Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 23 2009

School meals: it’s good to feed kids

The USDA has a couple of new reports out on school meals.  One looks at the dismal rates of participation in the School Breakfast program.  Only about 30% of those eligible actually get breaksfast.  How come?  Kids are more likely to eat the breakfast when it is served in the classroom (rather than the lunchroom) and when they are given time to eat it.

The second study also proves the obvious: kids who eat breakfast eat less junk food and are likely to be better nourished (and, therefore, behave and learn better).

I know the USDA has to do these studies in order to satisfy taxpayers’ investment in the programs but shouldn’t our society ensure that all hungry kids are fed decently?  So many of the financial problems with the school meals programs could be solved if they were made universal (and we didn’t need to spend all that money to determine eligibility and make sure no kid gets a meal she isn’t entitled to).  Universal school meals would also take away the poverty stigma.  And yes, let’s serve breakfasts in classrooms and give kids time to eat.  After all, the research backs up those ideas, no?

Jul 22 2009

What’s new with calorie labeling?

For starters, calorie labeling in California is having a big effect – on the companies, if not customers.  The chains are madly cutting down on calories.  The most impressive example is a Macaroni Grill 1,270-calorie scallop-and-spinach salad (I can’t even imagine how they did this), which is now just a normal 390.

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has a website devoted exclusively to calorie and other menu labeling initiatives where it tracks the legislation year by year and posts a handy map of what states and cities are doing on this issue.

And the latest issue of JAMA has a commentary by David Ludwig and Kelly Brownell about why it’s important to get calorie labeling in place even before we can get evidence for its effectiveness” For some of the most important public health problems today, society does not have the luxury to await scientific certainty…For restaurant calorie labeling regulation, there is a clear rationale for action.”

As to how well the system is working, try the Wall Street Journal’s take on the accuracy of the calorie counts.  Sigh.  Plenty of work left to do on this one.  But worth doing, no?

July 24 update: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is keeping track of the research along with policy implications.  The bottom line to date?  Menu labeling is having some effects, but there’s more work to do.

Jul 21 2009

Use manure as a biofuel?

Here’s another USDA report well worth a look.  This one looks at the use of manure in the United States.  Interesting statistics: about 5% of cropland is fertilized with manure, and about half of that goes on cornfields.  So the obvious question seems to be that if there’s all that manure around, why not use it to produce biofuels?

Why does this seem like a bad idea to me?  It makes about as much sense to use manure as corn for biofuel.   Wouldn’t it be better to use all that CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) effluent to fertilize the other 95% of cropland?  Wouldn’t composting animal waste and using it on crops instead of chemical fertilizers be more sustainable and solve a lot of problems?  Or am I missing something here?

Jul 20 2009

Food politics: European version

I’m always suprised when people ask me what I mean by “food politics.”    What, they say, does politics have to do with food?   Here’s a good example: European farm subsidies.  These were originally supposed to promote farm production, but today the European Union drops $75 billion, at least a third of it for other purposes.  As an investigative report in the New York Times explains, the biggest subsidies – just as in the U.S. – go to the wealthiest recipients.   A typical small farmer in Romania gets $550.  But the Queen of England and the Prince of Monaco get $700,000 or more, each, and Cargill, that needy company, got $14 million.  And then there are subsidies like this one: €127,000 for Ligabue, a Venetian caterer, for sugar and dairy packets considered as exports because they are consumed on cruise ships?   Why do I think politics enters into this somehow?

Jul 17 2009

Regulation of bottled water: oops

There is so much wrong with bottled water that it’s hard to know where to begin (read Elizabeth Royte’s Bottlemania, for starters).  But let’s start with the fact that bottled water is the most brilliantly marketed product ever invented.  The companies get it practically free out of a tap and charge you a dollar or more – sometimes a lot more – for a quart or less).  The plastic bottles pollute the environment.  Worst of all, drinking bottled water makes people less apt to be vigilant about protecting public water supplies.

And it isn’t even regulated very well, or so says a report from the Government Accountability Office.  The title says it all: “Bottled water: FDA safety and consumer protections are often less stringent than comparable EPA protections for tap water.”  The report was released in time for congressional hearings on the topic.   Reporters had a lot of fun with the self-interested statements of industry people who testified.

None of this gets into the additional question of bisphenol A and other endocrine disrupters in plastic bottles that are sometimes used for water.  The Canadians are now saying that bisphenol A is safe at amounts commonly used, and so is a California expert committee.  The American Chemistry Council is pleased with these decisions.

Where does that leave us?  Defend tap water!  As for endocrine disrupters, stay tuned but why use bisphenol A when other alternatives are so readily available.

July 24 update: The International Bottled Water Association is suing a maker of steel water bottles for false advertising.  The bottle maker’s ads apparently suggested that plastic water bottles leak synthetic estrogens.   Bisphenol A must be causing serious problems for the bottled water industry, along with all those pesky enviromental concerns.

Jul 15 2009

Let’s stop using antibiotics in animal agriculture

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (of which I was a member) recommended as its #1 priority the elimination of antibiotics for promoting growth and other unnecesary purposes in farm animals.  I discussed this report in a previous post.

There is much fuss about this issue this week because the House is holding hearings on the Preservation for Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.  If passed, this will phase out the use of seven classes of antibiotics important to human health that are currently allowed to be used as growth promoters in animal agriculture.  The FDA testified in favor of the act.  So did members of the Pew Commission: Robert Martin, Fedele Baucio, and Bill and Nicolette Niman.

So who could possibly be opposed to such a good idea?  How about the American Veterinary Medical Association, for starters, apparently more worried about its members’ self interest than about sensible use of antibiotics.

Maybe we’ll get lucky and the Congress will do the right thing on this one.

Update July 16: Ralph Logisci, who helped staff the Pew Commission, posted a blog on the movement to ban non-therapeutic antibiotics on Civil Eats.  It goes into considerable depth on the issues and is well worth reading. And the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has just produced a report on eliminating the use of non-thereapuetic antibiotics in, of all things, ethanol production.  Who knew?  Turns out they use antibiotics to control fermentation.  Oops.  Not a good idea.  IATP says plenty of alternatives are available and the ethanol industry should adopt them.

July 20 update: in case you haven’t seen it, here’s the meat industry’s July 9 statement in opposition to the bill attempting to ban antibiotic use.

Jul 14 2009

Food deserts: systematic analyses

Food deserts must be the hot new topic.  USDA researchers have produced a major analysis of “food deserts,” the term used to describe low-income areas with poor access to food.   According to the USDA, only about 4% of the U.S. population lives more than a mile from a supermarket but there isn’t enough research to say whether access is inadequate in areas of limited access.  Oh?  Maybe if the researchers had talked to people in that situation?

The report is full of statistics on poverty in the United States (check out the map of areas in the U.S. where 40% of the population lives on incomes below 200% of the poverty line).  A good part of the report focuses on use of food for community development.   A lot of the country could use some.  The USDA might consider adding some qualitative, interview-based research to its portfolio.

And the National Academies has a report out on the effects of food deserts on public health (scroll down to read it online for free).  The bottom line?  More research needed.

Well, yes, but why do I think this situation needs fixing much more than it needs further research?  How about asking people who live in food deserts what it might mean to them to have a supermarket within walking distance.  Or am I missing some key point here?

[Posted from Fairbanks]

August 6 update: thanks to the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy for producing a report on programs that have more or less successfully introduced healthier foods into small stores in the middle of food deserts.  The report gives guidelines on how to do this.

Jul 13 2009

Whole Foods asks for GMO-Free verification

Whole Foods is asking its private label suppliers to prove that they are GM-free through a new verification system.   This seems like a really good idea.  Whole Foods knows that its customers do not want GM foods.  But as long as GM foods are not labeled, consumers have no choice.  All of this means that the FDA’s decision to forbid GM labeling was neither in the public interest (consumers have the right to know) nor in the interest of industry (companies want consumers to trust them).  The new certification system will give consumers a choice.

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