Today’s New York Times reports that 28 million low-income Americans will be getting Food Stamps this year, the largest number ever. The headline sums up the reasons: vanishing jobs and higher prices. The cost to taxpayers: $36 billion, and rising. The Food Stamp program, worth an average of less than $100 per month per person, is the USDA’s main contribution to the safety net for low-income adults. Its other big food assistance program, WIC (for Women, Infants, and Children), is also under pressure. WIC is not an entitlement so whatever Congress allots for it is all there is. Why do I think we will be hearing a lot about the inadequacies of federal food assistance this year?
The USDA is a big, complicated agency with many units working at apparent cross purposes. I particularly like the work of the Economic Research Service, which produces reports on many interesting aspects of the food economy. Here is a new one, for example, on trends in the availability of foods for consumption by Americans from 1970 to 2005. This is not a report on what people actually eat. “Availability for consumption” means foods produced in the United States, less exports, plus imports, divided by the total population. My favorite figures from the report: added fats and oils account for 32% of caloric availability (this does not count the fat normally present in foods), and added sugars are up 19%. Dietary recommendations suggest consuming no more than 8 teaspoons of sugars a day; 30 are available per capita. This report does not give nutrient information, but other USDA/ERS reports show that the number of calories available for consumption increased from 3,200 to 3,900 per person per day over that period. If more food is available, more of it has to be sold….
Correction: make that 4,000 calories per person per day in the latest USDA report.
My son Charles said I had to see this 5.5-minute video: the history of warfare from World War II to the present, only this time expressed through the foods of the various combatants. I guess it goes under the heading of Food Art. In any case, it must have been a lot of fun to make. Have a great spring weekend, and enjoy (?).
So now the USDA is proposing to forget about its promise to identify retailers selling recalled meat – unless the health risk is really, really bad. Oh great. The agency now thinks it’s just fine if consumers don’t realize that the meat they bought from local stores was later recalled. It’s up to you to track all those lot numbers and know what you bought and where you bought it. Rumors are that USDA is reneging on its promise to keep consumers better informed under pressure from the food industry. Let’s keep an eye on this one.
So the Wall Street Journal thinks doing anything about the “thicket of hard-to-cut programs” in the Farm Bill is hopeless. If anything, it looks like subsidies will go up. Reason #1: $80 million worth of agribusiness lobbying last year. Reason #2: this is an election year. If you aren’t up on the ins and outs of Farm Bill politics, this article is a good place to begin. Check out the interactive map and complain! It won’t hurt and it might help at some point.
According to a report in Food Chemical News, Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley who has written extensively about agricultural policy, says “environmental populists” in the United States and the European Union have imposed on Africa, their [our?] favoring of “small, traditional farms that grow organic crops and heirloom varieties…[equating] agricultural science with large farms, mistreatment of animals, enrichment of agribusiness corporations, and unpalatable and unhealthy food.” The resulting “hostility to science-based farming” has been devastating to Africa and other impoverished regions. How? “No African country allows cultivation of biotech crops except South Africa.” Is biotechnology the solution to Africa’s agricultural problems? As I read it, the technology is still in its infancy and still has a long way to go (see the March 20 Nature article on development of drought-resistant crops). But then, I still think Africa’s agricultural problems would be easier to solve with social, not necessarily technological, changes. But I guess that makes me an environmental populist. How about you?
So what do I think of the importance of eating breakfast? Here’s what I told Eating Liberally’s KAT.