Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 14 2011

Welcome to Cool School Café (the mind boggles)

Thanks to a reader, Sam Boutelle, I have now been introduced to the Cool School Café.  This is a company that markets special deals on processed food products to school food service directors:

Cool School Cafe® Manufacturer Alliance (CSCMA), founded in 1995, is an industry leader in School Foodservice marketing. CSCMA is a unique resource for you, SFS Directors and purchase decision-makers, to learn about food manufacturers serving the industry plus have the opportunity to earn valuable marketing support for their meal program.

The way this works is that your school joins the program, and CSCMA lets you know about manufacturers’ special offers.  You buy the stuff and get points for everything you buy.  You redeem the points for free stuff.  Clever, no?

And what kinds of products are targeting schools?  Try this, for example:

I’ll bet you never would have guessed that something like this could be a health food!  Zero grams trans fat!  Only 35% sugar by weight!

Let’s hear it for nutritionism in action.  All a company has to do to get its products into schools is to get them to meet USDA’s standards for nutrients.

You think USDA should change from nutrient-based to food-based standards?  Here’s all the evidence you need.

 

May 12 2011

Robert K. Ross: Speaking truth to power

The Future of Food conference in Washington last week is now pretty much online (although I’m still having trouble with some of the links).  Much of it is well worth a listen, certainly Prince Charles’ thoughtful speech on sustainability, but also the one that I thought the most powerful—comments by Robert K. Ross, head of the California Endowment.

In the first 8 minutes of his talk, Dr. Ross explained that he comes to the issues discussed at the conference from the angle of public health and obesity, yet climate change, soil quality, hunger, and economic development are all wrapped up in the obesity issue.   Here is my paraphrase of what he said (with my emphasis):

If you care about these issues, you have to decide whether you are a group, network, or a movement.

Nothing short of a powerful movement will reverse the trends that are in front of us.

The tobacco battle is the proudest victory of public health, although not yet fully accomplished.

The scientific community first understood that tobacco was bad for health in 1921.  Hundreds of studies followed.  Yet it was not until 1965 that the Surgeon General first got permission for a warning label on cigarettes.  Only in the 1990s did we have policy and practice changes that included environmental incentives to drop the tobacco habit.

In other words, we have had a 100-year war on tobacco.

A side-by-side comparison of food and tobacco indicates that food, health, and sustainability are far more complex issues than tobacco.  We do not have 100 years to deal with these problems.

The tobacco wars were not about lack of scientific data.  They were and are a power issue.

The only way to confront power is to build a movement that wields power.

Science-based, evidence-driven policy wonks and researchers want more science.  But if you think you are in a policy debate and the other side thinks it is in a fight, you are not going to come out too well.

We need to bring as much rigor to the fight as we do to the science.

Food advocates: take careful note.

May 11 2011

Sugary drinks vs. obesity: power politics in action

It used to be that the “soda wars” referred to Coke vs. Pepsi.  No more.  Today’s soda wars are fought on the health front, as more and more evidence links sugary drinks to obesity and other health problems.

The current issue of the New Yorker has an article by John Seabrook (in which I am briefly quoted) about Pepsi’s attempt to “health up” its snacks and drinks.

Seabrook’s article, “Snacks for a fat planet,” describes the extraordinary amount of money and effort Pepsi is spending to try to tweak its products to make them seem healthier.  His article doesn’t exactly give Pepsi a pass (as some of my readers have complained), but it does not really come to grips with how sugary drinks and snacks affect health or how Pepsi is marketing its products in developing countries.

That, no doubt, is why Pepsi has sent out a press release to reports that enclosed the complete article and suggested that reporters might be “interested in the company’s focus on its innovative approach to:”

  • Reduce salt, fat and sugar across the portfolio – the New Yorker feature explains PepsiCo’s effort to re-shape natural salt so that it has more surface area, and, in turn, is perceived as “saltier” on the tongue – meaning they can maintain all the salty flavor in Lay’s but reduce overall sodium content
  • Scale more drinks and snacks made with whole grains, fruit, vegetables and dairy to new markets – e.g. bringing vegetable-based gazpacho (perhaps with an edible whole grain spoon) to the U.S.
  • Test new ingredients brought back from “treks” around the world – e.g. using a state-of-the-art robot in PepsiCo’s new Hawthorne, NY research lab to test botanicals and other natural ingredients from near and far – e.g. even secluded villages in the far East – to determine their impact on taste and viability for use in PepsiCo snacks and drinks (Do they intensify sweetness? Can they be a substitute for sugar? Do they have a particular healthful function?)

Score this one as a win for Pepsi.

Along with such pledges, Pepsi is aggressively marketing sodas to teenagers.  The San Francisco Chronicle reports on Pepsi’s new “social marketing” vending machines.

At a trade show in Chicago this week, PepsiCo rolled out a prototype interactive soda machine that lets you send a drink as a gift to a friend or a random stranger.

“Our vision is to use innovative technology to empower consumers and create new ways for them to engage with our brands, their social networks and each other at the point of purchase,” Mikel Durham, PepsiCo Foodservice’s chief innovation officer, said in a press release.

“Social Vending extends our consumers’ social networks beyond the confines of their own devices and transforms a static, transaction-oriented experience into something fun and exciting they’ll want to return to, again and again.”

But these kinds of marketing pushes are not confined to Pepsi.   Advertising Age reports that Joe Tripodi, Coke’s chief marketing officer of Coca-Cola explains the company’s growth strategy: focus on teenagers:

The company sees huge opportunities to grow colas, and the business as a whole, around the world in the next decade. Teen recruitment will be particularly important, as the company follows demographic trends.

“There was a time [a decade ago] when we walked away from teen recruitment and probably lost a generation of drinkers,” Mr. Tripodi said. “Parts of the world lost confidence in cola as the engine of growth. We’ve gotten that back in a big way. …When you look at the massive opportunity in so many huge countries in the world, that’s what energizes us and why we believe cola is still at its very early stages.”

And then there are partnership strategies. The latest is Sonic drive-ins’ campaign for Limeades for Learning. The campaign encourages eaters to vote for school projects like those that support physical activity.  Sonic promises to fund the projects with the most votes. The Limeades, by the way, are 620 calories (for a medium) or 950 calories (for a large).

Finally, for now, the Boston Globe reports that most Massachusetts voters support a sales tax on sodas if the money is used for some useful purpose.  But:

The American Beverage Association has been aggressively fighting taxes on soda, as cities and states across the country look for new tools to counter an obesity epidemic and raise revenue amid squeezed budgets. It has spent millions fighting initiatives that impose product-specific excise taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and has been successful in nearly every attempt.

Expect more such public relations efforts superimposed on fundamental marketing techniques aimed at kids and fighting back on taxes and other attempts to limit soda intake.

 

 

 

How does this comport with the spanking new advertising guidelines to children or any of the previous pledges? Is sending a soda to a friend an activity or marketing? Or both?

 

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/techchron/detail?entry_id=87904

 

 

 

May 10 2011

Agronomic angst in Oakland, CA: fighting for the right to farm

You might think that turning a deserted and trash-filled empty lot into an urban farm would please city officials, but not in Oakland CA.

Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle has a sobering article on the efforts of Novella Carpenter, author of the terrific Farm City (a book I use in my classes), to make her working farm legal.

To continue running her farm, Novella needed a conditional use permit which would cost about $2,500.  She got the money by raising it through her Ghost Farm blog.

The good news is that city officials are listening.

Oakland planning officials said they are about to embark on an ambitious plan  to revamp the zoning code to incorporate the increasing presence of agriculture  in the city.

The plan is to develop rules and conditions allowing anyone to grow  vegetables and sell produce from their property without a permit. The Oakland  plan would go beyond that of other cities, including San Francisco, because it  would also set up conditions for raising farm animals without a permit….Oakland’s rules have always allowed the growing of vegetables and raising  animals for personal use on residential property. But selling, bartering or  giving away what you grow is not legal without a permit. The new rules will  establish limits on distributing food, including food byproducts like jam,  without a permit.

Animals are likely to be the most contentious issue because neighbors tend to  be more bothered by bleating, honking, clucking and crowing. Complaints about  vegetables are rare.

I”m guessing other cities will have to start dealing with these issues if they haven’t done so already, not least because so many people want backyard chickens.

I’m growing salad and blueberries on my Manhattan terrace, but not enough to sell, alas.  Maybe next year!

May 7 2011

James Beard journalism awards recognize food movement

I attended the James Beard Foundation’s journalism awards ceremony last night.   These now go way beyond recognizing writing about recipes and cooking.  They now recognize the burgeoning food movement.  Here are a few highlights:

Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking won the classic cookbook award.  It’s not a cookbook.  It’s a serious work of scholarship on the science of food.  McGee says the book is now used in high school science classes and students tell him that studying food is inspiring them to go into science.

Barry Estabrook won an award for his outstanding “Politics of the Plate” blog.  He’s already posted the award on his site!

The Edibles—the Edible community magazines—won in the magazine category.  There are now more than 60 of them in communities throughout the country, and more on the way.  They are the easiest way I know of to find out what’s happening in food in your community or when traveling.

Eating Well, that health-conscious magazine way up in Vermont (I’m on its advisory board), picked up so many awards that I lost count.

My sentimental favorite: Grace Young won for Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge. And she gave the best acceptance speech I’ve ever heard at one of these things.

I’m most proud that the San Francisco Chronicle’s food section, for which I write a monthly (first-Sunday) Food Matters column, won the newspaper award. 

Congratulations!

May 6 2011

AGree: “Can’t we just all get along?”

The title of this post is a quote from Steve Clapp’s article today in Food Chemical News about the unspoken message behind formation of a new group called AGree (Agriculture, Agree, get it?).  AGree, according to its gorgeous website, aims to “advance the well-being and prosperity of people in the United States and abroad by transforming food and agriculture policy.”

AGree is a bold new initiative designed to tackle long-term agricultural, food and rural policy issues. AGree has significant funding from eight of the world’s leading foundations for at least the next eight years…We also recognize the interconnected nature of agriculture policy globally and we seek to break down traditional silos and work across issue areas.

The funders? These are heavy hitters: Ford Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation.

Who is running the show? AGree is to be led by former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman; Gary Hirshberg, chairman and CEO of Stonyfield Farm; Jim Moseley, former USDA deputy secretary in the first Bush administration; and Emmy Simmons, former assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

What’s the plan? AGree will “Build bridges among groups that have not traditionally worked together…This approach is needed because policy reform efforts targeting the food and agriculture system have traditionally operated in many independent silos – governmental, political, stakeholder, geographic and substantive – that have made transformative change impossible.”

Steve Clapp quotes Dan Glickman saying that AGree is going to “operate outside the partisan political process” because “Food policy is too important to be left to the food industry.”

What are we to make of this? It’s much too soon to say but it reminds me of two previous efforts to forge consensus among stakeholders.

One is a group that I belong to called PAPSAC, which stands for Private and Public, Scientific, Academic, and Consumer Food Policy Group.  The group, organized by Ray Goldberg, has been meeting for about 15 years, first at the Harvard Business School and more recently at the Kennedy School.  The meeting brings together high level CEOs of food and agribusiness companies, government officials, people in business and public relations, academics, and advocates to exchange views in private.  Its original purpose was to try to find middle ground on controversial issues such as genetically modified foods.   But one of the unstated hopes was that consumer advocates would relent on opposition to GM foods.

The second example is the ill-fated Smart Choices.  This, you may recall, was an attempt of the Keystone Center to get food companies and academics to agree on common standards for front-of-package labeling.  When it became evident that food companies were calling the shots, the consumer advocates dropped out.  The result?  The Smart Choices logo appeared on Froot Loops and failed the laugh test.

The problem with attempts to build consensus is that the sides aren’t equal.  Agribusiness calls the shots or won’t play.

I’m curious to know how the leadership intends to proceed.  At the Future of Food meeting in Washington this week, Gary Hirshberg made it clear that he is a strong proponent of organic agriculture and strongly against GM.  I don’t see easy bridges between stakeholders with this particular issue, but maybe AGree will start with easier ones.

If I read between the lines correctly, AGree will convene meetings and produce policy papers.  The group seems to be steering clear of the 2012 Farm Bill until after it’s passed.

As with all such things, let’s wish the AGree leaders luck and give them a chance to see what they can do.

May 5 2011

Future of Food: the food movement goes mainstream

I’m just back from yesterday’s Future of Food conference in Washington DC.  The event, designed by WashingtonPostLive to “advance the conversation” about sustainable food, featured a glittering array of speakers from many aspects of the food movement. (You can watch the conference on video here, and the Washington Post will have a special section on it next Wednesday, May 11.)

The keynote speaker was none other than the Prince of Wales, fresh from his son’s wedding, who gave a serious and inspriring talk that touched on a great range of pressing issues related to agriculture, health, and the state of the world.

Anyone who has been involved in food issues for any length of time had heard these opinions before and most of the speakers were talking to an audience of a few hundred of the converted.

Nevertheless, I think there’s a story here, and not just because I was on one of the panels.

The story is that the event happened.  The food movement has gone mainstream.

The conference—sponsored by the Washington Post no less—brought in heavy hitters.  These included the Prince of Wales, of course, but also the President of Georgetown University, where the event was held, Eric Schlosser, Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, and officials of the FDA and White House.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack came, gave thoughtful remarks, and responded with equally thoughtful answers to not-always-friendly comments from the audience.  This was the first time I’d seem him in person and I was impressed by how carefully he has thought through the issues he has to deal with.   Even when I viewed the issues differently,  it seemed clear that his were the result of much intelligent thought and weighing of alternatives.

Montana Senator Jon Tester, of the Tester amendment to the food safety bill, gave closing remarks.

The speakers, young and old, famous and not, made it clear that concerns about the relationship of agriculture to the health of people and the planet were major and were getting focused attention at very high levels.

The food movement can no longer be considered fringe.  It’s mainstream.  Speakers provided much evidence for that from their own points of view.

They said, it’s now time to take the movement to the next step, and that means doing what it takes to become even more powerful.

For example, see if you can find the remarks of Robert Ross, President of the California Endowment and listen to the opening remarks of his speech about the analogy with tobacco and the need to counter the power of food corporations.

My slightly facetious suggestion: if Congress is for sale, let’s buy our own.

Perhaps you have other ideas for expanding the movement and making it more powerful?  Do tell.

 

 

May 3 2011

What’s going on with human height?

Robert Fogel, winner of a Nobel Prize in economics, has a new book coming out arguing, according to an account in the New York Times,  that gains in human height constitute “the most significant development in humanity’s long history.”

Fogel and his co-authors attribute the gain in height to gains in technology:

This “technophysio evolution,” powered by advances in food production and public health, has so outpaced traditional evolution, the authors argue, that people today stand apart not just from every other species, but from all previous generations of  Homo sapiens as well.

Here’s the evidence:

 

But I’m confused by this.  I thought people were taller before the agricultural revolution of 12,000 years ago or so, and that the recent gains were due to better nutrition and sanitation measures—not to gains in technology.

I’m particularly confused because of the recent study demonstrating reductions in height among women in 54 low-income countries.  This study concludes:

Socioeconomic inequalities in height remain persistent. Height has stagnated or declined over the last decades in low- to middle-income countries, particularly in Africa, suggesting worsening nutritional and environmental circumstances during childhood.

In other words, if you want to do something about height disparities, you have to fix income disparities and provide adequate food and clean drinking water.

 

 

 

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