Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Improving the nutrition environment in schools

For just a few more days, you can submit comments to USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) regarding the agency's new proposed regulations for "competitive foods," including vending machines and snacks for sale.

Highlights, according to the FNS summary, include:
  • More of the foods we should encourage.  Promoting availability of healthy snack foods with whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables or protein foods as their main ingredients.
  • Less of the foods we should avoid.  Ensuring that snack food items are lower in fat, sugar, and sodium and provide more of the nutrients kids need.
  • Targeted standards.  Allowing variation by age group for factors such as beverage portion size and caffeine content.
  • Flexibility for important traditions.  Preserving the ability for parents to send in bagged lunches of their choosing or treats for activities such as birthday parties, holidays, and other celebrations; and allowing schools to continue traditions like occasional fundraisers and bake sales.
  • Reasonable limitations on when and where the standards apply.  Ensuring that standards only affect foods that are sold on school campus during the school day.  Foods sold at an afterschool sporting event or other activity will not be subject to these requirements.
  • Flexibility for state and local communities.  Allowing significant local and regional autonomy by only establishing minimum requirements for schools. States and schools that have stronger standards than what is being proposed will be able to maintain their own policies.
  • Significant transition period for schools and industry.  The standards will not go into effect until at least one full school year after public comment is considered and an implementing rule is published to ensure that schools and vendors have adequate time to adapt.

To me, a fundamental issue is that schools are supposed to act with the child's interest at heart.  No matter what your view about other health policy proposals to regulate food sales (such as sales of soda in New York City movie theaters for example), we should all recognize that schools are different.  This is not a question of regulatory overreach.  This is a question about whether adults in publicly funded institutions should be making money for education programs by selling high-calorie snacks and sugary beverages to young children in the midst of widespread health concerns about childhood obesity.

Current information resources include earlier coverage on this blog, the FNS site, and (if you want to see an example of suggested comments from a leading public interest organization that has studied this issue closely) the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

As deeper background reading, I greatly appreciate Janet Poppendieck's thoughtful book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press).

For local eastern Massachusetts readers, I notice that Poppendieck is giving a free public lecture at Boston University (in the College of Arts and Sciences Building, Room 211, 725 Commonwealth Avenue, in Boston, on Tuesday, April 2, 6 pm).

Sunday, March 24, 2013

OMG! Sodium!

I showed this cereal box to my 10-year-old daughter at breakfast this morning, but she couldn't see the pun.  At first, I thought maybe she didn't know the text message shorthand, OMG.  On the contrary, she could only read the message, "Oh my God, sodium!"

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Virginia Tech seminar, March 22

I will be giving a departmental seminar in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at Virginia Tech, tomorrow, March 22, at 3 pm.

The title is: "Not just for farmers: Six ways that agriculture programs affect food, nutrition, and the environment."

Please come visit if you are in Blacksburg, Virginia.  The room is Fralin 102.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Albany Law School professor Timothy Lytton has a new book, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food.  A key point is that this topic is more broadly relevant than one might think, because kosher food is just one of many examples of food regulation systems that can be adopted by the private sector.

Lytton was interviewed on the What is Your Food Worth? blog.
As a general matter, private food safety audits and industry-sponsored nutrition labeling schemes have been a great disappointment. Behind most major food-poisoning outbreaks is some private auditing firm that gave the food producer a phony five-star rating. And when nutritional rating schemes give high marks to sugary cereals and full-fat ice cream, you have to wonder.

As a kosher-observant Orthodox Jew, I realized that kosher certification offers a 2000 year old example of private food certification. My initial suspicion was that kosher certification was full of price gouging and unnecessary, super-stringent standards. As I began to get into my research, however, I found that, although fraud and corruption were rampant a century ago in kosher meat production, today’s kosher system is highly reliable. My book tells the story of how, within the span of a century, kosher certification became the one of the most reliable systems of private certification in the food industry, indeed, perhaps in any industry.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Michael Moss: Salt, Sugar, Fat

New York Times reporter Michael Moss's book released this year is Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

The book has some older themes and some newer distinctive contributions.  The basic indictment of highly palatable processed food is familiar to readers of Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and David Kessler, and to viewers of movies such as Supersize Me and Food, Inc.  The novelty and strength of Moss's new book is the persuasive on-the-record interviews with food industry executives and scientists as they try to understand the consequences of their products and even to make improvements.

I ended up with two competing impressions.  First, I felt sympathetic to the industry scientists and executives, several of whom really would have preferred to sell better products, but who were defeated by competitive pressures.  Second, it seemed that the industry people themselves are usually naive about the possibility of making substantial improvements on a company-by-company voluntary basis.  I say "usually" naive, because I think deep down they know their efforts are partly for show, and at key junctures the industry scientists and executives are forced to be blunt about the real situation.

I have seen this pattern in my own conversations with food industry scientists and executives.  In nine sentences out of ten, they will express great optimism that their company can make healthy changes in its product mix.  Then, in the tenth sentence, especially if pressed with a hard question about whether the proposed changes are sufficiently ambitious to make a real difference, they will say, "Oh, well, don't be unrealistic.  You can't expect THAT from us in the real world of competition."

An article-length version of the book was published in the New York Times Magazine.  The Grocery Manufacturers Association released a statement treating Moss's book as an "obesity book" with an unfair axe to grind: "Michael Moss’s work misrepresents the strong commitment America’s food and beverage companies have to providing consumers with the products, tools and information they need to achieve and maintain a healthy diet and active lifestyle."  But this statement misses a key theme of Moss's book, which focuses above all on the quixotic efforts of industry scientists and executives to make improvements.

South Carolina explores restriction on SNAP purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages

Economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach recently argued in the Christian Science Monitor against proposals to disallow purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages using SNAP benefits.
Without question, the advocates for a policy to ban the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages using SNAP benefits have the best of intentions. But policymakers need to be careful not to let their zeal for combating obesity push them into hastily adopting policies that at best are unlikely to help fight obesity, and, at worst, can do substantial damage to the safety net.
New York City had proposed such a policy some time ago, and South Carolina was reported more recently to be considering a pilot study.  As with the SNAP policy suggestion discussed in yesterday's post, a pilot study is important, because there are serious concerns that SNAP spending restrictions could increase stigma and discourage participation by eligible potential participants.

Perhaps, a pilot study would show increased perceptions of stigma, reduced participation, and even hunger and food insecurity as a consequence of the sugar-sweetened beverage limitation.  At the same time, it is quite possible that the pilot policy would strengthen the healthy identity of SNAP benefits and reduce stigma.  The policy may be popular with low-income parents, who must manage the intense marketing environment for unhealthy beverages just as middle-income parents must.  As a practical matter, any proponents of such a pilot study should take seriously the concerns that the anti-hunger community has expressed about such policies.  As in yesterday's post, I think the views and experiences of SNAP participants should be most influential in this policy decision.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Wine industry visualizations

The food industry visualizations of Michigan State University professor Phil Howard focus on relationships among businesses or sectors within the food system.

It is interesting how visualizations can carry different implicit messages even when they seem at first to address the same topic.

For example, the first of Howard's recent (December 2012) interactive visualizations of wine industry brands emphasizes the great diversity of options in the marketplace ...

... while the second of these visualizations emphasizes the comparatively heavy concentration at the corporate level.

For more about the food system more generally, see Howard's 2012 working paper with Harvey James Jr. and Mary Hendrickson. More to come on this topic of food system visualizations.

Food stamp cycle in the Washington Post

The Washington Post this weekend published a long and thoughtful feature by Eli Saslow titled: Food Stamps put Rhode Island town on monthly boom-and-bust cycle.
At precisely one second after midnight, on March 1, Woonsocket would experience its monthly financial windfall — nearly $2 million from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Federal money would be electronically transferred to the broke residents of a nearly bankrupt town, where it would flow first into grocery stores and then on to food companies, employees and banks, beginning the monthly cycle that has helped Woonsocket survive.
For research background, my dissertation in the late 1990s and the resulting article with Christine Ranney in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics provided the first nationally representative estimates of the monthly cycle in food spending and food use for food stamp program participants.  My 2002 article with Margaret Andrews in the Journal of Consumer Affairs used Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) data to get an even sharper view of the exact timing of food stamp and cash transactions over the course of the month.  In 2005, Jesse Shapiro provided more economic insight in the Journal of Public Economics.  In a 2012 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Harvard researchers Cindy Leung, Walter Willett, and Eric Ding recommended further research on whether the monthly SNAP cycle could be related to risk of overweight.

One policy-relevant question is whether the federal government should ever consider providing benefits twice monthly.  Michigan considered such a policy in 2008, but I think it never came to pass.

One objection I have heard is that twice-monthly benefit delivery is paternalistic and might force low-income SNAP to conduct a potentially burdensome shopping trip.  This argument seems incorrect to me.  Let me lay out the case in an orderly fashion.

Whether benefits are delivered once or twice monthly, SNAP participants can freely choose whether to shop once or twice monthly.
  • If benefits are delivered to the EBT card once monthly, then a SNAP participant who wanted to shop once monthly is perfectly satisfied, but a SNAP participant who wanted to shop twice monthly and smooth consumption over the course of the month must save half the benefits for use two weeks later.
  • If benefits are delivered to the EBT card twice monthly, then a SNAP participant who wanted to shop once monthly must save half the benefits for use two weeks later, but a SNAP participant who wanted to shop twice monthly and smooth consumption over the course of the month is perfectly satisfied.
The key point is that the two policies are exactly equally paternalistic.  When middle-income speakers say that twice monthly benefit delivery is paternalistic, they implicitly assume that it is most natural for low-income people to shop once monthly and go hungry later -- a shopping pattern that the middle-income speakers would never use themselves.  I think it is the middle-income speaker's implicit assumption that really is paternalistic.

Any policy such as twice-monthly benefit delivery should be pilot tested.  The pilot should explicitly ask SNAP participants whether they had any shopping difficulties or budget difficulties, and whether they liked the new policy better than the old one.  It is possible that the new policy will reduce the occurrence of episodes of food insecurity at the end of the month.  The current policy should not be preferred based on implicit assumptions. SNAP participants deserve an influential voice in this decision.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Partnership for a Healthier America Summit 2013

The Partnership for a Healthier America Summit is this week, March 6-8, in Washington DC. The theme is "Building a Healthier Future."  I look forward to participating in a breakout session Friday morning, March 8.
The True Cost of Healthier Choices (Room: Constitution A)
Obesity prevalence among shoppers visiting budget supermarkets was three times higher than the obesity prevalence among shoppers visiting higher-price supermarkets. Does a healthy diet cost more than an unhealthy diet? It depends on how you measure it. As food prices rise, how can we not compromise nutrition by insuring access to healthy food?

  • Lisa Sutherland, President, LA Sutherland Group
  • Andrea Carlson, Economist, USDA Economic Research Service
  • Janet McLaughlin, Senior Director, Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters®
  • Parke Wilde,... Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University
An earlier post on the U.S. Food Policy blog offers some approaches to thinking about the cost of healthy food, along with links to other reading and resources.  Andrea Carlson and Elizabeth Frazao published a USDA report on food costs in May 2012, which this blog discussed at the time.  The Cooking Matters program from Share Our Strength has resources for healthy, affordable meals.

Following the breakout sessions Friday morning, First Lady Michelle Obama is giving the keynote Friday afternoon. There are many other great breakout sessions throughout the summit.

Dairy industry petitions FDA to make it easier to flavor milk with aspartame

The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) have petitioned FDA to modify the standard of identity for milk, permitting companies to add a non-calorie sweetener without additional labeling.

The petition proposes to allow dairy companies to add the non-nutritive sweetener aspartame to milk, without being required to label the milk as "low-calorie" or "low-sugar."  Currently, aspartame is allowed in milk (just as in diet soda), but such milk must be labeled to let the consumer know.

It appears the dairy industry is especially interested in marketing low-calorie flavored milk through child nutrition programs.  The FDA summary of the petition explains:
IDFA and NMPF state that the proposed amendments would promote more healthful eating practices and reduce childhood obesity by providing for lower-calorie flavored milk products. They state that lower-calorie flavored milk would particularly benefit school children who, according to IDFA and NMPF, are more inclined to drink flavored milk than unflavored milk at school....

IDFA and NMPF argue that nutrient content claims such as "reduced calorie'' are not attractive to children, and maintain that consumers can more easily identify the overall nutritional value of milk products that are flavored with non-nutritive sweeteners if the labels do not include such claims.
My view is that milk with aspartame should be labeled as clearly different from regular milk.  The push to market sweetened milk through child nutrition programs is a debatable public health nutrition strategy, whether the milk is sweetened with sugar or aspartame.  The drive for sweetened milk seems like dairy industry marketing as much as sound nutrition program design.  It may be better to let children cultivate their taste for less-sweetened foods and beverages.  Although reasonable people may differ on that point, it would be unwise to settle the matter by allowing sales of aspartame-sweetened milk without noticeable labeling.

You can submit comments to FDA (by May 21) and read comments from others here. Some comments already submitted are strongly opposed.

Hat tip to Ashley Colpaart.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Expiration of first-generation Roundup Ready soybeans

The patents for Monsanto's first generation of pesticide-resistant soybeans will expire in 2014.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have for many years been protected by patents, which allow one company to forbid farmers from saving and growing a particular type of crop seeds.  Without patent protection, farmers will be able to grow the pesticide-resistant soybeans, called Roundup Ready soybeans, without paying royalties and licensing fees to Monsanto.

For example, the case of the farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman was argued before the Supreme Court last month, receiving a lot of attention.  Bowman had purchased commodity soybeans, meaning non-brand-name soybeans ready to be used by food manufacturers.  A substantial fraction of his commodity soybean seeds did indeed have the Roundup Ready trait, merely because most U.S. soybeans have this GMO trait.  After patent protection expires in 2014, a farmer such as Bowman would be free to do as he likes.

Monsanto will still use patents to protect the company's new line of GMO soybeans, called Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield.  There had been some fear that Monsanto would use patents on specific seed varieties to extend the protection of first-generation Roundup Ready technology, but -- if I understand this Monsanto press release correctly -- it appears the company plans to let this first-generation technology really enter the public domain without any trickery involving specific seed varieties.  Monsanto does not plan to require farmers to destroy unsold seeds from the final patent-protected harvest, but instead the farmers may go ahead and save those seeds for the first legal non-licensed planting.

We should not exaggerate the importance of this news.  The change makes little difference for organic farmers or for people who have broad food safety concerns about GMOs.  If anything, wider availability of inexpensive Roundup Ready seed could worsen the problem of new weeds that are resistant to glyphosate (the generic name for Roundup).  The end of patent protection could in principle lead to new university-based crop breeding programs that seek to make seed technology more freely available, although I wonder if U.S. universities have lost the capacity to do so without corporate financial support. 

Yet, for some people who follow the ferocious public debate about GMOs, the end of patent protection seems like a big deal.  It helps to weaken the perceived linkage between the two distinct concepts, "GMO technology" and "corporate control of the food system."

Friday, March 01, 2013

Panera Cares covered in the Friedman Sprout

In the February issue of the Friedman Sprout, the Friedman School's graduate student publication, M.E. Malone describes the innovative Panera Cares cafe in Boston:
Walk into the 1-month-old Panera Cares community café in Center Plaza across from Boston City Hall and look around. Notice anything different? There are great scents, a line at the counter, laptop-tapping at a nearby table, pleasantries exchanged about the weather – all the usual sights and sounds of a weekday morning caffeine rush.

But unlike the Panera cafés you may have visited before, this one doesn’t have prices listed next to the items on the menu board. Instead, there are suggested contributions. And, if you choose, you don’t have to pay anything at all for your meal. 
The Sprout also includes a review of the New England Journal of Medicine's list of weight loss myths, ways to keep active in Boston, and more.