Friday, February 28, 2020

For the food industry, it is essential to have coherent federal leadership on dietary and environmental issues together

For the food industry -- and also for meeting important public interest goals -- it would be beneficial for the U.S. federal government to consider environmental sustainability along with nutrition science in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

In 2013, the Food Forum of the National Academies organized a workshop on sustainable dietary guidelines (covered previously). At the time, we had little hope the topic would be included in the actual guidelines. Then, in 2015, hopes were raised when the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) included scientific literature on sustainability in its report, which serves as an important input to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which then jointly produce the official dietary guidelines once every five years. That year, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, several other colleagues, and I argued in an opinion column for Science that the federal agencies should use this material on sustainability in the official report. However, the agencies excluded all mention of sustainability in the end. Since then, the National Academies has continued to organize fascinating workshops on this topic (see video presentations and proceedings), but we have little indication of progress in the federal guidelines.

The Menus of Change initiative, a collaboration between the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America encourages the restaurant industry in particular to explore new ways of providing healthy and sustainable food in a profitable way. I have served on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee for several years. The experience clearly shows that major food industry sectors see the need to address complex consumer expectations for environmental and nutrition issues together. From a practical standpoint, it would be impossible for business executives to separate the issues.

For the new 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, an advisory committee report is expected later this spring, and then the official report will come out a few months later. This week, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a policy brief (.pdf) encouraging the federal government once again to favorably consider including sustainability in the official report.
A growing body of research shows that shifting what we eat could improve the health of the population and the planet. However, the US government has declined to incorporate this evidence into federal food policies. As government agencies develop the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a review of recent studies on dietary patterns and sustainability by the Union of Concerned Scientists and colleagues shows that current US dietary advice may not support the long-term environmental sustainability of the food system. This policy brief outlines key actions and recommendations for federal agencies and policymakers to help protect public health and food security for generations to come.
The policy brief draws on a literature review published this week [updated March 16] in Advances in Nutrition, by UCS researchers and several Friedman School community members, including Rebecca Boehm (alum), Nicole Tichenor Blackstone (faculty), and Naglaa El-Abbadi and Salima Taylor (students).

I hope the government does include sustainability. Just as the dietary guidelines help consumers and government agencies understand the connections between diet and health, by providing a steady and sober summary of the balance of evidence in a complex literature, it would be valuable to do likewise for environmental sustainability. This is not a mere digression into a side topic. In the 2020-2030 decade, the climate emergency will be central to almost all policy debate on major social and economic decisions, including decisions about the food system. If political pressure from selected agricultural industries causes these issues to be excluded from the dietary guidelines, federal food and nutrition policy will be hampered for years to come.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Labor of Lunch, by Jennifer Gaddis

In her new book, "The Labor of Lunch" (University of California Press, 2019), Jennifer Gaddis of University of Wisconsin-Madison covers the history and politics of federal school meals programs from every angle.

The book contrasts with contemporary behavioral economics research, which treats lunchrooms as a "laboratory" for small random-assignment trials of minor changes in product presentation. Gaddis instead pays attention to the big social issues that always have complicated school meals programs: women's work, the labor movement, racism, federal budgets, and class differences in food tastes for nutrition experts and broader populations.

To illustrate the scope, ambition, and topic coverage of the book, here are some homework questions one could ask students after they read this book:
  1. What makes the lives of lunch-workers precarious?
  2. What organizational sponsor of a free school meals program was labeled the "greatest threat to the internal security of the country” by Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover?
  3. In training programs focused on sanitation and cost reduction, what important topic was left out?
(Answers: 1. Neoliberal capitalism. 2. The Black Panther Party. 3. Scratch cooking.)

The concluding chapter aims for expansive changes rather than short-term victories:
There are high-road alternatives to both the cheap food economy and to real food lite that offer a pathway toward a new economy of care in American public schools. Accessing this high road depends foremost on revaluing the labor of lunch. We must invest in professionalizing school cafeteria workers and recognize them for the multiple forms of care they already provide to the nation’s children. I want to move beyond this foundational argument, however, to propose a more expansive vision of what food systems could look like if we focus our collective efforts on transforming the NSLP into a hub for food justice—real food and real jobs—in every community across the rural-urban divide.
In a related New York Times column last week, Gaddis asks why parents still are sending kids to school with bag lunches rather than supporting the school meals programs. It reminds me of a conversation with my children a couple years ago. The kids knew their parents had always placed them in the school meals program as a matter of principle, rather than complete confidence in the product. When they mentioned having brand-name restaurant chain pizza in high school for lunch, they could tell from my face I was disdainful. They reassured me it was just twice weekly. Twice a week for pizza is not so awful, I conceded. But they meant only twice weekly was there brand-name restaurant chain pizza; on the rest of the days, there was reheated frozen generic pizza.

In some respects, the radical critical tradition of Gaddis' narrative may differ from that of most of my colleagues in agricultural economics, or myself. But any reader of this book will see these important nutrition programs should be dramatically better on grounds of taste, nutrition, and fairness to workers.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Funding announcement from Tufts and USDA for WIC telehealth innovations

My colleagues at Tufts University and I are happy to announce that we are now requesting proposals from WIC State Agencies or a consortium of WIC State Agencies (SAs), through April 10th for the USDA/Tufts Telehealth Intervention Strategies for WIC (THIS-WIC) grant opportunity.

The opportunity is made possible through funding from the USDA, Food and Nutrition Service and will help WIC State Agencies (SAs) develop and implement telehealth innovations to enhance nutrition education and breastfeeding support for WIC participants, particularly those who have a hard time getting to WIC clinics (e.g., rural areas).

In addition to supporting participants, telehealth innovations offer many potential benefits to SAs, like improving retention.

THIS-WIC will assist and support SAs throughout the application process and during project implementation. The THIS-WIC team will:
  • provide technical support to WIC SAs throughout the application process and project implementation period;
  • lead evaluations in collaboration with WIC SAs to assess the impact of the innovations; and,
  • share promising initiatives as well as potential solutions to commonly encountered challenges.
The application process has two phases:
  • Phase I – interested applicants should submit a Brief Proposal (no more than 3 pages) by April 10th, 2020 (11:59p ET)
  • Phase II – selected applicants from Phase I will be invited to submit a Full Proposal by August 7th, 2020 (11:59p ET)
THIS-WIC anticipates supporting 5-8 WIC SAs for 30 months, with funding up to $1 million (includes direct and indirect costs), depending on the scale and scope of the proposed intervention.

The THIS-WIC team will hold three, one-hour webinars to provide additional details about the application process, to provide deeper insight into telehealth innovations, and to further layout expectations for the evaluation of proposed projects.

All the webinars will include time for potential applicants to ask questions of the THIS-WIC team.
  • RFP Overview: 3-4 pm (EST) on February 13th, 2020, hosted by the THIS-WIC team to provide an overview of the RFP and application process. Register here.
  • Designing a Telehealth Solution: 3-4 pm (EST) on February 19th, 2020, will be jointly hosted by THIS-WIC and the TRCs to provide a deep dive into telehealth innovations related to each priority area and an overview of best practices when designing telehealth solutions. Register here.
  • Unpacking the Evaluation: 4-5 pm (EST) on February 24th, 2020, will be led by the THIS-WIC team to clarify further roles and expectations related to the evaluation of the telehealth solutions. Register here.
For more information about this opportunity and the application process, please visit the THIS-WIC website.