion between various statistics one reads about economic sectors (such as transportation, energy, agriculture), about economic activities and end uses (such as heating residential buildings, heating commercial buildings), and about gasses (such as carbon dioxide and methane).  The graphic still doesn't answer one of my questions -- I am trying to reconcile environmental accounts that (a) place food distribution with the corresponding manufacturing and distribution sectors or (b) attribute all of these costs to food itself.  Nonetheless, it is a good data visualization.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Maureen Ogle's history: In Meat We Trust

Maureen Ogle's new history of the meat industry is In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).  I enjoyed the many biographical summaries of leading industrial innovators (from Gustavus Swift to Coleman Natural Meats) and their critics (from Upton Sinclair to Michael Pollan and Michael Jacobson).

The book's most sound overall theme is that American consumers appear to demand contradictory things (perfect safety and environmental sustainability and yet low prices and massive quantities).  Ogle appeals to consumers to become more informed rather than throwing stones from afar.  In part, I think these contradictory demands arise because different consumers have always had different opinions, including sometimes well-motivated support for and concern about meat in general and industrial meat in particular.  Ogle instead treats these contradictory opinions as the ignorant and schizophrenic demand of a single personified American "we."  For example,
"If meat's American history tells us anything, it is that we Americans generally get what we want.  Meat three times a day? No problem.  Meat precut, deboned, and ready to cook?  There it is....  Organic, grass-fed, local pork and beef?  All yours, as long as you don't mind paying the price or taking the time to find it....  We're a complicated group, we Americans, and we struggle to reconcile our conflicting desires and passions."
In the end, Ogle ends up deeply skeptical of food system reformers and admiring of meat industry innovators: "So, thanks, Big Ag -- and the USDA and family and corporate farmers -- for giving us the cheap food that has nourished an extraordinary abundance of creative energy."  Here is a favorable review and interview by Chuck Jolley at Drovers Cattle Network.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Sprout covers government shutdown and Farm Bill

The November issue of the Sprout (the Friedman School's graduate student publication) includes coverage of the government shutdown and the Farm Bill, along with recipes, edible poems, and a calendar of food-related events.

For the Farm Bill article, reporter Lindsey Webb quotes me explaining the extent of my inside knowledge and prognostication ability about the arcane world of House-Senate negotiations over the omnibus nutrition and agricultural legislation: "I have no idea what will happen next."

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Living richly

Following an occasional thread on this blog, it is time for a more personal update on my family's decade-long experimentation in sustainable living. We are informed by the active online conversation about this topic, but we draw some different lessons as well.

First, my family begins with the awareness that we are rich.  It would be good for all but the very poorest Americans to begin from this proposition.  Many of us make unwise environmental decisions because we feel economically beleaguered -- constrained by jobs, family, and social expectations to commute by car, fly in airplanes, and eat environmentally expensive food.  Acknowledging that we are rich can liberate us to make the decisions that satisfy our consciences and truly bring us joy.  I rarely talk about faith on this semi-professional blog, but, among the four of us, including my wife and two children, we use religious language to describe this fact.  We know we have been blessed.

Second, our personal goal is not to experience hardship.  Over the centuries, many people have found great insight in taking a vow of poverty, but that is not for us.  We want to experiment with using fewer and fewer environmental resources in order to uncover the point at which we begin to feel materially poor.  Then we'll stop and think before proceeding further.

So, here is some of what we have learned so far about what resources are necessary to live well.

Shelter.  We have a 3-bedroom 2-bathroom free-standing house in a dense inner suburban neighborhood.  Clearly, this already makes us more prosperous than most people in the world, but it is a simpler home than most people in my professional circles have, and we have not yet taken steps toward selling our home and buying a smaller place.  In summer, we use no air conditioning, although air conditioning is common in Boston.  We have learned to open and shut our windows in summer on a schedule that keeps the house a pleasant temperature on all but about 7 days per year.  In winter, we keep the house at 50 degrees at night, and when we are away at school and work, and 61 degrees when we are at home.  The energy company tells us that we use 34% less gas than average homes in our neighborhood and save many hundreds of dollars each year.  We enjoy our slippers and sweaters and feel cozy. 

Food.  We eat nearly a vegetarian diet at home, but frequently have dairy products and occasionally fish.  Counting food from elsewhere, I eat some meat about 4 days per week.  My son eats meat with school lunch, and my daughter eats vegetarian at school.  We use some local food, and cook at home, but perhaps 90 percent of our food comes by way of the industrial food system.  We enjoy our food and feel richly fed all the time.

Transportation by car.  We own one 2000 Honda Civic, which we drive for short trips most days.  My wife bicycles to work, and I bike to a "T" station and then take the subway.  The children are old enough to go to school by bicycle or city bus.  Our car seldom has repair expenses, and the insurance company gives us a discount for low mileage.  Walking, cycling, and on the subway, we feel healthier, happier, and more connected with friends and strangers around us.

Transportation by air.  We realized that frequent travel by air for fun and work threatened to offset all of the gains our family made in shelter and food, leaving us with a carbon impact that exceeded national averages.  So, we gave up flying entirely for a time.  Despite being an active academic researcher, and despite having a new textbook to market, I haven't flown since the first week of May, 2013.  My university's website encourages faculty to reduce flying when possible, but in practice most researchers in my field spend immense resources on air travel to meetings and conferences.  This is strange if the meeting or conference addresses the problems of world poverty or sustainable food systems.  I had hoped to keep up my no-flying discipline for a year, but this week I could not resist adding a trip by air to my calendar for April, 2014, so my freedom from flying will last 11 months in total.  Since May, I've given presentations and attended meetings in DC, Woods Hole, Boston, Cornell University, and even by Amtrak to Ohio for presentations in Cleveland and Columbus, and I have forthcoming presentations in Albany and Philadelphia.  I've learned to work as effectively on the train as I do in my office, so train travel is both more pleasant and less time-consuming for me than air travel.  The rest of my family stopped flying even earlier, in April, 2012.  Our summer vacation in 2013 was a bicycle trip on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.  My family will go without flying for 25 months, after which we will take a vacation in summer 2014 that can only be done by air, a 6-week walking pilgrimage together that we have wished for many years. If that trip comes to pass as we hope, we know it is a blessing.  Our vacations still leave us in the ranks of the world's most privileged people, but it is both good environmentalism and good wisdom to take longer and more peaceful breaks rather than shorter and more resource-intensive vacations wedged between periods of excessive work for high pay.

What is the lesson from this self-experimentation?  We found we can reduce resource use by a large margin without any symptoms of deprivation.  As the community of friends around us grows stronger, working on the same simple living project, we may find it psychologically easier to take more radical steps in this direction.

For me, this experience provides crucial information about the possibility that our global family can thrive even during the forthcoming time of scarcity.  Far more than any technological development (such as GMOs or biofuels), what matters most for the future of the world is the capacity of those who are rich to use fewer material resources.  Because the rich of the world also are politically powerful, and unlikely to will themselves into poverty voluntarily, my hope for this capacity depends in part on whether higher-income people can use fewer resources and still recognize themselves as prosperous.  Quite possibly, the stresses the world faces will cause disruptions, crisis, famine, or war, but I think those events arise from our foolishness as social animals rather than from any material economic requirement we have for an adequate standard of living.  On a material basis, I have seen with my own eyes and felt in my own skin that people in rich countries can undertake drastically lower resource use in shelter, food, and transportation, and still live richly.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Problems in industrial food animal production are only getting worse

The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins in October released an update on problems in industrial food animal production, five years after a landmark Pew Commission report in 2008.  Ralph Loglisci has a good overview at Civil Eats

Sadly, in most areas of concern, there has been no progress.  On many issues there has been backwards motion.

I found the new update report generally fair and sober.  (I took the closing appeal from Fred Kirschenmann for an "agriculture that mimics nature" to be an inspirational homily rather than a concrete scientific or food policy proposition).  I know that people in the animal production industries, and even many of my colleagues in the mainstream of the agricultural economics profession, will be tempted to classify the Pew Commission and its descendents along with radical environmentalist critics of the modern food system, but I see this report far more favorably.  At every turn, it offers informative explanations of the serious potential problems with unrestrained antibiotic use, disease monitoring, water and air pollution, animal confinement, and economic competition.

Because most of these topics are intensely contested and debated, perhaps the most interesting passages of the report explain how meat producers have been able to evade increased information collection.  On topics from antibiotic use to water pollution by CAFOs to contracts in poultry marketing, the industry resists efforts to share the information we need in order to judge these debates in a sensible manner.  For example:
Delivering Antibiotic Transparency in Animals Act (2013 to present)

The Delivering Antibiotic Transparency in Animals (DATA) Act, sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D–CA), would amend the reporting requirements contained in ADUFA Section 105 to require drug companies to report additional sales data, and to require integrators to report data on antimicrobial use.

The bill would also direct the FDA to include additional information on reported data in the annual summaries, including breakdowns by route of administration and approved indication, animal species, and production class. The legislation, which was introduced in February 2013 prior to reauthorization of ADUFA, has not been enacted.

Antimicrobial Data Collection Act (2013 to present)

The Antimicrobial Data Collection Act, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–NY), would, like the DATA Act, require the FDA to include additional information on antimicrobial sales data in the annual summaries required under ADUFA. It would not, however, require any additional reporting of sales by drug companies or require reporting of antimicrobial use by integrators. It has not been enacted.
If private sector and government initiatives did a better job of addressing these environmental and health issues, our meat and dairy products might be somewhat more expensive, but we would be able to bear this price increase just fine.  Americans have room to reduce meat and dairy intake by a certain amount while still maintaining a very high nutritional standard of living.  Many of the foods that provide similar nutrients, such as alternative sources of protein and fats, are less expensive than meat.  It is therefore false that addressing important environmental and health concerns would be an unbearable hardship for any stratum of Americans, whether low-income or middle-income.  This is not about government overreach, nor is it about taxation to influence consumer food choices, it is simply about designing production systems that correctly account for environmental and health constraints, and then letting the free market set appropriate corresponding prices.

I'd be glad for any rebuttal, or tough questions about the main points of this report, but I found it highly persuasive. 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Media coverage of SNAP (food stamp) cuts

A temporary boost to SNAP benefits, which was instituted in 2009 as part of the federal government's response to the Great Recession, ended yesterday (November 1). This means that all SNAP participants, approximately 48 million Americans, have reduced benefits this year. For example, a 4-person family will lose $36 in monthly benefits. Overall, the cuts amount to approximately $5 billion in the 2014 fiscal year. Congress is contemplating further cuts as part of Farm Bill negotiations between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Media organizations this week covered these cuts in slightly different ways, but generally agreed on the overall message.

The concern that SNAP participants will turn to emergency food sources such as food pantries was featured by Julie Siple at Minnesota Public Radio and by Marisol Bello at USA Today.

Perhaps surprisingly, media outlets that are considered more conservative or more market-oriented highlighted many of the same themes.  FoxNews did expand on AP coverage by giving high-profile space to a claim by Michael Tanner at the Cato Institute that lax eligibility requirements contributed to recent caseload increases.  Yet, that same story quoted Ellen Vollinger from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and also described the cuts themselves in stark terms, saying SNAP benefits were being "slashed."

In this sense, FoxNews provided essentially the same mix of views as did the Minnesota Public Radio story, which included an interview with Tad DeHaven of the Cato Institute, who emphasized that the 2009 increase was always intended to be temporary.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that is considered comparatively liberal, but whose reports are always careful with facts and largely free of spin, similarly acknowledged in a very informative report and press release that the 2009 increase was intended to be temporary.  I imagine that most journalists covering this story had read the Center's report.

A separate FoxNews story by Joseph Weber on October 30 claimed that a crackdown on food stamp fraud could "save millions," but the body of the article recognized that the potential savings from such efforts really may be quite small, amounting to less than 1 percent of total program costs.  Moreover, I could not find the FoxNews statistic in the "recent" USDA Inspector General audit report on which it was supposedly based.  The most recent related national audit report from the Inspector General appears to be this 2012 report (.pdf), which includes some praise for existing USDA efforts along with some suggestions for improvement.  The report concludes with a statement that USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) agreed with all the suggestions and planned to implement them by September, 2013, along with a statement from the Inspector General that this response was satisfactory.

Derek Wallbank and Alan Bjerga at Bloomberg News included fascinating coverage of related food retail business topics, including comments from retailers who are highly concerned about the benefit cuts and also those, such as Walmart, that may prosper in times when hard-hit consumers are even more price conscious.

I spent a good deal of time this week speaking to media about the SNAP cuts.  Because I had never before done a live television news interview, perhaps the most interesting was a conversation last night with Elaine Reyes of China's CCTV America network (my interview begins at minute 30:00).  I pointed out that the SNAP program is a particularly important part of the general social safety net in the United States, and that the economic recovery from the Great Recession has been slow, only recently beginning to provide improved private-sector opportunities for low-wage workers, so many people feel that now is a tough time for cuts.

In general, across the spectrum of coverage, I saw perhaps more balance and consistency than I might have expected.  Food stamp policy used to be fairly bipartisan, because the program was perceived more favorably in the United States than cash assistance programs have been perceived.  In the House of Representatives in particular, food stamp policy used to be decided through bipartisan conversations in the Agriculture Committee's hearing room, rather than fiery speeches on the floor of the House.  I wonder if the end of the budget shutdown has cooled some tempers and shown some limits to political rhetoric that really seeks to stick it to poor people.