Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 15 2011

Harvard plate v. USDA MyPlate: an improvement?

Scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health have come up with a new Healthy Eating Plate as an alternative to USDA’s MyPlate released last June.

 For an explanation, see the Harvard group’s press release.  Harvard intends this as an explicit challenge to the USDA’s version

Recall my deconstruction of the USDA plate when it first came out.

I’d love to hear what you think of the Harvard version.

Is it better? Likely to be more effective?

 

Weigh in, please.

Sep 14 2011

Clarification of yesterday’s post on using SNAP for fast food

As many of you have pointed out, the use of SNAP benefits in fast food restaurants is a state decision but one that is supposed to be limited to the elderly, disabled, and homeless (whether those limitations are adhered to in practice is another question).

This morning I received further clarification from Aaron Lavallee, Communications Coordinator in the USDA Office of Communications. Mr. Lavallee, whom I don’t think I’ve met, writes:

Marion,

I just read your post in the Atlantic and wanted to follow up with you with some information that can clarify some of the misinformation posted and to help bring accuracy to parts that may be misleading for your readers.

You probably know most of this but Restaurant Meal Program has been an option for states – state run, state contracted, state administered – since the 1977 Food Stamp Act. The decision to establish a restaurant meal program is made entirely at the state level.

Most importantly, the ONLY people who qualify are the elderly, disabled, and homeless, as this provision is intended to assist people who are unable to prepare meals at home or in a traditional kitchen setting. This key fact and requirement of the law is mentioned nowhere in your article and we can both agree that with that clarification this story changes drastically.

Since 1977 the decision to establish a restaurant meal program has been made by only a handful of states and because of this participation is very low.

As noted in your article, California, Arizona, and Michigan are operating State administered restaurant programs serving their elderly, homeless, and disabled populations. Rhode Island began a limited pilot restaurant program on August 1, 2011. However you also mention Florida without providing the facts to your readers. In 2009, Florida began operating a pilot program in one county and has a total of only 14 restaurants participating. Furthermore in Florida this option is ONLY available to the homeless. To date Florida has not expanded that pilot.

The original emails to you from readers Robyn and Will were inaccurate – this is not an option for any SNAP beneficiary which is what they are thinking.

Additionally you close by drawing a false conclusion – “In June 2011 alone, according to USDA, 45 million Americans received an average of $133 in benefits at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $6 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend on fast food.” This can’t be spent on fast food because it is not an option for the 45 million Americans on SNAP.

Your voice has been and will continue to be an important one when it comes to nutrition in America. Your opinion continues to add to the healthy dialogue on critical issues ranging from MyPlate to the school meal programs. Your insight and knowledge on these topics is beneficial to everyone working to improve the health and wellbeing of Americans.

This is a critical opportunity for those of us with the ability to communicate to do so actively and accurately.

Because of that I ask that you add a clarifying note to your blog post highlighting the facts and clarifying for your readers you’re the truth about this program.

Please know that I am glad to help provide any information I can. Tim Laskawy at Grist hit the nail on the head with his piece.

I apologize for not making the restrictions clear in my original post and I thank all of you and Mr. Lavallee for taking the trouble to file corrections.

I also should have said that the billions of dollars in SNAP benefits could be a lot to spend on fast food. 

SNAP must look like a honey pot to fast food and other companies that cannot wait to get their hands on some of those benefits.  That’s what Yum! (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, etc) is trying to do.

But make no mistake.  Yum! is not a social service agency concerned about feeding the elderly, disabled, or homeless.  Yum! wants to attract low-income people with SNAP money to spend to its fast food restaurants.

Sep 13 2011

It’s OK to use food stamps to buy fast food? Better check for conflicts of interest

Readers Robyn and Will sent me a link to an ABC News story about Yum! Brands efforts to get more states to authorize the use of food stamp (SNAP) benefits in fast food restaurants.

Michigan, California, Arizona, and Florida already do this.  Yum!, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, wants it to go national.

They write:

We believe that food stamps should be used to buy nutritious food for kids and families, not junk food! This nonsense has to stop!  This is a government program–it should not be a means for corporations to sell products that will eventually lead to ever-increasing health problems–obesity, heart issues, diabetes, etc. What can we do to be heard?

USA Today did a story on this last week.  It elicited more than 1,000 comments.  I’m not surprised.

The issue thoroughly divides the food advocacy community.   Public health and anti-hunger advocates sharply disagree on this issue, as they do on the question of whether sodas should be taxed.

USA Today quoted Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s anti-obesity Rudd Center:

It’s preposterous that a company like Yum! Brands would even be considered for inclusion in a program meant for supplemental nutrition.

But then the article quoted Ed Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center and a long-time anti-hunger advocate:

They think going hungry is better?…I’m solidly behind what Yum! is doing.

Of course he is.  Want to take a guess at who funds the Congressional Hunger Center?

Yum! is listed as a “Sower,” meaning that its annual gift is in the range of $10,000.   I’m guessing Yum! is delighted that it is getting such good value at such low cost.

USA Today was negligent in not mentioning Mr. Cooney’s financial ties to Yum! and other food brands.  Such ties matter, and readers deserve to know about them.

But Mr. Cooney’s argument worries me on grounds beyond the evident conflict of interest.

For one thing, it smacks of elitism.  “Let them eat junk food” argues that it’s OK for the poor to eat unhealthfully.  I think the poor deserve to be treated better.

For another, promoting use of SNAP benefits for fast food and sodas makes it and other food assistance programs vulnerable to attack.

Rates of obesity are higher among low-income groups, including SNAP recipients, than in the general population.

Anti-hunger and public health advocates need to work a lot harder to find common ground if they want food assistance programs to continue to help low-income Americans.

Let’s be clear about what’s at stake here.  SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that anyone who qualifies can get benefits.

In June 2011 alone, according to USDA, 45 million Americans received an average of $133 in benefits at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $6 billion.

That’s a lot of money to spend on fast food.  Yum!’s interest in getting some of that money is understandable.

If you think low-income Americans deserve better:

  • Complain to Congress for permitting the legal loophole that allows this.
  • Insist to USDA that SNAP benefits be permitted only for real food.
  • Get your city to recruit farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and other sources of healthy food to low-income areas.
  • Let your congressional representatives know that you want a safety net for people who are out of work that enables people to eat healthfully.
  •  And tell the Congressional Hunger Center and similarly inclined anti-hunger groups that you think conflicts of interest interfere with their ability to help the clients they are supposedly trying to serve.
Sep 12 2011

Calorie labeling in action: baseball!

I went to Mets v. Cubs at Citifield last night (Cubs 10, Mets 6, 11 innings).  While everyone else was engrossed in the game, I was distracted by the vendors.

They wore calorie label buttons!

I managed to get one.

Is anyone evaluating this public health education method?

Whether it does any good or not, I wish I could have gotten the button for peanuts: 960 calories!

 

Sep 9 2011

Back to school lunch: bibliography

If you want to work on improving the meals at your kids’ schools, much help is available.  Just in, for example:

From the Center for Ecoliteracy: Rethinking School Lunch: Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools: a Cookbook and Professional Development Guide. You don’t have to be in California to take advantage of this resource.  It’s full of recipes and good ideas, as are other resources from the Center.

From Amy Kalafa: Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health, Tarcher/Penguin 2011. Kalafa is the writer and producer of the film about school food—Two Angry Moms.  This is her how-to guide to getting involved in and doing something useful about your kids’ school food programs.

From Sarah A. Robert and Marcus B. Weaver-Hightower: School Food Politics: The Complex Ecology of Hunger and Feeding in Schools Around the World.  Peter Lang, 2011.  This is a collection of essays (one of them mine) from writers and thinkers about school feeding programs, domestic and international.  It ends with a long list of groups working on school food issues.

And on my bookshelf from the last couple of years:

Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in AmericaUniversity of California Press, 2010.  My blurb says “Extraordinarily well thought out, beautifully written, sympathetic, and compelling.  Anyone who reads this book will find the present school lunch situation beyond unacceptable.  Free for All is a call for action on behalf of America’s school kids, one that we all need to join.”  Poppendieck is a strong advocate for universal school meals. Me too.

Institute of Medicine.  School Meals: Building Blocks for Health Children.  National Academies Press, 2010. This influential committee report says what needs to be done to establish food-based (rather than nutrient-based) standards for school meals.

Kevin Morgan and Roberta Sonnino.  The School Food Revolution: Public Food and the Challenge of Sustainable DevelopmentEarthscan (UK), 2008.  The UK has its own problems with school meals and so do other countries.  This book presents international case studies focused on sustainability and social justice.

Susan Levine.  School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program.  Princeton, 2008.  If you want to understand the history of how school lunches came to be in America, here’s the source.

Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes.  Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our ChildrenCollins, 2006.  Cooper was one of the first chefs to get into schools and get fixing.  This is a how-to from one who did it.

Robert W. Surles.  Chef Bobo’s Good Food CookbookMeridith 2004.  I have a soft spot for this one because I’ve been keeping an eye on Chef Bobo’s program at the Calhoun School in Manhattan for years now.   He revolutionized school meals at one school and this book explains what he had to do to do that.  He’s still there and still cooking!

You would like to do something about school meals but don’t know how?  No excuses!

 

 

 

Sep 8 2011

No Surprise: Corporate responsibility works better for corporations than public health

A new report just out from the Children’s Food Campaign of Sustain, a food advocacy group in the UK, says that its government’s Responsibility Deal with the food industry about marketing practices is good for food companies but not so effective for public health.

 

The report finds that the UK government’s Responsibility Deal is “likely to fail because industry commitments are weak, voluntary, and ignored by numerous big food companies.”

The UK Coalition Government launched its Public Health Responsibility Deal in March 2011. This covered five areas—food, alcohol, physical activity, health in the workplace, and behavior change.

The core of the Deal is voluntary partnership with industry.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley promised industry that the Deal would be “built on social responsibility, not state regulation.”   Instead, government would promote personal responsibility for health choices and voluntary agreements with companies.

Predictably, the report lists 33 national food companies that have failed to commit to one or more voluntary pledges on:

  • ‘out of home’ calorie labelling (including Costa, Pizza Express and Subway)
  • salt reduction (including Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Wimpy)
  • artificial trans fat removal (including Harvester, Wetherspoons and Sodexo)

It also lists 13 well known companies, including Birds Eye, Budgens, Domino’s Pizza and Nandos that failed to sign up to any health pledges at all.

The campaign concludes: “food pledges are underwhelming.”

So much for voluntary partnerships and alliances.  Nobody should be surprised.

 

Sep 7 2011

USDA seeks method to compensate farmers for GM contamination

I am a long-time reader of Food Chemical News, a weekly newsletter covering a huge range of food issues and invaluable for someone like me who lives outside the Beltway and does not have access to the ins and outs of Washington DC politics.

An item in the August 30 issue caught my attention:  USDA secretary Tom Vilsack’s instructions to his department’s new Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).

Get this: Vilsack told AC21 to come up with a plan for compensating organic or conventional farmers whose crops become contaminated by GM genes through pollen drift.

According to Food Chemical News, Vilsack gave a three-part charge to the panel:

  1. What types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate?
  2. What would be necessary to implement such mechanisms?
  3. What other actions would be appropriate to bolster or facilitate coexistence among different agricultural production systems in the United States?

Vilsack urged the committee to address the questions in order and not yield to temptation to address the third question first.

“This is a very specific charge,” Vilsack stressed. He also told the AC21 not to worry if their proposed solutions would require an act of Congress or new regulations. “Don’t worry about the mechanism. We’ll figure out how to make it happen.”

Why is Vilsack doing this?

“What motivates me is an opportunity to revitalize the rural economy,” the agriculture secretary declared. “I have no favorite [type of agriculture] here. I don’t have that luxury. I just want to find consensus. I believe that people who are smart and reasonable can find a solution.”

Responding to a question from panel member, Vilsack said the AC21’s failure to come up with solutions would result in “continuation of what we have today….If we want to revitalize rural America, we can’t do it while we’re fighting each other.”

Deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan cited the recent droughts and flooding as an “overwhelming time for agriculture.”

I wonder how we are going to prevent the loss of more farmers and encourage young people to take up farming….you have to come up with scenarios where there’s lack of data.  You don’t have to figure out the politics.  That’s my job and the secretary’s.  Just answer the questions [in the charge] and let us carry the water.

Interesting, no?

Could this possibly mean that instead of Monsanto suing organic or conventional farmers whose crops get intermingled with patented GM varieties, Monsanto might now have to pay the farmers for the damage caused by the contamination?

I can’t wait to see what AC21 comes up with.

Sep 6 2011

The food industry vs. nutrition standards: a First Amendment issue?

I just received a message from Samantha Graff, the director of legal research at Public Health Law & Policy, an advocacy group in Oakland, California.

This morning, she writes, 36 legal scholars—including several experts on the First Amendment—weighed in on the food industry’s fight against proposed nutrition standards for foods and beverages marketed directly to children.  This is the very issue I wrote about in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle column and have discussed in previous posts.

In a letter sent this morning to federal agencies, the legal scholars point out that because food and beverage companies are free to ignore the nutrition recommendations, the draft principles “do not restrain or compel anyone’s speech. They are not, in fact, government regulations at all.”

A key industry strategy has been to recruit lawyers to write white papers charging that the proposed nutrition standards violate First Amendment rights to free speech.

Recall that Congress asked the FTC to join with the FDA, CDC, and USDA to recommend standards for food products marketed to kids.  These agencies, collectively known as the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG), issued Preliminary Proposed Nutrition Principles to Guide Industry Self-Regulatory Efforts.   This report outlines proposed voluntary standards that have been open for public comment.

My initial reaction: the standards were much too generous.  But that’s not how the food industry sees them.  Food companies realized that the standards exclude large proportions of the junk foods they currently market to kids.

They created a new lobbying group, “Sensible Food Policy Coalition” (shades of George Orwell’s 1984).   This group is doing everything it can to block the proposed standards.   Its website links to white papers opposing the recommendations on First Amendment grounds.

David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, responded to some of these claims in a recent blog post, in which he emphasizes the voluntary nature of the proposals.

I’ve said it before and repeat: I am not a legal scholar but intention seems to matter in legal decisions.  The intent of the First Amendment was to protect political and religious speech. I cannot believe that the intent of the First Amendment was to protect the right of food companies to market junk foods to kids.

Marketing to children is unethical.  It should be stopped.  And it’s the government’s responsibility to do it.

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