Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
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 5 2013

China demanding fair prices for foreign infant formula

I’m shocked, shocked.  China says foreign makers of infant formulas are fixing prices (did you ever wonder why the prices of different brands of formula or baby food were all the same?).

Foreign milk powder surged in popularity in China after a 2008 scandal in which at least six infants died and 300,000 children fell ill after drinking domestic milk powder formula tainted with a toxic chemical, melamine. Virtually all major Chinese makers of milk powder were found to have tainted products..

Chinese newspapers say that since 2008, foreign milk powder companies have increased prices by around 30%. Since 2008, the market share held by foreign milk powder has doubled from 30% to 60%.

In response, two makers of infant formulas, Nestlé (no relation) and Danone, have promised to cut prices.  In the meantime, Chinese authorities are investigating price setting policies.

Some analysts see the inquiry as possibly part of a broader Chinese plan to increase consumption of local infant-milk products….Foreign brands may also soon have to rely on their Chinese partners if they want greater access to the Chinese market. The Chinese government has expressed an interest in bringing the supply chain under the control of Chinese firms as part of its goal of reducing the number of local infant formula producers to 10 from more than 200 within two years.

I’ve been writing about Chinese infant formula issues for years.

Breast-feeding, anyone?

Jul 3 2013

Summer reading: food memoirs

If you love food memoirs, as I do, start with this one:

Elissa Altman.  Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking.  Chronicle Books, 2013

I couldn’t stop reading this book.  Altman is a food writer and blogger at Poor Man’s Feast, which won a James Beard Award last year for reasons that are immediately evident.  She can write.  The book is a lovely, touching, engaging account of her childhood, writing career, and intense romance with her partner, Susan.  Read: city girl converts to rural farmer.  Recipes come with every chapter.  The New York Times gave it a rave.  I do too.

Jeanne Nolan.  From the Ground Up: A Food Grower’s Education in Life, Love, and the Movement that’s Changing the Nation.  Spiegel & Grou, 2013.

This book has a Foreword by Alice Waters.

By turns a memoir, a manifesto, and a how-to, From the Ground Up lures the reader into this beautiful experience—the textures, scents, and the quiet, patient pleasure—of growing your own food.

I did a blurb for it:

Sometimes a garden is just a garden, but not for Jeanne Nolan.  In From the Ground Up, she gives us a deeply personal account of finding her path in life through building urban gardens, and  in Chicago, no less.  Anyone with an interest, from casual to professional, in creating urban food systems and communities—or eating home-grown fresh vegetables–will be moved and inspired by her story.

Jul 2 2013

Question: What is the U.S. doing to help address world hunger?

Answer: plenty or not enough, depending on how you look at it.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has just released a report summarizing the present status of its activities: Feed the Future — Progress Report: Growing Innovation, Harvesting Results.

It also has released a scorecard for holding the agency accountable for what it does: Feed the Future — Progress Scorecard.

The report is written in government-speak and it’s hard to know what to make of it.

The government has met some of its promises, but not all.  One reason for the “not all” may be that only one-third of the nearly $4 billion pledged for reducing world hunger has actually been spent.

It’s not a coincidence that USAID released the report while President Obama is visiting countries in Africa, and while legislators are trying to figure out what to do about the fallout from not passing the farm bill.  The farm bill includes food aid programs.

Food aid, as I have discussed previously, is tied to domestic farm policy in a particularly inconvenient way: American surplus farm commodities have to be shipped on American carriers, something that takes time and benefits American producers and shippers perhaps more than it does recipient countries.

Can this situation be changed to increase the benefit to international partners?  Not likely with this Congress.

 

 

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 27 2013

World Health Organization takes on the food industry

I’ve just been sent a copy of  the opening address given by the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan, to a Global Conference on Health Promotion in Helsinki on June 10.

Here is an excerpt from her extraordinary remarks:

Today, getting people to lead healthy lifestyles and adopt healthy behaviours faces opposition from forces that are not so friendly.  Not at all.

Efforts to prevent noncommunicable [chronic] diseases go against the business interests of powerful economic operators.

In my view, this is one of the biggest challenges facing health promotion…it is not just Big Tobacco anymore.  Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda,and Big Alcohol.

All of these industries fear regulation, and protect themselves by using the same tactics.

Research has documented these tactics well. They include front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits, and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt.

Tactics also include gifts, grants, and contributions to worthy causes that cast these industries as respectable corporate citizens in the eyes of politicians and the public.

They include arguments that place the responsibility for harm to health on individuals, and portray government actions as interference in personal liberties and free choice.

This is formidable opposition. Market power readily translates into political power…

Not one single country has managed to turn around its obesity epidemic in all age groups.  This is not a failure of individual will-power. This is a failure of political will to take on big business…

I am deeply concerned by two recent trends.

The first relates to trade agreements. Governments introducing measures to protect the health of their citizens are being taken to court, and challenged in litigation. This is dangerous.

The second is efforts by industry to shape the public health policies and strategies that affect their products. When industry is involved in policy-making, rest assured that the most effective control measures will be downplayed or left out entirely. This, too, is well documented, and dangerous.

In the view of WHO, the formulation of health policies must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests.

Dr. Chan was courageous to say this so clearly.  Would that our health officials would be as brave.

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.

 

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