by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Lobbies

Aug 29 2014

Global Nutrition Report: How US Citizens Can Hold Government Accountable for Preventing Malnutrition

Lawrence Haddad, senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), invited me to comment on how to strengthen accountability in the fight against malnutrition in the United States.

This is a contribution to the Global Nutrition Report, a project chaired by the Governments of Malawi and the UK as an outcome of the 2013 Nutrition for Growth Summit in London.

My comments are in response to this specific question:

Q.  How can citizens of the United States hold their government accountable for preventing and reversing malnutrition?

A.  This question has no easy answer.  To begin with, we see practically no cases of severe undernutrition among U.S. citizens, in the sense that it occurs in the developing world.  Only rarely, do adults or children exhibit overt clinical signs of vitamin or mineral deficiency, let along acute malnutrition.  Instead, in America we talk about “food insecurity,” defined by government agencies as consistent, dependable, legal access to enough food on a daily basis to support active healthy living.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) monitors the extent of food insecurity among the population in two ways.  It counts the number of individuals who apply and qualify for participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps), and it collects data from surveys and publishes the results in annual reports on Household Food Security.  By both measures, nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population is judged to be food insecure—one out of every six adults.  Nearly six percent of the population is considered to be severely food insecure and, therefore, at risk of malnutrition but not necessarily displaying clinical signs.

Americans who qualify as food insecure are more likely than average to be poor, single parents, African-American or Hispanic, and living either in large cities or in rural areas.  They also, paradoxically, are more likely to be overweight or obese.  An explanation for the lack of clinical signs of malnutrition and of overweight is that nearly 60 percent of those considered food insecure participate in one or more of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs (SNAP, the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC, and National School Lunch Program.  An unspecified percentage also obtains free food from privately run charitable food banks or soup kitchens. As the USDA likes to explain, its 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs “form a nutritional safety net for millions of children and low-income adults” and account for more than 70 percent of USDA’s annual budget.

What the USDA says less about is the quality of that food.  SNAP has minimal limitations on what can be purchased with benefits, and retailers lobby hard to make sure program participants can continue to buy cheap, high-calorie foods and beverages.  WIC, in contrast, permits purchase of a limited number of foods meeting certain nutrition standards.  Recently, school meals have been required to meet nutrition standards, but these too are under lobbying pressure by food companies.

Because of the high cost of these programs—SNAP alone costs taxpayers $80 billion a year—arguments about what to do about food insecurity come down to matters of money.  They only rarely focus on ways to ensure that even the poorest Americans get enough food to eat, let alone healthy food.  Accountability, therefore, must confront the views of many congressional representatives that assistance programs represent “nanny-state” government and induce dependence among recipients.

Given this situation, American anti-hunger advocates are limited in what they can expect to accomplish in the current political era.  As one sympathetic Congressman, Jim McGovern (Dem-MA) once explained, hunger does not resonate with Congress.  Because the government already monitors food insecurity, the next steps must aim to get it to do something about the problem.  This means reducing poverty and income inequities (which in part means reducing educational inequities, providing a stronger safety net for single parents and those living in cities and rural areas, and reaching out to the 40 percent of people who qualify as food insecure but receive no federal food or nutrition assistance benefits.  It also means bringing anti-hunger and anti-obesity together to support healthier food options for low-income Americans.

All of this will cost money at a time when the interest of Congress in food assistance is only as a means to cut benefits.  This, in turn, means that the only way to fix the hunger problem in the United States is to change election campaign laws so that individuals who care about such issues have a chance of being elected.   Recent decisions of the Supreme Court in Citizens United and in McCutcheon make it clear that it favors no or insignificant limits on campaign contributions for corporations or wealthy individuals.    The one bright spot is the national movement that has emerged to obtain a raise the minimum wage, especially for restaurant and farm workers.  Most recipients of federal food assistance are employed, but at wages too low to bring them out of poverty.  Paying living wages would solve most problems of food insecurity in America.

 

Jun 27 2014

Lobbying in action: pizza!

This just in from Politico Morning Agriculture:

At their recent Capitol Hill fly-in, members of the American Pizza Community — which included representatives from Domino’s Pizza, Godfather’s, Little Caesars, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut — met with more than 70 congressional offices, according to a statement from the APC. Part of their ask was for lawmakers to back the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act. The bill, which was introduced about a year ago by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), would exempt grocery stores from the ACA menu labeling requirements and allow restaurants to disclose calorie counts online.

American Pizza Community?  Indeed, yes.

The American Pizza Community is a coalition of the nation’s largest pizza companies, regional chains, local pizzerias, small franchise operators, supplier partners and other entities that make up the American pizza industry. This joint effort will highlight the importance of the pizza industry on American communities and promote policies that permit its continued success, including reasonable menu labeling standards, including small business owners in tax reform, commodity policies and employment and labor policies.

The APC knows how to work the system.  Meeting with 70 congressional offices takes some hefty organizational work.

This is, no doubt, how pizza came to be counted as a vegetable in the school lunch program.

Happy weekend!

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Jun 20 2014

New House Majority Leader represents Big Ag

I love reading Politico Pro Agriculture.  It comments this morning on the new Majority Leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who represents the San Joaquin Valley where Big Agriculture is worth $3 billion.  This comes from 16 commodities, among them cotton, garlic, cattle, tomatoes and wine grapes..

Pro Ag quotes Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif:

Majority Leader-elect McCarthy has provided critical leadership on a number of issues impacting the produce industry, including ensuring passage of a farm bill that recognizes the importance of fresh fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, ongoing work to negotiate a solution to our water crisis, and of course working to address the immigration needs of agriculture…We look forward to working this year with the new majority leader to bring relief to our drought stricken farmers and to finally fix our broken immigration system.

Pro Ag did some homework and checked the lobbying database on Open Secrets.

  • McCarthy’s 2013-14 campaign contributions from agribusiness PACs and individuals: $226,550.
  • McCarthy is third in rank among top House recipients of food and beverage contributions so far in 2014: $67,481.

As for what to expect from McCarthy?  Think Eric Cantor.

According to Vox‘s Ezra Klein,

It’s hard to come up with ways in which Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who previously served as House Republican Whip, differs from Cantor. They both want to cut taxes. They both voted for the Ryan budget. They both want to repeal Obamacare. And, for all the talk of Cantor’s defeat being about immigration reform, McCarthy has basically the same position on immigration reform: he’s abstractly for immigration reform, but he’s not going to bring any solution to the problem up for a vote.

Business as usual, alas.

Apr 9 2014

Lobbying against the minimum wage for restaurant workers

Bill Moyers interviewed Saru Jayaraman of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United) about the attacks from the Restaurant Industry on this organization’s efforts to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers.  In many states, that wage is  $2.13 an hour.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. If you wonder why so many Americans doing essential but menial work at low wages never seem to get a break, here’s an answer for you. That’s how it’s intended to be. Not by nature, or the market, or from any lack of character or will on the part of workers. No, the fact is: our system is organized against them. The very thing workers most want and need – a fair wage – is the very thing the controlling interests don’t want them to have. And by controlling interests, I mean the owners of capital, who were emboldened even further this week by the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision giving monied interests more opportunity to rig the political system against everyday Americans.

As Jayaraman explains,

we would argue that evidence shows that you could actually do better as an industry, faster industry growth, more jobs, if you treat your workers better…it would cost the average American household at most $0.10 more for all food bought outside the home. That’s groceries and restaurants alike. So we’re talking pennies more on your hamburger when you eat out, for 30 million workers to come out of poverty.

But let’s look at how the political system gets rigged against low-wage restaurant workers.  For this, its useful to check the Open Secrets database on “The Money Against The Minimum Wage.”

The list of organizations that signed a letter opposing the minimum wage increase and how much they spent on total lobbying in 2013.  Three examples:

  • American Hotel and Lodging Association     $1,310,000
  • National Restaurant Association                         $2,238,691
  • US Chamber of Commerce                                  $74,470,000

No, that last one is not a misprint.

Why would the US Chamber of Commerce spend more than $74 million on lobbying?

As the New York Times explains,

The chamber has had little trouble finding American companies eager to enlist it, anonymously, to fight their political battles and pay handsomely for its help.

And these contributions…also show how the chamber has increasingly relied on a relatively small collection of big corporate donors to finance much of its legislative and political agenda.

Who donates to the Chamber of Commerce?  It’s a secret.

The chamber makes no apologies for its policy of not identifying its donors. It has vigorously opposed legislation in Congress that would require groups like it to identify their biggest contributors when they spend money on campaign ads.

This is another reason why it’s so important to support ROC and its campaigns.

Mar 10 2014

The farm bill promotes fruits and vegetables? Really?

I was surprised to read in yesterday’s New York Times that the farm bill was full of goodies for fruits, vegetables, and organics.

While traditional commodities subsidies were cut by more than 30 percent to $23 billion over 10 years, funding for fruits and vegetables and organic programs increased by more than 50 percent over the same period, to about $3 billion.

I took a quick look at the cost accounting.  Giving these program listings the benefit of the doubt:

TITLE AND PROGRAM $ MILLIONS/10 YEARS
SNAP
  Assistance for community food projects     36
  Food insecurity nutrition incentive   100
  Pilot for canned, frozen fruits, vegetables       5
Organic
  Research and extension   100
  Specialty crop research   745
  Beginning farmer development   100
  Foundation for Food and Ag Research   200
Horticulture
  Farmers market, local food promotion   150
  Organic ag and tech upgrade     10
  Organic product promotion order     61
  Plant pest and disease management   193
  Specialty crop block grants   270
Miscellaneous
  Outreach to socially disadvantaged producers     50

 

Even stretching the items like this, it’s $2 billion over ten years, not 3.   $2 billion is good; $3 would be better.

What am I missing here?

This morning, Politico Pro Agriculture summarized what states are doing to promote local food production:

Arizona: HB 2233 would create a task force to develop recommendations for how the state can improve the quality and nutrition of food sold in state facilities, including suggestions for promoting locally grown food: http://1.usa.gov/1qniAzl

Hawaii: HB 1184 seeks to set a state-wide food sustainability standard to be achieved by 2025 that would increase the availability of locally grown and produced foods to reduce the state’s reliance on imports. The standard would be set at a level double the cash farm receipts that are produced in 2015: http://1.usa.gov/1oDB9LL

HR 82 and its senate companion SCR 6 calls on the state departments of agriculture and education to develop a farm-to-school program that would provide locally grown produce to public school salad bars: http://1.usa.gov/1h4Yq6v

SB 524 similarly seeks to create an agricultural development and food security program under an existing economic development statute that would seek to increase demand for and access to locally grow foods through promotional campaigns and improving infrastructure, among other things: http://1.usa.gov/1fiiYWP

Iowa: H2426 seeks to promote small farmers through a new financial assistance program, a marketing program, a revolving grant program and a property tax exemption for farmers who sell their products to state facilities or schools. The measure also calls for state facilities, when cost effective, to purchase from local farmers: http://bit.ly/1hYHJMg

Kansas: SB 380 aims to create a local food and farm task force to develop funding and policy recommendations for supporting and expanding local food production. The task force would be required to issue a report to the legislature by the beginning of the 2016 legislative session: http://bit.ly/1fP9Lv9

New Jersey: SR 44 calls on state and local government entities to purchase locally made food and products: http://bit.ly/1dG8XX4

Michigan: HB 4487 would amend an economic development statute to include the creation and funding of programs to promote local agriculture: http://1.usa.gov/1oDBkH5

Mississippi: HB 1556 would provide a state income tax credit to grocers that amounts to 25 percent of the cost of purchasing locally grown and produced products starting in 2014: http://bit.ly/OaTaWq

Missouri: HB 2088 would create a “Farm-to-School Program” within the department of agriculture to help facilitate the use of locally grown produce in school meal programs through a website and database that would link farmers and schools. The bill, which was introduced March 5, sets up a task force that is charged with developing recommendations for the program: http://on.mo.gov/1fij1SA

New Jersey: SR 44 calls on state and local government entities to purchase locally made food and products: http://bit.ly/1dG8XX4

Rhode Island: H7494 would create a task force for developing recommendations on how to improve the nutrition of food sold at state facilities, including promoting locally grown products: http://bit.ly/1fwAA0W

Lest we forget, the Center for Responsive Politics produced these statistics on farm bill lobbying:

  • 325. Number of companies and organizations registered as lobbyists in 2013 to work on the Senate’s farm bill through the end of October 2013 — the fifth-most of any legislation
  • 111.5 million.  Amount “agribusiness” spent on lobbying in the same period, more than even the defense industry and labor unions.
  • 93 million.  Amount companies and individuals in agriculture made about in campaign donations during the 2012 presidential campaign.

If we want the next farm bill to promote fruits and vegetables (a.k.a. specialty crops), we need to start working on it right now.

Nov 28 2013

Happy Thanksgiving: three reports on hunger and politics

New York City’s Coalition Against Hunger has issued a new report on the city’s Superstorm of Hunger.

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Bread for the World’s offers its 2014 Hunger Report: Ending Hunger in America

It comes with an Infographic summarizing the principal action points:

  • Create good jobs
  • Invest in people
  • Strengthen the safety net
  • Build strong partnerships

And Circa provides an illustrated, interactive (check the links!) account of an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation of how lobbyists and tax dollars affect the cost of your thanksgiving dinner.

The bottom line: Agribusiness spent $71 million on campaign contributions and $95 million on lobbying in 2012.  For example:

The National Turkey Federation — a member of an agricultural businesses coalition —has given $1.37 million in campaign contributions since 1989, focused mainly on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. The group has also spent $3.58 million on lobbying during that time, taking aim at laws for turkey exports and antibiotic rules.

Enjoy your dinner!

Nov 3 2012

Tuesday’s election: Food politics at issue

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the implication of Tuesday’s election for food politics.

Q: Neither of the presidential candidates is saying much about food issues. Do you think the election will make any difference to Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve children’s health?

A: Of course it will. For anyone concerned about the health consequences of our current food system, the upcoming election raises an overriding issue: Given food industry marketing practices, should government use its regulatory powers to promote public health or leave it up to individuals to take responsibility for dealing with such practices?

Republicans generally oppose federal intervention in public health matters – witness debates over health care reform – whereas Democrats appear more amenable to an active federal role.

The Democratic platform states: “With prevention and treatment initiatives on obesity and public health, Democrats are leading the way on supporting healthier, more physically active families and healthy children.”

Policy or lifestyle?

In contrast, the Republican platform states: “When approximately 80 percent of health care costs are related to lifestyle – smoking, obesity, substance abuse – far greater emphasis has to be put upon personal responsibility for health maintenance.”

At issue is the disproportionate influence of food and beverage corporations over policies designed to address obesity and its consequences. Sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, for short) are a good example of how the interests of food and beverage corporations dominate American politics.

Because regular consumption of sodas is associated with increased health risks, an obvious public health strategy is to discourage overconsumption. The job of soda companies, however, is to sell more soda, not less. As a federal health official explained last year, policies to reduce consumption of any food are “fraught with political challenges not associated with clinical interventions that focus on individuals.”

Corporate spending

One such challenge is corporate spending on contributions to election campaigns. Although soda political action committees tend to donate to incumbent candidates from both parties, soda company executives overwhelmingly favor the election of Mitt Romney.

As reported in the Oct. 12 issue of the newsletter Beverage Digest, soda executives view the re-election of President Obama as a “headwind” that could lead to greater regulation of advertising and product claims, aggressive safety inspections and characterizations of sodas as contributors to obesity. In contrast, they think a win by Mitt Romney likely to usher in “more beneficial regulatory and tax policies.”

As for lobbying, what concerns soda companies is revealed by disclosure forms filed with the Senate Public Records Office. Coca-Cola reports lobbying on, among other issues, agriculture, climate change, health and wellness, and competitive foods sold in schools. PepsiCo reports lobbying on marketing and advertising to children. Their opinions on such issues can be surmised.

But Coca-Cola also says it lobbies to “oppose programs and legislation that discriminate against specific foods and beverages” and to “promote programs that allow customers to make informed choices about the beverages they buy.”

Lobbyists

Soda companies have lobbied actively against public health interventions recommended by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity in 2010 and adopted as goals of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

Implementation of several interventions – more informative food labels, restrictions on misleading health claims, limits on sodas and snacks sold in schools, menu-labeling in fast-food restaurants, and food safety standards – has been delayed, reportedly to prevent nanny-state public health measures from becoming campaign issues.

To counter New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 16-ounce cap on soda sales, the industry invested heavily in advertisements, a new website and more, all focused on “freedom of choice” – in my mind, a euphemism for protecting sales.

Soda tax

Although the obesity task force suggested that taxing sodas was worth studying, the American Beverage Association lobbied to “oppose proposals to tax sugary beverages” at the federal level. The soda industry reports spending more than $2 million to defeat Richmond’s soda tax ballot initiative Measure N, outspending tax advocates by 87 to 1.

In opposing measures to reduce obesity, the soda industry is promoting corporate health over public health and personal responsibility over public health.

Supporters of public health have real choices on Tuesday. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Let’s Move will get another chance.

Mar 30 2012

I’ve been lobbied! Intense efforts to save pink slime aimed at governors, USDA officials, and me

I don’t think I’ve ever been the target of a concerted lobbying campaign before, but efforts to restore the public image of pink slime—a.k.a. Lean Finely Textured Beef—have even gotten to me.

This week, while I was working on my column on pink slime for the Sunday, April 1 San Francisco Chronicle, I received e-mail messages from:

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm, the Minnesota-based food safety authority who I have never met but know about through his expertise and strong support for irradiation as a beef safety measure
  • Bruce Smith, the Environmental Health and Safety officer of Beef Products, Inc (BPI), the company that makes pink slime
  • Bruce Silverglade, the lawyer who now represents BPI but for many years was chief counsel for Center for Science in the Public Interest

All wanted me to know that pink slime was being treated unfairly because it is safe, nutritious and healthy, and getting rid of it will make ground beef more dangerous.

These efforts to educate me must be understood as a tiny fraction of the effort that is going into lobbying in favor of BPI and its product.  Yesterday, the governors and lieutenant governors of five states toured BPI’s facilities and participated in a heated press conference, which also included the undersecretary of USDA for food safety.

This is breathtakingly high-level—and perhaps unprecedented—support for the public relations troubles of a private food company.

Helena  Bottmiller of Food Safety News has a terrific report on these events.   She quotes the remarks of Iowa Governor Terry  Branstad:

We need to stand together to clear up the misinformation that has been circulating in the media…These accusations [against pink slime] are totally unfounded… I am proud to say that for 20 years I and my family have been eating it.

Here’s his instant classic: “Dude, it’s beef!”

The press conference also featured Nancy Donley, the founder and president of STOP Foodborne Illness, and mother of a child who died from eating a contaminated hamburger in 1993.

I had seen Ms. Donley’s letter about her son and the need for safe beef in a BPI advertisement in the Wall Street Journal on March 23.  It contained one eye-popping statement:

BPI has generously supported STOP and has never asked for anything in return.

Really?  I’d say BPI has gotten plenty of return on this particular investment.

STOP posts its tax statements online and these reveal a few small contributions from named private donors ($5000 to $10,000) but one of $250,000 from “a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.”

It doesn’t take much to deduce that this must be from Eldon Roth, the owner of BPI.

My comment to Food Safety News sums all this up:

Evidently, BPI has the political clout to pull in governors, USDA officials, and even food safety advocates on its behalf. I can’t help wondering whether their support for pink slime derives from a genuine belief that the public has treated BPI unfairly, or whether they are responding to the generous campaign contributions and charitable donations by BPI’s owner…I’m willing to grant that pink slime is safe, but that doesn’t make it acceptable [see note below].

Caroline Scott-Thomas writes in NutraIngredients that pink slime is “safe, nutritious—and icky” and that the food industry needs to take action “to avoid being at the mercy of the next consumer scare.”  She suggests:

  • Tell people what you’re selling them, no matter how unsavory it may seem.
  • Spend more time preempting consumer concerns, rather than reacting to them.
  • When industry does need to react, it should – quickly and with honesty.
  • The idea of “pink slime” might be icky, but it has definite advantages, and we should have heard about them before.

Good advice. Watch for my comments on the pink slime situation in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday.

Note added, April 4: Michael Osterholm has no financial or other ties to BPI (see post of April 4).

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