Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 11 2014

The secret life of food stamps: good for business

The writer Krissy Clark, in a collaboration between Marketplace and SLATE, has produced a remarkable series of articles (with audio and video) on business interests in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps.

Here are brief excerpts:

The secret life of a food stamp, April 1

At a private dinner Walmart held for market analysts last fall in Bentonville, Ark., a company vice president estimated Walmart takes in 18 percent of all food stamp spending in the U.S….Meaning, Walmart took in more than $13 billion in revenue, or about 4 percent of Walmart’s total sales in the U.S.

So Walmart is likely the biggest single corporate beneficiary of SNAP, but it’s not just Walmart. A growing number of stores have baked food stamp funding into their business models since the Great Recession. The tally of stores authorized to accept food stamps has more than doubled since the year 2000, from big-box stores like Target and Costco to 7-Elevens and dollar stores. It’s a paradox that the more people are struggling to get by, the more valuable food stamps become for business.

Save money, live better, April 2

Although there are no federal numbers on where employed SNAP participants work, the state of Ohio…does keep a list of the top 50 companies with the most workers and their family members on food stamps. Ohio’s list includes lots of fast food chains and discount and big-box stores: McDonald’s, Target, Kroger supermarket, Dollar General. At the very top is Walmart, which had an average of more than 14,500 workers and family members on food stamps last year. If you take into account the average size of a family on food stamps, as many as 7,000 individual Walmart employees were on food stamps last year—nearly 15 percent of the company’s workforce across Ohio.

That means the same company that brings in the most food stamp dollars in revenue—an estimated $13 billion last year—also likely has the most employees using food stamps.

 Hungry for savings, April 3  

Like many anti-hunger advocates who receive donations from corporate retailers known for low wages, Elchert is in a tricky spot when it comes to addressing the paradoxes of the food stamp economy. His group gets financial support from Walmart and other food retailers. “When we’re talking a lot with corporations,” he says, “it’s one of those situations where, well, let’s talk about this in some way where we’re not offending them.”

I’ve talked about this issue in previous posts.  Here are some additional resources on the issue:

 

Apr 10 2014

The trans fat “ban”: stakeholder politics in action

Food Navigator has a terrific summary of the current fight over the FDA’s proposed “ban” on trans fat.  I put “ban” in quotes because it’s officially a revocation of GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status .

Doing something to get rid of trans fats is a no brainer.

  • Trans fats raise the risk for heart disease
  • No safe level has been defined.
  • Plenty of replacement oils exist.

But, as Food Navigator’s Elaine Watson demonstrates, the battle lines are drawn.  Here is her helpful list of who is on which side of efforts to get trans fats out of the food supply.

Public health groups supporting the FDA’s action

Groups asking for rescinding the ban or leaving loopholes

And for what this is all about

Apr 9 2014

Lobbying against the minimum wage for restaurant workers

Bill Moyers interviewed Saru Jayaraman of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United) about the attacks from the Restaurant Industry on this organization’s efforts to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers.  In many states, that wage is  $2.13 an hour.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. If you wonder why so many Americans doing essential but menial work at low wages never seem to get a break, here’s an answer for you. That’s how it’s intended to be. Not by nature, or the market, or from any lack of character or will on the part of workers. No, the fact is: our system is organized against them. The very thing workers most want and need – a fair wage – is the very thing the controlling interests don’t want them to have. And by controlling interests, I mean the owners of capital, who were emboldened even further this week by the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision giving monied interests more opportunity to rig the political system against everyday Americans.

As Jayaraman explains,

we would argue that evidence shows that you could actually do better as an industry, faster industry growth, more jobs, if you treat your workers better…it would cost the average American household at most $0.10 more for all food bought outside the home. That’s groceries and restaurants alike. So we’re talking pennies more on your hamburger when you eat out, for 30 million workers to come out of poverty.

But let’s look at how the political system gets rigged against low-wage restaurant workers.  For this, its useful to check the Open Secrets database on “The Money Against The Minimum Wage.”

The list of organizations that signed a letter opposing the minimum wage increase and how much they spent on total lobbying in 2013.  Three examples:

  • American Hotel and Lodging Association     $1,310,000
  • National Restaurant Association                         $2,238,691
  • US Chamber of Commerce                                  $74,470,000

No, that last one is not a misprint.

Why would the US Chamber of Commerce spend more than $74 million on lobbying?

As the New York Times explains,

The chamber has had little trouble finding American companies eager to enlist it, anonymously, to fight their political battles and pay handsomely for its help.

And these contributions…also show how the chamber has increasingly relied on a relatively small collection of big corporate donors to finance much of its legislative and political agenda.

Who donates to the Chamber of Commerce?  It’s a secret.

The chamber makes no apologies for its policy of not identifying its donors. It has vigorously opposed legislation in Congress that would require groups like it to identify their biggest contributors when they spend money on campaign ads.

This is another reason why it’s so important to support ROC and its campaigns.

Apr 8 2014

Evaporated cane juice: Sugar by any other name…

This question came in from Lourdes, a reader:

Would you please comment on these cases and the decisions regarding the issue [evaporated cane juice, apparently].

Happy to.

Evaporated cane juice is the food industry’s latest attempt to convince you that crystallizing sugar by this particular method will make you think it is:

  • Natural and healthy.
  • Better for you than table sugar.
  • Much better for you than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Maybe, but it’s still sugar.

Pushed by food companies to let “evaporated cane juice” be used on food labels, the FDA in 2009 issued one of those non-binding guidance documents it loves to do.

Over the past few years the term “evaporated cane juice” has started to appear as an ingredient on food labels, most commonly to declare the presence of sweeteners derived from sugar cane syrup. However, FDA’s current policy is that sweeteners derived from sugar cane syrup should not be declared as “evaporated cane juice” because that term falsely suggests that the sweeteners are juice…. FDA considers such representations to be false and misleading…because they fail to reveal the basic nature of the food and its characterizing properties (i.e., that the ingredients are sugars or syrups) as required by 21 CFR 102.5.

The FDA opened the matter up to public comment last month.  In the meantime, evaporated cane juice is in the courts, where more and more food regulation seems to be taking place days except that judges are balking.

It’s a perfect Catch 22: The courts won’t rule until the FDA issues regulations.  The FDA won’t issue regulations while the matter is in the courts.

The bottom line?  As NPR puts it, “Sugar by any other name tastes just as sweet — and has just as many calories.”

To repeat: Evaporated cane juice is sugar.  Cane sugar is sugar.  All forms of sugar have calories, even when Kale flavored (thanks to Jill Richardson for sending this along).

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Apr 7 2014

USDA’s enthusiastic (?) support of organic production

The USDA, whose job is to promote industrial agriculture, is usually an  uncomfortable home for the National Organic Program, but occasionally says something nice about it.

A couple of weeks ago, the USDA announced how much the organic industry has grown and how much the agency is doing to promote it.

The organic industry, says USDA:

Comprises more than 25,000 certified organic operations in more than 120 countries.

Includes 18,513 certified organic farms and businesses in the United States alone, representing a 245 percent increase since 2002 (see list of certified USDA organic operations).

Enabled 763 producers to become certified organic in just 2013, an increase of 4.2 percent from the previous year.

Generated $35 billion in retail sales last year (this sounds like a lot but the food industry generates more than a trillion dollars in annual sales).

Here’s what the USDA says it’s doing to help organic farmers.

  • Providing access to conservation programs
  • Providing access to loans and grants
  • Funding organic research and education
  • Helping to mitigate pest emergencies.

And here’s what the farm bill is doing for organics:

  • $20 million annually for dedicated organic research, agricultural extension programs, and education.
  • $5 million to fund data collection on organic agriculture. t
  • Expanded options for organic crop insurance.
  • Expanded exemptions for organic producers who are paying into commodity “check off” programs.
  • Improved enforcement authority for the National Organic Program.
  • $5 million for a technology upgrade of the National Organic Program
  • $11.5 million annually for certification cost-share assistance to cover 75 percent of certification costs up to $750 per year.

Adds up to more than $40 million and sounds good, no?  Industrial agriculture gets $20 billion a year.

Organics are still a tiny fraction of the U.S. food supply and all too easy for USDA—and Congress—to ignore and not take seriously.

Upping sales would help.  A lot.

 

Apr 4 2014

Government policies to reduce obesity: suggestions for action

Thanks to all who commented on my April 1 (not a joke) post on inadvertant government policies that promote obesity.

Thanks in particular to Joshua De Voto who forwarded a link to the Sean Faircloth article that kicked off this discussion.

What’s remarkable about the list of items is that they constitute a policy agenda for health promotion.  Just turn them around:

  • Subsidize development of trails and sidewalks in cities and communities.
  • Pass zoning laws that encourage foot and bicycle traffic.
  • Provide nutrition information in fast food and other restaurants (fingers crossed that the FDA will eventually get on this).
  • Require physical education, nutrition, and cooking classes in schools.
  • Ban marketing of junk foods to children.
  • Ban marketing of junk foods in schools (USDA is trying to do this).
  • Subsidize production of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Subsidize healthy foods in programs for poor people.
  • Eliminate corporate tax deductions for marketing.
  • Permit lawsuits against food companies.

I can think of other policies well worth promoting.

Please add to the list!

Apr 3 2014

Raw milk: coming soon to a state near you?

I haven’t said much about raw milk in a while, but not because nothing is happening with it.

Tarini Parti writes in Politico that a bipartisan coalition of House members wants to end the long-standing ban on interstate marketing of raw milk.

Raw milk, Parti says, is “bringing together some of the most anti-government libertarians and left-leaning liberals.”

Politics makes strange bedfellows!

What unites them?  Freedom of choice, of course.

“It’s nice to see that people are now advocating for their right rather than science,” said Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal, a group that describes itself as “the first nationwide membership organization devoted to food freedom—the right of every American to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of their own choosing.”

In a statement on his two bills, Massie [Rep-KY], too, highlighted the right to choose argument. “Today, many people are paying more attention to the food they eat, what it contains, and how it is processed. Raw milk, which has been with us for thousands of years, is making a comeback among these discerning consumers,” he said. “Personal choices as basic as ‘what we feed our families’ should not be limited by the federal government.”

As for the pesky matter of science, take a look at Bill Marler’s website, Real Raw Milk Facts, where he collects:

As a reality check, take a look at the answer to the question, How many people get sick from raw milk compared to pasteurized milk?

But never mind all that.  ProPolitico’s Morning Agriculture report (behind the paywall, alas) listed states that are working on bills to make it easier to get raw milk.

– California: AB 2505 was introduced Feb 21 and would allow dairies to sell or share raw milk from cows on that facility directly to consumers. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture March 13: http://bit.ly/1e16K5u

– Georgia: HB 718 would set requirements for the sale of “ungraded milk” to consumers as long as it is labeled: http://1.usa.gov/1af433N

– Hawaii: HB 1987 and its companion S 2562 would allow the distribution of raw milk as part of a cow share, goat share or sheep share program. The measure was approved by the House Agriculture Committee, Jan. 27, but the House Committee on Health, the next hurdle for the legislation, has deferred on taking up the bill. S 2562 has yet to see any committee action: http://1.usa.gov/1djbG47

– Iowa: SF 61 was carried over from 2013, and would put a moratorium on the enforcement of all state rules governing the sale of raw products, including produce, honey, nuts eggs and milk: http://bit.ly/1cJOujV. SF 2306, meanwhile, would allow for the sale of cheese produced from raw milk and details labeling requirements for the product: http://bit.ly/1mCTtbr.

Louisiana:  HB 247 seeks to allow the sale of raw milk and unpasteurized cheese on the farm where it has been produced, though it would require the milk be clearly labeled as raw and deny liability by the state or farm in the case of illnesses from consumption. The bill, filed Feb 20, also would prohibit advertising: http://1.usa.gov/1mkdPDj

– Maryland: SB 1092 was introduced Feb. 28 and would require producers of raw milk to have a written contract with consumers of the product and set up testing, safety and labeling requirements. It also would require producers to register with the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene: http://1.usa.gov/1ptnqtf. However, HB 3, which would have allowed for the distribution of raw milk to a cow share or Community Supported Agriculture agreement member, was withdrawn March 24 after an unfavorable report by the Health and Government Operations Committee: http://1.usa.gov/1djegqR

– Massachusetts: HB 3857 would allow for the home delivery of raw milk to members of a cow share or a CSA agreement, and allow for farmers to sell raw milk from farm stands that are not on the site of where the milk is produced: http://1.usa.gov/1aSLUta

– Michigan: HB 5336 would prohibit federal regulation of any food, including raw milk, that is produced and then sold in the state: http://1.usa.gov/1fCGgaQ

– New Jersey: AB 543 would create a permitting program to allow farmers to sell raw milk, though only on the property where the milk is produced. The bill also seeks to set up testing requirement, storage temperature requirements and would mandate warning labels: http://bit.ly/1fmdbRv

– New Jersey: S 1285 would permit the sale of raw milk and milk products to individuals and retail stores and sets inspection and testing standards, in addition to requiring that producers do not use growth hormones on the cows: http://bit.ly/1pEsMjO

– Oklahoma: HB 2595 would amend the state’s Milk and Milk Products Act to ensure it does not prohibit the sale of raw milk. The measure would take effect Nov. 1, 2014: http://bit.ly/1oeBgTo

– Rhode Island: S 2224 would require the state’s milk commission to establish rules for the sale of raw milk, but the Senate Health and Human Services Committee recommended the bill be held for further study on March 11: http://bit.ly/1fAIQk2

– South Dakota: SB 126 would have created an exemption from state laws governing dairy products for raw milk that is packaged on the farm where it is produced and sold by the farmer, but the measure was tabled Feb. 21 by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee in a 5-1 vote: http://1.usa.gov/1bhvrt4

– West Virginia: HB4274 would have permitted the sale of raw milk in the state as of Jan. 1, 2015, and HB 4273 would have allowed for participants in cow share programs to receive raw milk. However, the bills did not make it to a vote before the West Virginia legislative session ended, March 14: http://bit.ly/1lunSck and here: http://bit.ly/1bQGUQj

How’s that for an impressive list.

 

Apr 1 2014

Call for ideas: Do government policies promote obesity? How?

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently devoted a column to an analysis of who really gets welfare in the United States.  He listed policies that favor not only the wealthy, but the fabulously wealthy:

  • Subsidies for private airplanes via tax write-offs and deductions
  • Tax deductions for private yachts
  • Tax deductions for hedge funds and private equity
  • Bank rescues
  • Incentives to operate locally

His column reminded me of one written in 2005 by Sean Faircloth, then a Maine State representative, “Six ways government promotes obesity and what to do about it.”

No government, Faircloth said, could have devised more effective policies for reducing physical activity and promoting junk food.  Taxpayers, he pointed out:

  • Subsidize oil companies and cars to the detriment of trails and sidewalks.
  • Make it impractical to get basic information in foods and restaurants (menu labeling regulations: where are you?).
  • Give large corporations free reign to market to children.
  • Allow soda and snack-food companies to market products in schools (USDA is trying to change this).
  • Direct billions in subsidies toward processed foods while neglecting fresh produce.
  • Promote high-calorie foods in programs for poor people.

I thought this was an interesting way of thinking about obesity policy and over the years have added these:

  • Allowing marketing costs to be deducted from taxes as business expenses
  • Bans on lawsuits against food companies
  • Ambiguous and obfuscating dietary guidelines (e.g. SoFAS in the 2010 edition)

No doubt there are others.

Can you think of any others?  Thanks.

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