Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 16 2013

Vilsack on the farm bill: “There ought to be outrage.”

Our dysfunctional Congress continues to dither over the farm bill.  Will the House send its SNAP-less, corporate-welfare bill to the Senate?  Will it do terrible things to SNAP first?  Or will it do nothing?

While waiting to find out, I want to mention a speech given by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to the National Rural Assembly.   From the beginning, Secretary Vilsack said that his agenda for USDA was to revitalize rural America—a laudable goal.

Here he is last month calling for outrage over congressional failure to pass legislation in support of this goal.

What do we see from rural advocates? Utter disappointment. Are you kidding me? There ought to be outrage… “It is going to be important for groups like this to express more than extreme disappointment,.. Demand that they pass legislation that is supportive and not destructive. Demand appreciation for those in rural America.

How about that.  A call to action from the USDA!

Jul 15 2013

Food for kids: “The Best Lunch Box Ever”

Hot summer days are good times to try to get caught up with all the good books about food that are coming out.  Here’s one from someone I knew when she was a student in our department at NYU.

She was a great writer even then.  Now she has kids…

Katie Morford, The Best Lunchbox Ever: Ideas and Recipes for School Lunches Kids Will Love, Chronicle Books, 2013.

 

I did a blurb for it, of course:

The Best Lunchbox Ever is a terrific gift to anyone who has to pack a lunch for a kid, and wants that lunch to be healthy—and eaten.  Katie Morford has dozens of interesting and sometimes surprising suggestions for easy, delicious, and nutritious lunch items that kids will enjoy—if parents don’t get to them first.  I wish I’d had this book when my kids were in school.

Enjoy and use!

Jul 12 2013

Congressional posturing: House Republicans (No Democrats) pass farm bill without food stamps

Ordinarily, writing about bills introduced and passed in either the House or the Senate isn’t worth the trouble because they are so likely to be changed later on in the legislative process.

But this one is over the top.  House Republicans, joined by not one Democrat, passed H.R. 2642 — New Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 — its version of the farm bill yesterday.  The shocker?  For the first time since the 1970’s, the farm bill is not linked to food stamps (SNAP), thereby breaking the deal between urban and rural America.

This bill now has to be reconciled with the one passed by the Senate last year, which does include food stamps.  This seems unlikely.  The President has already said he won’t sign it (see the Obama administration’s statement of policy on H.R. 2642).

So this is about politics, not governing the country.

The House bill:

  • Repeals the 1938 and 1949 permanent farm laws
  • Makes Title I — the commodity title — permanent law, if the bill can make it through conference and get President Barack Obama’s signature.
  • Allows virtually unlimited crop insurance subsidies and price guarantees.
  • Maintains the highly unpopular (with sugar users) sugar tariff program.
  • Authorizes about $200 billion to pay for all this over ten years.
  • Saves $12 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate (much less than the House claims).
  • Expands subsidies for crop insurance to cotton, rice, peanuts, and vegetables (well, at least that)
  • And, according to the New York Times, requires additional economic and scientific analyses before putting food safety laws into effect.

House Republicans know this bill isn’t going any further.  Hence: politics.  Their purpose?  Leaving food stamps vulnerable to severe restrictions and budget cutting.

Joel Berg of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger issued this statement:

Today’s vote is the latest smoking gun that the House Majority isn’t truly interested in deficit reduction, they’re interested in supporting special interest groups over hungry Americans. The Farm Bill passed by the House of Representatives today is a disgrace and an embarrassment to the American people…Recent Farm Bills have represented the worst of American politics. It’s time to pass a Farm Bill that represents the best.

Good luck with that.

Addition, July 13: Gail Collins’ column in the Times on this fiasco is the best I’ve seen.

So the farm bill got divided…As Ron Nixon reported in The Times, the rate of error and fraud in the agricultural crop insurance program is significantly higher than in the food stamp program. Also, the agriculture part has a lot of eyebrow-raising provisions, like the $147 million a year in reparations we send to Brazil to make up for the fact that it won a World Trade Organization complaint about the market-distorting effects of our cotton subsidies.

And while food stamps go to poor people, most of the farm aid goes to wealthy corporations.

Addition, July 16: I forgot to post the New York Times editorial on the topic.

Now that coalition has been sundered, and the future of food stamps is threatened. If the program is not returned to the five-year farm bill, it will have to be financed through annual appropriations, which puts it at the mercy of the Republicans’ usual debt-ceiling stunts and government shutdown threats. House leaders said they would submit a food stamp bill “later,” but that will probably include the right wing’s savage cuts andunprecedented incentives for states to shut out poor families. Neither will get past the Senate or the White House.

Jul 11 2013

Reading about food politics: The Industrial Diet

Summer is a good time to try to get caught up on with the deluge of books about food.  Here’s one I blurbed:

Anthony Winson.  The Industrial Diet: The Degradation of Food and the Struggle for Healthy Eating.  UBC Press, 2013.

The blurb:

 

The Industrial Diet provides all the evidence anyone needs to understand the problems with our current food system and what to do about it.  Anthony Winson is a compelling advocate for a more sustainable and humane food regime, as he calls it.

 

 

This is a serious work of scholarship but worth the effort.  ‘Humane food regime” is an interesting way to look at all of the ways food systems can be healthy and promote health.

 

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.

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