Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 27 2014

The fight over white potatoes in WIC

Once again, Congress—under pressure from lobbyists—is micromanaging USDA’s food assistance programs.

This time it’s the WIC program (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children).

The lobbying is coming from the National Potato Council, which wants—no surprise—white potatoes to be included the list of foods approved for purchase with WIC benefits (the “WIC Package”).

I love potatoes but they don’t need to be in WIC.

Here’s what this is about.

The WIC Food Package

This is designed to meet the special nutritional needs of at-risk low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, infants and children up to five years of age.  Rules published in the Federal Register in 2007 aimed to promote long-term breastfeeding by providing WIC participants with a wider variety of foods including fruits and vegetables and whole grains (see summary here).

Although the rules allow states considerable flexibility, they specifically exclude white potatoes.

The New York State WIC package, for example, allows any variety of fresh vegetables and fruits except white potatoes (sweet potatoes and yams are allowed).

These rules are the result of an Institute of Medicine study released in 2005.  This study found that WIC participants already ate plenty of white potatoes.  The report said it would be better for WIC to encourage consumption of a wider variety of vegetables.

Potato industry lobbying

For the last five years, the potato industry has been lobbying to include white potatoes in the WIC package.

Potato lobbyists are active these days.

For example, the Maine potato lobby succeeded in getting Congress to tell the USDA that it could not set any limits on the number of times per week that white potatoes could be served in school lunches.  That ploy worked and this one may work too.

The National Potato Council lobbyists induced Congress to add a clause to the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill.  When President Obama signed that bill on January 17, he directed the USDA to allow all varieties of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables to be included.  Translation: white potatoes, and French fries at that.

If the USDA fails to comply, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack must submit a report to Congress explaining why not.

The National Potato Council makes this statement: “This action sends a clear message to USDA that it is obligated to base its nutritional policy on the latest nutritional science, which calls for an increase in starchy vegetable consumption for all Americans, including WIC mothers and children.”

It does?  I’m not aware of such science.

The Institute of Medicine is currently reviewing the WIC package and I seriously doubt that it will find a deficiency of starchy vegetables in American diets.

This is about getting potato growers a chunk of taxpayer money spent for the WIC program.

Why should anyone care?

If Congress caves in on white potatoes, it will open a Pandora’s box of pressures from lobbyists representing every food product currently excluded from the WIC package.

If lobbyists for white potatoes succeed, can those for “fruit”-flavored cereals and sports drinks be far behind?

The WIC program has always focused on encouraging recipients to consume foods that will best promote their own health and that of their children.

It would be better for WIC recipients—and a lot better for American democracy—if the potato industry stopped manipulating Congress and interfering with USDA nutrition programs.

Jan 24 2014

A commentary on Subway’s “pile on the veggies”

A reader sent me this commentary on yesterday’s post, source unknown.

If you know who created this, please send.

Enjoy the weekend!

Jan 23 2014

Let’s Move!’s latest move: Subway will “Pile on the Veggies”

This morning, Subway is announcing that as part of its commitment to Let’s Move!’s efforts to reverse childhood obesity, the chain will put $41 million into encouraging kids to “pile on the veggies.”

Subway says it will:

  • Run a fun campaign to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • Set nutrition standards for marketing to kids.
  • Strengthen its “already nutritious” children’s menu.
  • Put signs on doors that say “Playtime powered by veggies.”
  • Do a video collaboration with Disney’s Muppets to encourage piling on the veggies.
  • Provide kids’ meals with lowfat or nonfat milk or water as the default.

I could, but won’t, nitpick over the nutrition standards.  Let’s just say they are a start.

But I love it that Subway is focusing on foods—veggies, apples, and no sodas unless parents specifically order them.

And I think “pile on the veggies” is one terrific slogan.

I will be keeping an eye out for those signs on Subway’s doors and the other ways the chain says it will promote healthier meals for kids.  I didn’t see anything about when all this starts, but I hope it’s soon.

Jan 22 2014

The latest cancer statistics

Every year, CA–A Cancer Journal for Clinicians publishes an annual review of cancer statistics.

The report has some good news: trends in the overall death rates from cancer show significant declines, for both men and women.

The overall incidence (new case) rates are holding steady or a down a little since 1990,but are still above the rates in 1975.

The incidence patterns differ for cancers at different sites:

Screenshot 2014-01-21 12.05.13

In men, lung cancers are down undoubtedly due to less cigarette smoking.  Prostate and colorectal cancers are down, perhaps due to favorable dietary changes.

In women, lung cancers have leveled off and colorectal cancers are down, but breast cancers don’t seem to budge.

As for the comparison to heart disease, that’s interesting too.  In 2005, cancer surpassed heart disease as the leading cause of death in people younger than age 85.

Plenty of good news here, but plenty more to be done.

Jan 21 2014

A triumph for organized labor: Walmart agrees to pay 1 cent/pound more to tomato pickers

The  big news last week—and it is very big news—is that Walmart has signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Fair Food Program.

Under this program, Walmart agrees to pay Florida tomato pickers one penny more for each pound harvested — and says it will apply that premium to other fresh produce sold by the chain.

A penny a pound may not sound like much, especially since Walmart took in $466 billion  in revenue last year.

But it means that workers who are now paid 50 cents for a 32-pound basket will get 82 cents, and their wages can go from $50 to $90 dollars a day.

As Tom Philpott explains in Mother Jones

Late Thursday, CIW netted the biggest fish of all: Walmart, by far the largest private food buyer in the US. A company that muscled its way to the top of the US corporate heap by pinching pennies—squeezing suppliers and its own workers relentlessly—has now agreed to shell out an extra penny per pound for tomatoes.

CIW has shown yet again that scrappy workers, sufficiently organized, can win concessions from even the most ruthless companies.

Barry Estabrook, whose book Tomatoland has done so much to bring attention to the CIW’s accomplishments, writes in Civil Eats

The struggle for labor justice in the fields of the United States—and perhaps far beyond—took an historic stride forward yesterday. At a folding table in a metal-clad produce packing shed beside a tomato field in southwestern Florida, two high-ranking executives from the giant retailer Walmart, which sells more groceries than any other company in the world, sat down beside two Mexican farmworkers and signed an agreement to join the Fair Food Program…The implications of the Walmart decision cannot be understated. Enormous pressure will be placed on competing grocery giants to follow Walmart’s lead.

Good work, CIW.

Jan 20 2014

How to get people to buy healthier food: cardboard cutouts?

Can it really be this easy?  Morrison’s, a grocery chain in the U.K., put cardboard cutouts of doctors near the produce section.

A new pilot scheme in a Morrisons store in Salford, using cardboard cut-outs of local GPs in the fresh produce aisles delivered a 20% rise in the sales of fresh fruit and a 30% uplift for frozen fruit.

All of this is part of Great Britain’s Public Health “Responsibility Deal,” which aims to enlist businesses to voluntarily promote health objectives.

The Responsibility Deal embodies the Government’s ambition for a more collaborative approach to tackling the challenges caused by our lifestyle choices.

Organisations signing up to the Responsibility Deal commit to taking action voluntarily to improve public health through their responsibilities as employers, as well as through their commercial actions and their community activities. Organisations can sign up to be either national partners or local partners.

The principles and ambitions of the Responsibility Deal are set out in its core commitments and supporting pledges.

This is all it takes?  Really?

Why do I think this won’t work nearly as well in America?  We have a long way to go, says the USDA.

What might work?  Celebrities?  Sports figures?  Political figures?

Jan 17 2014

Is wheat bad for you? Not for most people.

As Food Navigator-USA puts it, “No, wheat does not make people fat and sick.”

Bread lover that I am, I consider recent research to be giving us good news.

Food Navigator is referring to a review of research on whole wheat and health just published in the Journal of Cereal Science of all places.  The authors conclude that unless you have celiac disease or wheat allergies, eating whole-wheat foods is good for you.

In fact, foods containing whole-wheat, which have been prepared in customary ways (such as baked or extruded), and eaten in recommended amounts, have been associated with significant reductions in risks for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and a more favourable long term weight management. Nevertheless, individuals that have a genetic predisposition for developing celiac disease, or who are sensitive or allergic to wheat proteins, will benefit from avoiding wheat and other cereals that contain proteins related to gluten, including primitive wheat species (einkorn, emmer, spelt) and varieties, rye and barley…Based on the available evidence, we conclude that whole-wheat consumption cannot be linked to increased prevalence of obesity in the general population.

The authors find little evidence in support of popular myths:

  • Proliferation of wheat products parallels obesity and is causally related.  No, it does not.
  • Wheat starch differs from starches in other foods in especially undesirable ways.  No, it does not.
  • Whole wheat bread has a higher glycemic index than sugar.  No, it does not.
  • Wheat contains opioids that make people addictive. No, they do not.

In the meantime, the FDA has been working on updating its 2006 guidance to industry about how to label statements about whole grains. The agency has been conducting research on how consumers judge:

  • Food products, including nutritional attributes, overall healthiness, and health benefits.
  • Labeling statements in terms of their credibility, helpfulness, and other attributes.
  • Terms and statements such as “Made with Whole Grain”, “Multi-Grain”, and “100% Whole Wheat.”
  • Whole grain statements beyond the scope of the statements themselves (i.e., halo effects).
  • How whole grain statements influence consumer use of the Nutrition Facts.

Can’t wait to see the results.  They ought to be out soon.

Jan 16 2014

Congress on curbing food marketing to kids: not a chance.

Congress can’t pass a farm bill but it has plenty of time to micromanage nutrition and health.  Buried in the pork-filled Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 (see Monday’s post) are some zingers.  Here’s one:

appropr

This refers to the ill-fated IWG report I’ve discussed previously. To recap:

  • Congress asked the FTC to examine the effects of food marketing to children and make recommendations.
  • The FTC, USDA, FDA, and CDC got together and produced a report recommending voluntary guidelines for marketing to children based on the nutritional quality of the foods.
  • I thought the guidelines were weak in addition to being voluntary (they allowed lots of junk foods to qualify).
  • The food industry disagreed, strongly, and went to Congress to object.
  • Congress caved in to industry pressure and said the report could not be released unless the FTC produced a cost-benefit analysis.
  • End of story.
  • Why Congress feels that it’s necessary to do this again is beyond me.

I suppose we should be glad our legislators are at least doing something.

As for the food industry’s role in all this: when food companies say they are doing everything they can to reduce marketing junk foods to kids, you now know what they really mean.

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