Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
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 17 2013

Mini book review: Foodist

I’m on the road this week and getting caught up on reading.  I”m not usually interested in diet books but this one is more about healthy eating than losing weight.

Darya Pino Rose.  Foodist: Using Real Food and Real Science to Lose Weight Without Dieting.  HarperOne, 2013.

I first heard of Darya Pino Rose in connection with her guide to getting through supermarkets.  She’s a neurobiologist who confesses to chronic dieting.  Once she figured out the science, she figured the rest  would be easy.

Focusing on real food instead of those specialty, highly processed diet foods is the secret to making healthy food enjoyable.  My recipe for how to make cauliflower taste as good as french fries (p. 237) has convinced hundreds of skeptics that vegetables aren’t just palatable, but can be insanely delicious.

Her advice for handling restaurants and friends and family is eminently sensible and worth trying for those who have trouble with such things (and who does not?).

Jun 14 2013

Music for the weekend: Jen Chapin’s video “Feed Your Baby”

I was sent a press release this week: “Thought this evocative and provocative song/video “Feed Your Baby” about our broken food system by Jen Chapin (daughter of the late great Harry Chapin) might interest you.”

It did.

I thought the drawings were gorgeous.  But I couldn’t understand the words.

When I complained, they sent them and promised to get the words posted on YouTube.

“Feed Your Baby” (words & music by Jen Chapin)

city shut down the B84
was our only good ride to the grocery store
paycheck goes to the glucose strip
patience goes to the 95 minute bus trip
30 hour week — I wish they’d give me more
and I wonder what it’s all for
when I can’t feed my baby no more

worry worry work and cry
full warm breast goes limp and dry
wilted leaves still priced too high
red raw fingers fill the sack
raid the trailers send them back
silos rotting still I lack
enough to feed my baby
its tough to feed my baby

Granma grew her yams in the yard
in the Carib sun chile it’s not so hard
but she traded that sun for the cold and the cash
strong hands picking up office trash
you never dig dirt with a new green card
but her fingers still ache for the yard
now that feeding her baby’s so hard

worry worry work and cry
full warm breast goes limp and dry
wilted leaves still priced too high
red raw fingers fill the sack
raid the trailers send them back
silos rotting still I lack
enough to feed my baby
its tough to feed my baby

junk food minefield on the tv
dinnertime battle him against me
change the channel try not to see
starvation
still starvation
in the 21st century

worry worry work and cry
full warm breast goes limp and dry
wilted leaves still priced too high
red raw fingers fill the sack
raid the trailers send them back
silos rotting still I lack
enough to feed my baby
its tough to feed my baby

Here’s what the press release says this is about:

Chapin says, “I’ve been thinking about food justice issues for as long as I can remember, but it was only when I became a mother (and a mother of an exhaustingly picky eater in my 2nd son Van, at that) that my ideas coalesced into a song.

Being responsible for the nourishment of small children really brings it all into stark and harrowing detail and you experience the joys and heartbreaks of our industrial food system in a new way — the good and the bad, the plentiful and the scarce, the gorgeously natural and the mindlessly over-processed.

Maria Eugênia (with animation assistance by Nick Matias) brought all these contrasts, and really, a lot of the heartbreak, to their powerful video.  

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

Jun 11 2013

NYC Health Department: one New Yorker dies of diabetes every 90 minutes

The NYC Health Department goes to court at noon today for a hearing on the 16-ounce soda cap (I’ll be there).

Yesterday, it released alarming data on diabetes deaths, now at an all-time high.

The press release notes that although NYC’s overall deaths are going down,  diabetes-related deaths are going up.

The deaths are highest in low-income communities.

In April, the Health Department reported that nearly 650,000 New York adults have diabetes, an increase of 200,000 in a decade.   Most of these are due to type 2 diabetes, the “adult” kind.

Why?  Obesity.

Although a small percentage of overweight people develop type 2 diabetes, most people with type 2 diabetes are overweight.

Losing weight is the first thing to do to prevent or treat type 2 diabetes.

Reducing intake of sugary sodas is the first thing to do to lose weight.

That is why the health department wants to reduce the portion sizes of sugary drinks at food service establishments.

Today’s court hearing should be interesting. Stay tuned.

Jun 10 2013

Books not to miss: The food politics of restaurant workers

I’m going to be doing some catching up on reading over the summer, starting with this one.

Saru Jayaraman.  Behind the Kitchen Door.  ILR Press/Cornell, 2013.

This shocking, hugely important book takes a compassionate yet tough-minded look at the working conditions of restaurant workers—the poorly paid ($2.13 an hour), largely invisible people who wash dishes, clear tables, and mop the floors of the places from high end to low where many of us eat our meals.  Their work is not covered by federal labor laws.

Jayaraman, who co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and directs the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, begins the book with a plea for advocacy:

When people ask what are the most important changes that we could make to our food system right away, I reply:  Enforce the nation’s labor laws and increase the minimum wage.

Think of that the next time you go out and eat.  And what you can do to support these goals.

Jun 7 2013

Chicago’s self-cancelling health program

A reader writes that she rode by this ad on her way to work yesterday.  It’s on Chicago’s beautiful lakefront walking-and-bike path.

Chicago

It’s for a Big Gulp 32-ounce drink, and a bargain at 69 cents.

The Chicago Park District explains that it:

partnered with Chicago-based AdTraction Media to develop a temporary outdoor advertising solution that adheres to concrete areas and will be displayed April through October.  The additional revenue from this agreement will help the Chicago Park District enhance the programs, projects and events offered to Chicagoans and visitors.

Did nobody in the Park District consider the irony?

Better get moving!  It takes at least 4 miles of running and 8 to 10 of biking to work off the 400 calories in that 32-ounce soda.

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