Monday, December 08, 2014

Two books on agricultural policy controversies

In my in-box are two new books on agricultural policy controversies, both written by agricultural economists. Both books seek, with partial but not complete success, to move beyond a certain fear of criticism, openly engaging readers who may have diverse public interest concerns and motivations.

First is Depolarizing Food and Agriculture: An Economic Approach (Routledge/Earthscan, 2014), by Andrew Barkley and Paul W. Barkley. I offered a comment for the back cover:
When criticized on environmental or nutritional grounds, U.S. farm groups sometimes are tempted to adopt a thickly-armored defensive posture. In this daring book, respected agricultural economists Andrew Barkley and Paul Barkley offer a persuasive alternative. Echoing Schmpeter's vision of creative destruction (naturally), but also drawing on John Stuart Mill and Nelson Mandela (more surprisingly), the authors argue for an open and understanding approach to contemporary food and agriculture controversies, eventually offering hope -- as the title indicates -- for depolarizing food and agriculture.

Second is Agricultural & Food Controversies, part of the "What Everyone Needs to Know" series from Oxford University Press (2014), by F. Bailey Norwood, Pascal A. Oltenacu, Michelle S. Calvo-Lorenzo, and Sarah Lancaster. In a Huffington Post review, Jayson Lusk -- who was author of a more strident 2013 book called the Food Police -- notes the value of the new book's respectful discussion:
Rather than striking a defensive or muckraking tone, as so often is the case in this genre of writing, Norwood and colleagues embrace the controversies, interpreting them as a sign of a healthy democracy struggling to deal with pressing challenges. They reveal what the best science has to say on topics ranging from food pesticides and GMOs to the carbon footprint of beef production and the well-being of farm animals. They weigh in on synthetic fertilizers, local foods, and farm policy. Theirs is a respectful discussion of the positions taken up by different advocacy groups, but there is no hesitation in drawing conclusions where logic and science warrant.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Mexican labor issues in U.S. food retail markets

To understand food policy in the United States, one must pay attention to Mexican and Central American farmworkers in this country, but also to farm labor in Mexico.

The Los Angeles Times today has started an article series and a remarkable video series on the Mexican workers who produce in Mexico for export to the United States.
The tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers arrive year-round by the ton, with peel-off stickers proclaiming "Product of Mexico."

Farm exports to the U.S. from Mexico have tripled to $7.6 billion in the last decade, enriching agribusinesses, distributors and retailers.

American consumers get all the salsa, squash and melons they can eat at affordable prices. And top U.S. brands — Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Subway and Safeway, among many others — profit from produce they have come to depend on.

These corporations say their Mexican suppliers have committed to decent treatment and living conditions for workers.

But a Los Angeles Times investigation found that for thousands of farm laborers south of the border, the export boom is a story of exploitation and extreme hardship.
One future contributor to a more just food system could be policies that U.S. importers and supermarkets may adopt, stipulating standards for farm labor in the upstream supply chain. To some extent, such policies are being developed. The LA Times article reminds us that these policies are not yet working smoothly.

Another contributor to a more just food system could be changes in the supply and demand for farm labor, leading to higher wages and better working conditions. It is important to pay attention to these fundamental economics, and not just to labor standards that supermarkets promise to adopt.

Two of the best agricultural economists covering this issue are Philip Martin and J. Edward Taylor. Their 2013 report, titled "Ripe with Change" (.pdf), summarizes (in somewhat blander language!) many of the same terrible conditions that the LA Times article reported, while also reporting some promising trends in tighter labor markets for Mexican farm workers. In particular, demand for agricultural production has been increasing across North America, while simultaneously employment demand in other Mexican industries has expanded. An essential question is whether Mexican workers will reap the benefits, or instead whether small increases in wages will provoke large increases in mechanization, leaving workers little better off than before.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Food, Farms, and Community (by Chase and Grubinger)

I am enjoying reading the new book-length coverage of local food systems in Food, Farms, and Community, by Lisa Chase and Vern Grubinger of the University of Vermont.
Food, Farms, and Community: Exploring Food Systems takes an in-depth look at critical issues, successful programs, and challenges for improving food systems spanning a few miles to a few thousand miles. Case studies that delve into the values that drive farmers, food advocates, and food entrepreneurs are interwoven with analysis supported by the latest research. Examples of entrepreneurial farms and organizations working together to build sustainable food systems are relevant to the entire country—and reveal results that are about much more than fresh food.
Chase is a natural resources specialist at the UVM and director of the Vermont Tourism Research Center (and a long-time friend and classmate from graduate studies at Cornell in the 1990s). Grubinger is an agriculture specialist with UVM extension.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Friedman School Wednesday seminar December 3: The secret life of cheese

Tufts biology professor Benjamin Wolfe will speak about "The Secret Life of Cheese" tomorrow at the Friedman School's Wednesday seminar.

Wolfe's work with Rachel Dutton, published in the journal Cell, was summarized earlier this year in Wired. The article discusses the remarkable connection between microbes in cheese and their possible ocean origins:
Benjamin Wolfe and Rachel Dutton ... recently brought 137 cheeses from 10 countries into Dutton’s lab at Harvard University for genetic analysis. In a paper published July 17 in Cell, they and colleagues describe their findings, which include a few surprises—like the presence of bacteria commonly found in marine environments on cheeses made nowhere near an ocean.
As a sometime amateur cheese maker with very mixed success, I'm looking forward to learning from this talk.

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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Beyond the Breastfeeding Mothers' Bill of Rights

In 2009, New York passed its Breastfeeding Mothers' Bill of Rights, affirming mothers' rights to breastfeed any place, public or private. The focus of many provisions was on increasing mothers' access to information. Subsequently, hospitals had to share breastfeeding rates and other statistics.

A study to be published this fall in the American Journal of Law and Medicine finds that the law may have had larger effects, as hospitals and their staff responded to new disclosure rules by changing their practices. In a blog post today, Timothy Lytton writes:
The DOH regulation requiring hospitals to disclose breastfeeding rates among their maternity patients also influenced management within hospitals. Maternity unit managers used the breastfeeding data required by the regulation to train clinical staff, set performance goals, and monitor outcomes. The regulation has also encouraged frequent collection and use of breastfeeding data for quality improvement. A perinatal clinical nurse specialist in one New York hospital told us that she generates daily reports on breastfeeding rates in her unit and has been able to document a steady increase in the rate of breastfeeding among mothers in the unit. Data have also helped maternity unit managers advocate more effectively within their hospitals for changes in clinical policies.

Repeated reviews of compliance with DOH’s model breastfeeding policy and periodic data reporting have maintained a prominent place for breastfeeding promotion on the agenda of maternity care units and hospital management. Policies must be reviewed for compliance. Data must be disclosed to patients. These requirements continuously demand the attention of administrators, unit managers, and staff.

Our findings suggest that transparency policies can significantly influence government regulators and hospital administrators independently of their effects on patients. DOH officials and maternity unit managers appear to have used the pressure and information generated by New York State’s breastfeeding transparency laws to reform hospital policies and practices proactively, not merely in response to signals from patients.
Lytton and coauthors Barbara Dennison, Trang Nguyen, and Janine Jurkowski suggest that the study may have implications beyond just breastfeeding policy, providing an example of the ways that disclosure rules may have a downstream impact on actual services.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Is it really so bad that WTO ruled against U.S. in country-of-origin labeling dispute?

The World Trade Organization (WTO) today ruled in favor of Canada and Mexico, saying that U.S. country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rules violate our commitments in previous trade agreements.

The COOL rules in dispute required new labels on fresh beef, pork, and lamb, but not on processed foods such as hot dogs. The labels would say what country the product comes from. In some cases, the labels might have to be complex ("this cow was born in Canada, fed in the United States ...").

Many people who care about food policy from a public interest perspective will say the WTO ruling is terrible. For example, Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter says today:
The WTO’s continued assault against commonsense food labels is just another example of how corporate-controlled trade policy undermines the basic protections that U.S. consumers deserve.
But let me ask, is the WTO ruling really so bad? I have two reasons for asking this question.

First, perhaps the WTO ruling has some merit.

Canada and Mexico claimed that the U.S. law was designed as a trade barrier, not merely as a consumer labeling provision. They pointed out that the tracking and record-keeping burdens fell more heavily on Canadian and Mexican producers than they did on seemingly similar U.S. producers. They also cast doubt on the consumer information merit of all this tracking and record-keeping, because so much of the meat was destined for processed food that never would carry a country-of-origin label anyway. If the U.S. asks Canada and Mexico to incur tracking and record-keeping costs, and then fails to share the resulting information with processed meat consumers anyway, it does look like maybe the whole point was just to create a burden for our trading partners.

It would be one thing if the United States simply never negotiated a trade agreement in the first place. But, it is another thing altogether if the United States does negotiate a trade agreement, saying we will reduce trade barriers in return for Canada and Mexico doing the same, but then we fail to do what we promised.

Second, from the perspective of Food & Water Watch and other trade-skeptical consumer groups, perhaps the consequences are not so terrible.

WTO critics claim such rulings violate U.S. sovereignty. For example, Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch says today:
Many Americans will be shocked that the WTO can order our government to deny U.S. consumers the basic information about where their food comes from and that if the information policy is not gutted, we could face millions in sanctions every year.
This is not true. The WTO cannot order our government to deny U.S. consumers such information. The WTO cannot rewrite U.S. laws. The U.S. can simply refuse to comply.

When the WTO rules against the United States, the only remedy the WTO has is the power to permit Canada and Mexico to put up trade barriers of their own, without these trade barriers being ruled non-compliant with the same trade agreements. In other words, the only power the WTO has is the power to state for the record, "fair is fair."

For example, if the U.S. chooses not to honor the WTO ruling, Canada has proposed a list of U.S. exports that may get new import tariffs at the Canadian border: corn, meat, apples, pasta, orange juice, and so forth.

The United States may honor its trade agreements, or we may fail to honor them. If we don't honor them, surely it is right to be good sports when Canada and Mexico establish new import tariffs.

On what grounds should Food & Water Watch or Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch complain about the WTO ruling? If it is fine for the United States to exercise our sovereignty, it is fine for others also. Far from griping about the WTO ruling, trade-skeptical public interest organizations could just tip their hat to the WTO, contemplate the consequences for reduced food trade, and declare, "all is well."

There is a good reason why they don't do so. Many Americans, especially in agricultural regions of the country, are glad for the business that trade brings in the form of increased export markets for our farmers. When we remember that Americans are food producers as well as consumers, the trade agreements begin to seem more sensible and the WTO begins to seem more reasonable.

Further information

Chapter 4 of Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction addresses trade issues. I do my best to make the case for a public-interest pro-trade perspective in a talk at Cornell University last fall (video here).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The "Trouble with Antibiotics" in U.S. animal agriculture production

Frontline last night had an excellent report, the Trouble with Antibiotics, on the plausible link between dangerous antibiotic resistant diseases and the overuse of antibiotics in U.S. meat production.

Poultry and hog producers use large amounts of antibiotics even in healthy animals, as a growth promoter and to prevent disease. As bacteria evolve to become resistant to these antibiotics, we lose important tools for treating deadly diseases in humans, including Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

For readers who want to inspect the scientific evidence for themselves, here are some links to research mentioned in the Frontline report.

Jessica Rinsky, Lance Price (interviewed in the report), and colleagues found livestock-associated MRSA in workers from industrial livestock operations but not workers from antibiotic-free livestock operations.

Andrew Waters, Lance Price, and colleagues found that MRSA bacteria reaches meat on supermarket shelves.

Joan Casey, Brian Schwartz, and colleagues found in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that antibiotic-resistant bacteria cases in humans were geographically associated with the proximity of nearby meat producers in Pennsylvania. The Frontline interviewer did a great job questioning the scientists and explaining both the strengths and limits of this type of geographic association.

Concerned about the Frontline story, the federal government's National Pork Board has been scrambling to persuade people not to worry about this issue. Reuters reports today that the NPB is funding an online public information campaign to defend antibiotic use. The most damning part of the Reuters report alleges that the NPB is using search engine optimization (SEO) tools so that web users seeking information about antibiotics are directed to industry-friendly web sources.

Both Reuters and the Frontline report describe the pork board as an "industry" association, but the National Pork Board is a semi-public checkoff program. The U.S. Congress created this board, the Secretary of Agriculture appoints its members from a slate of candidates suggested by the industry, and the federal government uses its powers of taxation to collect the "mandatory assessment" -- a tax -- that funds this public information campaign. This is not a voluntary industry association. All pork board messages must be approved by the federal government as its own "government speech," so our government is complicit in this public information campaign to rebut the Frontline report.

The industry representatives interviewed in the Frontline report didn't really dispute any of the facts, but they engaged in a rhetorical game of shifting the burden of proof. They argued that no further regulation is needed, because there is not yet certain proof that some of the research associations represent true cause and effect. Since nothing is ever certain in this type of research, the industry representatives can feel safe that no level of evidence would ever clear their hurdle.

One of the best passages in the Frontline report was an interview with FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. The interviewer asked why FDA does not collect information about the quantity of antibiotics administered by meat producers. Though Hamburg squirmed under the question, she essentially confirmed that FDA wanted this information but could not get it because of industry opposition. In other words, the industry representatives say no action should be taken until we have certain proof, while simultaneously hindering access to the data needed to investigate the question.

The industry is pursuing some voluntary steps to reduce antibiotic use for the purpose of "growth promotion," but it has defined this term narrowly so that most antibiotic use even in healthy animals will still continue.

The Frontline report is strongly recommended. Now is the time for stronger measures to restrain the overuse of antibiotics in U.S. meat production.

Frontline, October 14, 2014.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Web search interest in "food policy" and "agricultural economics"

Circa 2005, U.S. web search interest in the terms "food policy" and "agricultural economics" was about equal. Nowadays, web search interest in "food policy" is much higher. There may be lessons in this for U.S. agricultural and applied economists.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

USDA's new Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) for affordable fruits and vegetables

Friedman School graduate student Cailin Kowalewski reports today in the student publication Sprout on USDA's new financial incentive program:
The USDA this week announced a new grant program that will help participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) afford fruits and vegetables. The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program will offer $31.5 million in competitive grants to organizations from across the food system. These organizations will be able to use FINI funding to support projects that increase SNAP participant access to fruits and vegetables through incentive programs at the point of sale.
The Sprout article provides a history and overview of the new program, and it notes divergent views on implementation questions, such as whether the focus should be on farmers' markets or whether it should encompass larger-scale retail channels as well.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

New composting rules in Massachusetts

Beginning next week, on October 1, about 1,700 Massachusetts businesses that produce substantial food waste must sort and divert that waste to composting or another destination other than landfill. The new program is one of the most ambitious in the country.

As the Boston Globe explains today:
As of Oct. 1, Massachusetts has banned any establishment that creates a ton or more of food waste per week from sending as much as a carrot peel to the state’s rapidly dwindling available landfills. Despite a recycling rate topping 40 percent, Massachusetts businesses and households still toss about 6.5 million tons of garbage every year — enough to fill up Fenway Park 74 times. Most of it is piled into a couple dozen landfills where it slowly decomposes, the organic stuff from kitchens and yards spewing the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, or hauled to a handful of waste-to-energy incinerators where it is burned to create electricity.

So-called compostable organics make up more than 25 percent of the state’s commercial and household waste, and the goal of the new regulation is to divert much of that away from landfills. Where will it go? To composting facilities and energy plants that run on biogas (made primarily of methane) — places where it can actually be put to use.
Clare Leschin-Hoar covered the Massachusetts news for the Guardian this week. Elsewhere in the country, Seattle is pursuing a similar policy just this week -- but without limiting it just to large waste producers as the Massachusetts policy does. For further background, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has a longer 2012 report with estimates on the scale of food waste going to landfills.

Most of these links were brought to my attention this week by Jennifer Otten, a faculty member in health services at the University of Washington. Professor Otten's food policy class uses my textbook, Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction. She reports that food waste issues make a great concrete local issue for use in food policy teaching: "Students get really into this topic, because it’s something they can do something about."

Friday, September 19, 2014

USDA's Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP) finds significant positive impact on fruit and vegetable intake

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service yesterday released final results showing that the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP) had a significant positive impact on fruit and vegetable intake for low-income participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

In the pilot, which was conducted in Hampden County, Massachusetts, HIP participants received a 30% incentive added back to their benefit card when they purchased targeted fruits and vegetables in participating retailers. A randomly assigned control group received SNAP benefits as usual with no incentive.

On average HIP participant adults on SNAP consumed 0.23 cup-equivalents more in daily targeted fruits and vegetables -- a 25% increase -- compared to the non-HIP adults on SNAP.

HIP Participants Consumed 0.23 Cup-Equivalent 
More Fruits and Vegetables per Day

The HIP Evaluation Study was led by Abt Associates, Inc., with participation from Westat and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Susan Bartlett from Abt was the project director. On behalf of the Friedman School, I was director of design for the evaluation study and a co-author of the final report.

The pilot represents the most ambitious effort so far to deliver a healthy eating incentive to SNAP participants right through the SNAP card (as opposed to a separate coupon) and in a full range of participating retailers (as opposed to farmers' markets alone). The results complement new work being done by Wholesome Wave and others to explore the potential of financial incentives.

The primary results were based on two post-implementation rounds of surveys of SNAP participants. Preliminary results, based just on the first post-implementation survey round, were published recently in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics (may be gated). The new full report released today has more information about a wide variety of food spending, shopping behavior, and food intake outcomes, and it analyzes the likely cost of extending such a healthy incentives program nationwide.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Independent analysis of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation trillion calorie pledge

An independent evaluation reported today that the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation succeeded in removing more than a trillion calories from the U.S. food supply, as originally pledged.

Through this pledge, leading food and beverage manufacturers had promised to reduce total food energy sold by 1 trillion calories, from a 2007 baseline through 2012.

Using Nielsen scanner data from supermarket electronic cash registers and from a random sample of consumer households, Shu Wen Ng, Meghan M. Slining, and Barry M. Popkin estimated calorie trends and reported the results today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

To some extent, the accomplishment simply reflects downward trends in the packaged food and beverage sector, which is losing market share over time -- mostly to the restaurant industry but perhaps partly to healthier food options. In an accompanying editorial in the same journal, Dariush Mozaffarian asks whether the pledge is a "marketing ploy."

As a rule, nutritional targets -- and other quantitative information intended for general audiences -- should be stated in easily explained per-capita terms. Who knows what a trillion calories in aggregate even means?

It reminds me of silly infographics that take a common-sense concept and convert it to some obscure immense quantity. For example, in my in-box this month, I have an infographic from Guiding Stars, which aims to report the amount of running required to burn off the average American's sugar consumption. Sugar is estimated at 3 pounds per week (a sensible way of explaining the quantity), while the amount of running is stated as 2.7 times around the globe over a lifetime (an irrelevant quantity designed merely to appear large to easily-impressed readers).

Today's study by Ng, Slining, and Popkin nicely goes beyond its assessment of the original trillion calorie pledge and also reports the modest but non-negligible resulting calorie changes on a per-capita basis. To the extent that the results reflect improvements in particular categories, such as sugar sweetened beverages, the findings are still reasonably upbeat.

The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation -- and the companies that made pledges -- will be delighted by today's coverage in major media outlets such as U.S. News and World Report, which states the good news broadly: "Obesity continues to plague the country, but it appears as though food companies are beginning to take strides in helping alleviate the problem."

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dariush Mozaffarian: to address chronic disease, we should focus on food patterns rather than nutrients

In my school's latest Wednesday seminar, the epidemiologist and cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian methodically builds the scientific case for amending our traditional obsession with total fat (as a culprit in obesity) and saturated fat (as a culprit in heart disease).

Then, from about minute 47:30 to 50:30 in the video, he drops the hammer. Summarizing this large body of research, he argues that federal dietary guidance to address chronic disease should focus on food patterns rather than nutrients. In sharp criticism of the "Go, Slow, Whoa" guidance that still appears on the website of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Mozaffarian concludes, "This is insane!."

The speech implies big changes afoot. And I don't just mean for federal dietary guidance. This summer, Mozaffarian took the helm as the fourth dean of my school, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

On the way to the People's Climate March: Action and persuasion to address global climate change

In an astonishing turn of events this week, prosecutors dropped criminal charges against two climate change activists who in 2013 used their boat -- the Henry David T. -- to block a large coal shipment to New England.

Instead of proceeding to trial on September 8, Bristol District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter announced that he agreed with the activists that addressing climate change is a critical public concern. Taking the microphones afterwards, the prosecutor said he now planned to attend the People's Climate March in New York City next week, September 21.

What persuaded Mr. Sutter? What makes a person in authority decide to support strong action to address an environmental challenge?

I met one of the activists, Jay O'Hara, last year at a local meeting of church environmentalists. O'Hara is a Quaker, who speaks with calm conviction and common sense about the logic of his direct action. As you can hear in this morning's terrific Living On Earth interview, he is polite and respectful to people in authority, including police, even while quietly explaining the seemingly illegal action he has just taken. If it were not for the prosecutor's change of heart, the activists would have mounted a "necessity defense," saying their action was needed to prevent a greater public harm (as when somebody jaywalks in order to help an injured person out of a roadway).

Reflecting on this week's events, which still amaze me days later, I see two key ingredients: (a) direct action, not just talk, without waiting for permission and (b) speaking calmly and reasonably, always believing that your opponents are capable of thinking clearly and being persuaded.

For years, my family has been focusing on personal lifestyle changes to reduce our environmental impact. One of our key goals is to practice ways of living richly, while using fewer resources.

Inspired by the news this week, my wife and I (and perhaps one or both kids) are now arranging our complex schedules for next weekend so that we, too, may be able to attend the People's Climate March in New York City, September 21.

Source: Living On Earth website. (Photo: Kate Toomey; CC BY 2.0)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Will the beef checkoff ever be reformed?

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week that he shares farmers' frustrations and will use his authority to make necessary changes to the beef checkoff program, according to a report in Beef this week.

The program, known formally as the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB), uses the federal government's powers of taxation to collect a mandatory assessment (a tax, essentially) from beef producers. The program is overseen by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Most of the money is funneled to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

Vilsack made the statement at a meeting of the National Farmers Union (NFU). The farm organization listed the following changes that should be made to the checkoff program:
  • The CBB must have the authority to carry out checkoff projects on its own, similar to other checkoff oversight boards.
  • The CBB must be allowed to enter into checkoff contracts with non-policy organizations and private companies, such as ad agencies and public relations firms, in order to prevent policy-driven organizations from using checkoff dollars to fund overhead for political activity.
  • The beef checkoff must be completely refundable.
  • A referendum on the continuation of the beef checkoff must occur every five years, and NFU’s board recommended that USDA “consider rewriting the beef checkoff program” under the generic Commodity, Promotion, Research and Information Act of 1996.
I think USDA should adopt NFU's recommendations as soon as possible, seeking Congressional authorization if needed. It is ridiculous that such mild and obvious recommendations are even controversial.

NRDC shares inspection documents for Foster Farms

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) yesterday shared inspection documents for Foster Farms, the company at the center of a recent Salmonella outbreak that now appears contained.

From a blog post yesterday by Jonathan Kaplan, who is NRDC's director for food and agriculture (and by coincidence a childhood friend who grew up on the same block in Washington, DC, as I did):
Today NRDC posted hundreds of noncompliance reports written by USDA food safety inspectors at Foster Farms plants around the country between September 2013 and March of this year. Most of the violations found were incredibly unsavory and include more than 200 from two California plants linked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to an antibiotic resistant Salmonella outbreak. Although the outbreak now appears to be over, the pattern of violations at Foster Farms plants doesn’t leave us feeling warm and fuzzy about the company’s commitment to protecting public health. And we still have not received any response to our questions about antibiotic use at Foster Farms.
Food safety problems are fundamentally about lack of public information. If consumers had magic sunglasses that displayed the presence of Salmonella on chicken in the grocery store, there would be no need for government regulation. Immediately, faced with market consequences for distributing chicken with Salmonella, the companies would clean up their product.

The Foster Farms case shows how much better off we would be if the public had access to more of the information that appears routinely in inspection reports. Ironically, even companies might benefit from market incentives to reduce problems at the inspection stage rather than waiting for an outbreak (which can cause many more millions of dollars in loss of sales and reputation).

Thanks, NRDC, for helping to make such information available.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

AGree agricultural policy initiative releases five point-of-view papers on conservation policy

The AGree agricultural policy initiative today released five point-of-view papers related to productivity, profitability, and environmental outcomes.

The papers represent the diverse views of the authors, but one general theme is to encourage decentralized decision-making through which farmers and ranchers can address key environmental constraints, such as stewarding limited water quantity and protecting water quality.

For example, Kristin Weeks Duncanson, Jim Moseley, and Fred Yoder (.pdf) propose using local boards "to cooperatively establish and advance long-term productivity and conservation goals for their watersheds through engagement and support of producers and landowners and guided by sound science."

At their best, decentralized responses to environmental problems can have major advantages. Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel prize in economics for analyzing the ways that community-based decisions can in some cases address problems of the commons. At their weakest, decentralized responses may be insufficiently bold and comprehensive.

In AGree's press release this morning, Gary Hirshberg, an AGree Co-Chair and Chairman of Stonyfield Farm, describes the papers as a product of long discussion and a foundation perhaps for greater accomplishments in the future: “These papers reflect the intense deliberation that has gone into developing consensus recommendations and strategies,” he said. “To keep up with a changing climate, shrinking water supplies, shifting dietary preferences, and growing populations it is clear that we need system-wide change. AGree has focused on how new partnerships, innovative ways of working together, and targeted policy change can build trust and lay the foundation for a more sustainable future.”

Because the emphasis on decentralized approaches may not be matched yet with broader regulatory or tax-based responses to problems such as pollution, or property rights reforms to address water quantity, environmentalist readers of the five new papers may ask whether AGree fully acknowledges the determined national-level response that leading environmental challenges may require. I will be interested to hear which aspects of these five papers environmentalist readers find most daring, and which ones seem likely just to forestall or delay more vigorous initiatives.

In the paper by Duncanson, Mosely, and Yoder, I didn't yet get a strong sense of whether the local committees' work would add up in the end to quantifiable aggregate improvements, such as reduced total nutrient flow to the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Erie, and the Chesapeake. Perhaps one thing that could be added to their admirable decentralized vision is some mechanism for setting ambitious higher-level targets and getting buy-in from each local and regional board to do its part.

[I have been serving on AGree's research committee, where I've volunteered principally not on conservation but on a parallel discussion about nutrition policy. Of course, AGree is not responsible for my views here, nor vice versa.]

Monday, September 08, 2014

Sharing store-level SNAP redemptions data

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has requested public comment on the question: Should store-level redemptions data for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) be shared with the public?

This blog has long encouraged making public such information, which is useful to low-income communities seeking to improve access to healthy food.

In 2010, I covered the efforts of the MuckRock website to make public similar information. More recently, the Argus Leader pressed USDA to release store-level SNAP redemptions data. Tracie McMillan summarized the controversy in an article for the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) and Mother Jones in April.

The public comment period is open through today. Act now if you would like your voice heard. Here is an excerpt from my comment, submitted just now.
Thank you for requesting public comment on the question: should USDA/FNS release store-level redemptions data for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)?
The answer is “yes.”
This public information is useful
SNAP represents an increasingly large fraction of the U.S. food retail economy, now accounting for more than 10% of all food retail sales (Wilde, 2012). SNAP is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program, of course, and in recent years the program also has become a critical and central part of the food retail economy overall. To administer this responsibility transparently, in circumstances such as this one where information release is legal and ethical, USDA/FNS should make the information available.
With growing public interest in encouraging access to sufficient healthy food retail in low-income communities, these communities require good information about store-level SNAP redemptions. In a newsmagazine article this year by Tracie McMillan, James Johnson Piett explained the need: “We’re working kind of blind when it comes to empirical data” (McMillan, 2014).
It is legal and ethical to make this information public
The most important point is that SNAP redemptions data are not private confidential business information.

Section 9(c) of 7 U.S.C. 2018(c) prevents USDA/FNS from sharing information that is “received from applicant and participating SNAP retailers.” Similarly, Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows FNS to hold back “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.” In both cases the confidential information is obtained by the government from a private party or firm.
Store-level SNAP redemptions data are not private information acquired from a private party or firm in this manner. The redemptions data show what is being paid out by USDA/FNS and the federal government, on behalf of the American taxpayers, who have committed great resources at large expense to this important public purpose. Public expenditures in contracts with businesses that provide goods and services are usually rightly public information. Think about subsidies to farmers, or the value of military contracts to arms manufacturers, or municipal expenditures on roads, all of which are public information. No roads contactor can say, “please keep the amount of this contract private, because that is valuable confidential business information.”
In the comments to FNS that have already been posted to the Federal Register docket, many retailers have expressed concern over the release of their private business information. It is good for FNS to reassure them that private information they have provided will not be released. But -- despite the repetition in the submitted comments -- the basic store-level redemptions data are not private confidential information of this type. These redemptions data should be shared.
In the comments from retailers on the Federal Register docket, retailers express concern about the feared difficulty and cost of new data collection mechanisms to provide these data. These fears are unfounded. If there were any new data collection cost or difficulty, FNS would be entirely correct to decline to collect or release these data. FOIA is about public release of existing data that FNS already collects. Certainly, the state SNAP agencies that administer the program already know the redemption amounts.

Friday, September 05, 2014

What is this grain but blood and bones?

Recently, the Real Food Real Talk site asked several other writers and myself to answer briefly, "What does food justice mean to you?"

Much harder hitting than our answers, though, is this fierce reflection from the medieval poet Deschamps, written in the 14th century at a time when a popular working-class uprising had just been cruelly suppressed by the nobility.
"Therefore the innocent must die of hunger with whom these great wolves daily fill their maw," wrote Deschamps. "This grain, this corn, what is it but the blood and bones of the poor folk who have plowed the land? Wherefore their spirit crieth on God for vengeance. Woe to the lords, the councillors and all who steer us thus, and woe to all who are of their party, for no man careth now but to fill his bags." 
From In a Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

With little progress against poverty, U.S. household food insecurity remains above 14%

The prevalence of household food insecurity in the United States remained above 14% in 2013, according to new data released today by USDA's Economic Research Service.

Here is the abstract to today's report:
An estimated 14.3 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2013, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The change from 14.5 percent in 2012 was not statistically significant.The prevalence of very low food security was essentially unchanged at 5.6 percent.
Household food insecurity means that some household members at some times of the year experienced food-related hardships (the household respondent gave 3 or more "yes" answers to a set of 18 survey questions about experiences of hardship).

The high rate of household food insecurity represents a major disappointment for U.S. anti-poverty policy. Rates of household food insecurity fell during the economic expansion of the 1990s, stagnated in the early 2000s, and rose dramatically during the financial crisis of the late 2000s. Despite hopes for renewed economic growth and reduced unemployment, these remain very difficult times for low-income Americans.

In previous years, the United States solemnly adopted targets for reducing the prevalence of food insecurity from 12% (the level observed in the mid-1990s) to 6%. As my chart (based on USDA data) shows, this effort to improve U.S. food security has failed. Yet, neither Democrats nor Republicans talk much any more about any substantial realistic strategy for poverty reduction -- with serious objectives, quantitative targets, and implementation steps. Though food assistance is of course important, poverty reduction is the most promising approach to improving household food security in the United States.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Patent office okays patent for "Diane's Manna"

The federal government last December allowed a patent (U.S. patent 8,609,158) for "Diane's Manna," a supplement that is ...
so potent that it removes or alleviates depression, mood disorders, Attention Disorder symptoms, thought disorder, mental illness, pain, right lip retardation symptoms, physical problems, Lymph Node cancer and many other illness symptoms. 
Yes, that's quite a trick, but there's more:
It is extremely strong or potent and can be made weak to make your little Attention deficit child normal. It is an incredible mood stabilizer and reduces psychosis. Use it for cancer patient and for people with pain issues. It works.
According to the patent, the supplement is "made from distinctly and uniquely combined and processed interchangeable seed and seed derivatives."

The inventor, Diane Elizabeth Brooks of Sandy, Oregon, has an unusual background, as the patent explains:
I am a minister who has prayed my way through this medicine. 
The inventor provides extensive evidence of effectiveness based on her own personal experience.
I have used all of the ingredients listed. These all are used for the claims. Please know that these are continual medicines and are very good if you take them and make sure your body is filled with these before you ever stop or halt using them. 
This drug is to be used by all people who hate going to the Pharmaceutical companies or going to doctors who have a great problem in diagnosing our illnesses. It is for the people to judge. I am very ill. When I get sick, it is imperative to make myself a large dose of this recipe and take a large dose for many days. It causes a mild psychosis in me during this phase. I have to endure that to get to the right dose. I always lower the dose to my needs, but only after I have flooded my body with enough of the medicine to create this continuum. 
The primary examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) was Michael Meller.

This patent was recognized this week by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as the "Stupid Patent of the Month." I heard about it on BoingBoing. The EFF points out that the patent should have been rejected on any number of grounds, "including enablement, indefiniteness, and utility."

I think awarding such a foolish patent undermines the government's credibility as an authority that can help consumers sort through conflicting evidence on diet and health claims.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Our attention to diets (continued)

Here's another one. This is a Google Trends report of online interest in "sodium" and "gluten", 2004 to the present. High sodium intake in the U.S. population increases the prevalence of high blood pressure and heart disease, which are leading killers in the United States. Yet, this topic is ovewhelmed by the growing American obsession with gluten (an obsession that has become fully detached from any serious concern about celiac disease).

Textbook on Economics of Agricultural Development

Many important debates in U.S. Food Policy turn on competing views about the global food prospect, especially the food situation in developing countries. For those who want to study this topic seriously, Routledge has just published the new third edition of the comprehensive textbook, The Economics of Agricultural Development: World Food Systems and Resource Use, by George W. Norton, Jeffrey Alwang, and my Friedman School colleague William A. Masters. From the link:
Our third edition is out in August 2014, and the Japanese edition appeared in January 2013. Click here to read a review of the first edition (in ERAE), find it at your local bookstore or any online bookseller, request a review copy from Routledge, or visit our instructors’ website for lecture slides, extra photos and example quizzes.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Snopes post on Gatorade reads like advertising copy

As fizzy soda sales decline, top beverage manufacturers seek to convince children and parents that kids need sugary sports drinks to enhance athletic performance.

In truth, water is the best source of hydration for kids doing sports. Based on the balance of scientific evidence, the MyPlate text (.pdf) says it well: "Drink water instead of sugary drinks when you're thirsty." Plus, choosing bottled drinks instead of tap water is bad for the environment.

Early this year, Gatorade, which is owned by PepsiCo, got a pile of bad press -- including a hard-hitting Civil Eats article -- for a marketing campaign featuring Usain Bolt, which used kid-friendly games to insinuate athletic performance claims and disparage water (see below).

While reading up on that story, I came across this strange article in Snopes, which purports to fact-check a true rumor on the origins of Gatorade as a University of Florida Gators team drink, but which reads like advertising copy for the drink. The Snopes response reports as fact several marketing claims unrelated to the actual rumor at issue: "Other athletes who tried the drink soon swore by it, claiming it helped them go longer and finish stronger" and "Gatorade has since become an integral part of a number of sports."

I am writing Snopes to suggest that the site revise its article. I'll update this post if Snopes responds.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Kellogg announces new climate change commitments

The Kellogg Company today unveiled new commitments to address actions by itself and its suppliers that affect climate change. General Mills on July 28 had announced similar initiatives.

From Kellogg's statement (.pdf) today:
As stated in our Kellogg Global Supplier Code of Conduct, we expect suppliers to support our corporate responsibility commitments by implementing sustainable operating and farming practices, and agricultural production systems. Suppliers must strive to reduce or optimize agricultural inputs; reduce greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water use; and minimize water pollution and waste, including food waste and landfill usage.
The anti-hunger organization Oxfam International had been encouraging leading food manufacturers to make such commitments. Oxfam's recent report, Standing on the Sidelines, had argued that food and beverage companies need to do more. Today, Oxfam praised Kellogg's announcement:
“We welcome Kellogg’s efforts to become an industry leader in the fight against climate change and the damage it is causing to people everywhere,” said Monique van Zijl, campaign manager for Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign. “Kellogg’s new commitments add momentum to calls on governments and the wider food and agriculture industry to recognize that climate change is real, it’s happening now, and we need to tackle it.”
In the announcement today, Kellogg says it will set targets for greenhouse gas reductions, produce a climate change adaptation strategy, take steps to limit deforestation impacts in its supply chains, and commit to disclosure of key climate change information. Oxfam said Kellogg plans to participate in the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP) group and sign the Climate Declaration.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Summarizing the Agricultural Act of 2014

Choices Magazine -- the outreach magazine of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) -- this spring and early summer published a special series summarizing the Agricultural Act of 2014 (also known as the Farm Bill).

Jody Campiche organized the series and presented the theme overview:
After more than three years of debate on the next farm bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014 was signed into law on February 7, 2014. Overall, total spending under the new bill will be reduced by $23 billion as compared to the baseline over the next 10 years. The Agricultural Act of 2014 reforms the dairy program, includes major changes to commodity programs, adds new supplemental crop insurance programs, consolidates conservation programs, expands programs for specialty crops, reauthorizes important livestock disaster assistance programs, and reduces spending under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). However, despite large cuts in total program spending, the Act continues to provide important programs to ensure a safe and adequate food supply and to protect our natural resources. The articles in this theme discuss new or revised provisions relating to commodities, crop insurance, dairy, conservation, nutrition, and specialty crops as included in the Agricultural Act of 2014.
The series includes articles on commodity payments, conservation programs, dairy programs, crop insurance, specialty crops, and my contribution on nutrition assistance programs.

AAEA recognizes Food Policy in the United States

In its 2014 awards program, the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) has given honorable mention to my book, Food Policy in the United States, in the category "Quality of Communication."

As publisher of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics and other top-ranked periodicals, AAEA is the leading scholarly and professional association in U.S. agricultural and applied economics. Though my book is highly multi-disciplinary -- designed to engage non-traditional audiences interested in food policy debates -- AAEA's recognition shows that the book also meets the exacting standards of the mainstream of my home profession.

My department chair, Will Masters, wrote the nomination letter to AAEA:
Prof. Wilde’s book distills the instructional content of his 13-week graduate course on U.S. Food Policy into a very readable 200 pages, enlivened with anecdotes from 10 years of experience blogging on the topic at The quality of writing is extraordinary, making economic insights accessible by clear use of plain language, amply illustrated with well-designed charts and tables, plus sidebars with more academic material to add depth without interfering with the story line. The book is particularly innovative in its scope, spanning agricultural production and international trade, food manufacturing, grocery stores and restaurants, food safety and labeling, advertising and health claims, and nutrition assistance programs....
In summary, Prof. Parke Wilde’s Food Policy in the United States offers a big step forward in fulfillment of the AAEA’s vision and mission. This book exemplifies the highest standard of scientific communication needed by our profession, first to help students in classrooms all across the country, and then to help graduates improve food and agricultural policy in Washington and elsewhere.
I hope the AAEA's honorable mention encourages faculty to consider using this book for courses that address -- in a lively but rigorous way -- the immense student interest in food movements and food policy. Faculty members who are considering adoption may acquire a copy from the publisher.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Our attention to diets

Here is a Google Trends report of online interest in "dietary guidelines" and "paleo diet", United States, 2004 to the present. Notice the two peaks for interest in "dietary guidelines," corresponding to the release of new Dietary Guidelines for Americans once every five years.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Menus of Change

The Menus of Change -- a project of the Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America -- brings together industry folks, chefs, academics, and advocates to discuss private-sector and public-sector action regarding both nutrition and the environment.

The new annual report summarizes recent trends, progress, and lack of progress, topic by topic.
At the end of the day, what we as chefs and operators choose to offer as a plate of food has enormous consequences, for the health of our customers and our planet. And yet just as we embrace evidence-based guidance from the scientific community as a key reference point in decision-making, we also know that we need—nationally—something akin to a new “moonshot” program to better and more fully realize the possibilities of bringing together deliciousness with healthy, sustainable food choices. This is an issue for all of us: our families, our schools, our employees, our troops. And it needs to start with a renewed commitment to the fundamentals: what we might call “farming for flavor.”
Restaurant News published a good summary of the project's lively and engaging second annual summit, which was held this week in Boston. The article noted that three leading themes from the summit were coping with climate change, finding better ways to source protein, and increasing fruit and vegetables on menus.
The conference’s presenters tied the three topics together, presenting evidence that excessive consumption of red meat is a leading cause of heart disease and a contributor to diabetes, and that red meat — particularly beef — is a key contributor to global warming. They said foodservice operators should try to introduce other sources of protein and also replace much of that protein with vegetables and fruit, particularly since most Americans eat more protein than they need.
Menus of Change is just one of several initiatives that seem to combine sustainability and nutrition issues in higher profile ways. I am on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee for this project. Other such efforts include the AGree agricultural policy initiative, some of the work last year of the Food Forum at the Institute of Medicine, and the current round of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (for example, see the recent presentation by Kate Clancy).

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Schools really can serve healthy meals

For a child, eating a piece of fruit is not some big challenge like climbing Mount Everest.

It is realistic for us to expect school meals programs to meet the modest sensible new standards. All over the world, children are capable of eating the basic amounts of fruits and vegetables that are served under the new standards. Throughout longer-term U.S. history, I imagine children have eaten meals with these amounts. It is the recent history of fast food meals in school that are the aberration.

In a transitional year, it is not surprising to see some reports of increased plate waste. Everybody recognizes that plate waste may go up for new menu items, and then come down again as children become accustomed to them.

In this week's Congressional struggle over child nutrition programs, some folks describe the new rules in terms of a food police state run amok. This is not fair. In contrast with government restrictions on, say, advertising practices targeting adults, what we serve in schools has nothing to do with police power. Taxpayers and parents are entrusting schools with several billion dollars each year, in return for feeding our children. Surely the adults who receive these funds for this task can serve reasonably healthy meals.

I had the chance to discuss these issues with Alan Bjerga at Bloomberg, whose article was published today. He quotes both critics and supporters of the new rules. I pointed out that the new standards themselves are probably not the problem. I strongly suspect that the school food service operations would be better sports about this change if only Congress had offered them more than a measly six additional cents per meal to compensate for the potential cost increases that might result.

Other recent coverage comes from National Public Radio. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers this infographic (which I saw on the Food Politics blog).

Report criticizes marketing for some dairy foods

Food industry critic and reform advocate Michele Simon this week released a new report sharply critical of marketing practices for certain dairy foods including pizza and sugar sweetened dairy drinks. Most of this marketing effort originates with the federal government's fluid milk and dairy checkoff boards, which are semi-public government-endorsed programs that are funded through a tax or mandatory assessment on dairy producers.

My view of this issue is not anti-dairy, nor do I favor government restrictions on private-sector advertising for dairy products. Yet, surely reasonable people can agree on this: any federal government-sponsored producer boards, and any marketing funded using the federal government's power of taxation, ought to be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The checkoff marketing should not be for Pizza Hut or for sugar-sweetened drinks. In these times of major health crisis and rising public sector health costs, we should expect the foods and beverages marketed in the government's own voice to be healthy.

For readers following up on this story, here are some related links from a diversity of official and non-official sources.
  • The U.S. Food Policy blog post on this topic in February.
  • The annual report to Congress from USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), describing the fluid milk and dairy checkoff programs. Although the report is annual, the most recent report online appears to be 2011.
  • A report from USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) earlier this year about pizza consumption in the United States.
  • The dairy checkoff program's website describing its partnerships with Domino's, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and McDonald's, with an online video titled "McDonald's thanks America's dairy farmers."
  • A 2010 article by Kim Severson in the New York Times about sugar-sweetened milk in school meal programs.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Superfood fads for global farmers

In a Marketplace report last night, Dan Bobkoff describes the excitement of new crops for global farmers without overstating the power of any single new crop to transform the world. To communicate this balance of opportunity and realism, Bobkoff chatted with my fellow Tufts economist Will Masters.
Masters is chairman of the Food and Nutrition Policy Department in the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts. He says more often than not, so-called miracle crops like moringa or breadfruit are distractions. "Why [is] it that it didn't get identified as a huge success previously?"

In other words, it's not like farmers haven't tried many of these crops before. Farmers experiment. They'll plant something new, and see how it does. And, over the years, many of these so-called superfoods failed for the most mundane of reasons. They take too long to grow, require too much labor or are prone to pests. It's not as easy to spread breadfruit as wheat.

"That search across all the available biodiversity has been going on for thousands of years," Masters said, "and it's led to a system that has found a half dozen or dozen major species that feed the world. And that's because those major species have some pretty amazing characteristics."

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Communicating with the dietetics profession

In Mother Jones this week, Kiera Butler has a striking report about the food industry presence at a conference of the California Dietetic Association. The description of attendees consuming and discussing their free McDonald's salads makes the association seem careless with its valuable public image and credibility.

One might ask, how on earth could dietitians ally themselves with major fast food chains, instead of with advocacy groups -- or hard-hitting magazines -- that seek to better represent the public interest?

Part of the answer, surely, is that the food industry provides funding to the dietetics associations. This is the answer Mother Jones might emphasize.

Another part of the answer is that the food industry publicly endorses the best judgment of dietitians and nutrition scientists on the leading diet and health questions of the day. Actual products may not follow this judgment, but the industry's public communications are deeply respectful of the profession. Industry representatives endlessly tell the profession, "We listen to your advice, while those would-be do-gooders in the public interest community foolishly pursue one nutrition fad after another."

For example, consider the claim in the Mother Jones article that mounting scientific evidence shows that "high-fructose corn syrup prompts more weight gain than other sugars." The article links to this four year old 2010 press release from Princeton University, which imprecisely summarizes its supporting scientific journal article (.pdf), which in turn has been strongly criticized by NYU's Marion Nestle, who is quoted as a trusted authority in the same Mother Jones article (!), and who further links to a more detailed evisceration of this research.

It is fine to criticize high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) along with sugar, because of strong evidence that both are associated with risk of weight gain. But the current evidence does not support Mother Jones' claim that HFCS prompts more weight gain than other sugars. That claim -- and more specifically the casual and uncritical link to the Princeton University press release -- plays into the industry's strategy for befriending dietitians.

Writers and advocates who care about the public interest really can persuade the dietetics profession to adopt a more independent and skeptical stance in its relationships with the food industry. We could begin by avoiding these failures in summarizing the best scientific evidence.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

New edition of Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat by Janet Poppendieck

Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat is a classic in the history of U.S. food policy, written by sociologist  Janet Poppendieck, focused on the connections between agricultural crisis and food programs for the poor in the Great Depression.

The new edition from the University of California Press, published this month, includes a foreword by Marion Nestle and a delightful new epilogue bringing the story up to date from the book's original publication in the 1980s to the present. And by "the present," I mean the book includes material as recent as the key January 2014 compromise over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provisions new Farm Bill. (In terms of the publishing mechanics, how is this even possible?).

I read the new manuscript last year at the request of the publisher (and recommended republication):
The book is well-written and detailed, making bureaucratic correspondence come alive as lively argument. It has an authoritative and believable voice, while still carrying passion for the plight of the poor and hungry. I knew this already from reading Poppendieck’s more recent books on the emergency food system and on school meals reform. The pig slaughter story will stick in my head permanently now. The use of archival material adds novelty, but the book serves well even digesting and interpreting known topics.
Immediately today I will add this book to my U.S. food policy syllabus and place an order request to my university library.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

If you are fed up and wish the U.S. could reduce sugar consumption ...

The new documentary movie Fed Up, by Stephanie Soechtig, will be released widely tomorrow. It rightly focuses on sugar consumption as a key contributor to chronic disease in the United States.

If you see this movie and want some links to reliable information, here is a quick rundown of both the diagnosis and the potential solutions.

Diagnosis of the problem
  1. Mainstream sources agree with the movie that sugar consumption is a problem. Based on an exhaustive review of the balance of evidence in the scientific literature, the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans plainly recommends that Americans reduce their consumption of calories from added sugars. Fed Up's broad indictment of sugar is endorsed by the movie's most reliable interviewees, such as former FDA Commissioner David Kessler.
  2. Sugar is not consumed in the abstract -- it comes from particular foods. As noted in a "Sugar 101" primer from the American Heart Association, the leading sources of added sugars in our diet include soft drinks, baked goods, candy, and ice cream. Americans would live longer and have better health if we reduced consumption of these foods.
  3. Unless you are prepared to critically evaluate the complex scientific literature, it is optional and not necessary to buy in to a variety of specific scientific claims about sugar. Among the interviewees in Fed Up's trailer, which I watched today, I have heard nutrition scientist Robert Lustig focus more narrowly on fructose, and I've heard Gary Taubes more broadly criticize all carbohydrates. I personally find the sources cited in #1 above more persuasive than either Lustig or Taubes, but who knows? Either or both of them may turn out right. It doesn't matter for the basic indictment of the foods in #2 above.
  4. Some people blame marketing, and others blame federal subsidies. The influence of marketing is real, while the subsidy story is generally unconvincing. To understand how federal subsidies affect corn syrup, for example, one must pay attention not just to price-suppressing corn subsidies (which have been tiny in recent years anyway), but one also must pay attention to corn-based ethanol policies that have made corn syrup more expensive. I think critics of "subsidies" mostly have not taken the time to learn about specific subsidy programs, but rather are expressing -- correctly -- their recognition of the longer term impact of the industrialization of the food system. Regardless, the specific blame doesn't matter much. However we assess the relative contribution of these factors, we should always remember the more fundamental fact that will remain with us even if marketing policies or subsidy policies are reformed: products with sugar are sweet and people desire them. That's the big source of our challenge.
Solutions to the problem
  1. Tax. Jenny Hopkinson and Helena Bottemiller Evich report that, in connection with the premier of Fed Up, some in Congress are expressing renewed interest in a tax on sugar sweetened beverages. USDA research shows that an increase in the price of these beverages likely would make a considerable difference on consumption. It is true that part of the gains -- but only part -- would be offset by increased intake of other caloric beverages that substitute for the beverages that are taxed. It is also true that higher beverage prices would be regressive (affecting low income folks relatively more than high income folks). Finally, the most important thing about a tax is that it political death to seek to tax, as if taxes were a good thing. The only politic way to pursue a beverage tax is to institute it as part of the Congress' unavoidable responsibilities to fund essential government services (such as military and roads), reduce the deficit, and seek to balance the budget. The sound argument is, "so long as we are reluctantly compelled to institute a small sensible tax on something, we might as well save some public health expenditures by placing the tax on sugar sweetened beverages."
  2. The food environment. I think it is time for schools, offices, restaurants, and all sorts of public venues to revisit their role in making sugary foods -- and especially beverages -- available to excess. At one time in the past, somebody might have seemed overwrought or joyless for enforcing limits on bake sales in schools, for example, or an occasional fast food meal as a reward for good school performance. But, decades into the current nutrition dilemma, I think we should be more grateful and supportive of those who propose holding a firm line on making the food environment healthier, especially for our children.
  3. Improving nutrition assistance programs. First, nobody should even contemplate any part of solution #3 unless they also are boldly supporting proposals in #1 and #2. It is poisonous to discuss improving changes to nutrition assistance programs for low-income Americans unless we are firmly on the record supporting corresponding changes in the food environment for people of all income groups. Second, any proposed improvements should incorporate input from anti-hunger advocates as well is public health advocates, and they certainly should draw on input from program participants themselves. If bold new nutrition assistance program options are pursued on a pilot scale, we may be surprised at the response from program participants.