Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
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.

 

Jun 25 2013

Annals of food art: Southern California trompe style

I was in South Pasadena  last week to visit my son and we stopped at a station to get gas.  The station’s FoodMart came with palm trees, real and trompe l’oeil.

IMG-20130621-00006

 

 

 

 

 

xx

Jun 24 2013

Britain’s new food label: traffic lights (sort of)

The UK is introducing a uniform system of front-of-package food labeling—voluntary of course.

The new voluntary scheme includes traffic light colours as well as GDAs

The food industry hates it.  It’s got traffic-light colors, and we already know what that means in practice.  People tend not to buy red-labeled products.

That’s why trade associations are complaining that this system is too simplistic, misleading, and unscientific.

Worst of all, it will confuse consumers into not buying products that fit just fine into healthful diets.

Tch, tch.

Australia is introducing a star system to rate products.  Food companies don’t like that one either.

In the meantime, we’ve heard nothing about front-of-package labeling from our very own FDA since the Institute of Medicine released its recommendations in October 2011, and it looked like the FDA had given up on the idea in February 2012.

Front-of-package labels were on the early agenda for Let’s Move!

Maybe the European labeling initiatives will encourage the FDA to do so?

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 20 2013

World Food Prize goes to Monsanto!

A reader, Leah Pressman, left this Feedback message this morning:

She sends a link to the story in the New York Times.

The world food prize foundation awarded [this year's prize] to several scientists on the teams working for Monsanto who figured out how to make genetically modified crops.

I am stunned by this and eagerly await your comments. The Times eventually mentions (see continuation) that “the foundation that administers the prize has received[...]a 5 million dollar contribution from Monsanto” among other corporations.

The World Food Prize is about agricultural productivity and has always favored industrial methods.  Monsanto produces by industrial methods.

As I keep saying, when it comes to food politics, you can’t make this stuff up.

Jun 19 2013

MIni book review: specialized but worth reading

Policy wonk types: try this one!

Melvin Delgado.  Social Justice and the Urban Obesity Crisis: Implications for Social Work.  Columbia University Press, 2013.

This is an academic’s analysis of the social causes of obesity, especially among the urban poor, and what to do about it.  Although the book is aimed at social workers, it works for public health as well.  Delgado calls for community-based participatory health promotion principles and interventions.  These are clearly needed.

If only they weren’t so hard to do…

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