Thursday, December 22, 2016

A consistent policy toward drug testing for recipients of USDA benefits

Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) this week urged President-elect Donald Trump to allow Wisconsin to implement drug testing for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation's leading anti-hunger program and the largest program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

One could argue that this is a bad idea, because people in the grips of substance addictions can be as poor and hungry as anybody else. Moreover, SNAP is a household benefit, so it is not clear how benefit cuts based on one person's drug test would affect innocent children and other relatives in the same family. Remedies other than taking away their food may be the most humane approach to this social problem.

Alternatively, if the incoming administration values drug testing, we can all agree that any drug testing for recipients of USDA funding should be consistent and fair across the board. One could imagine:
  1. Drug testing for SNAP participants. In other social safety net programs, evidence suggests that millions of dollars can be wasted chasing very few positives. But, this was Governor Walker's proposal, so it stays on the list.
  2. Drug testing for participants in farm subsidy programs. A 2011 study reported: "Current alcohol use, smokeless tobacco use, inhalant use, and other illicit drug use were more prevalent among high school-aged youths living on farms than among those living in towns." To be consistent with the household character of the SNAP drug tests, the testing would certainly include teenagers in the farm families. The Environmental Working Group shows 1995-2014 USDA payments to Wisconsin farmers of $7.6 billion. Surely, only a small fraction of this sum is spent on illegal drugs, but even a small fraction can add up.
One suspects that this consistent drug testing policy would find less support in the U.S. Congress. 

If Governor Walker's proposal fails to gain traction, perhaps Congress will then turn to more imaginative ways of reducing despair and hopelessness, and increasing prosperity and food security, for all recipients of USDA funding.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The nutrition title in the next farm bill

Choices Magazine, a publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), has my new commentary: "The Nutrition Title’s Long, Sometimes Strained, but Not Yet Broken, Marriage with the Farm Bill."

It describes the divergent budgetary forecasts for two major safety net programs, with falling spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and rising spending for the much larger Medicaid program.

Source: Author’s computations based on Congressional Budget Office (CBO), 2016.
Note: SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

There are two different conclusions that lawmakers could draw from these trends:
On the one hand, as they plan the next farm bill, legislators may accept falling SNAP costs and rising Medicaid costs, on grounds that the funding lost from SNAP still is going toward another important safety net program. On the other hand, legislators could reason that preventing poor nutrition and chronic disease makes more sense than treatment after the fact. From the latter perspective, providing extra resources for SNAP to address unhealthy eating and diet-related chronic disease may be a worthwhile investment if it slows the growth of Medicaid costs.
What will happen next? We can only guess.
In most past cycles, congressional debate over the farm bill was comparatively less partisan than debate over other legislation. This changed in the 2014 farm bill, as legislators concerned about the federal budget deficit challenged the traditional bipartisan support for farm programs, and criticism of SNAP had a more partisan character than usual. To reduce partisan tensions over this issue, Congress established a national commission on hunger in the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill. The commission’s final report was released in January, 2016 (National Commission on Hunger, 2015). The report places substantial emphasis on employment and training programs and requirements, and it proposes to exclude a narrowly defined class of sugar-sweetened beverages from SNAP eligibility, which is a provision likely to be opposed by SNAP’s supporters in anti-hunger organizations. At the same time, the report describes SNAP’s overall success in reducing the rates of household food insecurity and hunger in the United States.
In the next farm bill, it is uncertain whether to expect a renewal of the rancorous and partisan argument over the nutrition title. The commission’s report may serve as a roadmap for a less divisive nutrition title, if lawmakers seek such a thing.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The scale of SNAP (food stamp) spending relative to other budget priorities

Multiple social media friends recently shared a fall 2015 chart from an organization called "The Other 98%" (slogans: "kicking corporate asses for the working classes" and "we didn't start the class war, but we're going to end it").

I like the chart's implied message. In my own words: "The United States should seek to advance peace, reduce military spending, pursue economic justice, and support programs that promote food security."

But, the chart badly botches the details, showing SNAP (food stamp) spending as a minuscule portion of federal spending, "somewhere within the tiny orange sliver at the bottom," less than 1% of federal spending, and therefore less than 1/57th as large as the military budget that takes most of the pie.

In a democracy, we don't all need to be budget experts, but I highly recommend that every voter take just the 10 minutes needed to understand some basics about the federal budget. I like the clear "Federal Budget 101" provided by the National Priorities Project. Here are 4 items from that website that help in interpreting the chart above.

1. The total budget was about $3.8 trillion in 2015. Military spending was $598 billion (16% of the total). SNAP spending (part of "everything else") was $74 billion (2% of the total). Therefore, SNAP spending is 1/8th as large as military spending.

2. Federal spending can be divided into "mandatory spending" (65%, including SNAP and many other programs whose annual spending follows rules that were decided when the program was authorized) and "discretionary spending" (29%, including military spending and many other programs whose annual spending is mainly decided by appropriations each year).

3. Military spending is a large part of discretionary spending (which, in turn, is 29% of the total budget). The Other 98%'s chart shows discretionary spending -- as noted in the text underneath the Facebook post above. It agrees closely with the numbers from the National Priorities Project. However, The Other 98% is wrong to say that the small "Food and Agriculture" slice contains SNAP.

4. Social security and medical costs make up a large fraction of mandatory spending (which, in turn, is 65% of the total budget). SNAP ($74 billion) and mandatory farm subsidy programs are both included within the yellow food and agriculture slice ($122.6 billion) of this chart -- not the food and agriculture slice of the preceding discretionary chart.

To summarize, the military budget ($598 billion) is about 8 times as big as the SNAP or food stamp budget ($74 billion). For many readers, there never was any reason for the original Facebook post to indulge in misrepresentation, confusion, or error. These accurate numbers would have been sufficient to motivate the main rhetorical argument: "The United States will be better off if we pursue peace, reduce military spending, promote justice, and ensure enough food for all people in our community."

I hope this time was useful to you in a small way (to understand a quibble with the Facebook post) and a big way (to comprehend the broad outlines of how our government spends our money).

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Some in Massachusetts are concerned with animal welfare and yet not voting for Ballot Measure #3

In a commentary for WBUR this week, my faculty colleagues Will Masters and Jennifer Hashley write about Massachusetts Ballot Measure #3, which would ban the sale in Massachusetts of eggs, pork, and veal from confined production methods.

This debate is commonly described as a tension between animal welfare goals and protecting poor people from higher prices. Masters and Hashley actually speak favorably about the animal welfare goals, and even say that in principle more humane production practices could be accomplished at reasonable cost (assuming the right supports), but they say in practice the Massachusetts initiative generates too much concern about higher prices right now.

They write:
The more we understand Ballot Question 3, the more vexing the choice appears. From our long experience with U.S. agriculture and food policy, we know that America’s diverse and resilient farms could potentially deliver improved animal welfare without harming access to low-cost, convenient and nutritious eggs. But we also know that this won’t happen automatically. If government remains on the sidelines, a yes vote on Question 3 would bring unacceptable price rises.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Baylen Linnekin: "Biting the Hands That Feed Us"

In Biting the Hands that Feed Us (Island Press, 2016), food lawyer Baylen Linnekin offers a libertarian appeal for reduced food regulations.

Like many such books, Linnekin reviews a long littany of well-meaning business people whose enterprises were thwarted by silly rules and regulations that fail to serve a sound public purpose: small "salumi" makers (sort of like salami) who are told to use preservatives in their cured meats; artisinal cheese makers who are told not to use wooden boards for aging cheese; fishermen who must discard "bycatch" to comply with harvest rules; and local farmers who are prevented from selling off-size tomatoes or who suffer under the fixed costs of compliance with the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

A couple features favorably distinguish this book from others in the same vein. Linnekin's appreciation for small and artisinal producers is heartfelt, in contrast with others who might use complaints about regulation implicitly to breeze over shortcomings in the current conventional industrialized food system. Linnekin's main thesis is that rules too often harm sustainable production strategies. As one might hope, Linnekin takes a completely consistent and highly critical libertarian view of "Ag Gag" laws, which risk preventing private individuals from honestly reporting how food really is produced. I could not help being pleased with Linnekin's coverage of checkoff programs, including a citation to some coverage from this blog.

In the end, though, I think Linnekin understates the genuine public interest motivation for many rules and regulations. With any proposed food safety policy, there is risk of both Type I error (prohibiting an economic action that would not in fact have caused an illness) and Type II error (failing to prevent an illness that we should have prevented). I see the struggle to get this balance right as fundamental to U.S. food safety policy. The fact that Linnekin can recount examples of regulations that failed to correctly judge a particular producer falls far short of persuading a reader of his broader point.

In his final chapter, though without using these terms, Linnekin wrestles with precisely this challenge of getting the balance of Type I and Type II correct. As I would paraphrase the argument, he feels one can distinguish the right regulatory policies by: (a) promoting sustainability, (b) enforcing standards for food safety outcomes, not food safety processes, (c) avoiding any favor for large producers over small producers, and (d) ending farm subsidies. I don't think this four-part screen is sufficient to strike the right balance. For example, deciding when to regulate outcomes and when to regulate processes is complicated. In many cases, it is far more straightforward to regulate the temperature at which food must be held than to regulate microbial counts on the product.

Overall, though I liked the book, I doubt Linnekin is right to call so broadly for regulatory retrenchment. We have endured decades now of strong attacks in the U.S. Congress on regulatory agencies, using sharp anti-government rhetoric, including many of the same libertarian themes that Linnekin highlights. Even if Linnekin does devote one chapter to regulations he does support -- which not every such author would do -- this does not suffice to give the book as a whole a full balance.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

In 2015, 12.7% of U.S. households were food insecure, and 4.2% of respondents reported hunger

According to the annual USDA report, released moments ago, 12.7% of U.S. households were food insecure in 2015, an improvement from 14.0% the previous year.

Households were classified as food secure or food insecure, based on their responses to a set of questions about food-related hardship.

In 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration, the rate of household food insecurity was 14.6%. In 2012, the most recent presidential election year before the current year, the rate of household food insecurity was 14.5%.

Although it is sometimes said that USDA no longer measures "hunger," this is not really true. One of the clearest statistics in USDA's report each year is the simple question (buried deep in the statistical appendix) about whether the household respondent had been "hungry" at some point in the previous year due to not having enough resources for food. Just 4.2% reported hunger in 2015, down from 4.8% the previous year.

Even with the recent improvement, the United States has fallen terribly far short of national goals for improving food security. There is no fundamental economic or physical barrier preventing our country from achieving lower rates of food insecurity and hunger.

Graph by the author. Data source: USDA (2016).

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Berkeley "soda tax" reduced sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and increased water consumption

In the American Journal of Public Health this month, Jennifer Falbe and colleagues found that the penny-per-ounce Berkeley soda tax succeeded in reducing sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption.

The study asked respondents about soda intake, in Berkeley and in comparison cities of northern California (Oakland and San Francisco, which did not have a new tax), before and after the new Berkeley tax was implemented in March 2015. The findings were remarkable. SSB consumption fell 21% in Berkeley and rose 4% in the comparison cities during the same period.

The SSBs include caloric soda, of course, but also some kinds of other sweetened drinks. However, for various reasons (including sound nutrition reasons plus perhaps political reasons), the tax did not affect milk drinks or 100% fruit juice. Therefore, it is important to understand what other beverages people substituted for soda. The study does not answer all my questions on this point, but it did find that water consumption increased in Berkeley at the same time that SSB consumption fell. Water consumption increased 63% in Berkeley, significantly more than the increase in the comparison cities during the same period. This was reassuring.

A good way to standardize estimates of tax effects is to report an "elasticity" -- the percentage change in consumption for each 1% change in price. A typical elasticity estimate for soda is about -1.2, meaning that the price increase in Berkeley (about 8%) would have been expected to generate a consumption decline of about 10%. The authors took care to confirm that the estimated consumption decline of 21% was significantly different from zero, which is the standard statistical way of making sure the estimates were not a random statistical fluke, but they cannot really be sure the true impact is exactly 21% rather than 10%. They sensibly discussed the possibility that "early reaction to the tax ... could rebound and settle closer to a 10% reduction in consumption."

Even if the impact were a 10% reduction, this study has important public health implications, providing I think the strongest evidence so far that a tax would reduce SSB consumption.

I encourage my colleagues in agricultural and applied economics to read this study. There is a long tradition in my profession of doubting the potential impact of such taxes. In the Washington Post in 2015, Tamar Haspel quoted University of Minnesota applied economist Marc Bellemare saying the results at that time were "not robust." Haspel also quoted my Friedman School colleague and friend Sean Cash saying that product formulation, rather than taxes, are the way to go: "If we could achieve a 5 percent reduction by reformulation, that would swamp what we can achieve with consumer-level intervention.” The TuftsNOW site quoted Sean casting further doubt on taxes: "All studies suggest that for food in general, we’re not particularly responsive to price." Oklahoma State University economist Jayson Lusk, who also is president of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), has blogged several times about soda taxes, agreeing with most of the Tamar Haspel column  in the Washington Post, and concluding stridently: "I'm sorry, but if my choice is between nothing and a policy that is paternalistic, regressive, will create economic distortions and deadweight loss, and is unlikely to have any significant effects on public health, I choose nothing" (emphasis added).

In the Salt this week, NPR reporter Dan Charles quotes Berkeley researcher Kristine Madsen on whether the new estimates of SSB reduction are large enough to matter for public health. "Madsen says a 20 percent reduction in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages would be enough to reduce rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in years to come. 'This would have a huge public health impact if it were sustained,' she says." I think most experts in public health nutrition would agree with Madsen's assessment.

This week, Jayson's blog post on the Berkeley study raises some measurement issues, but recognizes that these issues are unlikely to overturn the main result. He writes, "All that said, I'm more than willing to accept the finding that the Berkeley city soda tax caused soda consumption to fall. The much more difficult question is: are Berkeley residents better off?" This is a question that surely will be discussed heavily in the next couple years as more municipalities experiment with such policies.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Are checkoff programs good for nutrition? (#AAEA2016)

Harry Kaiser (Cornell University) and I have enjoyed putting together a lively session later today, discussing the question: Are checkoff programs good for nutrition?

In a friendly debate, Harry will argue "yea" and I will argue "nay" (though in fact we agree on many aspects of these programs). John Crespi from Iowa State will be independent discussant, and Kristin Kiesel of UC Davis will moderate.

The session takes place in the Berkeley room 2:45pm today, Aug 2, at the conference site for the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) here in Boston.

Harry was one of my professors in graduate school at Cornell in the 1990s, and he is a leading economist in the evaluation of generic advertising effects on food consumption. This recent infographic from the beef checkoff program highlights his work (click for full size).

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Food policy in Brazil emphasizes enjoyment of meals and criticizes overprocessed foods

The Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) and the Nation have an in-depth article by Bridget Huber this week on national food policy in Brazil, led by Carlos Monteiro and colleagues. Dietary guidelines in Brazil bluntly criticize highly processed foods while simultaneously communicating a healthy enjoyment of food more generally.
Monteiro came to believe that nutritionists’ traditional focus on food groups and nutrients like fat, sugar, and protein had become obsolete. The more meaningful distinction, he started to argue, is in how the food is made. Monteiro is most concerned with the “ultraprocessed products”—those that are manufactured largely from industrial ingredients like palm oil, corn syrup, and artificial flavorings and typically replace foods that are eaten fresh or cooked. Even by traditional nutritionists’ criteria, these sorts of products are considered unhealthy—they tend to be high in fat, sugar, and salt. But Monteiro argues that ultraprocessed foods have other things in common: They encourage overeating, both because they are engineered by food scientists to induce cravings and because manufacturers spend lavishly on marketing.
This blog has previously discussed the way Brazilian dietary guidelines combine nutrition and sustainability issues, in a manner that is not done in the United States. I helped colleagues at George Washington University organize a conference on sustainability issues in dietary guidance in 2014, at which Monteiro was a speaker, and the Brazilian experience has influenced my sense of what might be possible in the United States.

Regarding enjoyment of healthy meals, Huber writes:
Pleasure is an essential part of the new guide, which frames cooking as a time to enjoy with family and friends, not a burden. And instead of sterile prescriptions for the number of grams of fat and fiber to eat each day, the guide focuses on meals. Sample meals were created by looking at the food habits of Brazilians who eat the lowest amount of ultraprocessed foods. One dinner option is a vegetable soup followed by a bowl of acai pulp with cassava flour, as one might eat in the Amazon region. Another plate, more typical of São Paulo, is spaghetti, chicken, and salad. If these seem like ordinary meals, that would be the point, one of the researchers said: They wanted to counteract the idea that a “healthy” diet is one full of unfamiliar and even unpleasant foods.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

July 2016 update on the #flyingless initiative

The ‪#‎flyingless‬ campaign has been enjoying a flurry of activity since the last update.

1. See Joe Nevins' new interview, posted today on the website, with legal innovator Professor Mary Christina Wood. She contributed to the idea that nature is a "public trust," with dramatic potential implications for addressing climate change. She also is a #flyingless supporter: "Universities will have to re-think their flying practices in a very serious way."

2. Several people connected with our campaign were involved with the remarkable nearly carbon-free conference on Climate Change and the Humanities. Ken Hiltner was the lead organizer and inspiration. Presenters included Peter Singer, Joe Nevins, Peter Kalmus, and myself. On the final day, in addition to the main event in California, we had a fine group of about 12 participants on the Tufts University campus linked by videoconference. Ken Hiltner has created a White Paper / Practical Guide with lessons about how to organize such a conference, and there already is a future conference planned "The World in 2050: Creating/Imagining Just Climate Futures."

3. Please continue to share the website. Important links are available from the "Menu" button at top right of the page. There now are 375 academic signatories for the petition! Twitter: @flyingless.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Exercise, weight loss, and the food environment

A clear and effective video from Vox explains why exercise is not directly a cure for overweight. The video's message -- rightly -- is that we should pay close attention to food intake and the quality of the food environment.

The video does note that physical activity has strong direct effects on health. Nonetheless, I would have emphasized the benefits of physical activity even more strongly than the video does.

My first reason for giving physical activity yet more credit is a bit geeky. Much of the research literature uses regression models where a weight measure is the outcome variable and physical activity or exercise is the main explanatory variable. To make sure the analysis really reflects the "effect" of exercise, the studies include additional control variables such as food intake and general health. Yet, when we step up our physical activity, we may experience improvements in health, mood, and feelings of self-efficacy. Including explanatory variables for food intake and health status may risk "over-controlling" for other factors. We may eat healthier when our mood is good. We may avoid periods of poor health and inactivity that lead to weight gain. Perhaps stepping up our physical activity deserves some of the credit for improvements in weight that are being picked up by the control variables.

My second reason for giving physical activity yet more credit is more superficial. For some people who seek to lose weight, the ultimate goal is to look better. I have mixed feelings about whether this is good psychology, but it does seem to be common. Stepping up physical activity may affect posture, muscle tone, and confidence, making people look better in ways that the scale may not register.

But the video certainly is right that researchers in recent years have become more careful about not over-promising physical activity as a complete weight loss program on its own.


Friday, June 10, 2016

Tufts Research Day 2016: Global food security

The Tufts Research Day is an annual event highlighting inter-disciplinary work on a cross-cutting topic. The 2016 event, on April 25, was titled Research Day on Global Food Security: Crisis and Opportunity. The format was a series of short accessible "lightning talks." My session on metrics and data needs included Tufts faculty members: Colin Orians (biology), Jennifer Coates (nutrition science and policy), and Christine Wanke (public health).

My talk focused on the diverse measurement tools for and policy uses of domestic food insecurity statistics. The conclusion is that there is no fundamental economic or physical barrier preventing us from having much lower rates of food insecurity and hunger in the United States.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

A most innovative conference on Climate Change: Views from the Humanities

Today is the opening of a remarkable and nearly carbon-free conference organized by Ken Hiltner and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The title is Climate Change: Views from the Humanities.

From today until May 31, all of the talks will be available at the conference website. Then, there will be closing events by videoconference on May 31. You may sign up for free to participate in the online question and answer threads.

The keynote talks include noted ethicist Peter Singer, literature professor E. Ann Kaplan, bestselling science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, and English professor Ashley Dawson. Singer's thesis is fierce: "What the rich nations are doing is indefensible."

The breakout session titled "Flying and Focusing on the Everyday" includes climate scientist Peter Kalmus, geographer Joe Nevins, and myself. Peter's talk is a heartfelt, sincere reflection on the personal aspects of being a climate scientist in our surreal times, drawing heavily on a small convenience sample of his colleagues. Joe's offbeat and irreverent talk considers whether non-flying conferences such as this one are "self-referential self-righteous ascetic bullshit," and his rebuttal to this accusation is 100% convincing. I'll embed my own talk below.

Joe and I come from different disciplines, but have become friends in the past year while founding an international campaign to encourage constructive progress by universities and professional associations to change our culture of flying. Our website is, and our Twitter handle is @flyingless. There are links on the website to a general petition, a list of more than 360 academic supporters, and a Frequently Asked Questions page. If you are an academic who wants to support a well-considered and sensible initiative to encourage universities and professional associations to make an essential cultural change -- while maintaining the good that we seek to do through our work -- then please email us at

I have not been so inspired by a conference for many years. There is something liberating and joyous and rebellious in hitting "pause" on the usual dissonant soundtrack of our jet-setting academic lives, and instead actually starting to live the professional practice that we would live in a sane world that takes climate change seriously.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Checkoff program supporters seek to shield checkoff boards from freedom-of-information scrutiny

Here is a small example of Washington at its worst.

The Capital Press reports this week that several agriculture commodity organizations have successfully lobbied members of Congress to include a provision in the House agricultural appropriations bill that would protect the federal government's "checkoff" commodity promotion boards from public records disclosure requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Through these programs, the federal government uses its taxation powers to enforce the collection of more than $500 million each year in mandatory assessments on commodity producers, to be spent on campaigns such as "Got Milk" and "Pork. Be Inspired."

Because these semi-public programs are established by Congress and the commodity boards are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, they have always been subject to freedom-of-information rules. It stands to reason: farmers and the public deserve to know what's really going on with these well-funded USDA-sponsored programs.

As a reminder, or for new readers, here is the story of how this U.S. Food Policy blog used FOIA to get information about the dubious $60 million sale of the "Other White Meat" slogan from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) to the National Pork Board (NPB). We concluded that this sale -- for a slogan that now is nearly worthless and has been replaced by "Be Inspired" -- really was just a way for the checkoff program to funnel money to the NPPC.

Our investigation is exactly the type of public interest research the new bill is designed to prevent. The House appropriations bill language reads as follows:
“The funding used to operate and carry out the activities of the various research and promotion programs is provided by producers and industry stakeholders, and employees on the boards are not federal employees. Therefore, the committee urges USDA to recognize that such boards are not subject to the provisions of 5 U.S.C. Section 552 (the Freedom of Information Act).”
Let people know what you think about this.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Jayson Lusk's new book: Unnaturally Delicious

Noted agricultural economist Jayson Lusk's new book is Unnaturally Delicious (St. Martin's Press, 2016), a love letter to food and agricultural technology.

I can see the potential appeal of the object of Lusk's praise in his many examples of new technologies that help solve serious food system dilemmas -- for example, faster microbial detection to allow food manufacturers to respond to hazards, electronic sensors for precise crop nitrogen requirements to allow farmers to avoid over-application of fertilizer, and so forth.

In other cases, it feels like Lusk is singing the beauty of an airbrushed model on a magazine cover, when a more natural look would have sufficed. I do not see the point of personalized food from a 3-D printer ("the new killer app"), robots that can cook Mexican food (so we might not "even need a home kitchen in the future"), or meat grown directly from stem cells for boutique novelties ("If stem cells from cows can grow a hamburger, why not take stem cells from a rhino and create rhinoburger? Or mix a few stem cells from a giraffe or rabbit to create a truly unique delicacy?"). What appeal can the multi-colored confection on the book's cover possibly have, in a world that actually contains sweet natural pink grapefruit?

Much more than his previous book, Food Police, Lusk's new book pays attention to important environmental concerns. Still, in every case, the costs of environmental problems are portrayed as fully internalized. Sure, Lusk says, waste from manufacturing plants could be a problem in principle, but he gives us an image of 19th century processed meat baron Gustavus Swift inspecting the drainage pipe from his factory to prevent byproducts from pouring into the river, highly motivated to protect the value of any bits of economically valuable fat that might thereby be wasted. Sure, Lusk says, there is in principle the environmental problem of hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico, "and some experts believe that agricultural runoff is largely to blame," but farmers are highly motivated to prevent over-application of fertilizer because of the internalized cost.

This gives us a fantasy world in which new technology spares us from the need for regulation or any type of shared response to environmental problems. As I read, I wondered if it would be too unkind to say that Lusk treats new technology and environmental sustainability as equivalent by definition. But, in the last words of Chapter 8, Lusk spared me the dilemma, by making the book's thesis explicit: "As I see it, sustainability and using agricultural technology are one and the same."

I love agricultural technology, and often argue that productivity gains and increased efficiency are not some capitalist scam, but are profoundly environmental virtues. But I would never say that sustainability and agricultural technology are one and the same. For my profession, food and agricultural economics, it is better to jointly address the environmental good and bad from new technology, and to jointly consider (a) market economics, (b) other new technologies, and (c) public policy as the remedies for environmental challenges.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Debating the role of government and markets in food policy

Politico's Agenda today has a special issue on food policy.

It prominently highlights the great work of my Friedman School colleagues Miriam Nelson and Christina Economos:
Miriam Nelson got the call while she was rock climbing in Canada: It was the White House assistant chef, of all people, summoning her to a closed-door meeting with the new first lady of the United States. It was 2009, Nelson was one of the nation’s top experts on nutrition and exercise, a Tufts University professor at the time, and she wasn’t the only one: a half-dozen more got the same surprise invitation....

With Democrats holding control of Congress, Nelson and the others realized, the East Wing was formulating a big policy push that would use all available levers of the federal government to improve how Americans eat. They wanted a new law to make school lunches healthier; they saw ways to deploy federal stimulus dollars on new cooking equipment in public school cafeterias and to use government financing to get grocery stores into poor communities where fresh food wasn’t readily available. They wanted to overhaul the federal nutrition label so it confronted shoppers more directly with calorie counts. Even the more symbolic side of American food policy was coming under the microscope: A reboot of the decades-old “food pyramid” that told families how to balance a meal.

“You really got the sense that this is something that she was likely to take on,” recalled Nelson, who was asked for advice on nutrition and exercise programs that worked. “It was very exciting.”
I also enjoyed Danny Vinik's interesting poll of food policy experts. It seems revealing that most of the respondents would have supported stronger language in the Dietary Guidelines encouraging Americans to consume less meat (after all, that was the view of the more independent scientific Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee), limits on healthy food marketing to kids, and state or local initiatives to tax soda. Separately, the majority also supported greater efforts to reduce hunger. But, the majority did not support mandatory GMO labeling. I was included in the sample, and, in each case, I voted with the majority.

A brief digression on survey sampling: The poll is not a scientific survey of observations randomly sampled from a larger population of food policy experts in general. Instead, it is a tabulation of responses from a particular sample of researchers and writers on food policy topics. As such, it seems important to let readers know who was sampled -- which is exactly what Vinik does in a list at the bottom of the article. That seems to me a completely legitimate reporting approach. Also, it is fun to try to guess which of my colleagues gave which answers.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Mississippi supports more nutritious snacks in school

The Mississippi Department of Education on February 18 approved new "Smart Snack" standards for schools.

According to a summary by the American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the new policies address snacks provided through school food service and also some types of competitive foods sold by others in school.
Grain-based products must be at least 50 percent whole-grain. Other products must have fruit, vegetable, dairy or protein as a first ingredient. Fewer than 35 percent of calories must be from fat, and the rules limit sodium, sugar, caffeine and total calories.

Junk food fundraisers — like doughnuts, pizza and candy — are also out the door in Mississippi. Almost all Mississippi voters, 97%, say that serving nutritious foods in schools is important to ensure that children are prepared to learn and do their best, while 79% think it is very important. With this support, Mississippi leaders reaffirmed nation leading standards to prohibit fundraisers selling unhealthy foods – such as doughnuts, pizzas, and candy bars.

639087 from Newswise on Vimeo.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Faculty searches at Tufts in (a) food industry marketing and management and (b) food policy implementation and evaluation

The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston is hiring at the associate professor and full professor level in (a) food industry marketing and management and (2) food policy implementation and evaluation, among other areas. Applicants may include researchers in business, economics, psychology and law, as well as public health and nutrition. The Friedman School brings together biomedical, social, behavioral, public health, economics, and food systems scientists to conduct work that improves the nutritional health and well-being of populations throughout the world.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A bi-partisan agreement on school meals policy

Alan Bjerga and Erik Wasson at Bloomberg yesterday report that a bi-partisan agreement in the Senate Agriculture Committee this week preserves key parts of the First Lady's school nutrition goals, while still allowing all sides to claim victory.
After half-a-decade of trying to dismember Michelle Obama's signature effort to make school lunches healthier, Republicans compromised with Democrats to preserve much of what the first lady wants while loosening rules in ways that benefit major food companies.
Bjerga and Wasson quote me with a favorable opinion on the Senate Agriculture Committee proposal:
"School nutrition policy can't thrive with just part of the country behind it," said Parke Wilde, a nutrition-policy professor at Tufts University in Boston. "Even if some of the compromises were painful, it seems hugely beneficial for the kids involved to have bipartisan legislation moving forward. This still is better off than where we started."
To give some background for this viewpoint, here is a commentary that a Friedman School graduate student, Mary Kennedy, and I contributed to Choices Magazine a few years ago. Characterizing the School Food Authorities that actually serve the meals as businesses, we considered the conditions that would allow these not-for-profit businesses to provide healthier school meals without going broke.
If we think of the school food service as a business, we need to understand the costs and revenues for different food and beverage offerings, and to understand how nutrition quality improvements affect both costs and revenues. Surprisingly, there is promising evidence to suggest that more healthful choices can be provided while costs are kept in check. According to the results of the California-based Linking Education, Activity and Food (LEAF) program, increased costs associated with greater fruit and vegetable purchases, packing, and storage were offset, in large part, by increased meal sales and other measures that increased the efficiency of the food service operation (Woodward-Lopez et al., 2005).
We argue, as do many others, that serving healthy meals through the federal meals program may require policies to address less healthy food from other sources in the school environment.
These limitations on competitors may seem like a strange policy prescription. Who ever heard of an agricultural economist tacitly endorsing limitations on consumer choices? Certainly, the nutritional and economic advantages of such policies must be weighed against the real welfare value of allowing children to express their own food preferences at school, as they do outside of school. The Just and Wansink article in this theme warns against unintentionally increasing the appeal of unhealthy products by banning them outright. Nevertheless, placing some reasonable limits on competitive food is not really economic heresy. For centuries, economists have admired markets as a coordinating tool for economic decisions in communities composed of households, but economists have always acknowledged beneficent non-market decision-making within households. Schools are not marketplaces but educational institutions responsible for the welfare of their charges. If schools are expected to respond to the current epidemic of childhood obesity by improving the school food environment, and taxpayers are reluctant simply to provide more resources, then there is some merit in considering measures to enhance the relative competitive position of healthy meals served through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. 
A key part of the politics behind the Senate compromise this week was support from the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which serves in part as a trade association for the School Food Authorities. The SNA had concerns about previous child nutrition reauthorization proposals, but -- when its concerns are addressed -- may yet be a source of political support for policies that preserve improvements in nutrition standards. In the long run, it would undermine the SNA's reputation and political influence if it were considered a more fundamental opponent of policies to improve the nutrition quality of school meals for America's children.

In the Bjerga and Wasson article yesterday, I commented on the tough challenge faced by the local organizations that the SNA represents:
"Simultaneously offering healthy meals that are highly desired by kids, at a low price, while meeting school-nutrition standards is challenging. This is a truce rather than a final peace," he said. "But a truce is still pretty good news."

Thursday, January 07, 2016

The new Dietary Guidelines are broad and respectful of diverse views

The federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 were released this morning. This official publication of the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services will offend nobody. Certainly, any student of food policy can appreciate why its authors made the decisions they made. The departments are under intense pressure from Congress, and an official document of this type necessarily reflects a broad and inclusive area of common ground.

The Washington Post headline says the new guidelines mean, "go ahead and have some eggs." Marion Nestle observes that the guidelines use "protein" as a euphemism for "meat" and "added sugars" as a euphemism for soda. Although the guidelines do include a phrase about "decreasing intakes of meats, poultry, and eggs," especially for men and teen boys, they exclude all mention of environmental sustainability, thereby avoiding considerable controversy. The Washington Post article gives the final word not to a nutrition scientist but to Nina Teicholz, a journalist and low-carb author who is on the board of the Nutrition Coalition, which lobbies for changes to federal dietary guidance. The coalition will have little to complain about in the official 2015 guidelines.

If you place less value on political common ground and more value on sharpness, detail, and authority of scientific evidence review, breadth of topic coverage, and basic writing with vigor, don't be distressed that official departmental guidelines are not really the place to find such virtues. You may continue to read and cite the earlier unofficial external Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report for years to come.

The new official guidelines retain the outer shell of the Advisory Committee's interest in food policy and economics topics. Chapter Three sets up a framework for considering a wealth of approaches to improving diets in every possible setting: homes, schools, worksites, communities, and food retail settings. The official recommendations have a mild character, suggesting quite rightly that somebody should do something, but without assigning specific difficult tasks to particular actors. For example, this chapter's strategies include:
Expand access to healthy, safe, and affordable food choices that align with the Dietary Guidelines and provide opportunities for engaging in physical activity.
In addition to that sound recommendation in the official guidelines, I will continue to read a related passage from the unofficial Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report.
Moderate to strong evidence shows that targeted environmental and policy changes and standards are effective in changing diet and physical activity behaviors and achieving positive health impact in children, adolescents, and adults....

It will take concerted, bold action on the part of individuals, families, communities, industry, and government to achieve and maintain healthy dietary patterns and the levels of physical activity needed to promote a healthy U.S. population.This will entail dramatic paradigm shifts in which population health is a national priority and individuals, communities, and the public and private sectors seek together to achieve a population-wide “culture of health” through which healthy lifestyle choices are easy, accessible, affordable and normative—both at home and away from home.
In such a culture, preventing diet- and physical activity-related diseases and health problems would be much more highly valued, the resources and services needed to achieve and maintain health would become a realized human right across all population strata, the needs and preferences of the individual would be seriously considered, and individuals and their families/households would be actively engaged in promoting their personal health and managing their preventive health services and activities. Health care and public health professionals would embrace a new leadership role in prevention, convey the importance of lifestyle behavior change to their patients/clients, set model standards for prevention-oriented activities and client/employee services in their own facilities, and manage patient/client referrals to evidence-based nutrition and comprehensive lifestyle services and programs. Communities and relevant sectors of our economy, including food, agriculture, private business, health care (as well as insurance), public health and education, would seek common ground and collaborations in promoting population health. Initiatives would be incentivized to engage communities and health care systems to create integrated and comprehensive approaches to preventing chronic diseases and for weight management.
The new official guidelines are quite nice, but, in addition, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report will retain a place on my syllabus.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

What would it look like if Republicans and Democrats worked together to reduce U.S. hunger?

What would federal policy look like if Republicans and Democrats worked together to reduce U.S. hunger?

It would probably look like this new report released yesterday by the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger.

Key features of a bipartisan approach:
  • The membership really would be bipartisan. The commission included leading people nominated by the GOP-controlled House (3 Republicans and 2 Democrats) and the Democrat-led Senate (3 Democrats and 2 Republicans). The co-leaders included Mariana Chilton (a professor at Drexel University and director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities) and Robert Doar (a Fellow in Poverty Studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute).
  • The diagnosis of the causes of hunger would include comparatively Republican themes (labor markets and broken marriages) and Democratic themes (injustice and lack of program access).
  • The recommendations would honor the positive contribution of major nutrition assistance programs, while suggesting new measures to increase their healthfulness (including both incentives and -- notably -- a modest sugar sweetened beverage limitation) and their support for employment effort.
Current anti-hunger policy is characterized by a massive gulf between program critics (treating legitimate anti-hunger functions as equivalent to government waste) and program supporters (treating even small proposed program changes as a matter of life-and-death). Clearly, this commission report is not written quite as a committed anti-hunger advocate would choose. Yet, I much prefer the anti-hunger strategy proposed by this commission to the current state of debate in this country.