Wednesday, November 19, 2014

With community eligibility, what data source will replace the free / reduced price rate?

U.S. school children with household incomes below 130% of the federal poverty guideline have long been eligible for free school lunch and breakfast, while those with slightly higher income but still below 185% of the poverty guideline are eligible for reduced-price lunch. With a new community eligibility provision, some districts will provide free lunches to all children.

The most important thing to know about this policy is that it may feed more children.

This blog post is about a less important secondary question that nonetheless has some potential interest for readers in U.S. food policy: "What new source of data will replace the free / reduced price rate as a proxy variable for local poverty?" In the past, the percentage of children who received free and reduced price meals served to indicate the level of local poverty -- a higher percentage meant the neighborhood is comparatively poor.

At FiveThirtyEight, Ben Wieder explains the many policy and research uses for this proxy poverty measure:
Two analyses (.pdf) found that school lunch data has been used in about 1 in 5 studies looking at academic achievement conducted by education researchers; that doesn’t take into account its role in work by psychologists, sociologists, economists and researchers in a host of other disciplines.

The data has been used in studies looking at best teaching practices, school discipline and whether playing an instrument improves academic performance. It was a measure of poverty for a study on why kids start smoking, used to differentiate swimming ability among minority students, and a measure of socioeconomic status in at least one article in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Who gets to participate in the program can have policy implications as well.

Matt Cohen, chief research officer at the Ohio Department of Education, is chairing a working group organized by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to find alternatives to participation in the school lunch program for measuring students’ socioeconomic status.
I agree with some of the sources quoted in the article, who point out that this never was all that great a proxy for poverty in the first place. For example, consider a study seeking to measure whether childhood food insecurity is higher in high-poverty neighborhoods. The free / reduced price proxy variable is a poor indicator for neighborhood poverty, because the meals themselves may directly help reduce childhood food insecurity. Still, it will take some new effort to find a replacement variable, and some research and policy purposes will be inconvenienced in the interim period.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

U.S. food supply inconsistent with dietary guidance

The U.S. food supply is far out of balance with dietary recommendations. A new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics quantifies the gaps. In brief, the U.S. food supply was quite unhealthy already by the 1970s and has not improved noticeably since then.

The authors -- Paige Miller, Jill Reedy, Sharon Kirkpatrick, and Susan Krebs-Smith -- use a measure more commonly applied to individual survey data, called the Healthy Eating Index. Getting this measure to fit national food supply data from USDA requires a bit of shoe-horning, but nonetheless the results are persuasive about the basic picture. As the video below illustrates, for example, Americans have for decades had all the protein we could possibly need, but the food supply for vegetables falls much short of recommendations.

The video -- from the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR) -- generally thinks of the food supply as "upstream" and food consumers as "downstream." A possible implication is that policies should alter the food supply so that downstream consumers could eat more healthfully. It should be noted that people in the food business, and perhaps most agricultural economists too, give greater weight to consumer preferences for unhealthy food as a key driver of the gap the study describes. Economists may suggest that the food supply would provide plenty of healthy food if that's what consumers actually would buy.

Still, nutrition scientists and agricultural economists have in recent years been doing better than ever at listening to each other's perspectives on these big questions. For example, in an accompanying article, which calls on dietitians to get involved in designing federal policies such as the Farm Bill, Claire Zizza reviews agricultural economics perspectives as well as public health perspectives on how such policies should be evaluated. It all makes a lively conversation.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Cod fishery in crisis

The federal government this week enacted what amounts essentially to a 6-month pause in commercial cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine, according to a report by David Abel in the Boston Globe yesterday. This is a sad day for New England's most famous fishery.

Cod fishing is a classic example of a situation where free markets would be devastating for everybody, including fishermen and their families. Because overfishing in the past has pushed stocks far below maximum sustainable levels, each fishing boat harms the economic interests of the next. Economists believe that liberated markets serve environmental goals wonderfully in many situations, where property rights to natural resources are well defined, but free markets are a disaster when each producer is chasing a common resource.

Nobody thinks the New England cod fishery should be unregulated. Yet, cod fishermen complain about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulators who took action this week. Many fishermen believe the scientific estimates are overly pessimistic, leading regulators to be overly cautious.

Here you can inspect the evidence for yourself, in NOAA's report this past August. Using two different models of cod mortality (on the left and right), the figure reproduced here shows the downward trend over time in estimated spawning stocks biomass (top row) and the upward trend in estimated recent fish mortality (bottom row).

Of course, these estimates could be mistaken. Yet, as a non-expert reading them closely, I found them persuasive. If I were a cod fisherman, I would cry, plan, and organize politically, but I would resist the temptation to blame the messenger.

For the other side of the story, here is a link to the Northeast Seafood Coalition, but I haven't yet found a real scientific rebuttal to the NOAA estimates.

In the tragic political division in this country, so apparent in the recent election, the conservative party is (rightly!) devoted to the great prosperity economic markets can achieve, yet sadly unable to comprehend that vigorous and effective government sometimes is needed to let markets work well.