by Marion Nestle

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Jul 9 2013

New York City’s SNAP Education campaign: Cut the Junk

New York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), the agency that administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other food assistance and food emergency programs, just launched the second year of its “Cut the Junk” initiative.

The campaign features:

  • A booklet.   This explains healthy eating and gives cost comparisons.  It will be distributed at 35 farmers’ markets with SNAP programs
  • Tricycle-based billboard visits to low-income neighborhoods
  • A weekly texting service with tips and recipes (join by texting ‘NOJUNK’ to short code 877877)
  • A You Tube video

The Commissioner of HRA, Robert Doar, says:

good nutrition can both save lives and taxpayer dollars…Cut the Junk presents a common-sense approach to eating healthier with less expensive alternatives than take out and fast food.  Each tip in the booklet can help stretch a family’s food budget or food stamp benefits further. We are very proud to come directly to people’s neighborhoods to start talking about healthy food as an affordable reality for New Yorkers.

HRA did the campaign with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

I think the video works well.  The booklet?  Not so much.

I wish both said more about sodas.  “Grab an apple instead of a soda” doesn’t quite do it.

The video connects viewers with city food assistance resources, and that’s a plus.

Will this campaign encourage low-income residents to choose healthier diets?  I hope an evaluation is in progress.

What to say about the booklet?  Take a look and tell me what you think, please.

Jul 7 2013

Q: What is your opinion about (fill in the blank)?

My monthly (first Sunday) column for the San Francisco Chronicle appears today.  This time, I caught up with some questions.

Q: What is your opinion about (fill in the blank)?

A: Questions have been flooding in lately asking what I think about one or another food or nutrition topic under current discussion. I ordinarily don’t respond to them because any reader of this column should be able to predict what I’m likely to say. Occasionally, some misunderstand, so let’s deal with some clarifications.

Q: I know you have a very mainstream position and a skepticism for “vegan scientists.” Kaiser Permanente recently came out for plant-based diets. The United Nations says, “A global shift toward a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change.”

A: Of course I favor plant-based diets. Such diets are demonstrably better for health and kinder to the environment. But plant-based does not necessarily mean vegan, which entirely excludes animal products. This quotation appears to come from vegan websites, not the United Nations. The U.N. report notes that animal agriculture contributes to climate change, but says nothing about dietary advice or vegan diets. Kaiser Permanente urges physicians to advocate “eating healthy, whole, plant-based foods (primarily fruits and vegetables) and minimizing consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products.” Minimize is not the same as exclude.

Q: You haven’t said anything about the genetically modified wheat found in Oregon. Don’t you care?

A: I haven’t written about this incident because I’m waiting to learn how the wheat got there. GM wheat is not approved for planting anywhere, and it’s been nine years since Monsanto grew its last test plots. Without more information, I can only speculate. Has GM wheat been growing ever since? Did the seeds suddenly germinate? Were they mixed with conventional seeds by mistake? Monsanto has its own explanation: sabotage. The need for a true explanation is urgent. Several countries have refused to accept shipments of American wheat unless it can be certified GM-free.

Q: Just like everyone else, you don’t write much about food safety.

A: I wrote half a book (“Safe Food”) about food safety – the other half is about GMOs – and I updated it for a new edition in 2010. But I can hardly keep up with the endless outbreaks day after day. One deserves special attention because it involves a mix of frozen berries and pomegranate grains labeled as Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend. The contaminant is unusual – a strain of hepatitis A virus usually confined to North Africa and the Middle East and rarely seen in this country. More than 130 people have gotten hepatitis liver infections from eating this product. Its label says the organic fruits in the mix came from Argentina, Chile and Turkey, as well as the U.S. These circumstances emphasize that organic doesn’t necessarily mean local and frozen doesn’t necessarily mean safe. The Centers for Disease Control still has this one under investigation. And the Food and Drug Administration still has not issued final safety regulations

Q: You claim to be some kind of expert on the farm bill. Explain what just happened.

A: Expert? Nobody can be expert on the farm bill. It’s too big and complicated for one person to understand. Lobbyists, advocates and some congressional staff may know parts of it thoroughly, but the whole thing? Hopeless. I taught a course on the farm bill a couple of years ago – a depressing introduction to the worst of American politics. Anyone can figure out what agricultural policy ought to do: promote production of adequate food at an affordable price, provide a decent living for farmers and farmworkers, protect the environment and promote health, for starters, but this is a large order for any piece of legislation and impossible for our current Congress. The House failed to pass it, mainly because Republicans thought cuts to SNAP, food stamps, weren’t deep enough and Democrats were appalled by the size of the cuts and by new requirements for drug testing and work. I have no crystal ball for seeing how this will play out, but I’m not optimistic that this Congress will do anything much for new farmers, small farmers or fruit and vegetable producers.

Q: Why are you so hard on nutritional supplements? You must be one of those people who thinks they kill people.

A: Don’t get me wrong. Nutrient supplements are great for people who have nutrient deficiencies. Whether they make people worse is arguable, but study after study shows that nutrient supplements do not make healthy people healthier. If you like to take supplements, I’m guessing you don’t care much about what the science says. Supplements aren’t about evidence-based medicine. They are about deep distrust of modern diets, science and the health care system. If nothing else, supplements are powerful placebos, and I’m not at all convinced they are seriously harmful. My advice: Supplements, like everything else about nutrition, should be taken in moderation.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at foodpolitics.com. E-mail questions to: food@sfchronicle.com

Jul 1 2013

USDA issues rules for competitive school foods. Yes!

At long last the USDA released Interim Final Rules for competitive foods—the snacks and sodas sold from vending machines and carts outside of federally supported school lunches.

They were worth the wait.

The new  standards are tough and will change the food landscape in schools much for the better.  They are summarized in a handy flier.   The new rules require:

  • Snacks to be rich in whole grains, have real food as a first ingredient, and provide nutritional value.
  • Drinking water to be available to all students at no cost.
  • Other drinks to contain no more than 40 calories per 8 fl oz, or 60 calories per 12 fl oz.  This excludes all regular sodas, even Gatorade. 

USDA summarizes the changes in its Smart Snacks in School Infographic:

Competitive foods have long been a bone of contention.  They compete for kids’ food money with the school meals.  Although USDA regulates where and when they can be sold, schools routinely violate such rules.  I’ve seen for myself  how many schools allow vending machines to be open during lunch periods.

The USDA issued nutrition standards for school meals early in 2012, but it’s taken this long to issue the ones for competitive foods, no doubt because of the expected uproar from food and drink producers whose products will now be excluded.

To back up the rules, the USDA has produced a vast array of materials and documents.

One web page is devoted to a toolkit of materials for “the healthier school day.”

A separate web page links to all of the legislative and other documents, videos, issue briefs, Q and A’s, statement from First Lady Michele Obama, and other items of technical assistance to the new “smart snacks in schools” program and rules.

Also see:

But note: the rule is “interim” because the 120-day comment period is now open.  USDA can still make plenty of changes.  Schools will have a year to implement the final standards.

Watch the lobbying begin.

You think there won’t be opposition?  Think again.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just released a report recommending that USDA ease off on restricting the amount of meat and grains allowed in the school meal standards that went into effect this year.   Apparently, USDA agrees.  GAO reports are usually requested by members of Congress and this one is no exception.  Guess which party these particular requesters belong to, and who funds their election campaigns.

USDA deserves much applause and support for its courage in issuing rules for competitive foods that might actually help kids stay healthier.

Jun 26 2013

Eat, Drink, Vote: my (single) advance copy!

I’m happy to report that my advance copy of Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics arrived yesterday afternoon.  This book is my summary of the current state of food politics, illustrated with about 250 cartoons from 40 terrific cartoonists.

It’s really fun (if I must say so myself).

Read about it on its own page here.  Bookstores are taking orders.

It comes out the first week in September.

 

Jun 21 2013

Government in (in)action: House votes no on farm bill

Yesterday, the House rejected H.R. 1947, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, by a vote of 234 to 195.

Voting against the bill were:

  • Republicans who thought a $20 billion cut to SNAP (food stamps) and a $5 billion cut to farm supports were not nearly deep enough.
  • Democrats who were appalled by the cuts to SNAP and the addition of amendments requiring SNAP applicants to be tested for drugs, to be rejected if they had ever been found guilty of felonies, and to be required to work.

Unless Congress gets its act together, support for SNAP and agriculture revert to the provisions of the 2008 bill [Oops.  The 1949 bill].  Congress will have to deal with some of trauma that results from this.

My favorite comment on this situation comes from Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger:

We celebrate the failure of this horrific federal Farm Bill which would have slashed SNAP nutrition benefits by over $20 billion. Not only would this Farm Bill have taken food off the table of low-income children, veterans, working parents, and people with disabilities, it would have actually expanded corporate welfare for agri-businesses…It’s time to go back to the drawing board, and for both houses of Congress…to pass a Farm Bill that puts the interests of hungry Americans, consumers, family farmers, the environment, and taxpayers above those of corporate welfare.

Is any of this news?  Not page 1, apparently.  I’m in Los Angeles where the New York Times put the story on page 12.

Other comments worth reading:

Jun 18 2013

The Farm Bill farce: 227 amendments

The House of Representatives Rules Committee is dealing with the Farm Bill.  The Committee has posted the relevant documents on its website, so you can judge for yourself how our political system works these days.

It’s hard to know what to make of the amendments—all 227 of them—or which ones are worth attention.  Many deal with SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which the House wants cut to pieces.

The Rules Committee will decide this afternoon what to do about the amendments.  Discuss?  Invoke cloture and cut off discussion?  We will see.

In the meantime, here are some examples.

  • Repeals the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center.
  • Requires that at least 50 percent of the funds made available for the Farmers Market Nutrition Program be reserved for seniors.
  • Requires the Secretary of Agriculture to conduct a study on current USDA programs related to the Lesser Prairie Chicken to analyze the economic impact and effectiveness of these programs.
  • Facilitates cost-neutral purchasing of Kosher and Halal food within the Emergency Food Assistance Program and improve information provided to participating food banks on availability of Kosher and Halal food.
  • Allows states to conduct drug testing on SNAP applicants as a condition for receiving benefits.
  • Prohibits the availability of funds for China under the Food For Peace Act. 
  • Prohibits retaliatory actions against livestock producers and poultry growers when they express opinions about unfairness in the marketplace to public officials.
  • Prohibits the USDA from sending payments to the Brazil Cotton Institute.
  • Eliminates funding for Nutrition Education programs.
  • Establishes the sense of Congress that the Federal Government should increase financial support provided to urban community gardens and victory gardens to heighten awareness of nutrition and self-sufficiency.
  • Allows Skyview subdivision to meet the requirements of the USDA Rural Development grant for water and waste disposal.

You get the idea.  Think: lobbying.

The main issue is SNAP.  House Republicans don’t like it much (too expensive, too wasteful, too inducing of dependency and fraud).

You don’t believe this?  Here’s what the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas, R-Okla., produced to convince House members to vote for a farm bill with $20 billion cut from SNAP over the next 10 years.

farmbill

 

Addition: The White House says it will veto the farm bill if the $20 billion SNAP cut remains.

 

Jun 13 2013

The endless debates about salt: Don’t worry. Eat (real) food

Since 1980, U.S. dietary guidelines have advised eating less sodium (salt is 40% sodium, 60% chloride).  Although sodium is an essential nutrient, most Americans consume way more than they need or is good for them—around 3,400 milligrams a day.

The 2010 guidelines advised healthy people to consume no more than 2,300 mg per day (~6 grams, or 1.5 teaspoons).  They advised even less, 1,500 mg, for people with or at high risk for high blood pressure.  Since blood pressure increases with age in countries with high salt intake, this applies or will apply to just about everyone.  

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine said it was imperative to find effective strategies to lower salt intake.  This means dealing with processed and restaurant foods, because that’s where most of the salt comes from, as can be seen from this list of major food sources

Because consumers have no choice about the amount of salt in processed and restaurant foods, education cannot be enough to achieve salt reduction.  Scientists in Australia have just proved this point.

As I explained to a reporter,

Why anyone would think that nutrition education alone would change behavior is beyond me. By this time everyone should know that to change behavior requires not only education, but a food environment—social, political, economic—that supports and promotes the behavior change.

Most dietary sodium comes from processed foods, restaurant foods, and other pre-prepared foods.  All the label can do is say ‘don’t eat me’ It can’t help with what people can eat.

The easiest and most effective way to help people reduce sodium intake is to require food producers and food preparers to use less of it. Good luck with that. I’m not optimistic, particularly given the conflicting and confusing science. 

Ah yes.  The conflicting science.  The IOM now says that there’s no evidence one way or the other that reducing sodium below 2,300 mg per day, or even to 1,500 per day, does much good, and that low sodium intakes could be harmful (but this too is controversial).

Yes, they could, but as Mark Bittman blogs,    

It may be true that there are no benefits in an ultra-low-salt diet, but almost no one is eating an ultra-low-salt diet. It’s not quite like worrying about whether we get “enough” sugar, but it’s nearly as ridiculous.

And now, as Food Navigator explains, the IOM committee is complaining that its report has been badly misinterpreted.  All they said was:

As to whether we should cut back to 1,500 mg or to 2,300 mg sodium a day, meanwhile, the jury is out, says the IOM, not because consuming 1500 mg/day is dangerous, but because there is just not enough data on the benefits of consuming such low levels to support a firm conclusion.

IOM committee members were so bothered by misleading press accounts that they wrote an op-ed to JAMA to clarify:

Rather than focusing on disagreements about specific targets that currently affect less than 10% of the US population (ie, sodium intake of <2300 mg/d vs <1500 mg/d),  the IOM, AHA, WHO, and DGA are congruent in suggesting that excess sodium intake should be reduced, and this is likely to have significant public health effects. Accomplishing such a reduction will require efforts to decrease sodium in the food environment….

The bottom line, Bittman says (and I enthusiastically agree), is that

Salt intake — like weight, and body mass index — is a convenient baseline for public policy people to talk about. If you focus on eating less salt — and, indeed, less sugar — you will inevitably eat less processed food, fast food, junk food (it’s all the same thing.) If you eat less processed food (etc.) you eat more real food. If you eat more real food, not only are you healthier, but you probably don’t have to pay attention to how much salt you’re eating. Wowie zowie. 

Jun 12 2013

NYC is back in court over 16-ounce soda cap

I attended the brief appeals hearing yesterday at which lawyers for the New York City Department of Health (DOH) and the American Beverage Association (ABA) presented final arguments for and against the DOH 16-ounce soda cap initiative (for recap, see previous post).

The judges challenged the DOH lawyer on jurisdiction, judicial precedents, scientific basis, efficacy, rationality, and triviality.  One said “Do you need a PhD in public health to know that sugary drinks aren’t good for you?”

Another kept referring to the initiative as a ban: “It would mean sodas cannot be sold…”

The big issues raised by ABA:

  • Does DOH have jurisdiction?
  • Is the cap rational?
  • Does the soda cap adequately balance public health, personal liberty, and economic factors (i.e., beverage companies’ “rights” to sell as much sugar water as they can get away with)?

DOH argues that it does have jurisdiction and that there is plenty of precedent.

DOH also argues that the proposed 16-ounce cap is well supported by research and makes good sense.

I find DOH Commissioner Tom Farley entirely rational—and persuasive—when he talks about these issues.

Reporters from the Associated Press and the New York Times must have been there too.  Both noted that the judges were much tougher on the DOH attorney than on the one from the ABA.   The DOH attorney seemed to have trouble responding to questions about precedents.  Did she not read the DOH’s impressive “plenty of precedent” piece?  

Obesity—and its type 2 diabetes consequences—are problems requiring action.  I’d like to see the soda cap tried.

But despite Commissioner Farley’s optimistic statements to reporters, this hearing didn’t make the possibility sound hopeful.

And here’s CDC’s reminder of what this is all about:

CDC The New (Ab)normal

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