Wednesday, August 31, 2005
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’
but not spelled that way, now
it’s dog eat dog
rat eat rat
boom, like that
Monday, August 29, 2005
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
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
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?
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 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!
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
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:
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
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
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."
Friday, August 19, 2005
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
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.
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.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."
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.
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
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.
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
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]
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
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
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
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.
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.