Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 2 2016

Weekend reading: Fixing the Food System

Steve Clapp.  Fixing the Food System: Changing How We Produce and Consume Food.  ABC-Clio, 2017  (but it’s out).

I wrote the Foreword to this book.  Here’s what I said:

In this welcome addition to my library of books about food policy and politics, Steve Clapp’s Fixing the Food System reviews the past and current history of calls for a national food policy, the most contentious controversies over food and nutrition issues that have impeded development of such a policy, and the work of advocates to achieve one.   As this book makes clear, this history began decades ago.

I first became aware of the importance of federal food policies in the early 1980s when I was teaching nutrition to medical students at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).  First-year students were eager to learn about nutrition, but for personal more than for professional reasons.  They wanted to know what they—and the patients whose health problems they were learning to treat—should eat.  But by the time they were residents, I could see their dietary concerns vanish under the daily demands of patient care.  Trying to advise about diets was too difficult, time-consuming, and financially unrewarding to be worth the trouble.  It seemed unreasonable to expect doctors to take the time needed to counsel individual patients about the prevention of diet-related conditions—heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and the like.  If nutritionists like me wanted to focus on disease prevention rather than treatment, we would have to advocate to change the food environment to make healthful food choices the easy choices—even better, the preferred choices.  This meant we would have to advocate for food and nutrition policies aimed at promoting public health.

In 1983, I co-authored an article with UCSF colleagues on the need for such policies.[i]  It began:

The U.S. government helps to assure an adequate food supply for Americans by sponsoring a wide variety of food, nutrition, and agricultural support programs.  These federal activities were developed in the absence of a clearly articulated national policy, a situation that has resulted in the fragmentation of government programs and their wide disbursement among numerous agencies and departments.

Our article quoted the earliest calls we could find for a national policy to address these problems.  In 1974, long before the term “food system” came into common use, the National Nutrition Consortium of four leading nutrition and food science societies[ii] argued for a national nutrition policy that would:

  • Assure an adequate, wholesome food supply, at reasonable cost, to meet the needs of all segments of the population.
  • Maintain food resources sufficient to meet emergency needs and to fulfill a responsible role as a nation in meeting world food needs.
  • Develop a level of sound public knowledge and responsible understanding of nutrition and foods that will promote maximal nutritional health.
  • Maintain a system of quality and safety control that justifies public confidence in its food supply.
  • Support research and education in foods and nutrition with adequate resources and reasoned priorities to solve important current problems and to permit exploratory basic research.

Whether offered as nutrition or food policies, these were and remain highly appropriate goals for an abundant, healthy, safe, and effective food system.

My co-authors and I went on to identify the constraints that then limited government action to achieve such goals.  Despite an emerging consensus on the basic elements of healthful diets—fruits and vegetables, balanced calories, not too much junk food (as Michael Pollan put it more recently, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”[iii])—the greatest impediment to policy development was the controversy over the science of diet and health.  As our article understated this issue,

The effect on the nation’s health of food processing and other changes in the U.S. diet is controversial.  Salt, sugar, fiber, saturated fats, alcohol, caffeine, calories, vitamins, and food additives all elicit vigorous debate.

Today, more than 30 years later, we are still arguing about that science, and the scientific arguments still impede policy development.  In Fixing the Food System, Steve Clapp brings us up to the minute on federal progress (or the lack thereof) toward achieving a clearly articulated national food policy.  He begins and ends his book with the most recent policy proposals from leading food advocates Michael Pollan, of course, but also Mark Bittman, Olivier de Schutter, and Ricardo Salvador.  Their recent suggestions for improving our current food system reflect the many changes in agricultural production and food consumption that have taken place since 1974 but retain the basic elements of those earlier proposals.  Fixing the Food System explains why a national food policy is so badly needed and matters so much.

Steve Clapp is in a unique position to comment on food policy issues.  He’s been at the policy game for a long time.  I don’t remember when I first met him but I have been reading his work since he reported for the Community Nutrition Institute’s newsletter, Nutrition Week.  For those of us outside the Beltway in those pre-Internet days, Nutrition Week was a lifeline to the ins and outs of food politics in Washington, DC.   Later, when Steve moved to Food Chemical News, also—and still—a lifeline, I continued to read his reporting.  I often ran across him at meetings and hearings in Washington, DC and found it instructive to read what he wrote about those deliberations, not least because he got it right.

I say all this because he has been a keen observer of the food politics scene in Washington for decades and I can’t think of anyone who ought to know it better.  Fixing the Food System reviews the major debates he witnessed—the Dietary Guidelines, of course, but also attempts to set policy for food safety, marketing to children, hunger in America, and humane treatment of farm animals, among others.

Over the years, he also observed the work of policy advocates, and this book includes profiles of many individuals engaged in this work, some likely to be familiar to readers, whereas others may not.  Impossible as it is for me to judge whatever impact my own writing and advocacy might have, I am honored to be included among those whose work he presents.

Fixing the Food System describes political arguments over the kind of food system we ought to have and what an ideal system should accomplish.  But it is also about the importance of personal and political advocacy for a better food policies, those aimed squarely at promoting public health and environmental sustainability.

Advocacy makes a difference.  Advocates are scoring successes in improving one after another aspect of the food system.  In comparison to the 1970s or 1980s, we now have better food in supermarkets, more organic foods, more farmers’ markets, more nutritious food in schools, and impressive declines in consumption of sugary drinks.  My personal favorite among indicators of advocacy success—the change that makes me most optimistic—is the increasing number of college students who care deeply about food issues.  They are demanding local, seasonal, organic, and sustainably produced food in their cafeterias, and campus vegetable gardens.  And they are demanding and getting food studies courses and programs like the ones we started at New York University in 1996 that teach about how food is produced and consumed and the practical and symbolic meanings of food in modern culture and societies.  Today’s students are tomorrow’s advocates for healthier and more sustainable diets for everyone, everywhere, and for fixing what needs fixing in our food systems.  This book is a great starting place for this work.

–Marion Nestle, New York, June 2016

[i] Nestle M, Lee PR, Baron RB.  Nutrition policy update.  In: Weininger J, Briggs GM, eds.  Nutrition Update, Vol. 1.  New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1983:285-313.

[ii] National Nutrition Consortium, Inc.  Guidelines for a national nutrition policy.  Nutrition Reviews 1974;32(5):1253-157.  The Consortium included the American Institute of Nutrition, the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, the American Dietetic Association, and the Institute of Food Technology.

[iii] Pollan M.  In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.  Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.  Penguin Press, 2008.

Nov 30 2016

FDA seeks input on issues related to dietary fiber

You might think that fiber simply refers to components of food plants that cannot be digested by human enzymes and are excreted in feces.

No such luck.

Like everything else in nutrition, fiber is complicated, not least because intestinal bacteria can digest some of those components and produce nutrients we can use.

In May, the FDA said that naturally occurring dietary fibers such as those found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains—and 7 specific isolated or synthetic fibers—could be declared on the label under “Dietary Fiber.”

The FDA defines fiber as (no, I’m not kidding):

non-digestible soluble and insoluble carbohydrates (with three or more monomeric units), and lignin that are intrinsic and intact in plants; isolated or synthetic non-digestible carbohydrates (with three or more monomeric units) determined by FDA to have physiological effects that are beneficial to human health.

The isolated or synthetic non-digestible carbohydrates said to have beneficial effects are:

  1. [beta]-glucan soluble fiber
  2. psyllium husk
  3. cellulose
  4. guar gum
  5. pectin
  6. locust bean gum
  7. hydroxypropyl methylcellulose

 

Cows and termites can digest cellulose.  We can’t.  But the FDA has evidence that they do other good things, for example, like lowering cholesterol.

The makers of processed foods love using these fiber additives for their various texturizing properties—and also because they can claim them as fiber on the label.

Now the FDA wants help in understanding whether 26 other kinds of isolated and synthetic fibers qualify as “Dietary Fiber” on food labels and, if so, what their beneficial effects on health might be.

The mind boggles.  This is another reason to stick with fruits, vegetables, and grains.

The comment period for the Request for Information opens on November 23, 2016 and will be open for 45 days.

For Additional Information:

Nov 29 2016

FDA clarifies what’s happening with menu labeling

Remember menu labeling—the amazing number of calories posted on your favorite items at chain restaurants?  For those of you who don’t live in New York City or other places with calorie labels, they are supposedly coming soon to places near you.

Here’s FDA-speak for what is happening:

In December 2015, section 747 of the 2016 Omnibus Bill prohibited FDA from using appropriated funding to implement, administer, or enforce the menu labeling requirements until one year after FDA finalized the draft September 2015 menu labeling guidance. While FDA originally issued a statement indicating the Omnibus Bill extended the compliance date, FDA is clarifying that the compliance date remains December 1, 2016, but, consistent with the Omnibus Bill, FDA will not begin enforcing the final rule until May 5, 2017, which is one year after the date that the Notice of Availability for the final guidance published in the Federal Register.  For more information see: Menu and Vending Machines Labeling Requirements.

Got that?

Really, these are worth waiting for.

Did you really want to eat that 650-calorie muffin?

Nov 28 2016

Small farms: the new math

My former student, Michael Bulger sends interesting tidbits.  This one is an article on 538 by Maggie Koerth-Baker how the USDA’s ways of measuring farm size and number obscure the (a) the increasingly rapid consolidation of large farms and (b) the fact that many small farms aren’t farms at all.

From 2001 to 2011, the number of very large farms — 2,000 acres or more — grew from 1.7 percent of all farms to 2.2 percent. In other words, a relative handful of big farms are getting even bigger, even though the amount of land being farmed stayed about the same.

From 1982 to 2012, the number of very small farms grew from about 637,000 farms of 49 acres or less to more than 800,000.

Big farms and tiny farms are increasing; the ones in the middle are declining.

A lot of this has to do with the definition of a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the reference year.”

$1,000 isn’t much, and this makes it difficult to tell real farms from big backyards.

But changing the definition to up the cut point has consequences.

  • Votes for the Farm Bill: Large farms don’t need government aid; if there are fewer small farms it might be harder to pass the bill.
  • States might lose federal revenues.
  • Land-grant colleges might lose research revenues.

As I keep saying, agricultural policy is hard for mere mortals to understand (but I keep trying).

 

 

Nov 25 2016

Weekend reading: Fig Trees!

Mike Shanahan. Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees.  Chelsea Green, 2016.


I have a particular interest in this book.  The summer before last, I bought a small fig tree at New York City’s Union Square Farmers’ Market and stuck it in a pot on the terrace outside my apartment.   Pleasant surprise: it survived last winter and produced a modest crop of small, brown, sweet figs.

This puzzled me because as far as I could tell, the tree had never flowered.

Mystery solved, thanks to this book.

Shanahan, a rainforest ecologist, explains that figs do flower but the flowers are inside the “fruit.”

Even weirder, the flowers are pollinated by specific species of fig wasps, which works through whatever the “fruit” is and do their work.

The book does not explain what fig wasps are doing in Manhattan or how they found their way to my 12th floor terrace, but the figs were great and I thank them.

I also thank Shanahan for writing a truly informative book about why Ficus species are so important to forest ecology and to reforestation programs, and what figs have to do with Gods (figs in mythology) and Stranglers (a kind of fig tree).

I raise as post-Thanksgiving fig in his honor.

Nov 24 2016

Happy Thanksgiving: Special thanks to farmers

Thanks today for everything there is to be thankful for, and especially to the National Farmers Union for reminding us how small a share our farmers get of the American food dollar.

I know you can’t read this, so try this piece.

Or maybe just this one?

Where does the rest go?  Labor, processing, transportation, marketing, etc.

Ponder that, and enjoy your dinner!

Nov 23 2016

Tonight is Thanksgiving Eve: Eat Pizza?

What with holiday travel and all, it’s a slow news week, so I am indebted to the American Pizza Community for a press release informing me of an American holiday I had no idea existed: Thanksgiving Eve.

Apparently this holiday comes with its own tradition: pizza.

“Pizza,” says the press release, “is tradition for millions of families on Thanksgiving Eve.”

According to the American Pizza Community (APC), pizza is frequently chosen around celebratory occasions and large family gatherings because having a highly-customizable, oven-baked meal delivered to your door is an easy choice for big crowds…The night before Thanksgiving is one of the five busiest days of the year for pizza orders.  Some of the larger pizza companies estimate that they will sell more than one million pizzas on Thanksgiving Eve.

How come?  According to the APC, which is a trade and lobbying association “a coalition of the nation’s large and small pizza companies, operators, franchisees, vendors, suppliers and other entities,”

  • Pizza offers wholesome-quality, customizable ingredients that are sure to satisfy a whole group.
  • Pizza is a flexible option: pick it up, dine in or have it delivered. Any way you slice it, it’s hot, fresh and easy.
  • Pizza is a low-stress choice.  You don’t have to pile everyone into a car to go out the night before a long day of travel.
  • Pizza is the perfect meal to bring people together and for many special celebratory occasions. It’s a convenient and communal meal that is meant to be shared, and is a real crowd pleaser.

The American Pizza Community’s “coalition was formed in 2010 to advocate for policies affecting pizza companies and operators including menu and labeling information, fair wages, work opportunity tax credit, background checks, tax policies and small business access to capital.”

This is the group that succeeded in getting Congress to insist that pizza is counted as a vegetable in school lunch programs, and is doing all it can to make sure that pizza places do not have to put calorie labels on their menus.

Nov 22 2016

Some good news: childhood obesity declines in low-income children–a bit

The CDC and USDA are collaborating to track the prevalence of obesity in children ages 2 – 4 who participate in the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

In a new report, the agencies find obesity prevalence to have increased from 14% in 2000 to 15.9% in 2010.   But here’s the good news:  it dropped to 14.5% in 2014.

More good news: it decreased significantly among toddlers in these groups:

  • Non-Hispanic whites
  • Non-Hispanic blacks
  • Hispanics
  • American Indian/Alaska Natives and Asians/Pacific Islanders
  • 61% of the 56 agencies in states, DC, and US territories

The not-so-good news is that obesity in WIC kids is still higher than the national average among kids 2 – 5 years (8.9%), but this trend is in the right direction.

What accounts for it?  The report lists several possibilities:

Let’s keep doing more of the same and keep that trend heading downward.

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