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.