Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 27 2016

Plate of the Union goes Presidential

Food Policy Action wants presidential candidates to talk about food issues.  Its Plate of the Union campaign says:

Our food system is out of balance, and it’s time to take action.  Current food policies prioritize corporate interests at the expense of our health, the environment, and working families. This has led to spikes in obesity and type-2 diabetes, costing taxpayers billions of dollars each year. If you are elected president, I urge you to take bold steps to reform our food system to make sure every American has equal access to healthy, affordable food that is fair to workers, good for the environment, and keeps farmers on the land.

Here’s what the campaign is doing, courtesy of today’s New York Times:

In an e-mailed press release (which I can’t find online), Food Policy Action says:

Plate of the Union leaders Tom Colicchio, Ricardo Salvador and Navina Khanna spoke with Congressional members and staff, delegates and other convention-goers about commonsense steps the next president can take to change the status quo of the nation’s food policy, which currently prioritizes corporate interests at the expense of food and farm workers, and which is making Americans increasingly sick.

“When elected leaders talk about creating good jobs and boosting the economy, they absolutely have to consider food and farm policies,” said Navina Khanna, director of HEAL Food Alliance. “Six of the eight worst-paying jobs in America are in the food system. Our current food system was designed to benefit a few corporations at the expense of working families. That’s got to change.”

If you agree, sign the Plate of the Union petition on its site.
And just for fun, Politico Morning Agriculture’s Jenny Hopkinson provides this souvenir from the Democratic convention.
Jul 25 2016

USDA finalizes school food rules: Applause!

Last week, the USDA sent out a press release announcing the last four Final Rules for school meals under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010:

The press release summarizes USDA’s view of what’s most beneficial in these policies:

You probably won’t want to read all the fine print.  Fortunately, others have done just that.

Bettina Siegel at The Lunch Tray

  • Wellness policies will be required to prohibit on-campus marketing of foods and drinks that fail to meet the Smart Snacks nutritional standards.
  • Whether companies can market “copycat” snacks in schools (Smart Snacks-compliant versions of junk food available in supermarkets) is left up to local districts.
  • Also left to local districts are policies about incentive programs, such as Box Tops for Education or fast food coupons passed out to kids for reading books.
  • School wellness policies will be required to set nutritional standards for foods and drinks offered to kids at classroom parties or by teachers as treats, but districts can determine the actual policies.
  • Schools will be allowed to sell hard-boiled eggs, low-sodium canned vegetables, and peanut butter and celery.

Her bottom line:

With the finalization of these four rules, the historic work of the Obama administration in improving children’s school food environment is now complete. But, of course, we’re already one year overdue for the next CNR [Child Nutrition Reauthorization], a process which could easily roll back or weaken these reforms – many of which have already been overtly threatened by House Republicans.

CSPI’s Take on What’s New

  • Local wellness policies must address marketing of foods and drinks that do not meet the Smart Snacks standards.
  • Local wellness policies must involve the public and school community and produce an annual progress report.
  • Local wellness policies must designate a school official for compliance and undergo administrative review every 3 years.
  • School districts must update goals for nutrition promotion, nutrition education, physical activity, and school wellness activities based on evidence-based strategies.

CSPI says the new rules mean local wellness policies can and should:

  • Shift unhealthy school fundraisers to profitable healthy food or non-food fundraisers
  • Ensure that school celebrations support healthy eating and physical activity
  • Use non-food rewards
  • Provide ample opportunities for physical activity, quality physical education, and recess

My comments

Nutritionism: Many of the complaints about USDA’s nutrition standards derive from their focus on single nutrients—fat, salt, sugar—rather than on foods. Boiled eggs weren’t allowed because of their fat and cholesterol content, but copy-cat snack foods were.  If the standards applied to minimally processed whole foods, they would make more sense. USDA now has to take comments on whether to eliminate the standard for total fat from Smart Snacks because of the egg issue and the confusing nature of current research on saturated fat (also a problem resulting from studying one nutrient at a time).

Politics:  Regardless of how trivial some of these rules may appear, USDA’s school food standards must be considered an extraordinary achievement.  Against all odds—unrelenting opposition from companies that supply junk food to schools, Congress, and, weirdly, the School Nutrition Association—the new rules will improve the nutritional quality of school meals and snacks, at least most of the time.  School districts with officials who care deeply about improving the food served to kids now have a mandate to do so.  Those who don’t will have a harder time doing a bad job.  Applause to USDA for bringing the rules to closure.  May they survive the next round of lobbying.


Jul 22 2016

GMO labeling: Politico’s winners and losers

I’m just back from Spain and feeling lazy today so I’m just going to “borrow” Politico Morning Agriculture’s Jenny Hopkinson’s take on stakeholder positions on the GMO labeling bill passed by Congress and waiting for the President to sign it, which he is expected to do.

To recap: The bill allows three options for labeling GMO foods.

  • A QR code requiring a smart phone (the option favored by industry)
  • A symbol to be developed by USDA
  • A statement that the food contains genetically modified ingredients (the option favored by pro-labeling groups)

If the President ignores the veto campaign and signs the bill, the USDA will be responsible for writing regulations for all this.  In the meantime, here are some of the highlights of Jenny Hopkinson’s winners and losers.


  • Sen. Debbie Stabenow: The ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee pretty much got everything she wanted. In pushing the issue to the last few days before the law in Vermont took effect, Stabenow, who has long called for a balance of preemption with some sort of disclosure, forced Republicans to accept her terms or let the food industry deal with Vermont’s law….
  • SmartLabel: The Grocery Manufacturers Association’s newest technology venture stands to do well should companies embrace electronic and QR code labeling in the way the group thinks they will – and it sets the groundwork for companies to quickly address future food fights. The concept has been backed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and has a lot of big companies singing its praises….members will be charged just $5 per SKU, and non-members $15 per SKU…But given the huge number of food companies out there, it’s certainly not chump change. And the precedent it sets when the next labeling crisis comes up is potentially priceless.
  • President Obama: In a 2007 campaign stop, then-candidate Obama promised to label GMOs in food. When he signs the bill, he will have done just that. Credit also needs to go to his agriculture secretary, the aforementioned Tom Vilsack, who helped lay the groundwork for the eventual legislation and has already directed his staff to get cracking on implementation.
  • Pro-labeling advocates: While they have made it explicitly clear they don’t like the deal, pro-labeling groups should be patting themselves on the back…all companies must disclose what’s in their products…a testament to the power of advocates who stuck to their position and made it clear to lawmakers that consumers have the right to know.


  • GMA and the food industry: Admittedly MA [Morning Agriculture] went back and forth on which column GMA and the food industry should be in. Stopping state GMO labeling has long been the group’s top priority – but it’s come at a huge price…after spending hundreds of millions fighting state labeling campaigns and in court battles and lobbying lawmakers…On the other hand, the legislation gives food companies at least another two years – likely longer thanks to lawsuits – before they must label…
  • The Non-GMO Project: This third-party certification group – you’ve likely seen their butterfly logo all over the grocery store…But since the bill now lets them make that claim, The Non-GMO project and other certification groups stand to lose a big part of their market.
  • Sen. Pat Roberts: The Agriculture Committee chairman and Kansas Republican gets much credit for successfully championing a bill through Congress that included the preemption called for by the food and agriculture industries. But he was largely outmaneuvered and prevented from reaching his top goal of making GMO labeling voluntary.
  • Vermont: The quirky New England state may have made GMO labeling a high-profile congressional fight, but in the end its law will be in effect for less than a month. That’s a lot of time, money and effort by lawmakers and regulators for small benefit.

You don’t have to fully agree with her analysis—I wonder whether pro-labeling advocates really won on this one—to appreciate how clearly she has identified the broad range of stakeholders in this bill.

Happy weekend: There is still time to sign on to the many “veto it” campaigns (like this one from Vermont Right to Know, for example).

Jul 20 2016

How did Philadelphia pass a soda tax?

I’m at the Summer Academy in Global Food Law and Policy in Getxo, Spain speaking about Soda Politics and was happy to see Healthy Food America’s analyses of how Philadelphia passed a soda tax.

Jim Krieger starts out with a reminder that all cities are different and all politics is local, but in this case Philadelphia did an outstanding job on the

  • Political path: a budget proposal to be passed by the City Council
  • Timing: end of budget speech while still a new mayor
  • Framing: source of revenue to fund pre-K
  • Community base: a coalition
  • Financial support: Bloomberg and Arnold foundations
  • Media buzz
  • An effective champion in Mayor Jim Kenney  

All of these are essential elements in any advocacy campaign.

Casey Hinds, also of Healthy Food America, focuses on why Mayor Kenney’s messaging was so effective.  She quotes from his

This last interview is particularly inspiring.  He knew what he was doing, and why.

KENNEY: It never was a grocery tax. From my perspective and my opinion, their miscalculation is that they thought the people were stupid and that they would totally eat the idea of a grocery tax. In the end, diet [beverages] became part of it because it was part of the negotiation to get us the nine votes or the 13 votes we needed. It was always about sugar-sweetened beverages. It was never about anything else. I think people recognize that this was a way to generate significant revenue without raising their real estate taxes, without raising their wage taxes, without raising business taxes, because those are all the taxes that we’ve always [used] to fund education.

…BOTTEMILLER EVICH: So when the other cities, states, call you, what are you going to tell local officials about going down this road?

KENNEY: Tie it to initiatives that the public wants. Build a coalition around those initiatives. And just continue to grow the coalition and don’t worry about the big money. It’s clear now that the big money isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

We need more politicians like this.

Jul 19 2016

Check out who funded this study of kids’ lunches in Brazil

Brazilian researchers have published a study clearly aimed at countering Brazil’s dietary guidelines, which the authors say, include advice to “avoid fast food.”

The study, which looked at the nutritional quality of children’s lunches, comes to three conclusions:

  1. The nutrition quality of lunch in fast food restaurants is similar to a typical Brazilian meal [Really?  Who paid for this?].
  2. The restaurant meals could fit into a balanced diet from time to time [Of course.  Anything can].
  3. Every meal observed here could be improved with regard to sodium and fiber to promote children’s health in adulthood [Ditto].

Did you guess?

The authors acknowledge Equilibrium Consultancy which led this study. Funding by McDonald’s Corporation for the project was primarily to Equilibrium.

This is yet another industry-funded study with results favorable to the sponsor’s interests.  These especially require scrutiny of hypotheses, methods, and interpretation and repetition by independently funded investigators.

Jul 18 2016

City Voices: Hard Truths about Eating Healthy

I am a member of the New York Academy of Medicine and am happy to say that its Institute for Urban Health has just published a terrific new report in its City Voices: New Yorkers on Health series.

This one, published in June, is called “Food and Nutrition: Hard Truths about Eating Healthy.”


It is utterly remarkable and, in my experience, highly unusual.  The authors actually asked low-income community residents in Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens what they think about their diets, risks for chronic disease, and challenges to eating healthfully.

If you care whether people of low income have financial and physical access to decent food, this report is essential reading.

Food advocates: If you are looking for something useful to do, read this report.  It makes the needs clear and also suggests where interventions might best be targeted.

I’m always complaining that public health advocates need to ask people in communities what they think.  These authors did that, and look how useful it is!

Jul 15 2016

Big Sugar and Florida’s Everglades: Money Talks

The Los Angeles Times has reprinted a story about Big Sugar’s hold on Florida politics.  The story appeared first in the Miami Herald (but don’t even try to read it there; the ads make the site impenetrable).

The LA Times version is worth a look.

Between 1994 and 2016, a review of state Division of Elections records by The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau shows, the sugar industry led by United States Sugar and Florida Crystals has steered a whopping $57.8 million in direct and in-kind contributions to state and local political campaigns. (The total does not include federal contributions.)

It appears to be money well spent. On issue after issue, regulators, legislators and governors have erred on the side of softening the impact of adverse rules and regulations on cane growers and other powerful and polluting agriculture interests, including cattle operations north of Lake Okeechobee.

The sugar industry beat back a voter-approved amendment that would have forced it to pay for cleaning up its own nutrient-rich runoff into the Everglades, instead shifting much of the cost to taxpayers. It won repeated delays of strict water quality standards. It has fended off calls for buyouts even after one of the largest companies, U.S. Sugar, offered to sell itself to the state. And it has undermined attempts to use a second constitutional amendment, Amendment 1, to be used to buy farmland for Everglades cleanup.

You have to love U.S. sugar policy.  It’s just so weird.

On the one hand, we have dietary guidelines that say “Limit calories from added sugars.”

On the other, we support sugar prices with a system of sugar quotas and tariffs that makes U.S. sugar cost more than sugar on the world market (but not enough to decrease consumption).

We let sugar producers indiscriminately pollute land and water and “encourage” elected officials to turn a blind eye and shift the costs of cleanup to taxpayers.

If ever we needed evidence why linking agricultural policy to health and environmental policies is so essential, the contradictions of sugar policy make the case.

Jul 14 2016

How to reduce SNAP caseloads? Easy. Just set a 3-month limit.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has just released an analysis of the recent decline in SNAP caseloads.

Bigger SNAP Declines in States Newly Imposing Time Limits

Some SNAP participants may be finding jobs along with an improving economy and going off the rolls.  Good for them.

But a more likely reason is that states like Florida, Missouri, Alabama, and Arkansas instituted a 3-month time limit in January.  The limit appleis to “unemployed childless adults without disabilities.”

Other states are doing this too.

If you want your state to reduce its SNAP expenditures, here’s one way to do that.

And if there aren’t jobs?  What are poor people supposed to do?

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