Friday, 13 June 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, 11 June 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, 23 May 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, 15 May 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, 14 May 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, 8 May 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.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Local food retail access

Many people feel that low-income neighborhoods have less access to supermarkets than other neighborhoods do.

In research published recently in the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, my colleagues and I found otherwise:
In contrast with the conventional wisdom, the results show that high poverty block groups had closer proximity to the nearest supermarket than other block groups did, on average: 85.6% of high-poverty block groups had a supermarket within 1 mile, while 76.8% of lower-poverty block groups had a supermarket within this distance. 
This finding makes sense when you consider the average population density of poor neighborhoods. Low-income neighborhoods may be urban or rural, but on average they are more likely than other neighborhoods to be urban and population-dense. Supermarkets tend to locate reasonably close to where people live.

When measuring local food retail access, it is useful to recognize that most Americans drive to grocery stores. Even though low-income Americans are less likely to own an automobile, this basic reliance on driving is true even for most low-income Americans. We found that the population living far from a supermarket and lacking an automobile is fairly small:
Population density is a strong predictor of proximity to the nearest supermarket. Block groups with very high population density generally had very close proximity to a nearest supermarket. In block groups lacking a nearby supermarket, rates of automobile access generally were quite high (more than 95%), although this still leaves almost 5% of the population in these areas lacking both an automobile and a nearby supermarket.
Other recent research on the food retail environment similarly emphasizes the importance of automobile access. For example, see a fascinating report by Mabli and Ohls (.pdf) on the website of USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.

It is worthwhile to compare these findings to other influential literature on lack of access to supermarkets. The online tool from the Reinvestment Fund identifies areas with Limited Supermarket Access (LSAs). The detailed report (.pdf) from the Reinvestment Fund agrees with our findings in several respects. For example, Table 2 in the TRF report confirms that low-population-density neighborhoods tend to have high average rates of automobile access (above 95%). Table 3 in the TRF report shows that neighborhoods with higher population density and lower average rates of automobile access typically have very short median distances (much less than a mile) to the nearest supermarket. The Reinvestment Fund classifies a particular neighborhood as having Limited Supermarket Access if the nearest supermarket is farther than a threshold distance based on non-poor neighborhoods with similar automobile access and population density. In urban areas, the threshold distance may be four fifths of a mile away, and in some cases merely a third of a mile away.

Because supermarkets are an automobile-oriented retail format, I have some misgivings about defining limited access using such short threshold distances, even for low-income populations. But I am eager to hear the views of others on that question.

The implied remedy in any method for identifying areas without supermarkets is to invite or persuade a supermarket to locate in a particular location. The new supermarket outlet will have to compete with other stores that customers at all income levels may prefer. The new store will not have a captive market. Of course, if communities put great effort into attracting a supermarket, we hope it will succeed and thrive once it gets there!

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to speak on food stamps and hunger at Tufts April 11

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) will give the keynote speech Friday April 11, 4pm, at a Tufts University conference titled "Food Stamps and Hunger in America."

The event is part of the annual "Issues of the Future" conference organized by Tufts Democrats. Rep. McGovern is a leading advocate in Congress on behalf of U.S. nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Chapter 10 in Food Policy in the United States addresses "Hunger and Food Insecurity," including links to many other readings and data resources. On this blog, related material can be found under the tags for SNAP and hunger. For example, a 2011 data visualization shows how SNAP participation ebbs and flows with the changing macroeconomy.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The dilemma of fair trade bananas

At Civil Eats yesterday, Aliza Wasserman explains the dilemma for the public interest entrepreneurs who are developing a fair trade banana market. The article describes a recent conference at Tufts University.

The most difficult question is whether fair trade bananas should come only from smallholders and cooperatives (preserving fair trade principles but limiting scale), or instead whether fair trade sourcing should allow larger plantations so long as they follow the stipulated principles (sacrificing a small-is-best principle but achieving a larger share of the total market).

Wasserman writes:
Fair Trade banana plantations have also been crucial to building a robust supply of Fair Trade bananas. Plantations represent both a key challenge and opportunity, by providing the promise to impact the broader industry and bring Fair Trade bananas to a larger consumer base. Nearly everyone at the conference hoped to impact the broader industry, whether they are focused on the future of small-scale or “smallholder” farmers, or the overall future of Fair Trade bananas.

But many of the presenters felt that the current pricing system, in which the Fair Trade certifying bodies, like Fair Trade International or FLO, distribute the same premium to plantation owners and small landholders alike, represents a major flaw in the system. Many in the industry believe that cooperatives of small producers should receive a premium that is linked to their higher cost of production relative to plantations, which can take advantage of economies of scale. Yet, the first banana producer to receive Fair Trade certification was a plantation, and scaling up Fair Trade would not be possible without them.
While a student at the Friedman School, Wasserman was a regular contributor to the U.S. Food Policy blog.

Monday, 7 April 2014

What if Walmart paid employees enough to avoid food stamps?

I enjoyed this video for sharp writing, clarity of data presentation, and measured tone.

While still relying on economic markets for a thriving food economy, we nonetheless can expect our major grocery chains to do better on wages. No matter what one thinks of the proposed federal minimum wage increase, it is clear that the nation's leading employers should face binding social norms that constrain them to pay wages that reach a certain threshold.

What should the threshold be? It is possible that some threshold would be too high, counter-productively putting grocery companies out of business. But, this video focuses on a much more humble and minimal threshold. At the very least, major grocery chains should pay wages sufficiently high to keep workers off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rolls.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Farmers want immigration reform

Nobody understands better than farmers that immigrants to the United States are real people and hard workers, not a caricature.

When the leadership of the House of Representatives last year nearly failed to pass the farm programs, conservation programs, and nutrition programs in the farm bill, it showed that farmers had lost much political influence in the House. Similarly, as ferociously anti-immigrant views recently have blocked immigration reform in the House, farmers again feel the loss of their political influence.

Greg Sargent in the Washington Post this week described the views of Craig Regelbrugge, the co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform:
“I hear from growers frequently who basically say, `I used to be a loyal check writer when the Republican Party called, but at this point, the checkbook is closed,’” Regelbrugge tells me. “I’m hearing from growers who are no longer writing checks supporting the party.”
Likewise, the Post quoted Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League:
“We’re seeing a lack of response to our needs and concerns from significant parts of the Republican caucus in the House,” Gempler tells me. “They either have ideological issues or they are catering to a more reactionary crowd.”

“We want to see the leadership, including Cathy [McMorris Rodgers of Washington], move on this,” Gempler continues. “The chances for getting immigration reform are lessening quickly. If we don’t get this done by August recess, we’re going to be in trouble as an industry.”
Not all Republicans are anti-immigrant, just those who pander to certain constituencies that use terrible anti-immigrant rhetoric to block reform in the House. In more ordinary times, many farmers have voted Republican, and they likely will do so again in the future. I follow the carefully non-partisan work of the AGree agricultural policy initiative on this issue.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Advertising fast food to children

Leading fast food companies have pledged to follow specific advertising guidelines under the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a project of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBB).

These voluntary pledges remain quite weak. One recent summary of the argument that these pledges are insufficient [note: slight edit for clarity Apr 5] comes from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. The companies describe the pledges in shorthand, saying loosely that they now advertise only healthy food to children. In truth, more precisely, the companies still advertise both unhealthy and healthy food choices to children.

For example, a company pledge may claim to show only children's meals with comparatively healthy sides and beverages (such as apple slices and milk) and not less healthy options (such as french fries and sugary soda). Even with no further deception, the advertisements for the healthy meals help build brand awareness with children, increasing probability of generating a purchase occasion. Once the child and guardian are in the restaurant, the company heavily markets apple slices and french fries, milk and soda, whatever it takes to make the sale. The CFBAI guidelines address advertising on television and the web and do not prevent marketing of unhealthy options at the point of purchase, so the unhealthy options remain a large fraction of actual revenues for children's meals.

And, in any case, there is further deception. New research supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds that most children who view Burger King advertisements showing apple slices think the advertisement is showing french fries. The apple slices look like french fries, and the children overlook a small apple symbol on the package.

I do not believe the confusion is accidental. Reason Magazine's Hit and Run blog credulously accepts an account in which the children's misunderstanding merely shows that Burger King is effectively marketing apples by presenting them in an "apple fries" format, but that sounds like spin to me.

You can judge for yourself. Here is the actual video from the research team, led by James Sargent, MD, co-director Cancer Control Research Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center. Ask yourself, is Burger King advertising only apples (as the company's CFBAI pledge claims), or is Burger King also in practice advertising french fries to children (in which case the company's CFBAI pledge is dishonest)?

I'm enough of an economist that a fast food company's marketing fails to outrage me. I expect Burger King to market burgers and fries as vigorously as it can, subject to the dual limitations of government rules and social norms. What bothers me instead is that organizations that purport to be independent referees serving the public interest -- such as CFBAI -- pretend that the fast food companies really have voluntarily ended their advertising of unhealthy food to children. It is admirable to seek market-oriented business-friendly solutions to social problems, but let's not deceive ourselves by claiming that marketing unhealthy food to children is a problem we already have under control.

Monday, 31 March 2014

New research on breakfast in the classroom

Educators and school nutrition personnel in recent years have been discussing and debating the merits of serving breakfast in the classroom at the start of the school day, rather than in cafeterias. Participation is higher for breakfast in the classroom, leading to high hopes for increased impact on beneficial health and learning outcomes, while at the same time raising concerns about over-consumption for children whose in-class breakfast is their second meal of the morning.

New research in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management uses a "difference in difference" design before and after implementation in a large urban school district in the southwest, finding that breakfast in the classroom rather than the cafeteria has a positive effect on test scores. It is possible that the benefits are due to improved performance on the day of the test (perhaps because the kids were less hungry that morning) rather than longer term learning, but the favorable results are still notable.

This research, and related research, is discussed in a new video from ChildObesity180, an initiative led by Christina Economos and many colleagues here at the Friedman School at Tufts. This video, which briefly summarizes both sides of the debate before arguing in favor of breakfast in the classroom, is part of an extensive video series on school breakfast issues.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Economists and the restaurant industry offer input on the minimum wage debate

With support from the Obama administration, Congress is contemplating an increase in the minimum wage, in small annual steps to $10.10 per hour by 2016. After that, the minimum wage would rise automatically with inflation.

A group of several hundred economists signed a letter of support sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute. The letter said the proposal would help 17 million workers directly, and perhaps another 11 million workers by boosting wage expectations at the low end of the labor market. The letter said the weight of recent research shows "that increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labor market."

A competing group of several hundred economists signed a letter of opposition. The letter says the consequence of the minimum wage proposal is "that business owners saddled with a higher cost of labor will need to cut costs, or pass the increase to their consumers in order to make ends meet. Many of the businesses that pay their workers minimum wage operate on extremely tight profit margins, with any increase in the cost of labor threatening this delicate balance."

In my own profession, several leading agricultural and applied economists signed each letter.

The New York Times this week pointed out that the letter of opposition was not really written by Vernon Smith, the lead signatory, who is a Nobel-winning economist. The letter was circulated by a firm hired by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which has much to lose from the new minimum wage proposal. Smith is quoted saying he hadn't known who originated the statement, but he didn't mind that it turned out to be the restaurant industry, because the content of the letter is what mattered.

I asked a couple of my favorite agricultural and applied economists who had signed each letter if they wanted to respond to the controversy. One who signed the letter of support just confirmed that he supported the proposed minimum wage increase, but preferred not to say more.

Dan Sumner, a leading food policy thinker and economist at UC Davis, who signed the letter of opposition, gave this response. I had asked him if he felt "ill-used" by the restaurant industry. His email tackles the concern that the NRA support was non-transparent, discusses anti-poverty policies he judges superior to the minimum wage, and casts the minimum wage unfavorably in the context of other governmental efforts to set prices.

I just assumed the min wage letter was developed and circulated by an interest group. Interest groups are the ones with enough interest to organize such an effort.

But, like Lucas and Smith, the proposition and argument itself is what matters to me. I have no connection with fast food places.

I put the minimum wage in the category with farm subsidies as a silly policy ill-targeted and worse than worthless for three reasons.

a. It uses policy resources, effort and attention, that would be better spent doing effective things to help the poor, such as earned income credits or targeted education programs or quality day-care or ...

b. It sends the signal that government price fixing is good policy more broadly. I know from my own specialty that government-set prices are generally bad policy. Thinking we can fix labor market problems or ill-trained workers or any other problem by having members of Congress set some favored price based on what their favorite lobby says it should be just encourages shoddy thinking.

(You will recall that is my problem with the press and the Congress continuing to act as though food stamps had anything to do with food. The reason I like the SNAP program is that is is unrelated to nutrition and the nanny notion that the feds should tell people how to spend their money, even charity.)

c. Minimum wage is so ill targeted as a poverty program and really does make it harder for some poor gal with very little to offer to get that first job. If I have to pay $10 anyway I can turn her away and hire only her sharper cousin, who already had a leg up.

Anyway, that's my off the cuff thinking.

By the way, the interest groups I have least time for are the ideological lobby groups and NGOs that seem to be very loose with the facts and analysis. These range from Heritage to HSUS to the Union of Concerned Scientists. My sense is these folks are just as likely to have an underlying bias to everything they do, and they pretend they act in the "public interest" relative to firms and groups of firms who have clear financial motivations.


Thursday, 27 February 2014

USDA estimates that 31% of the food supply is lost and uneaten

A new report from USDA's Economic Research Service finds:
In the United States, 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten. The estimated value of this food loss was $161.6 billion using retail prices. For the first time, ERS estimated the calories associated with food loss: 141 trillion in 2010, or 1,249 calories per capita per day.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The food policy of Hampton Creek's "Just Mayo"

"Just Mayo" from Hampton Creek is a vegetable oil spread offering a new vegan egg-free alternative to traditional mayonnaise. For people who follow food policy, it generates a pile of interesting things to think about, including: (1) food industry innovation, (2) nutrition content, (3) food labeling for people who care about animal welfare and the environment, and (4) standards of identity. 

I heard about Just Mayo from a recent Friedman School alum, who works in marketing for the company and who now has hired some current students on her marketing team. Josh Balk, from the Humane Society of the United States, who spoke at the Friedman School last year, is one of the founders.

(1) In part because of interest from Bill Gates in alternatives to eggs, Just Mayo has been heavily covered in the business and technology press. According to Forbes in December, Gates backs Hampton Creek as one of a handful of companies that may transform the food system. The New York Times last year described the investment of venture capitalists in the start-up. Bloomberg BusinessWeek in October focused on Just Mayo's recent success in getting shelf space in Whole Foods.

(2) Part of the consumer motivation for choosing an egg-free product is likely to be nutrition goals. Like traditional mayonnaise, Just Mayo is a high-fat high-calorie vegetable spread. Its role in a healthy diet likely depends heavily on how the consumer chooses quantities and also on what foods the product complements (in reasonable quantities, mayo in cole slaw complements tasty vegetable consumption and serves as a gateway salad, while mayo on fried potatoes Belgian-style is a high-energy occasional treat).  I am not a dietitian, but I would think of Just Mayo's nutrition profile as neither better nor worse than mayonnaise.

INGREDIENTS: Non-GMO Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Filtered Water, Lemon Juice, White Vinegar, 2% or less of the following: Organic Sugar, Salt, Apple Cider Vinegar, Pea Protein, Spices, Garlic, Modified Food Starch, Beta-Carotene.
(3) Many other consumers may seek an alternative to mayonnaise for animal welfare or environmental reasons. Both Just Mayo and traditional grocery store mayonnaise are processed food products, with similar transportation and packaging issues. For animal-friendly consumers at a loss to navigate confusing cage-free and free-range egg labels, Just Mayo certainly makes things easier by simply avoiding the use of eggs as an input. As a rule, plant food sources exhaust less of the planet's land and energy resources per unit of food energy produced. For these consumers, Just Mayo would be an improvement over traditional mayonnaise.

(4) As a product name, "Mayo" was close enough to "mayonnaise" to prompt me to look up the standard of identity for mayonnaise [Edit Feb 13: this sentence toned down from an earlier version saying Just Mayo "flirts with violating" the standard of identity]. A standard of identity is the federal government's official definition of a food. Sometimes, having a standard of identity protects consumers, by forbidding the sale of foods that are adulterated with fillers. At other times, a standard of identity may become outdated, preventing healthful or environmentally sound innovations. For example, there have been major controversies over whether the word "milk" can be used in the label for "soy milk."

The presence of eggs in mayonnaise is almost an archetypal example of a standard of identity. The Congressional Research Service glossary of agriculture policy terms (.pdf) specifically mentions mayonnaise under the heading for "standards of identity." According to the standards of identify in the Code of Federal Regulations, which are accessible on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website, "mayonnaise" includes eggs. 

The label for Just Mayo uses the slang "mayo" rather than "mayonnaise" in the product name. A favorable review on a vegan website calls the product "vegan mayonnaise," while a Whole Foods press release goes instead with "vegan mayonnaise-style product." In a similar fashion, Kraft Mayo or low-fat Hellmann's may use the term "mayo" or "mayonnaise dressing" without observing complete agreement with the standard of identity for mayonnaise [Edit Feb 13: sentence added]. The American Egg Board, a semi-public federal government checkoff entity, has begun a campaign to address the labeling of egg substitutes. It has a related white paper appealing for a "clean label" to oppose some of the egg labeling alternatives that may implicitly or explicitly be critical of traditional industrial egg production.

There may be some legal fireworks before the labeling of vegan alternatives to mayonnaise is settled.

Friday, 7 February 2014

USDA reports on pizza consumption and on dairy checkoff program initiatives to increase pizza demand

USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) today released a new report on the role of pizza in American diets. ARS researcher Donna Rhodes and colleagues found that an astonishing 13% of the U.S. population consumed pizza on any given day, based on the most recent years of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

For this large population -- more than 1 out of 8 Americans -- who consumed pizza in a particular day:
  • Pizza accounted for 25% (among kids) and 29% (among adults) of daily food energy intake. More than a quarter of all calorie intake was pizza.
  • Pizza accounted for 33% (among kids) and 39% (among adults) of daily saturated fat intake. Compared with foods in general, pizza is much heavier in saturated fat.
  • Pizza accounted for 33% (among kids) and 38% (among adults) of sodium intake. Compared with foods in general, pizza is much heavier in sodium.
In recent years, USDA's dairy checkoff program has spent many millions of dollars to increase pizza consumption among U.S. children and adults. Using the federal government's taxation powers, the checkoff program collects a mandatory assessment of 15 cents on every hundredweight of milk that is sold for use as fluid milk or dairy products. The total mandatory assessment in 2011 was $104 million for fluid milk and $98 million for other dairy products, according to the most recent annual USDA Report to Congress. These expenditures are many times greater than federal spending on promoting fruits and vegetables, whole grains, or any of the other foods for which the Dietary Guidelines recommend increased consumption. Each semi-governmental checkoff program is managed by a board of producers appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, and all expenditures are approved by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Much of the actual activity is carried out by Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), a dairy industry organization. The checkoff program goal is to provide increased economic demand for dairy producers.

The USDA Report to Congress found that the economic payoff to producers is greater for cheese marketing efforts than for fluid milk marketing efforts. The report concluded:
  • For every $1 that the checkoff program spends on increasing demand for fluid milk, farmers get $3.95 in increased revenue.
  • For every $1 that the checkoff program spends on increasing demand for cheese, farmers get $4.43 in increased revenue.
That differential payoff is unsurprising. During the recent years of checkoff program operation, the USDA report charted the following trend in fluid milk consumption:

Meanwhile, the USDA report charted the following trend in cheese consumption:

Pizza accounts for a large fraction of the increased cheese consumption, so the Report to Congress emphasized the value for producers of partnering with fast-food restaurant chains, especially Domino's Pizza:
On average, expenditures on marketing and cheese promotion were $12.0 million during the period. Owing to partnerships with the pizza industry, notably Domino’s Pizza, expenditures on cheese increased from the fourth quarter of 2008 to the end of 2011.

DMI spent over $35 million over three years in partnership activities with Domino’s. The Domino's relationship accounted for nearly three-quarters of DMI’s overall promotion expenditures in the cheese category over the 2009 to 2011 period.
According to the Report to Congress, Patrick Doyle, President and CEO of Domino's Pizza, explained why the support from the federal government's dairy checkoff program was so beneficial to the company, as follows:
“DMI support has allowed us to focus some advertising dollars on areas we would not have considered otherwise. The Wisconsin 6 Cheese pizza has twice the cheese of a regular pizza, but we had neither developed nor advertised such a product. DMI helped fund the research and media to launch this product”
The Report to Congress argued that the USDA-supported dairy checkoff program's pizza partnerships increased cheese consumption:
The promotional activities with Domino’s included new product lines, use of more cheese than had been provided on similar items in the Domino's chain before the partnership, and the introduction of specialty cheeses into the company’s recipes. In short, the assistance of dairy dollars was instrumental in positively affecting the pizza category, a category that is very important to the dairy industry.
Every dairy checkoff partnership must be approved by USDA. Every marketing message has official legal standing as "government speech" (because, otherwise, courts would see the mandatory assessment as a misuse of the federal government's taxation powers). The checkoff partnerships undermine USDA's standing as a credible voice in promoting dietary guidance for Americans, and they must be a terrible embarrassment for the many people at USDA who seek to promote healthful eating.

Many Americans find pizza to be an enjoyable treat, but, from a nutritional perspective, it is a dreadful choice of major food staple. It is understandable that food companies may promote pizza with their own money, but it is a travesty that the federal government should contribute so heavily to this effort, while neglecting other important nutrition goals.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

How grains and oilseeds flow through the U.S. food economy

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) recently (in December 2013) announced the once-every-five-years release of benchmark national input-output accounts, showing how resources flow from one industry to the next in the U.S. economy.

For people interested in the economics of the food system, some graduate students and colleagues and I last year developed a tool in Tufts' Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) for interactively illustrating such input-output flows. A working paper (#44) describes the tool. A previous blog post shows an example. The visualization tag at this blog collects other posts about interesting food policy data illustrations.

In this video, I use the new BEA benchmark input-output data to describe how grain and oilseeds flow through the food economy. Before making the video, I rounded the numbers to the nearest billion dollars and deleted some negligible small resource flows, so serious students of these data will want to refer to the original files from BEA. Because the numbers likely will be illegible in the video player embedded in the blog post, I've included a link to the original video, which you can download and play with higher resolution on your computer's own video program (such as Windows Media Player or the Mac equivalent).

Friday, 31 January 2014

AGree co-chairs comment on Farm Bill

Dan Glickman, Gary Hirshberg, Jim Moseley, and Emmy Simmons are the four co-chairs of the highly bi-partisan and cross-sectoral AGree initiative. Their joint op-ed in Roll Call today recognizes several good features of the Farm Bill, but ...
But the legislative effort should have yielded so much more. Food and agriculture systems in the United States and around the world face fundamental long-term challenges posed by resource scarcity, population growth, climate change, invasive pests, pathogens and diseases, rising consumer incomes in low- and middle-income countries, and shifts in relative economic power. These challenges demand forward-looking leadership. The 2014 farm bill did not provide it.
[I serve on AGree's scientific advisory group.]

Monday, 27 January 2014

Farm Bill conference proposes cutting $800 million per year in SNAP benefits

The Farm Bill conference committee report, released today, includes $800 million per year in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation's largest anti-hunger program.

The conference report likely puts to rest several years of debate between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which sought much steeper cuts, and the Democratic-controlled Senate, which sought less severe cuts. Both houses of Congress are likely to pass the compromise in the conference committee report this week.

The compromise is a disappointment to anti-hunger advocates. Program participants already in November faced the end of a temporary boost to program benefits. These new cuts are in addition to that change in November.

Yet, in a sense, the cuts proposed today were inevitable, and about as mild as program supporters could expect.

The actual mechanism for most of the cuts is a change to how utility costs are counted when benefits are calculated. Certain utility costs count as "excess shelter expenses," which are deducted from gross income during the computation of net income. SNAP benefits are based on net income (those with higher net income get smaller benefits), so eliminating a certain type of utility cost deduction amounts in practice to the same thing as a benefit cut.

Bob Greenstein at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a leading public interest voice on nutrition assistance policy, this evening explained why this change to the utility cost computation was difficult to oppose:
The SNAP cut ... is a provision to tighten an element of the SNAP benefit calculation that some states have converted into what most people would view as a loophole. Specifically, some states are stretching the benefit formula in a way that enables them not only to simplify paperwork for many SNAP households, but also to boost SNAP benefits for some SNAP households by assuming those households pay several hundred dollars a month in utility costs that they do not actually incur. Congress did not intend for states to stretch the benefit rules this way, and longstanding SNAP supporters like myself find it difficult to defend. Moreover, a future Administration could close off this use of the rules administratively, without any congressional action.
If I were king, the social safety net would be more generous. Our society would be a better society if we treated the poor and hungry as brothers and sisters. Who among us, in speaking of a poor or hungry brother or sister, would hesitate to provide resources before offering unsolicited advice? In several ways, I would make the social safety net more respectful of the dignity of its participants.

But I am not king. I am proud instead to live in our semi-functioning democracy. This Farm Bill compromise on nutrition assistance is about as good as I expected from the current Congress. The burden lies with program supporters first to persuade more voters of the value of these programs and then second to press for more generous program benefits.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The madness of click-friendly headlines: How --- can save the planet!

I have this strange vision of a hundred planets lining up in the aisle of a church for the televangelist to push their foreheads and pronounce them "saved."
Personally, I am not certain the planet will be saved in any case. My wife and I seek to raise our children to be robust and even happy in the face of hardship, just in case their adulthoods are less prosperous than their childhoods. 

Yet, I am not hopeless either. If the planet is saved, in the sense of successfully avoiding a demographic and environmental crisis in the next hundred years, the leading ingredients will be:
  • Adaptation in rich countries to lower resource use (not lower well-being, just lower resource use).
  • Continued economic growth and social transformation in poor countries (allowing much higher well-being with moderately higher resource use). 
  • New technologies that grow more food and produce more energy with less land and less environmental impact (but technology is not magic and will not suffice on its own).
These three things may happen.

    Thursday, 16 January 2014

    Let's break up the GMO/non-GMO monopoly on our environmental debate

    Some environmentalists are rethinking their opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). That's terrific. The line between GMOs and non-GMOs always was the wrong way to describe the problem our food system faces.

    The best road forward for environmentalists and sustainable food thinkers is to end the monopoly that the GMO/anti-GMO fight has had on our food system debate. Like breaking up a big corporation so that smaller businesses can thrive, let us break up the GMO debate into its smaller pieces.

    The highest-profile recent example of an environmentalist writer rethinking GMOs is Nathanael Johnson's six-month series at Grist. Johnson points out that GMOs are just one contributor to the many ills that have been attributed to GMOs. Hence, a world that had no GMOs would be surprisingly similar to our current world.
    GMOs were neither the first, nor have they been the last, agricultural innovation, and each of these technologies comes with its own potential hazards.
    This view infuriates some of the most respected people in the sustainable food movement. This week at Civil Eats, Anna Lappé describes Johnson as "meandering about in the woods for the past six months" leading to nothing more than an "attempt at a clever journalistic gesture." I read Johnson's series more favorably, and I'm not the only one. Dan Charles has a nice overview at NPR's Salt. Well, nobody said every post at Civil Eats had to be civil!

    After the strong criticism, Lappé then turns to an excellent list of seven real issues at stake.
    What’s become abundantly clear is that there are at least seven things we need to get right in agriculture, right now. We need to:
    • Reduce reliance on fossil fuels in agriculture;
    • Conserve water in agriculture systems;
    • Free ourselves from dependence on chemicals, especially those most toxic to humans and wildlife;
    • Promote on-farm resilience to climate change;
    • Protect biodiversity and the food security it engenders;
    • Limit the expansion of confinement livestock operations; and
    • Support farmers to learn practices for productivity that don’t come at the high, and rising, cost of inputs such as chemicals, seeds, or technology fees to chemical companies, especially Monsanto.
    This is a fine list of seven enterprises that are left behind after we break up the GMO/anti-GMO monopoly on our public debate. In a way, by focusing on seven multi-faceted challenges, rather than on the technical line between GMO and non-GMO foods, Lappé seems to me closer to Johnson than it might appear at first.

    What attitude should anti-GMO environmentalists and GMO-tolerant environmentalists adopt toward each other, when they agree on these seven global challenges? I think they each should say, "Hi, friend, let's get to work!"

    Monday, 13 January 2014

    Washington Monthly covers "government speech" and Big Beef

    At the Washington Monthly, Siddhartha Mahanta describes the unusual coalition of animal welfare and conservative groups opposed to the federal government's semi-public beef checkoff program:
    With liberals and conservatives for once in agreement, it’s time to have a barbeque. Big Beef subsidies. It’s what’s for dinner. 
    This blog's previous coverage of checkoff controversies includes the Humane Society's earlier work on the sale of the pork checkoff's "Other White Meat" brand, and the results of my 2006 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that triggered the Humane Society's interest in this topic.

    Thursday, 9 January 2014

    Dietary guidelines and health

    [An excerpt from Chapter 8 in Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction (Routledge/Earthscan, 2013).]

    It is sometimes said that there is no need for a government role in dietary guidance, because people know how to eat well and simply lack the willpower to do so. Is it true that people in the United States already know how to eat healthfully? While many nutrition and health experts say that something is wrong with U.S. eating patterns, they disagree about what is unhealthy.

    Consider four perspectives, which each have a large public following:

    • A long tradition, including the physician Robert Atkins and the science writer Gary Taubes, blames carbohydrates for weight problems and recommends a diet that may be high in meat and saturated fat (Taubes, 2007).
    • An equally well-developed tradition encourages a low-fat plant-based diet and blames meat consumption for health problems (Campbell and Campbell, 2007).
    • The respected epidemiologist Walter Willett and colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health advise a mostly plant-based diet that is not necessarily low in fat, allowing plenty of vegetable oils (Willett et al., 2005).
    • Others, including former FDA Commissioner David Kessler and journalist Michael Pollan, are most concerned about the highly palatable artificial creations of an industrial food system (Kessler, 2009). 
    These views about diet and health are partly overlapping and partly contradictory. Yet at least some scientific research in peer-reviewed journals can be found to support each one. To make sound judgments, a layperson needs a skeptical attitude towards dietary fads and a trustworthy summary of the balance of the scientific evidence.

    One influential summary of the scientific evidence is the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2011). The federal government issued the first Dietary Guidelines in 1980 and has revised the document every five years since then. Regardless of a reader’s own views on diet and health, it is useful to understand the mainstream position of the Dietary Guidelines on controversial questions in nutrition science.

    The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is used as a source of evidence for claims about diet and health on food labels (see Chapter 9). It provides key inputs for USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan and other model diets for people at different income levels (see Chapter 10). It informs policies and regulations for nutrition assistance programs, including school lunch and school breakfast (see Chapter 11).

    This chapter covers how the federal government develops and uses dietary guidance. The chapter:

    • reviews historical trends in chronic disease and nutrition, so that we can pay the most attention to the most important health concerns (Section 8.2); 
    • considers several market failures that have been cited as motivation for a government role in dietary guidance (Section 8.3);
    • explains the process of creating the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and related consumer-oriented graphics (Section 8.4);
    • compares current U.S. consumption patterns to the Dietary Guidelines (Section 8.5); and
    • explores several policy instruments that have been proposed to guide Americans toward healthier food choices (Section 8.6).

    Tuesday, 7 January 2014

    Food policy advocates and "personal responsibility"

    In an interview with Jayson Lusk, author of the Food Police, the Casual Kitchen blog today asks: 'Why is it that many food policy advocates strongly dislike the phrase "personal responsibility"?'

    Jayson's answer, expressing a balanced sense of personal responsibility combined with awareness of environmental influences, is fine.  It is worth adding that many food policy advocates talk about "personal responsibility" all the time.  Just do a search for "Michelle Obama" and "personal responsibility."  You will find the topic thoroughly covered by the Cato Institute (an institution rarely accused of being part of the "Food Police"!).  You will find a lively discussion of how much the Obamas emphasize "personal responsibility" in tough non-pandering commencement speeches.  The Obamas' views, with a mix of personal responsibility and public purpose, sound a lot like Jayson's.

    The Casual Kitchen, and Jayson too, can win arguments any time they like against the almost satirically narrow-minded caricature of the "Food Police" that they have set up.  But, perhaps it will become boring after a time to knock down row upon row of carnival dolls sitting on a shelf.  If so, they will want to engage in greater detail the issues that Michelle Obama raises in her speeches for the "Let's Move" campaign.  Here is a good speech to begin with.