Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 31 2017

Weekend Reading: Fast Food Kids

Amy L. Best.  Fast Food Kids: French Fries, Lunch Lines, and Social Ties.  New York University Press, 2017.

This is an academic sociologist’s account of what and how kids eat in school, and why.  Amy Best, a professor at George Mason University, spent several years quietly observing kids eating at McDonald’s and Chipotle, and in cafeterias in a low- and high-income high school.  She also did countless interviews.

The result is a reality-based analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of school lunch programs, and how school cafeterias are used by kids as public spaces defined, as Best puts it, by racial segregation and educational and income inequalities.  She also has plenty to say about attempts to reform school meals, the role of “hypervigilant” parents, and the draw of fast food.

Of school food, she says:

Unlike family food, school food holds little if any sacred value; nor does it contain the allure of commercial foods…What is clear is that for some kids, school lunch will continue to be regarded with indifference (and in some cases open contempt).  That is the case because the food is school food.  In principle, kids find the relationship to public school objectionable, not the food itself (even though some school food really does warrant genuine complaint).  Boredom with food is also about boredom with school.

She argues for introducing critical food literacy into the school curriculum, meaning critical thinking about current food system issues.  This sounds to me like what Alice Waters has been trying to do–and is doing–through her Edible Schoolyard projects, and also like the work of the Center for Ecoliteracy.  Both call for issues related to school lunch to be part of the school’s educational mission.  Best does not mention either effort in her book, an unfortunate omission in an otherwise thoughtful account of a complicated and important topic.

Mar 30 2017

Global Meat News Special Edition on Food Safety

Special Edition: Food Safety

Food safety is an issue every meat business takes considerable careover as the financial costs of a recall, not to mention the reputational risk, can be devastating. In this special newsletter, GlobalMeatNews takes a look at the latest recalls, changes to food safety regulation and other key developments across the supply chain.

Mar 29 2017

What’s up with with the FDA?

Two things:

I.  The White House wants the FDA to take a $40 million cut for the rest of this year, according to Politico.  Politico got a copy of a detailed chart given to congressional appropriations committees.  Here’s the FDA piece:

The FDA is supposed to absorb the cut by not hiring people it otherwise planned to.

II.  President Trump has nominated Scott Gottlieb to be FDA Commissioner.  The New York Times describes Gottlieb as a venture capitalist with strong ties to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

Scientific American summarizes what is known about the nominee, but its discussion is all about drugs and says not one word about food.

If he supports a deregulatory agenda, which it looks like he does, what will happen to inconvenient food regulations such as labels, restrictions on health claims, and food safety?

Let’s keep a close eye on how this one plays out.

Mar 28 2017

Canadian report on soda taxes

A group of Canadian health organizations has issued a report on the health and economic impacts of sugary drink consumption, based on research they commissioned..

The research predicts dire effects if sugary drink consumption is not curtailed—more than $50 billion in health care costs over the next 25 years.

The report says that Canadians purchased an average of 444 ml of sugary drinks per day in 2015, well over the recommended sugar maximum of no more than 10% of total daily calories.

Sales of classic Coke and Pepsi are down, but look what is happening with other sugary beverages:

  • Energy drinks              +638%
  • Sweetened coffees      +579%
  • Flavoured water         +527%
  • Drinkable yogurt        +283%
  • Sweetened teas            + 36%
  • Flavoured milk            + 21%
  • Sports drinks               +  4%

The report estimates that a 20 per cent excise levy on sugary drinks will do wonders for health, and will account for government revenue of $1.7 billion per year.   These revenues could support healthy living initiatives such as

  • Subsidies for fruits and vegetables
  • Healthy school lunch programs
  • Public education
  • Food literacy and skills education
  • Physical activity initiatives
  • Food security, safe drinking water, low-fat milk in Indigenous communities

Here are the documents

Mar 27 2017

Our prospective USDA Secretary, Sonny Perdue

I’m traveling and having a hard time keeping up with all the input on Sonny Perdue, the nominee for USDA secretary who doesn’t seem to be encountering much trouble from Congress.

Here’s what I’ve collected so far.

The New York Times summarizes Perdue’s ethics problems while governor of Georgia.  He held onto four farming operations and at least 13 ethics complaints were filed against him.

The Environmental Working Group says its investigations reveal that from 2003 to 2010, Perdue:

  • Refused to put his businesses in a blind trust.
  • Signed state tax legislation that gave him a $100,000 tax break on a land deal.
  • Received gifts from lobbyists after signing a sweeping order to ban such gifts.
  • Filled state agencies and boards with business partners and political donors.
  • Allocated state funds to projects that benefited companies he created after his time in office.
  • Took joy rides in state helicopters.

And from 1996 to 2004, Perdue received more than $278,000 in federal farm subsidies.

Civil Eats and MapLight say that Perdue does not like regulations: 

Emails obtained by MapLight suggest Perdue was more preoccupied by the potential for government regulation than the possibility of more sick children.

Here’s the paperwork he submitted for his congressional hearing.

Politico, which has been covering the nomination process closely, says that in Perdue’s congressional hearing,

Perdue “pledged that he would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Trump administration’s top trade negotiators to ensure that U.S. agriculture, which is extremely reliant on exports, doesn’t get shortchanged by trade shakeups or any of the new bilateral deals the president wants to pursue. He committed to fighting to protect key rural and farm programs from the administration’s proposed budget cuts and to working to make sure farmers have an adequate supply of foreign workers to harvest their crops despite the administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants,” the Pro Ag team added. Perdue also said he’s “absolutely committed” to addressing the struggles of America’s dairy farmers ahead of the 2018 farm bill.

Politico also commented on what Perdue said during his hearing:

“Agriculture is in my heart, and I look forward to fighting for the producers of America,” Perdue told the committee. “I will absolutely be an advocate and a fighter, where necessary.”

Perdue, who wore a tie with tractors on it and often drew on his experience of being raised on a farm in Georgia, pledged that he would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Trump administration’s top trade negotiators to ensure that U.S. agriculture, which is extremely reliant on exports, doesn’t get shortchanged by trade shakeups or any of the new bilateral deals the president wants to pursue. He committed to fighting to protect key rural and farm programs from the administration’s proposed budget cuts and to working to make sure farmers have an adequate supply of foreign workers to harvest their crops despite the administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

Politico also summarized some of the coverage

  • Democrats in Georgia are hoping Democratic senators on Capitol Hill will bring up Perdue’s controversial role in a debate over state use of the Confederate battle flag. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution has it here.
  • WSJ has focused on Perdue’s record on anti-poverty policies and what it could mean for food stamps here.
  • Cosmopolitan (yes, Cosmopolitan) has rounded up 10 things to know about Perdue here.

Everyone expects his appointment to go through.

Addition: I somehow missed Ian Kullgren’s analysis in Politico a couple of weeks ago.  Worth a read

Mar 24 2017

Weekend reading: Supersizing Urban America

Chin Jou.  Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food with Government Help. University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Image result for supersizing urban america

I first read this book in manuscript form and have been its biggest fan ever since.  It’s terrific that it is now out and can—and should—be read by everyone.

I was delighted to do a back-cover blurb for it:

This page-turner of a book tells a virtually unknown story.  Federal policies to assist small businesses deliberately introduced fast-food outlets into low-income minority areas to the benefit of franchise owners but promoting widespread obesity in these communities.  For anyone interested in the role of government policy in food, health, and race relations, Supersizing Urban America is a must-read.

I met Chin Jou last year when I was at the University of Sydney, where she now teaches.  They are so lucky to have her there.  This is first-rate work–a model of how to make historical research totally relevant to today’s food issues.

Mar 23 2017

Two U.N. Rapporteurs take on pesticides

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and the Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, have issued a report on pesticides as a human rights issue.

They

Told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that widely divergent standards of production, use and protection from hazardous pesticides in different countries are creating double standards, which are having a serious impact on human rights…The Special Rapporteurs pointed to research showing that pesticides were responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year. The overwhelming number of fatalities, some 99%, occurred in developing countries where health, safety and environmental regulations were weaker.

The site says the full report is available here, but I could not access it from that site and requested it.  It is here).

In the meantime, The Lancet has an editorial about it: “Phasing out harmful use of pesticides.”

The UN rapporteurs are damning about the “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” of the pesticides industry and the money spent on influencing policy makers and disputing scientific evidence. They call for a new global treaty to regulate and phase out the use of hazardous pesticides in farming. Such an international pact would be a welcome addition to efforts towards a more sustainable future but it will take time to form, especially considering the likelihood of industry opposition to it. More immediately, much more can be done nationally to strengthen existing weak regulations on the use and safety of these chemicals to protect the health of populations and the environments that they depend on.

Let’s hope these statements bring this issue to public attention—again.  We need another Rachel Carson!

Mar 22 2017

Blueprint for a National Food Strategy

Food policy clinics at the Harvard and Vermont law schools have issued a new report—interactive no less.

The report argues that

our food system often works at cross-purposes, providing abundance while creating inefficiencies, and imposing unnecessary burdens on our economy, environment, and overall health. Many federal policies, laws, and regulations guide and structure our food system. However, these laws are fragmented and sometimes inconsistent, hindering food system improvements. To promote a healthy, economically viable, equitable, and resilient food system, the United States needs a coordinated federal approach to food and agricultural law and policy – that is, a national food strategy.

The strategy needs to focus on :

  • Coordination: Create a lead office and an interagency working group, and engage local governments.
  • Participation: Create an advisory council, develop methods for participation, feedback, and response.
  • Transparency and accountability: Create a strategy document,  publish progress reports.
  • Durability: Ensure updating, implement procedures.

Yes, it’s wonky, but if you download the pdf you get to weigh in on all this.

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