Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 10 2014

We have a farm bill at last, for better or worse

On Friday, President Obama signed the Agriculture Act of 2014, a.k.a. the farm bill.

 The green object on the left is a John Deere tractor.  Why is it there?

The John Deere company:

The bill has 12 titles or sections:

  1. Commodities
  2. Conservation
  3. Trade
  4. Nutrition
  5. Credit
  6. Rural Development
  7. Research, Extension, and Related Matters
  8. Forestry
  9. Energy
  10. Horticulture
  11. Crop Insurance
  12. Miscellaneous

I took a quick look at what’s new in Title 4: Nutrition—the part that deals with SNAP.  Here are a few of its details [with my comments]:

Sec. 4001. Preventing payment of cash to recipients of supplemental nutrition assistance benefits for the return of empty bottles and cans used to contain food purchased with benefits provided under the program.  [This closes a loophole but hardly seems worth the trouble---how much cash is involved here?  And won't it be impossible to enforce?]

Sec. 4018.  No funds authorized to be appropriated under this Act shall be used by the Secretary for recruitment activities designed to persuade an individual to apply for supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits. [This one is especially troubling, as it eliminates USDA outreach activities to people who might be eligible for benefits but don't know about them.]

Sec. 4028. Nutrition education is to include physical activity in addition to healthy food choices.  [Translation: Focus obesity-prevention efforts on activity, not on making fewer purchases of junk foods and sodas.]

Sec. 4202.  The Secretary [of USDA] shall conduct a pilot project…[to] facilitate the procurement of unprocessed fruits and vegetables in not more than 8 States. [It's only a pilot program but it's to promote local farm-to-school programs! Score this one as a small win.] 

Sec. 4204.  Not later than the 2020 report [on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans] and in each report thereafter, the Secretaries [of USDA and HHS] shall include national nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for pregnant women and children from birth until the age of 2.  [I'm baffled by this one.  Current Guidelines apply to everyone over the age of 2 and already contain advice for pregnant women.  I doubt this is meant to make sure that the Guidelines advise parents to avoid giving sodas to kids under the age of 2.]

Sec. 4208. Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive.  This provides for competitive matching grants to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants.  [As discussed by Michele Simon and Daniel Bowman Simon, the bill does not necessarily favor local foods or purchases at farmers' markets, and the size of the incentive is unclear.]

Sec. 4209.  Food and agriculture service learning program…to increase capacity for food, garden, and nutrition education within host organizations or entities and school cafeterias and in the classroom.  The USDA is to award competitive grants to entities that have a proven track record; work in underserved rural and urban communities; teach and engage children in experiential learning about agriculture, gardening, nutrition, cooking, and where food comes from; and facilitate a connection between elementary schools and secondary schools and agricultural producers in the local and regional area. [This must mean Food Corps.  The bill authorizes $25 million until spent, but the funding is not mandatory.  Will it be funded?  Fingers crossed.]

Sec. 4213.  Pulse crop products.  The [USDA] Secretary shall purchase eligible pulse crops and pulse crop products for use in the school lunch program…[and] the school breakfast program. [Bean growers---soybean growers?---must be doing some effective lobbying.]

Sec. 4214. The Secretary shall carry out a pilot project in schools participating in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program…in not less than 5 States, to evaluate the impact of allowing schools to offer canned, frozen, or dried fruits and vegetables.  [It looks like the frozen food industry is also doing some effective lobbying.  Frozen vegetables are fine, but not if they mean giving up fresh ones.]

—Thanks to Daniel Bowman Simon for pointing out some of these issues and for providing links to relevant sources.

Feb 7 2014

Coca-Cola marketing scores again

Far be it from me to defend Coca-Cola’s advertisements.  They have only one purpose: to get you to buy more of the company’s flavored, colored, caffeinated water with nearly a teaspoon of sugar per ounce.

Drink a 20-ounce Coke?  That’s 18 teaspoons.

But you have to hand it to Coke’s marketers.

They just got me to write about the fuss over the company’s “It’s Beautiful” Super Bowl ad, which shows people of all colors and kinds singing America the Beautiful in—can you believe this?—foreign languages.

The response?  Tweeted bigotry:

WTF? @CocaCola has America the Beautiful being sung in different languages in a #SuperBowl commercial? We speak ENGLISH here, IDIOTS.

What amazes me about the response is that Coca-Cola has been doing commercials like this for decades.

Remember these?

Why this sudden outpouring of xenophobia and homophobia?  

It’s disturbing to think about why this is happening now, but I won’t be surprised if the controversy brings Coke lots of favorable publicity and helps the company sell even more sugary beverages.

Feb 6 2014

Is surgery really the best way to deal with obesity?

I received an e-mail message from Dr. Justine Davies, the editor of The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, announcing a series of review articles on bariatric surgery for treatment of obesity.

Bariatric surgery, she says,

is the most effective treatment for both obesity and type 2 diabetes. In many people with type 2 diabetes, bariatric surgery not only limits disease progression, but also reverses complications.

She asks: So why is this procedure not being used more often to treat
patients with obesity?

Bariatric surgery has substantial benefits in terms of weight loss, metabolic status, and quality of life. It is safe and effective, and the future savings made through prevention of comorbid diseases could counterbalance its high cost. The surgery should, therefore, be available as an option to use when appropriate, and not only when all other options have been eliminated. Bariatric surgery offers a real opportunity for preventing comorbid diseases and complications of obesity. If it is only used as a final resort, this opportunity will be missed.

I can think of several good reasons: pain and suffering, treatment complications, questionable long-term prognosis, and cost, for starters.

Prevention is a better option.

If only we knew how….

Here are the papers:

Feb 5 2014

The 2014 Farm Bill: Reactions from relief to aghast

Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the daily Hagstrom report on agriculture matters, explains why the farm bill passed.   After 3 or 4 years of fuss, practically everyone thought it was the best they could do:

Critics on the right and the left say that such an outpouring of endorsements shows that the farm bill is filled with government spending, but it also shows the importance of the farm bill—and the activities of the Agriculture Department—in every corner of the country. [The farm bill] provides purchasing power and food for low-income people in cities and it allows for the inspection of meat, poultry, and eggs. It also pays for financing electricity, telephones, and the Internet in rural America.

The bottom line: it could have been a lot worse.

The New York Times scores the winners and losers.  The big winner?  The insurance industry.

Unlike the food stamp program, the federally subsidized crop insurance program was not cut. The program, which is administered by 18 companies that are paid $1.4 billion annually by the government to sell policies to farmers, pays 62 percent of farmers’ premiums.

Enthusiasm for the bill depends on what it gives to whom.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack says, grudgingly:

Building on the historic economic gains in rural America over the past 5 years, this bill will accomplish those goals while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for the taxpayer. While no legislation is perfect, this bill is a strong investment in American agriculture and supports the continued global leadership of our farmers and ranchers.

Former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, looks at the bright side:

While this is not a perfect bill, its passage was critical for our nation’s agriculture infrastructure. I’m glad to see the bill will allow low-income Americans to double their SNAP benefits at farmers markets, which will help tens of thousands of people eat more nutritious foods. However, I believe there is still a fundamental disconnect between the nation’s farm policies and critical issues of public health and nutrition.

Wholesome Wave is pleased with the bill’s support (comparatively small as it is) for fruits and vegetables:

While we are reluctant to support this legislation because of the disheartening cuts to SNAP, the bill does include funding for many critical programs that will enhance access to affordable, local food and drive revenue to local and regional farmers. Specifically, there is mandatory funding for nutrition incentives at $20 million per year, for five years, as well as increased funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Community Food Projects, Specialty Crop Block Grants, the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, Beginning Farmers and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

The Organic Farming Research Foundation calls the bill “a victory for organic farming:”

The Farm Bill restores long overdue support for organic agriculture including significant funding increases for the Organic Extension and Research Initiative (OREI), the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP), the National Organic Program (NOP) and the Organic Data Initiative (ODI). Despite significant shortcomings in the commodity, conservation and crop insurance titles of the proposal, the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) is celebrating the victories for organic agriculture found in the bill and urging the president to sign it.

The Fair Food Network’s Oran Hesterman says:

While no Farm Bill is perfect, this bill continues support for critical programs and advances innovations that will support small and mid-scale farmers and help more low-income families access healthy and affordable foods in their communities…Specifically, the Farm Bill includes $100 million to support the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, a new national healthy produce program modeled after successful efforts such as Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks.

But, New York City Coalition Against Hunger Executive Director Joel Berg says:

I am devastated, but unfortunately not surprised, by the Senate’s passage of a Farm Bill cutting SNAP by nearly $9 billion, on top of $11 billion in cuts that took place last November 1st. Our political system is so broken it has morphed into spineless versus heartless, and low-income Americans are, once again, those who will suffer most…It’s an orgy of corporate welfare and subsidies for the wealthy paid for by cuts to programs that help the needy put food on the table. It is Robin Hood in reverse.

I’ll end with Senator John McCain (Rep-AZ), whose analysis of the specifics is worth a look:

Mr. President, how are we supposed to restore the American people’s confidence with this monstrosity? Just a few weeks ago we crammed down their throats a $1.1 trillion Omnibus Appropriations Bill loaded with wasteful spending. Tomorrow we’ll wash the Omnibus down with another trillion dollars. The only policy that gets bipartisan traction in Congress is Washington’s desire to hand out taxpayer money like its [sic] candy.

Will the President sign this bill?  He says he will, on Friday.

Feb 4 2014

The dairy programs in the farm bill: A helpful analysis?

Thanks to the Hagstrom Report for sending along analyses of the dairy programs in the farm bill.

I’m not a dairy farmer and I’ve never had to work with these programs, which is a good thing because I find them impenetrable.  

For one thing, support for dairy farmers—and protection against disastrous cost and price fluctuations—is accomplished through several extraordinarily complicated programs that survive or are newly enacted in this farm bill.  

  • The permanent Dairy Price Support Program from the 1949 farm bill.
  • The Dairy Forward Pricing Program
  • The Dairy Indemnity Program
  • Export market development in the National Dairy Promotion and Research Program
  • The Margin Protection Program for Dairy Producers (MPP)
  • The Dairy Product Donation Program (DPDP)
  • Federal Milk Marketing Order for California

Why impenetrable?  Try this explanation (from the first document listed below) of the new Margin Protection Program:

A voluntary program that pays participating farmers an indemnity when a national benchmark for milk income over feed costs (the actual dairy production margin or ADPM) falls below an insured level that can vary over a $4 per cwt range.

That document explains the two new programs, MPP and DPDP, in great detail, with charts and formulas.  For them, I have to take the authors’ conclusions on faith:

The two new programs (MPP and DPDP) offer a total revamping of the safety nets that have been in place for the dairy sector going back to the middle of the 20th Century…Whether the programs proposed here will prove to be the answer farmers seek is something that will be debated and estimated, but we won’t really know unless and until they are tried.

Dairy farmer readers:  Will these new programs make your lives easier?  More secure?  Bring you more income?

Here are the analyses:

 

 

 

Feb 3 2014

Food art: Comments on food politics

At the last minute, I caught the exhibit of student art at the School of Visual Arts (209 East 23rd street @3rd Avenue) just before it closed.

The exhibit was called “Putting it All on the Table.”

The instructor must have asked students to create installations that comment on the most important issues in food politics today: hunger, obesity, corporate control of food systems, garbage and food waste, pesticides and their effects, globalization, immigrant labor, and others.

This one commented on the ubiquity of corn (in this case, candy corn) in the food supply.

2014-01-25 14.52.11

And this one looked at issues related to nuclear waste in the food supply.

2014-01-25 14.54.18

Worth the visit?  I thought so.  Food for thought and all that.

Jan 31 2014

Yes, the farm bill is politically corrupt. Veto it!

I’ve been hearing from readers challenging my disgusted comments about the politics of the farm bill.

The bill is so awful that the Washington Post says it deserves a veto:

Tipping the financial scales at $956 billion over 10 years, or just over $1 billion per page, the hideously complex bill is supposedly a compromise that reforms crop subsidy programs…what the bill takes from the ag lobby with one hand, it largely gives back with the other…the bill cuts $8.5 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the poor…attached to so much corporate welfare, it’s hard to swallow, especially when that corporate welfare isn’t rigorously means-tested.

The New York Times doesn’t go that far.  It supports the bill, but grudgingly: “The farm bill could have been worse:”

On balance, the bill is clearly worthy of support, particularly because it will prevent austerity fanatics in future Congresses from gutting food stamps for the next five years….But endorsing the bill also means acknowledging the low expectations for real progress in Washington…As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues, rejecting the farm bill means rolling the dice that the next Congress will do a better job. In today’s environment, that’s a tough bet.

Why is the farm bill politically corrupt?

  • It is indeed “hideously complex,” so much so that nobody can possibly make intelligent decisions about very much of it.
  • It is so difficult to read (because it refers to previously legislation) that all kinds of things can get into it without being noticed or discussed.
  • It is mired in “pork,” things put into it by members of agriculture committees to please particular groups of constituents or lobbyists.
  • It is not about what’s best for the American people, farmers, or the poor; it is about what’s best for getting legislators elected.
  • It represents a substantial transfer of taxpayer dollars to the wealthiest “farmers” (i.e., agribusiness) at the expense of the poor and, therefore, legislates further income inequity.

I’m with the Washington Post on this one.  If the Senate passes it and the president signs it, it’s only because they’ve given up on trying to govern the country from some rational perspective.

Jan 30 2014

Supplement infographic: most users are healthy to begin with

I love this new graphic from the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the trade association for the dietary supplement industry.

My favorite: “Supplement consumers are more likely to engage in other healthy habits than non-consumers.”

This is delightfully ambiguous.  Does it mean: Supplements make consumers healthier?

Or does it mean: consumers who are healthy to begin with are the ones who take supplements?

I vote for the latter.  That’s why the great majority of studies of supplements and health show no effect.  Study subjects are already healthy and don’t need them.

The Dietary Supplement Consumer: The 5 W’s answered about the more than two-thirds of U.S. adults taking dietary supplements, according to the most recent annual survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN).�

 

 

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