May 15 2013

The Ag Committees’ Farm Bill Title IV (food stamps): Mean-Spirited

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-–Title IV in the Senate and the House farm bills—is the elephant in the room because it takes up roughly 80% of the bill’s total cost to taxpayers.   SNAP benefits cost roughly $80 billion per year for 47.5 million participants.

Yesterday, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed its version of the farm bill with no amendments to its draft of  the Title IV Nutrition section.  The committee proposes more than $4 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next 10 years.

Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger said of the vote:

Unfortunately…[the Senate Ag Committee] passed a bill that values foreign corporate welfare over feeding our children, seniors, and low-income working people. If this version of the Farm Bill becomes law, $4.1 billion in SNAP funding would be cut, and that would mean $90 less a month for 500,000 families already struggling to make ends meet.

For out-of-work American adults and their out-of-luck children, SNAP is a lifeline, the remaining survivor of the once effective safety net.

SNAP is an entitlement, which means that anyone who qualifies is eligible to receive benefits.  That’s how Congress set it up but with budget cuts the only issue of concern, the $80 billion annual cost of SNAP is a sitting duck.

That’s why these bills look so mean-spirited.

Apparently, Congress could not care less about making sure that the down-and-out have access to better and healthier food.

Instead, the emphasis is on reducing enrollments and preventing fraud.  Yes, fraud is a problem in SNAP, but a relatively small one.  And whether fraud is worth the time, energy, and hundreds of millions of dollars a year spent on its prevention is arguable.

But this is about politics, and it’s possible that the new anti-fraud measures may be a small price to pay for hanging onto the bulk of the benefits.

As the Senate summary puts it:

The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 strengthens the integrity and accountability of federal nutrition programs. The legislation ensures that every dollar be spent responsibly so that those who need help can get it. The bill cracks down on fraud and abuse, while strengthening efforts to get food assistance to those most in need.

The proposed bill:

  • Cracks down on trafficking (and allocates $12 million per year for that purpose)
  • Prevents lottery winners from receiving benefits
  • Prevents college students from misusing benefits
  • Limits SNAP eligibility for college students
  • Prevents utility allowances from influencing size of benefits

The House summary says: “FARRM makes common-sense reforms, closes program loopholes, and cracks down on waste,fraud, and abuse saving the American taxpayer over $20 billion.”

  • Ensures all households meet the asset and income tests stated in SNAP law before they can receive benefits.
  • Updates financial resource limits to more accurately reflect low-income households.
  • Restricts categorical eligibility to only those households receiving cash assistance from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or other state general assistance programs.
  • Stops states from giving recipients utility benefit payments that increase SNAP benefits.
  • Ends SNAP benefits for lottery or gambling winners.
  • Prevents traditional college students from receiving SNAP.
  • Requires states to verify SNAP benefits are not paid to deceased individuals.
  • Requires states to verify that beneficiaries are not receiving payments in more than one state.
  • Prevents SNAP benefits from being used to pay for substantial bottle deposits when contents are dumped and bottles returned for refunds..
  • Prohibits counting medical marijuana as an income deduction for SNAP benefits.
  • Ensures illegal Immigrants do not receive SNAP benefits.
  • Prevents USDA from promoting the SNAP program through outreach via television, radio and billboard advertisements.
  • Prohibits USDA from entering into agreements with foreign governments designed to promote SNAP benefits.
  • Requires states to report outcomes on education and training programs for SNAP recipients.

Yes, most of these sound reasonable, although eliminating outreach seems like a really bad idea.  But do they represent the most serious problems with SNAP?

Where is congressional will to meet the needs of the poorest members of our society?  This is about cost-cutting and power politics.  It is not about taking care of the most vulnerable members of society, among them 23 million children.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the useful parts of this legislation—those focused on improving the health of SNAP participants—and why SNAP benefits are so contentious in this Congress.

In the meantime, the House Ag Committee does its version of the farm bill starting at 10:00 this morning.

May 14 2013

Attention policy wonks! It’s farm bill time again.

The Senate and House released their versions of the farm bill last week.  By size (1102 v. 576 pages) and extent of budget cuts ($23 billion v. $40 billion), these are  incompatible. I’m guessing that getting them passed and reconciled will require major compromises—hard to imagine for this dysfunctional Congress.

The Congressional Budget Office, according to the Hagstrom Report, estimates that the Senate bill will cost $955 billion from 2014 to 2023, and the House bill will cost $940 billion—but roughly $100 billion a year for the next 10 years.   Much is at stake.

The Senate Ag Committee is discussing its bill today (click here for details).  The House Ag Committee does this on Wednesday (click here).

To get up to speed, here are the relevant documents on the Senate side:

And here are the parallel documents on the House side:

As a reminder of what the farm bill is all about, see my previous posts on the subject from November 14 and November 26 2012.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), ever optimistic, has produced a report, The Healthy Farm: A Vision for U.S. Agriculture, identifying ways that the farm bill could—if there were any political will—support an agricultural system focused on producing abundant, affordable, and healthy food and on protecting the environment (also see its interactive healthy farm and take action sites).

During the coming days, I’ll take a stab at interpreting key pieces of the proposed bills.  Stay tuned.

2:00 p.m. addition: Jerry Hagstrom says the Senate Agriculture Committee has approved the farm bill by a vote of 15 to 5. Senators Roberts, McConnell, Johanns, Thune and Gillibrand voted no.  OK.  Now let’s see what the House does tomorrow.

Addition #2: Follow the amendments on FarmBillPrimer.org: Senate and House.

 

May 13 2013

FDA is on the job: health claims

The FDA has sent a warning letter to a supplement manufacturer, Europharma, to cease and desist making health claims for several of its products.  The company, says the FDA, is promoting these products

for conditions that cause the products to be drugs under section 201(g)(1)(B) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act…because they are intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.

For example:
  • The Calm Kids web page links to articles that say “In clinical trials of children with ADD, phosphatidylserine was able to improve attention and reduce symptoms. In fact, 11 of 18 children receiving phosphatidylserine had no further ADD symptoms at all.”
  • The CholestCaps web page links to an article that says “Indian Gooseberry [ingredient in CholestCaps formula]…reduces symptoms of allergies, particularly hay fever [. . .].” and “Indian Gooseberry has proven beneficial in all the disease conditions tested so far [. . .].”
  • The CuraMed web page links to articles that say “Today, we extract curcumin [primary ingredient in CuraMed] from turmeric to use as a natural medicine for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and many other chronic diseases.”

What’s interesting about this is that the focus is on what the articles say, not what is stated on the website.  This is a new approach for FDA and it will be interesting to see if it works.

According to FoodNavigator.com, Europharma is filing objections, is not admitting wrongdoing, but has removed links to the offending literature from its website.

Progress?

May 10 2013

Coca-Cola pledges to fight obesity — again

Coca-Cola’s announced its new “global commitments to help fight obesity” in a full-page ad in the New York Times.

The company says it is committed to several actions in the more than 200 countries in which it sells products:

  • Offer low- or no- calorie beverage options in every market;
  • Provide transparent nutrition information, featuring calories on the front of all of our packages;
  • Help get people moving by supporting physical activity programs in every country where we do business;
  • Market responsibly, including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world

The company’s press kit contains:

As might be expected, the announcement has gotten a lot of press, most of it highly laudatory (see below).

How are we to interpret all this?  It sounds good if you don’t think about it too carefully.  Coke has made these kinds of promises before with not much to show for it.  And the company is still focusing on personal choice and physical activity.

It can’t advise people to drink less soda.  Business is already bad enough.  Sales of Coke are flat in the United States, or declining.  The company needs to sell more, not least to pay the salary of its President, Muhtar Kent, who earned $26 million last year.

This looks to me like a major public relations campaign to keep vending machines in schools and head off federal, state, or local soft drink taxes or soda caps.

The only way Coke can really help address obesity and poor diets is to sell less soda—the one thing its stockholders will not allow.  And the company is doing everything it can to fight city and state soda taxes, portion size caps, or anything else that might reduce sales.

It will be interesting to watch this one play out.  Stay tuned.

Here are some of the press accounts:

MSN Money: Is Coca-Cola’s anti-obesity campaign the real thing?
Bloomberg: Coca-Cola to Show Calories While Ceasing Ads for Under 12s
Washington Post: Coca-Cola promises to make diet drinks more widely available around the world
Businessweek: Coca-Cola to Show Calories While Ceasing Ads for Under 12s (1)
Wall Street Journal: Coca-Cola to Stop Marketing to Kids
National Post: Coca-Cola Announces Global Commitments to Help Fight Obesity – National Post
Economic Times: Coca-Cola goes global with anti-obesity push; to make lower-calorie drinks
 Financial Times: Coke tries to fend off obesity criticism
May 9 2013

Wrigley’s withdraws caffeinated gum out of respect for the FDA

The Associated Press says Wrigley’s will temporarily cease and desist trying to market caffeinated gum (see previous post).

The company said Wednesday that it has stopped new sales and marketing of Alert Energy Caffeine Gum “out of respect” for the agency…”After discussions with the FDA, we have a greater appreciation for its concern about the proliferation of caffeine in the nation’s food supply…”

Temporarily?

FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine issued this statement:

On May 8, 2013, Wrigley (a subsidiary of Mars) announced its decision to pause production, sales, and marketing of Alert Energy Caffeine Gum. This announcement was made following a series of discussions with the FDA in which the agency expressed concerns about caffeine appearing in a range of new foods and beverages.

The FDA applauds Wrigley’s decision and its recognition that we need to improve understanding and, as needed, strengthen the regulatory framework governing the appropriate levels and uses of caffeine in foods and beverages. The company’s action demonstrates real leadership and commitment to the public health.

We hope others in the food industry will exercise similar restraint….

Congratulations to all concerned.  It’s good to see the FDA on the job.

For an instant explanation of what this is about, see the Wall Street Journal’s elegant illustration:

image

 

May 8 2013

New studies on artificial sweeteners: a puzzle

FoodNavigator.com reports two new studies on artificial sweeteners.

The first report says that artificially sweetened sodas do not lead to increased sugar or calorie consumption.

Our study study does not provide evidence to suggest that a short-term consumption of DBs [diet beverages], compared with water, increases preferences for sweet foods and beverages.

If this result proves repeatable, it leaves open the question of why the prevalence of obesity has gone up in parallel with increasing consumption of diet sodas (which it has).  

So how come diet sodas don’t seem to help people maintain weight, on average?  We still don’t know.

The second report is about a study that links diet sodas to type 2 diabetes.   In a study following 66,000 women for 14 years, it found both sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and artificially sweetened beverage consumption to be associated with increased type-2 diabetes risk. 

How come?  We still don’t know.

One thing seems pretty clear from such studies: diet drinks don’t appear to do much good for most people and aren’t any better for health than regular sodas.

Water, anyone?

May 7 2013

Grocery Manufacturers Association says: Eat less, move more (it’s your fault, not ours)

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) recently released an interactive  guide to using Facts Up Front, its front-of-package nutrition symbols.

Here’s an excerpt from the GMA’s Infographic:

The GMA’s press release said Facts Up Front

empowers consumers to make informed choices. It arms them with critical nutrition information about their favorite products…Through this website, we are providing consumers with the knowledge and tools they need to build a healthful diet.

The website includes, among other things:

The GMA says:

Facts Up Front labels…highlight nutrition information – calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar per serving – in a clear, easy-to-understand format. The labels also provide consumers with valuable information about “nutrients to encourage”…The labeling program was developed in response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s call on the food and beverage industry to help consumers construct a healthy diet for themselves and their families.

As I’ve explained in previous posts, I can’t believe that this is what the First Lady had in mind.  I view Facts Up Front as the industry’s end run around the FDA’s long delayed attempt to make front-of-package nutrition information actually useful to consumers.

I’m greatly in favor of eating less, eating better, and moving more as a way to manage weight in today’s food marketing environment.  

But coming from GMA, the message takes on additional meaning: it’s up to you to make healthful food choices.  The companies represented by GMA take no responsibility for the effects of their products on health or of their marketing on your food choices.

May 5 2013

Reflections on the 10th anniversary of Food Politics

My monthly (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle appeared today.

I used the May 1 publication of the tenth anniversary edition of Food Politics (Michael Pollan wrote the Foreword) to reflect on what ‘s happened since the book first appeared in 2002.

A decade later, the Chronicle’s headline writer put it this way: 

Plenty of positive change happening
Q: I see that “Food Politics” is out in a 10th anniversary edition with an introduction by Michael Pollan, no less. Has anything changed in the past decade?

 

A: I can hardly believe it’s been ten years (eleven, actually, but who’s counting) since the University of California Press published “Food Politics.” This has been a great excuse to look back and realize how much has changed. Optimist that I am, I see much change for the better.

My goal in writing “Food Politics” was to point out that food choices are political as well as personal. In 2002, reactions to this idea ranged from “you have to be kidding” to outrage: How dare anyone suggest that food choices could be anything other than matters of personal responsibility?

How times have changed. Today, the idea that food and beverage companies influence dietary choices is well recognized. So is the reason: the industry’s economic need to increase sales in a hugely competitive food marketplace.

Business pressures created today’s “eat more” food environment – one in which food is ubiquitous, convenient, inexpensive, and in which it has become socially acceptable to consume foods and drinks frequently, anywhere, and in very large amounts. Given this kind of marketing environment, personal responsibility doesn’t stand a chance.

If the “eat more” food environment is the problem, then the solution is to do something to make healthier food choices the easy choices.

And plenty of people are doing just that. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen the emergence of national movements to promote healthier eating, especially among children. These movements – plural, because they differ in goals and tactics – aim to create healthier systems of food production as well as consumption.

On the production side, their goals are to promote local, seasonal, sustainable, organic and more environmentally sensitive food production. On the consumption side, some of the goals are to improve school food, restrict food marketing to children, and to reduce soda consumption through taxes and limits on portion sizes.

These movements do plenty of good. I see positive signs of change everywhere.

Healthier foods are more widely available than they were when “Food Politics” first appeared. Vast numbers of people, old and young, are interested in food issues and want to get involved in them. The first lady is working to improve access to healthier foods for low-income adults and children.

Wherever I go, I see schools serving healthier meals, more farmers’ markets, organic foods more widely available, young people joining Food Corps, more young people going into farming, more concern about humane farm animal production, more backyard chickens and urban gardens, and more promotion of local, seasonal and sustainable food to everyone.

When my university department launched undergraduate and graduate programs in food studies in 1996, we were virtually alone. Universities viewed food as too common a subject to be taken seriously. Now, practically every college and university uses food to teach students how to think critically about – and engage in – the country’s most pressing economic, political, social, and health problems. Many link campus gardens to this teaching.

Food issues are high on the agendas of local, state, national and international governments. I can’t keep up with the number of books, movies and websites covering issues I wrote about in “Food Politics.”

These achievements can also be measured by the intensity of pushback by the food industry. Trade associations work overtime to deny responsibility for obesity, undermine the credibility of the science that links their products to health problems, attack critics, fight soda taxes, lobby behind the scenes, and spend fortunes to make sure that no city, state or federal agency does anything that might impede sales.

Food and beverage companies faced with flat sales in the United States have moved marketing efforts to emerging economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America, with predictable effects on the body weights and health of their populations.

Despite this formidable opposition, now is a thrilling time to be advocating for better food and nutrition, for the health of children, and for greater corporate accountability. As more people recognize how food companies influence government policies about agricultural support, food safety, dietary advice, school foods, marketing to children, and food labeling, they are inspired to become involved in food movement action.

I’m teaching a course on food advocacy at New York University this semester. I want students to take advantage of their democratic rights as citizens to work for healthier and more sustainable food systems. Whether they act alone or join with others, they will make a difference. So can you.

The development of the food movement is the biggest and most positive change in food politics in the last decade. May it flourish.

Page 29 of 266« First...1020...2728293031...405060...Last »