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Nov 7 2012

The election is over (whew): what’s next?

My post-hurricane Manhattan apartment still does not have telephone, internet, or television service, so I followed the election results on Twitter.

I knew that President Obama had been reelected when the Empire State Building turned on blue lights.

What’s ahead for food politics?

With the election out of the way, maybe the FDA can now:

  • Release final food safety rules (please!)
  • Issue proposed rules for front-of-package labels
  • Issue proposed rules for revising food labels
  • Require “added sugars” to be listed on labels
  • Define ”natural”
  • Clarify ”whole grain”
  • Release rules for menu labeling in fast-food restaurants

Maybe the USDA can

  • Release nutrition standards for competitive foods served in schools

And maybe Congress can pass the farm bill?

As for lessons learned:

  • The food industry has proven that it can defeat consumer initiatives by spending lots of money: $45 to $50 million on California’s Proposition 37 (GMO labeling), $4 million on soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte.
  • But if enough such initiatives get started, food companies might get the message?
The election leaves plenty of work to do.  Get busy!
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.

Aug 17 2012

To ponder over the weekend: What to do about corn and biofuels

Think about this over the weekend.

Among the other consequences of the current drought—along with the ruin of this year’s corn crop—is a complicated political battle over who gets the corn.

The players:

  • Corn producers: Want high prices.  Don’t care whether meat or ethanol producers get the corn.  Note: Many own their own ethanol refineries.
  • Meat producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Do not want corn grown for ethanol.  Want the ethanol quota waived.
  • Ethanol producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Want to keep the quota.
  • International aid agencies: Want corn to be grown for food and feed, not fuel.  Want the ethanol quota waived.

The ethanol quota:

Three big industries—corn agribusiness, industrial meat, ethanol—plus international agencies have a stake in the U.S. corn crop.

How should the Obama administration handle this?

  • Waive the ethanol quota?
  • Keep the ethanol quota?
  • Do nothing?
  • Do something else?  If so, what?
Apr 28 2012

Reuters: How the White House wobbled on childhood obesity

I am in Brazil at meetings of World Nutrition Rio 2012 but was deluged yesterday by links to a lengthy Reuters’ Special Report: How Washington went soft on childhood obesity.

In an e-mail, Reuters explains that its report is about how food and beverage companies dominate policymaking in Washington, doubled lobbying expenditures during the past three years, and defeated government proposals aimed at changing the nation’s diet.

  • The White House, despite First Lady Michelle Obama’s child obesity campaign, kept silent as Congress killed a plan by four federal agencies to recommend reductions to sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children.
  • Corporate lobbying last year led Congress to declare pizza a vegetable to protect it from a nutritional overhaul in the school lunch program.
  • The Center for Science in the Public Interest, widely regarded as the lead lobbying force for healthier food, spent about $70,000 lobbying– roughly what companies opposing stricter food guidelines spent every 13 hours.
  • The food and beverage industry has a near-perfect record in political battle even while health authorities link unhealthy food to the child obesity epidemic.
  • During the past two years, each of the 24 states and five cities that considered “soda taxes” has seen the efforts dropped or defeated.

Reuters Investigates also has a video about how the food industry fought back when the White House sought healthier school lunches and Congress directed federal agencies to set nutrition standards.

Readers of this blog may recall my post last December fretting about the White House pullback, and the vigorous denial the next day by White House senior food policy advisor Sam Kass.

I attributed White House caution to the upcoming election.  Reuters does too, apparently, and so does the New York Times

If the First Lady is to make real progress on Let’s Move, she needs all the support she can get.  This might be a good time to send a note to the White House strongly encouraging more vigorous action on methods to address childhood obesity.

Feb 6 2012

Happy 2nd Birthday Let’s Move!

On the occasion of the two-year anniversary of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, it’s time to reflect again on what the campaign means for the White House, for childhood obesity, and for the food movement.

A year later, I summarized some of the campaign’s accomplishments.  From the beginning, I’ve been impressed with its smart choice of targets: to reduce childhood obesity by improving school food and inner city access to healthy foods.

I’m reminded of the political savvy that went into the campaign by an editorial in The Nation (February 6), “America’s First Lady Blues.”  In it, Ilyse Hogue writes about Michelle Obama’s careful treading of the fine line between marital independence and submission, using Let’s Move! as an example.

Hogue praises Mrs. Obama’s choice of a target that looks “soft,” but is anything but:

In an effort to fit Michelle’s role into a traditional profile, the media constantly reminds us that her work is on presumably soft subjects, primarily her hallmark cause to end childhood obesity…Slurs aside, what critics miss is that this campaign is not aimed at soft targets.

The food and beverage industry is a powerful lobbying force, spending nearly $16.3 million in the 2008 cycle to defeat initiatives—like a “soda tax” and limits on aggressive advertising aimed at kids—that would encourage a healthier diet and thus cut into its massive profits.

To tackle childhood obesity, we’ll have to confront complicated issues of race, class, entrenched corporate power, and access to healthy food.

Indeed we will.  Childhood obesity is a focal point for issues of social justice.

Happy birthday Let’s Move!  And many more.

Dec 7 2011

White House insists “eat better” is still part of Let’s Move

I got a call yesterday from Sam Kass, the senior policy adviser on Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move staff, objecting strongly (an understatement) to my post about her new physical activity initiatives.

I interpreted her speech as a pullback from healthy eating initiatives.  “Eating better” is demonstrably bad for business.  The food industry much prefers “move more.”

Mr. Kass says no pullback was intended.  Instead, he said, this is an expansion of Let’s Move into another one of the program’s five essential “pillars.”

Pillars?

I did not recall anything about pillars.  I went to the Let’s Move website. Sure enough, there they are:

At the launch of the initiative, President Barack Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum creating the first-ever Task Force on Childhood Obesity….[Its] recommendations focus on the five pillars of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative.

  1. Creating a healthy start for children
  2. Empowering parents and caregivers
  3. Providing healthy food in schools
  4. Improving access to healthy, affordable foods
  5. Increasing physical activity

In February 2010, Mrs. Obama discussed these elements in her speech launching Let’s Move, although without using the word “pillars.”  The word also did not pop up in her speech discussing the new activity initiatives.

When I need help with this sort of thing, I consult Obama Foodorama,  a treasure trove of information about food at the White House.  Here’s what Let’s Move has done and is doing about the pillars:

  1. Creating a healthy start for children: encouraging breastfeeding, Let’s Move Child Care, and other such programs
  2. Empowering parents and caregivers: MyPlate and MiPlato, front-of-package labeling
  3. Providing healthy food in schools: child nutrition legislation, Healthier US Challenge , salad bars in schools
  4. Improving access to healthy, affordable foods: combating food deserts, reducing the price of fruits and vegetables, encouraging gardening, and green markets
  5. Increasing physical activity: Presidential Active Lifestyle Award challenge (PALA) and the new initiatives

In the broader context of the Let’s Move pillars, a focus on physical activity makes sense.  It is an addition, not a substitution.

But Mrs. Obama’s speech did not frame it like that.  Instead, her speech implied that she had given up on healthy eating because it is too difficult (kids have to be forced to eat vegetables), leaving open the possibility that “eating better” is too hard to promote in an election year.

I wish her speech had placed the initiative in context.   Had it done so, it would not have been open to this kind of interpretation.

Dec 5 2011

Let’s Move Campaign gives up on healthy diets for kids?

In what Obama Foodorama calls “a fundamental shift in the Let’s Move campaign” Michelle Obama announced in a speech last week that she will now focus on getting kids to be more active.

Apparently, she has given up on encouraging food companies to make healthier products and stop marketing junk foods to kids.

This shift is troubling.  Here’s why:

1.  The shift is based on faulty biology.

To lose weight, most people have to eat less whether or not they move more.   For example, it takes about three miles of walking to compensate for the calories in one 20-ounce soda.

Activity is important for health, but to lose or maintain weight, kids also need to eat less.  Sometimes they need to eat much less.  And discouraging them from drinking sugary sodas is a good first step in controlling body weight.

But eating and drinking less are very bad for business.  Food companies do all they can to oppose this advice.

2.  It undercuts healthy eating messages.

On the one hand, Mrs. Obama says that she disagrees with this assumption: “kids don’t like healthy food, so why should we bother trying to feed it to them.”

But her speech implies that kids won’t eat healthfully unless forced to:

I want to emphasize that last point — the importance of really promoting physical activity to our kids…This isn’t forcing them to eat their vegetables. (Laughter.) It’s getting them to go out there and have fun.

3.  It declares victory, prematurely.

Mrs. Obama says:

Major food manufacturers are cutting sugar, salt and fat from their products. Restaurants are revamping kids’ menus and loading them with healthier, fresher options. Companies like Walgreens, SuperValu, Walmart, Calhoun’s Grocery are committing to build new stores and to sell fresh food in underserved communities all across this country.

Congress passed historic legislation to provide more nutritious school meals to millions of American children. Our schools are growing gardens all over the place. Cities and towns are opening farmers markets. Congregations are holding summer nutrition programs for their kids. Parents are reading those food labels, and they’re rethinking the meals and the snacks that they serve their kids.

So while we still have a long way to go, we have seen so much good progress. We’ve begun to have an impact on how, and what, our kids are eating every single day.  And that is so important. It’s so important.

Really?  I’d say we’ve seen promises from food companies but remarkably little action.

Mrs. Obama’s speech fails to mention what I’m guessing is the real reason for the shift: “Move more” is not politically loaded.  “Eat less” is.

Everyone loves to promote physical activity.  Trying to get the food industry to budge on product formulations and marketing to kids is an uphill battle that confronts intense, highly paid lobbying.

You don’t believe this?  Consider recent examples of food industry opposition to anti-obesity efforts:

  • Soda companies successfully defeated efforts to impose taxes on soft drinks.
  • Food companies successfully defeated efforts by four federal agencies to set voluntary standards for marketing foods to children.
  • Food companies successfully lobbied Congress to pass a law forbidding the USDA from setting standards for school meals regarding potatoes, tomato sauce, and whole grains.  The result?  Pizza tomato sauce now counts as a vegetable serving.
  • McDonald’s and  Burger King evaded San Francisco’s new rules restricting toys with kids meals by selling the toys separately for ten cents each.

The political cost of fighting the food industry is surely the reason for the change in Mrs. Obama’s rhetoric.  Now, she agrees that kids won’t eat vegetables unless forced to.

But in March 2010 Mrs. Obama warned Grocery Manufacturers Association:

We need you…to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering…, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children….This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy.

The food industry understood those as fighting words.  It fought back with weapons at its disposal, one of which is to deflect attention from food by focusing on physical activity.   It now has White House endorsement of this deflection.

I’m all for promoting physical activity but the refocusing is a loss, not a win, in the fight against childhood obesity.

Sep 16 2011

Michele Obama gets Darden’s to promise healthier meals

Yesterday, Michele Obama announced  that as part of her Let’s Move! initiative Darden’s, the restaurant chain that owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, and Seasons 52, would be making its meals a bit healthier.

As I explain below, I have a personal interest in this announcement.

According to the White House press release, the Darden’s commitment includes:

Kids’ Menus – changes starting now and to be fully implemented by July 2012.  Darden’s will:

  • Add a fruit or vegetable as the default side for every kids’ menu item at those restaurants offering a default side on the children’s menu: Bahama Breeze, LongHorn Steakhouse and Red Lobster.
  • Make 1% milk the default beverage.
  • Make milk prominently promoted on the menu and available with free refills.
  • Illustrate healthy choices for meals and drinks on menus.
  • Display healthier menu options more prominently, when possible.
  • Not display carbonated beverages on children’s menus.
  • Improve the nutritional content of one or more children’s menu items to provide equal or less than 600 calories, 30% of total calories from fat, 10% of total calories from saturated fat, and 600 mg of sodium.

Calories/Sodium Footprint Reduction – changes to be implemented by 2016 and 2021

  • By 2016, reduce calories by 10% and over a ten-year period by 20%.
  • By 2016, reduce sodium by 10% and over a ten-year period by 20%.

My personal interest: In 2005, I was invited to Amelia Island, Florida, to give a talk to the CEO’s of popular restaurant chains, among them Clarence Otis, Jr., the CEO of Darden’s.  I was specifically asked to discuss what restaurant chains could do to lessen the impact of childhood obesity.

In my talk, I told the group that they could help alleviate childhood obesity by:

  • Making healthy kids’ meals the default.  Parents could still order junk food, but the default meal should be healthy.
  • Providing a price incentive for choosing smaller portions.
  • Stopping any funding of the Center for Consumer Freedom and hiding behind its tactics.

The reaction?  The CEOs went ballistic: “you are trying to put us out of business!”

No, I simply hoped they would consider making it easier for customers to make healthier choices.

Seven years later, Mrs. Obama has put these chains on notice that they are part of the problem of childhood obesity and must change their practices.  Darden’s has admitted that it bears some responsibility for contributing to childhood obesity and is making some grudging changes.  Others are likely to follow.

It’s a step.  Now let’s make sure they follow through.   

For more details, see the AP story.   For many more details, see what Obamafoodorama has to say (I’m quoted).

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