Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Kroc-style: dog eat dog, rat eat rat

Here's the lyrics to Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler's latest single, "Boom, Like That." An NPR interview (with clips) describes the song as "a wry chronicle of the renegade business tactics of McDonald's mogul Ray Kroc."

you wanna make a dream
send ‘em south
if they’re gonna drown
put a hose in their mouth
do not pass ‘go’
go straight to hell
i smell that
meat hook smell
or my name’s not kroc
that’s kroc with a ‘k’
like ‘crocodile’
but not spelled that way, now
it’s dog eat dog
rat eat rat
boom, like that

Monday, August 29, 2005

Judge approves McDonald's trans fat ruling

A judge in California has approved the settlement that McDonald's reached with plaintiffs who sued the company for quietly reneging on an earlier promise to eliminate trans fats (see U.S. Food Policy last February). According to the Associated Press over the weekend, "McDonald's said it was pleased the case has been settled and that it had reduced the amount of trans fat in its McNuggets, Crispy Chicken, and McChicken products." As part of the agreement, McDonald's will pay the plaintiffs' legal expenses and support the American Heart Association to the tune of several million dollars. For many of the company's competitors, nobody even knows how much trans fat there is. Good for McDonald's.

Congressional action to cut social programs

When Congress returns from break, lawmakers will turn their attention to passing the laws that implement broad program cuts -- including cuts to social programs -- stipulated in the budget resolution this Spring. Medicaid may lose billions (relative to its baseline projected growth due to caseload and medical costs). Food stamps are threatened to a somewhat smaller degree: $3 billion over five years are to be cut from the budget area that includes both food stamps and farm programs. Perhaps $2.4 billion will be cut from farm programs and $600,000 from food stamps (see Jonathan Weisman in the Washington Post yesterday).

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has good background reporting making the case that food assistance programs reduce hunger and bolster nutrition. In other recently updated reports, the Center on Budget warns about specific proposals on the table, including one for a five-state block grant, and another that would permit more flexible waivers (administrative decisions that grant states authority to experiment with program rules and design). The authors of the latter report argue that new "superwaivers" are dangerous, because USDA's Food and Nutrition Service already has sufficient authority to permit state waivers for some kinds of policy initiatives, which allow innovations without threatening the welfare of program participants. The Center's strength is explaining arcane policy debates like these, the better to protect low-income Americans from dangerous daggers buried in thickets of legislation. Still, whether with "superwaivers" or without, I would like to see more ambitious food stamp policy innovations that seek to improve the program's nutritional effectiveness, make clearer that the program does not provide an incentive for overconsumption of food for particular subpopulations, and improve the program's flexibility for participants.

If you would like to contact your legislator to express a view about food stamp cuts, see the food stamp action pages on the websites of the Coalition on Human Needs and the Food Research and Action Center.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The end of the August Eat Local Challenge

What fun this month to participate in the August Eat Local Challenge, which I heard about through Jen at the weblog life begins at 30. Our family set our bar low -- promising only to eat more local food than usual, and to learn some new recipes with local food that would be worthy to serve guests. The Eat Local Challenge provided this city boy with much enjoyment, education about our food and its origins, and grist for much reflection over the coming year.

This afternoon, I took the kids to Waltham Fields Community Farm (which, as I mentioned previously, is where my family has a community supported agriculture share). We had a great time, picked up our allotment at the main food table, picked still more food and a bouquet of floors in the field, met farmers and other customers who we are getting to know by name. Any of you readers who are real farmers or real cooks can have a laugh at my expense, but I am disproportionately proud of our meal this evening: fresh corn on the cob (from the farm), brown rice (not local) and black beans (not local), topped with a salsa of onions (probably not local) and fresh tomatoes, garlic, corn, cilantro, and hot peppers (all from the farm), with watermelon for first dessert (from the farm), followed by ice cream for second dessert (probably not local). The kids dived in and consumed it all.

Eating local is partly about learning awareness of what food is in season. And for a teacher coming to grips with the end of summer, this week's seasonal treat was a shocker! (Hurrying back to my class preparation...)


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

One difference between Quiznos and Subway

Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press earlier this month described the super-fast growth of Quiznos sandwich shops and explained the similarities and differences between the restaurant chain and the leader in its market, Subway:

Quiznos, too, benefits from the competition. Subway preaches the health benefits of sandwiches over hamburgers with an annual advertising budget that exceeds $100 million.

"The sandwich-segment boom is based on health-conscious people perceiving sandwiches as better for them than burgers or fried chicken," said Dominick Voso, executive vice president of development for Quiznos.

For years, Subway has delivered that message through Jared Fogle, the company icon who lost 250 pounds eating its sandwiches. Quiznos, meanwhile, has struggled to establish brand identity. Early advertisements bordered on the bizarre: singing rodent-like characters, a man suckling on a wolf's teat and people getting shot with tranquilizer darts.

The idea is that the larger brand, Subway, uses its advertisements to sell the public on the idea of healthy sandwiches. And indeed, you can read everything you want to know about the Subway products on the company's website. The small brand, Quiznos, is riding Subway's coattails. But is Quiznos as healthy as Subway? Who knows?

The federal government's message to consumers -- through generic commodity advertising -- endorses Quiznos and its Steakhouse Beef Dip sub. But I suspect the nutrition profile of this sub would not keep Jared as thin as his Subway sandwiches do. The Quiznos web page keeps consumers in the dark about the nutritional quality of all but a few of its products, and the company has been unresponsive to my inquiry in the past.

I believe my campaign to find out the truth about the Quiznos sandwich deserves broad support, from food activists and mainstream market economists alike. The whole point of a free market is that consumers should be able to make informed choices without government intervention. The public right to know in this case seems even stronger, because the federal government is encouraging us to eat more of these Steakhouse Beef Dip Subs.

On the Quiznos nutrition web page, there is a link that you may use to send a message to the company asking for more nutrition information. Please write them to ask for the profile of the USDA-sponsored 10-inch Steakhouse Beef Dip Sub (with sauce), and help us out by posting the responses you receive in the comment section below. My comrade bloggers, please spread this message. Thanks!

National Academies recommend improvements to food assistance research data

A forthcoming report from the National Academies, already available online, makes strong recommendations for improvements to the data resources for research on food assistance and nutrition programs. The panel, which was chaired by John Karl Scholz from the University of Wisconsin and included top national leaders in food economics and nutrition, proposed a new inter-agency working group for food assistance data. The panel suggested that the new working group be led by the Office of Management and Budget or jointly led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services (reading between the lines, the panel is not recommending that the working group be led by USDA on its own).

The panel also strongly encouraged research that combines the strengths of survey data sets with adminstrative data sets from the food assistance programs. The survey data sets often have small samples, but they offer detailed insights into many aspects of respondents' food situation (for example, a wealth of nutrition information in NHANES, a wealth of spending detail in the CEX, and so forth). The administrative data often have immense samples (for example, all food stamp participants in the state of California), and they often have good data on income and program benefits, but they usually lack information about the outcomes of interest (whether food spending or nutrition outcomes). Using both kinds of data together is fairly rare, and the projects that do so produce some of the very best available food assistance research.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Upcoming events: Consumer Federation of America and Public Health Advocacy Institute

At the 28th Annual National Food Policy Conference of the Consumer Federation of America (.pdf) on Sept. 20 at9:00 a.m. at the National Press Club in Washington (perhaps to be recorded by CSPAN), a talk-show style debate and discussion:

Agricultural Subsidies: Effects on Nutrition, Consumers, Farmers, the Federal Budget, Trade and World Hunger.


Charles W. Stenholm, Senior Government Affairs Advisor
Olsson, Frank and Weeda

Senate Agriculture Committee senior staff member

Ken Cook, President, Environmental Working Group

David Beckman, President, Bread for the World

Parke Wilde, Assistant Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University

At the Third Annual Conference on Legal Approaches to the Obesity Epidemic, sponsored by the Public Health Advocacy Institute, at 1:00 p.m. on Sept. 24 in Boston:

Economics, Consumer Behavior and Government Policy

Economic forces are critically important influences on bottom-line consumer behaviors contributing to obesity. How do government policies that promote sugars and fats, such as through subsidies, contribute to industry practices involving food processing, packaging, pricing and marketing of obesity-generating products and consumption patterns? The influence of these factors on the obesity epidemic deserves careful evaluation.


Katie Pratt, JD, LLM – Loyola Law School, Los Angeles

Parke Wilde, PhD – Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts

Michael Greve, MA, PhD – American Enterprise Institute

Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA – PHAI, Moderator

The Chicago Tribune covers the Oreo

Calorie Counter News, from CalorieLab, is an informative food policy weblog (and not at all a mere diet site). It recently offered interesting discussion of the Chicago Tribune's recent series about the Oreo.

Informed Eating covers food marketing to children

The August issue of Informed Eating, the newsletter of the Center for Informed Food Choices, has been posted. It features a special report on food marketing to children...
Last month, the federal government convened a meeting called “Marketing, Self-Regulation, and Childhood Obesity.” That the emphasis was placed on voluntary self-regulation—as opposed to setting legal restrictions on junk food marketing aimed at children—was a sure sign that nothing of substance would be discussed. But even worse, the event turned into a public relations bonanza for Big Food. A full two-thirds of the panelists (25 out of 38) had financial ties to either the food or advertising industries. Informed Eating has compiled the following links to documents that will make you feel like you were there. But as you read them, you will soon be glad that you weren’t.
... and Michele Simon's tribute to Peter Jennings...
How refreshing for such a respected journalist to be open to the truth and not allow politics or a pro-corporate bias to influence his reporting. Despite criticism from the right for the show being “biased,” Jennings continued to air news segments that questioned the role of the food industry. He also moderated a stimulating panel on food marketing to children last year at the ABC News/Time Obesity Summit. Food Politics author Marion Nestle shared the following with Informed Eating: "When I was filmed for the obesity special, Peter Jennings started the interview by saying that the entire program was based on my book. I was overwhelmed that someone of his stature would be so interested in the issues I care about and am heartbroken at his loss."

Teenage boys consume 160 pounds of sweeteners per year

Yuck! According to a report from Stephen Haley, Jane Reed, Biing-Hwan Lin, and Annetta Cook at USDA's Economic Research Service last week, teenage boys consume 160 pounds of sweeteners annually, more sweeteners than any other age/sex group consumes. People in the Midwest consume more sweeteners than those in any other region do. White and Black Americans consume similar amounts of sweetener overall, but often in different products. The report carefully combines food supply data with consumer survey data, to provide a wealth of similarly disaggregated estimates of consumption of sugar, corn syrup, and other sweeteners, in sodas, baked goods, and other food products.

Friday, August 19, 2005

The burdens of modern life

Oh, the burdens of modern life in the big city. Burden #1: finding time to exercise. Burden #2: the aggravating and time-consuming commute.

Here are just some of the sights on my twice-weekly 50-minute bicycle commute to work, which also doubles as my exercise regime, makes the expense of a gym membership unnecessary, and helps in part to spare our family the expense of a second car:
-- woman performing Tai Chi by Spy Pond, twinkling in the morning sunlight
-- the vegetable gardens along the bike path by Fresh Pond Reservoir
-- rowers, fishermen, and ducks enjoying the Charles River
-- the monastery of Saint John the Evangelist
-- the mansions of the Harvard elite
-- the dome at MIT
-- the gold-roofed Massachusetts Statehouse all aglow
-- the elegant 19th Century townhouses of the Back Bay
-- the Hancock Building, I.M. Pei's skyscraper
-- the Esplanade, a treasure of landscape architecture
-- the Boston Public Garden
-- the Boston Common
-- the gritty Theater District
-- the early-morning bustle of Chinatown

Ah, that all our burdens should be so light!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

What would Stigler say about the cost of a healthy diet in Boston?

The Boston Medical Center, with support from Project Bread, this month reported (.pdf) the costs of purchasing the market basket stipulated in USDA's Thrifty Food Plan -- and a healthier food plan -- in Boston's metropolitan area. The researchers estimated, plausibly, that the Thrifty Food Plan cost $524 monthly for a family of four, or $27 more than the Federal Government estimates is needed for the maximum food stamp benefit nationally. This difference makes sense, because Boston food prices are likely to be somewhat higher than the national average.

For the healthier food plan, the researchers estimate that a family of four would need $645 monthly for food at home, or $148 more than the maximum food stamp benefit. However, for a family of four, the national average monthly spending for food at home is $385, and the national average monthly spending for all food (including restaurant food) is $652. For a low-income family of four (with annual income of $15k-$20k), the average monthly spending for food at home is $350, and the average monthly spending for all food is $468. I believe that even with some adjustment for higher than average prices in Boston, the $645 figure seems too high. To corroborate all the number crunching, my family of four buys a diet very high in fresh fruits and vegetables for much less than $645 monthly in the Boston metropolitan area. I would like to see more detail than the report provides about the basket of foods it used for the healthy diet calculation.

The Boston Medical Center report calls for increased federal food stamp benefits. The issue is not just whether low income families need more resources -- they certainly do! The question is whether one really wants to increase the maximum food stamp benefit for a family of four to $600 (more than many prosperous Bostonians spend on food in grocery stores), and then insist that even the most destitute beneficiaries of the program may not by law spend those resources on housing, transportation, education, health care, or any other important need. Such a high targeted benefit means, for example, that while most Americans rely on a combination of groceries and food away from home to feed their families, low-income Americans would be essentially required to spend far more in grocery stores alone. It seems unduly paternalistic.

As an interesting historical footnote, I was just re-reading George Stigler's classic 1945 paper on the cost of subsistence, in preparation for my class in U.S. Food Policy this coming fall. The paper is now available for free from Cornell's wonderful Core Historical Literature of Agriculture. For the record, since some of my nutrition colleagues dislike this type of minimum cost study, I'll mention that I don't endorse everything Stigler says. Still, I can't help quoting for your consideration Stigler's six-decades-old-but-timely provocative comments on why dieticians seemed to think a healthy diet cost much more than he did:
The first [reason] is that the particular judgments of the dieticians as to minimum palatability, variety, and prestige are at present highly personal and non-scientific, and should not be presented in the guise of being parts of a scientifically-determined budget. The second reason is that these cultural judgments, while they appear modest enough to government employees and even to college professors, can never be valid in such a general form.... If the dieticians persist in presenting minimum diets, they should at least report separately the physical and cultural components of these diets.

Healthy fast food not selling well

For a time, the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain attempted to promote several healthier menu options, according to an article by Margaret Webb Pressler in the Washington Post today. But....
But diners didn't bite. So Ruby Tuesday has eliminated the Blueberry D'Lite, along with several other healthful dishes ditched after a lengthy period of slumping sales at the chain. Calorie and fat information was dropped except on the healthful items that survived and were moved to the back of the menu.

Now the chain is aggressively promoting its biggest burgers, and in the last three months, burger sales are up 3 to 4 percent. It has also restored its larger portions of french fries and pasta.
The article includes an interview with a Dan McDonald of Fredericksburg, VA, who is worried about his weight gain of 30 pounds in 5 years. Yet, the article finds him for his interview in the drive-through line in a Burger King. For work reasons, he eats quick fast food lunches of a cheeseburger and soda about four times per week. He knows about the comparatively healthy recent fast food offerings, but when he himself eats fast food, he just chooses what he wants most. "My problem," he says, "is I need to stay out of fast food places."

Everybody involved in this article seems to be thinking clearly: Pressler (the writer), the fast food companies, and Dan McDonald of Fredericksburg. For the fast food companies, it was worth a try to promote healthier options within their format. As Pressler goes on to describe, if real healthy options aren't selling, it may even make business sense for the fast food companies to promote unhealthy food under the pretense of being healthy. However, IF the healthy options don't sell well, it will be tempting for the fast food companies to promote them less heavily or eliminate them from the menu altogether.

So, am I in the camp that wants to throw up its hands and say, "American consumers don't really want healthy food anyway?" No! I admire the fast food companies for trying to offer healthy food within their existing high-volume hyped-marketing profit-driven format. IF the fast food companies find that they can increase sales 3 or 4 percent by returning to unhealthy food only, and that is enough motivation to give up on promoting healthy food, then Dan McDonald of Fredericksburg has the right solution: we should stay out of fast food places.

IF the fast food companies give up on healthy food, it will be time for all American consumers who care at all about their weight and their health to shun the fast food format completely. IF the fast food companies give up on healthy food, it will be time for public health folks to give up on talking about "public-private cooperation" and "a constructive role for the industry" in this arena. Instead, it will be time for every effort to doom the format to a long slow decline as an increasingly aware consumer population learns to get its lunch elsewhere. No government regulation needed. No food police. No meetings to mend fences, either. Just a long steady consumer campaign to send fast food restaurants the way of the buggy whip.

IF the fast food companies give up on promoting healthy food.

[Update 9/18/2005 evening: See good comments by Jack and good criticism from Mark, who's got a more sensible take on some of this than I did. I'm reconsidering what I wrote. It would have helped if I had more clearly articulated the question of whether the problem with fast food is particular menu offerings, or whether there is something inherently anti-nutritious about the fast food format. That genuinely open question might have been more interesting meat for a post than my dreams of some sort of boycott.]

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Pepsi's Tropicana Peach Papaya with no peach and no papaya

Under the heading, "Pepsi Lies," Accidental Hedonist quotes from this Navigator report:
PepsiCo is changing the labeling on two of its fruit-flavored Tropicana beverages to reflect the fact that they actually contain little or no fruit juice.Despite being labeled as “made with real fruit juice”, Tropicana Peach Papaya actually contains no peace or papaya juice, and only a small amount of pear juice from concentrate. Similarly, Tropicana Strawberry Melon contains no strawberry juice or melon juice. Henceforth, both drinks will carry the statement: “flavored juice drink/from concentrate with other natural flavors”. They will still feature pictures of the fruits on their packaging.

Red Tomato: domestic fair trade produce

A recent email from a former student provoked me to look into Red Tomato, a distributer supporting a domestic version of the fair trade principles behind Equal Exchange coffee and other products. According to a write-up from Oxfam America:

Fair trade: Low in calories. High in moral fiber.* Red Tomato is as much about values - namely that of making trade fair for small farmers - as it is about sweet corn and strawberries. Founder Michael Rozyne, who also co-founded Equal Exchange Fair Trade coffee roaster, discovered his mission nearly two decades ago, while working on farms and for a food cooperative. "It's not satisfying to do business knowing that the whole formula ultimately is driving the suppliers out of business," Rozyne explains.

Be it coffee or produce, the fair trade mission to keep small suppliers in business is fundamentally the same. However, unlike Fair Trade coffee - which secures a set price for farmers - Rozyne maintains that fair trade for produce is more about establishing the systems and networks that enable small farmers to compete in today's marketplace.

Red Tomato is doing just that. Working with disadvantaged growers and growers without access to capital, in five short years, Red Tomato has secured spots for small farmer produce in Stop & Shop, Whole Foods Market, and other food markets. To achieve these gains, Red Tomato is uniting growers, trade buyers, and consumers around one thing they all feel passionately about: great produce.

Friday, August 05, 2005

What's in the foods you eat?

From USDA's Food Surveys Research Group:
Check out the latest product from the Food Surveys Research Group: "What's In The Foods You Eat--Search Tool". The search tool provides easy online access to nutritional information about typical foods that Americans eat every day by using data files in the Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies. Users of the online search can easily search a database of 13,000 foods, view and select portions and weights for a food, and then view the nutrient values. Each result can be printed by the user.
For example, by searching for "McDonald's Chicken McNuggets," you can quickly find that one nugget has 54 calories, of which 31.5 calories are fat (more than 58 percent fat). Likewise, you can seach for "Quizno's" or "Fuddrucker's" and get the result: "No Food Codes Found."

[U.S. Food Policy editorial note: away on vacation until Aug. 15]

A new Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition

The Haworth Press announces:

Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition™ presents essential, up-to-date information for professionals involved with nutrition, food and water security, health, agriculture, and the environment.

Binghamton, N.Y., Summer 2005—The Haworth Press, Inc., is pleased to announce the publication of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, beginning with Volume 1, No. 1, Spring 2006. This peer-reviewed professional quarterly examines hunger and the interconnectedness among individual, political, and institutional factors that govern how people produce, procure, and consume food and the implications for nutrition and health. It comprehensively examines local, national, and international hunger and environmental nutrition issues—specifically food access, food and water security, agriculture, food production, sustainable food systems, poverty, social justice, and human values. The Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition is designed to serve as an essential resource for dietitians, nutritionists, agronomists, anthropologists, economists, educators, epidemiologists, food scientists, public health practitioners, and policymakers.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

George Will: treat farm animals well

Conservative columnist George Will published a fascinating column earlier this month, describing the conservative case for treating animals humanely, and better protecting farm animals in particular. I pinch myself and ask, did he really write this? Did he really link to these photographs of farm animal suffering?

Will draws on the work of conservative speechwriter Matthew Scully in a magazine published by Pat Buchanan.
Animal suffering on a vast scale should, [Scully] says, be a serious issue of public policy. He does not want to take away your BLT; he does not propose to end livestock farming. He does propose a Humane Farming Act to apply to corporate farmers the elementary standards of animal husbandry and veterinary ethics: "We cannot just take from these creatures, we must give them something in return. We owe them a merciful death, and we owe them a merciful life."
Will doesn't favor animal "rights," but favorably quotes Scully to say that Judeo-Christian morality holds cruelty to animals to be evil. I always keep an eye out for unusual political coalitions who might support sound and ethical U.S. food policies. George Will and PETA take the cake.

I want to suggest some topics for future columns for Will, as long as he has the courage to follow Judeo-Christian values through to their true implications. August: justice for the poor and oppressed. September: just war and the murder of innocents. October: falsehood and dishonesty from the mighty. November: material accumulation as a barrier to holy purpose. This could be quite a season.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The 'Eat Local' challenge for August

Jen at the weblog life begins at 30, along with locavores, has organized an "Eat Local" challenge for August. I'm a little late for full participation -- webloggers were supposed to post their own personal goal by July 31. But the participants are up to something special. Many plan to eat food from within 100 miles of home. You are allowed to make some exceptions (for example, spices, or the freezer full of fish that your dad mailed you from Alaska). But some folks are trying to make no exceptions at all. Jen linked to cookiecrumb's adventures in making salt from the nearby ocean.

Life is more colorful eating local, and it is usually good environmentalism. There is something spiritually moving about knowing the farmer who produces your family's food, and the soil it comes from, and sometimes picking it with your own hand. There is something appealing about a dirty crooked carrot in a world full of obedient clean conical supercarrots.

My eat local principles do have to be non-doctrinaire. Attractive fresh fruits and vegetables would be less affordable, and less frequently available, if one ate strictly locally. Even eating regionally, one gets a nice long summer season of fresh corn on the cob around here by drawing from the length of the Atlantic seaboard, eating first from the Carolinas and last from Massachusetts. Is there anything less worthy about a North Carolina farmer that I should shun his or her produce? Eating North Carolina corn on the cob is still very different from letting the corn go to Doritos or the high-fructose corn syrup plant. And, in the bigger scheme of things, why not let a Guatemalan farmer feed her family by selling yours some fresh vegetables in January? It's a matter of degree. My goals for August are to eat: much more local food, much more food in season, more diverse and interesting fruits and vegetables, to add two new local food recipes to my small toolbox that are good enough to serve guests, and to be better informed about the environmental decisions made growing our family's food.

Here's a photograph of the table at Waltham Fields Community Farm from which much of our family's food will come this month. The farm is also the source of the photograph in the title banner for U.S. Food Policy -- I'll try to change that title photograph with the seasons.


Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The effect of food stamps on food security

Paradoxically, researchers using major national surveys often find that participating in the U.S. Food Stamp Program appears to be associated with increased rates of food insecurity and hunger. Of course, the nation's leading anti-hunger program is not itself to blame. Rather, some low-income families face greater food hardship at any given time, while other low-income families may have enough food. A family with greater food hardship is more likely to take the trouble -- and perhaps endure the stigma -- of asking for food stamps.

In a conference paper published next month in the Review of Agricultural Economics, Mark Nord of the Economic Research Service and I for the first time use longitudinal or "panel" data from a major national survey to study the relationship between food stamps and household food security. Panel data have repeated observations on the same households over time -- in our case, thousands of households in the federal government's Current Population Survey were interviewed one year apart in December 2001 and December 2002. Sometimes, under certain statistical assumptions, panel data permit researchers to control for unobserved household characteristics, like being a "hardship" family or a "non-hardship" family in the case of food security. In our research, Mark and I thought a statistical model using panel data might show that food stamps help participants to improve their food security status.

In fact, the study found that using panel data reduced but did not eliminate the paradoxical positive association between food stamp participation and food insecurity. For example, we found somewhat to our surprise that families who entered food stamp participation between December 2001 and December 2002 were more likely to have deteriorating food security status, while families who exited food stamp participation were more likely to have improved food security status. We hold onto our assumptions anyway -- we still don't believe food stamp participation is causing increased hardship. But these results tell us something fascinating about the nature of the unobserved household characteristics that have been confounding this area of research. Those "unobservables" must be largely time-varying. In other words, the unobserved hardships don't just hit some families and not others. Rather, the hardships are very time specific -- many families are fine one year and then for some reason that is not observable in the data they face tough hardships the next year. Interesting.

p.s. The same journal issue includes a critical commentary on Mark's and my article by nationally known poverty economist Jim Ziliak. He liked some things about the article, but also expresses concern that too few of our households may have changed status between the two time periods for our work to be definitive. My time on the research project, and that of Friedman School graduate student Jerusha Nelson Peterman, was supported by the National Poverty Center. The issue also offers related articles from the same conference session by many colleagues and friends working on food assistance and food security issues, including Nader Kabbani, Myra Yazbeck Kmeid, Marianne Bitler, Grace Marquis, and Craig Gundersen.

Journal of Agricultural and Food Industrial Organization

The Journal of Agricultural and Food Industrial Organization, from the Berkeley Economic Press, has a request for papers about the economics of anti-trust law in livestock and poultry markets:
Litigation and legislative proposals concerning marketing methods for livestock and poultry necessarily involve economic theories as well as the application of antitrust law and competition policy concepts. The litigation has invoked antitrust law, the Packers and Stockyards Act, as well as other statutes governing agriculture markets such as the check-off provisions that subsidize promotional activities on behalf of the industry. Legislative proposals include expanding the PSA, express prohibitions on certain methods of buying livestock, and proposals for a more general, agriculture specific regulation of competitive practices. These various efforts to re-order the operation of livestock and poultry markets raise major questions concerning the reconciliation of current industrial organization economics (both theoretical and empirical) with antitrust law, competition policy, and other market regulations.
The Berkeley Economic Press is a web-centered family of economic journals with novel solutions to both the ordinarily dysfunctional labor market for peer-reviewing and the dreadful problem of price gouging by commercial scholarly journals.