by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Dec 12 2012

We eat what we buy. Both need improvement, says USDA.

USDA’s Economic Research Service has just issued a report, Assessing the Healthfulness of Consumers’ Grocery Purchases.

The bottom line?  Americans buy fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended but far more refined grains, sugars, and meat.

Here’s the summary diagram:

These results should not come as a surprise.  According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, the leading sources of calories in U.S. diets are:

  1. Grain-based desserts
  2. Breads
  3. Chicken and chicken dishes
  4. Sodas and other sugary beverages
  5. Pizza
  6. Alcoholic beverages
  7. Pasta and pasta dishes
  8. Tortillas, burritos, tacos
  9. Beef and beef dishes
  10. Dairy desserts
We eat what we buy (or are given).
That’s why congressional pressure to increase grains and meat in school lunches (see yesterday’s post) is questionable from a public health standpoint.
Dec 11 2012

USDA to allow flexibility in school meal standards: food politics in action

When it comes to feeding kids, it is not possible to overestimate the self-interest of food producers—and their friends in Congress.

Forget about childhood obesity and other child health problems.  If you want to understand why school nutrition standards are so controversial, you must pay close attention to their effects on the financial health of the companies selling food to school meal programs.

Corporate health trumps kids’ health every time.

That is the lesson to be drawn from USDA’s December 7 announcement that it will allow schools some flexibility in implementing school nutrition standards for meat and grains.

As long as the schools meet minimum requirements for meat and grain servings, they no longer have to restrict the maximum size of servings.

This may be a trivial change; schools will still have to serve mostly whole grains and adhere to calorie standards.

But was this decision political?  Of course it was.

Despite two Institute of Medicine reports recommending improvements in the quality of school meals, Congress has chosen to micromanage USDA’s regulations.  Recall: tomato sauce on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving.

In October, three members of Congress asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether the new school nutrition standards resulted in higher costs and more food waste.  In November, Senator John Hoeven (Rep-ND) and 10 other senators, all from meat- and grain-producing states, that they were hearing complaints from constituents about kids going hungry in school.

In response, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack reassured Senator Hoeven that USDA was listening to the complaints and was taking steps to address them: “you should be pleased to know that we have recently moved to allow for additional flexibility in meeting some of the new standards.”

On December 8, Senator Hoeven issued a news release:

The rule had appeared to pose problems…especially for students in low income families, students in athletics programs or students in school districts with limited operating budgets. Moreover…it may be difficult for all students to get adequate protein to feel full throughout the school day. Protein is an important nutrient for growing children.

“I’m grateful to Secretary Vilsack for recognizing that the rules need to allow for individual differences among children and the prerogatives of local school districts, and resources available to them,” Hoeven said. “While we welcome this news from USDA, we believe the new flexibility should be permanent, rather than for just the 2012-2013 school year, and we will continue to press that case.”

Protein?  Since when is protein an issue in American diets?  (Most Americans, even kids, get twice the protein required).

What’s at stake here are sales of meat and grains to school lunch programs.

What’s also at stake is what comes next.

USDA has yet to issue regulations for nutrition standards for vending machines and competitive snacks and sodas sold in schools outside the lunch programs.

You can bet that Congress—which seems to have nothing better to do—will be taking a close interest in those rules as well.

If what’s happening with school meals proves nothing else it is that Congress cares a lot more about the health of the industries that support election campaigns than it does about the health of children.

Sad.

 

Oct 30 2012

Is USDA changing its sugar consumption estimates? Why?

If I weren’t so concerned about USDA’s dropping its data on calories in the food supply (see previous post), I might not have become so alarmed about the New York Times report on the sudden drop in estimates of sugar consumption.

USDA provides data on amounts reported as consumed, from 1970 to 2011.

These have declined, not necessarily because people are eating less but because USDA changed its methods.

According to the Times account:

In e-mails the center obtained through a Freedom of Information request, officials at sugar industry trade groups discussed the benefits of the lower estimate and how they might persuade the U.S.D.A. to make a change that would reduce it even more.

“We perceive it to be in our interest to see as low a per-capita sweetener consumption estimate as possible,” Jack Roney, director of economics and policy analysis at the American Sugar Alliance, wrote in an e-mail on March 30, 2011.

These figures are for reported intake—always an underestimate.

Reported intake is much lower than amounts of sugars available for consumption—amounts produced, less exports, plus imports—always an overestimate (the truth lies somewhere in between).

Food availability figures also indicate declines, but suggest that Americans have access to about 65 pounds a year each of table sugar and corn syrup for more than 130 pounds per year total.

None of these figures is precise.  But if the methods for calculation are the same every year, trends should be discernible.

Adjusting for waste introduces new sources of error and makes trends impossible to determine.

The USDA used to re-correct the entire food availability series when making changes in methods.  Why aren’t its data collectors doing that now?

We neeed USDA to be keeping up with food availability data.  What to do?

Oct 29 2012

Why isn’t USDA keeping up its series on calories in the food supply?

In November 2011, I wrote about my frustration over the USDA’s discontinuation of a data set it had published continuously since 1909: Nutrients in the Food Supply.   For unfathomable (to me) reasons, USDA stopped the data set in 2006.

For decades—since 1909—USDA has converted information about food availability (the amount of food produced in the U.S., less exports, plus imports) to per capita nutrient availability in a continuous series (it also publishes data on calorie intakes from certain foods). 

This is the data set I use to explain how calories in the food supply have increased to today’s 3,900 per person per day from 3200 in 1980—an increase of 700 calories per day in parallel with rising rates of obesity.

USDA stopped this series in 2006. It now only publishes calorie supply figures that have been adjusted for waste. 

When I wrote USDA to ask whether more recent data were available, here’s what I got back (in its entirety):

Because of other project priorities the Food Supply project has been curtailed.  There are programming issues to which we haven’t been able to devote available resources.

In July this year, I wrote letters to everyone I could think of at USDA who might shed some light on this and, hopefully, restore the data set.  Although I hated to bother her, I even wrote to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

Her reply: 

 As I will discuss in a later post this week about USDA’s data on sugar availability, the agency seems to be changing the way it evaluates food supply data. 

This is bizarre.  USDA must have figures on total calories available in the food supply.  Otherwise, how could it produce figures adjusted for waste? 

I’ve been concerned that I’m the only one who cares about this, but a similar issue has emerged about USDA data on sugar availability.  I’ll write about that once hurricane Sandy blows over.

Oct 7 2012

School lunch rules caught up in politics

Here’s my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle.  For links to appropriate resources and what to do to defend the new standards, scroll down to Friday’s post.

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to food@sfchronicle.com, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Q: Can you please explain to me why the USDA is restricting the number of calories in school lunches. It’s bad enough that school food is so awful that the kids won’t eat it. Now are they supposed to go hungry as well?

A: I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at a question like this or at the uproar over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new nutrition standards. As Comedy Central‘s Jon Stewart pointed out in his not-to-be-missed commentary on Sept. 27, if kids aren’t eating the food because they hate it, the calorie limits hardly matter. And if kids are hungry, the remedy is simple: Eat the food.

The new lunch standards hardly call for starvation rations. Kindergarteners through fifth-graders get up to 650 calories. The maximum is 700 for kids in grades six through eight, and 850 for high schoolers. All kids can have extra servings of vegetables. This ought to be plenty to get most of today’s kids – sedentary, underactive and prone to obesity as they are – through any school day.

Let’s face it. This uproar has nothing to do with school food. It has everything to do with election-year politics.

Some Republicans view school meals as convenient generator of emotional opposition to the incumbent president.

You don’t believe me? Take a look at the “No Hungry Kids Act” introduced by Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., both members of the House Agriculture Committee.

Their act would repeal the USDA’s hard-won nutrition standards and prohibit upper limits on calories. As King explains, this is to undo “the misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama’s Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Let me briefly review where these standards came from. In 2004, Congress required school districts to develop wellness policies, but left the details up to the districts. In part to resolve the resulting inconsistencies, Congress asked the USDA to develop new nutrition standards. In turn, the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine to study the situation and make recommendations.

The institute’s 2009 report called for aligning school meals with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but reducing saturated fat, sodium and calories. It suggested encouraging students to try new vegetables by establishing weekly requirements for various kinds, but to limit starchy vegetables like potatoes to one cup a week.

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which required the USDA to set nutrition standards for all food sold and served in schools, not only at breakfast and lunch, but also at any time during the school day. The USDA used the institute’s report as a basis for its proposals.

These, you may recall, got the USDA in trouble with lobbyists for businesses that supply French fries and pizza to schools. The Senate intervened and amended the agriculture spending bill to say that none of its funds could be used to “set any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs” or “require crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume.” The results include no weekly limits on French fries; a dab of tomato paste on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving.

With these allowances in place, the USDA released the new standards in January. Most observers viewed them as an important accomplishment of the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

What about student outrage that the new meals leave them hungry? As a strong supporter of student activism, I applaud students getting involved in protests. Their actions have already persuaded Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to tell kids to eat healthy snacks if they are hungry.

Perhaps student activism around calories will be a first step toward advocacy for more substantive goals for their education and wellness: more and better paid teachers, better educational materials, more sensible testing, better quality food in schools, and instruction in how to grow, harvest and cook food.

But where, I wonder, are the adults in all of this? Childhood obesity is not trivial in its consequences for many kids, and school food ought to be a model for how healthy, delicious food is normal fare.

Schools in which adults – principals, teachers, school food personnel and parents – care about what kids eat and act accordingly are setting examples that what kids eat matters just as much as what kids learn.

It’s shameful that elected officials would attempt to undermine the health of America’s children for partisan political purposes.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” as well as “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: food@sfchronicle.com

Aug 16 2012

Surprise! Kids who don’t eat junk foods in school don’t gain as much weight

I love the new study reported in Pediatrics.    It confirms just what I have long expected.  If you don’t expose kids to junk foods and sodas, they won’t eat as much, and they won’t put on as much fat.

The study found that kids who go to schools where lots of junk foods are sold are heavier than those who go to schools in states with strict standards about the nutritional quality of snacks and drinks.

The investigators compared the body mass indices (BMIs) of kids in schools in 40 states with varying nutrition standards for what is allowed in “competitive” foods–those sold outside the lunch programs.

Kids from schools with stricter standards had lower BMIs.

The authors explain their result:

Experts argue that education will not suffice without changing the contemporary ‘obesogenic’ environment in which adolescents have countless sources of high-caloric-density, low-nutrient-density foods and beverages. Schools have become a source of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), candy, and other foods and beverages of minimal nutritional value.

Food Chemical News (August 14) reminds me that when Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act of 2010, it authorized the USDA to develop nutrition standards both for meals—but also competitive foods.

USDA issued final rules for school meals in January (remember the fuss over pizza is a vegetable?).

Its rules for competitive foods were sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget in mid-March, but are still stuck there, most likely because the White House does not want to introduce regulations that might adversely affect food company sales during an election year, especially one in which the role of government is so prominent an issue.

This is an election year, in case you haven’t noticed, and looks like it will be an especially unattractive one, unfortunately.

Jul 11 2012

The Ad Council on food safety: buy a meat thermometer

Yesterday’s international edition of USA Today (I picked it up at Heathrow) carried a full-page ad from the Ad Council, which donates its services to worthy causes every now and then.  This one, entirely in grey and white, displays logos from the Ad Council, USDA, and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the parent agency of FDA.

In inch-high letters, all caps: DO YOU WANT THAT SAFE OR MEDIUM-SAFE?

In quarter-inch letters, also caps: USE A FOOD THERMOMETER TO MAKE SURE YOU COOK RAW MEAT AND POULTRY TO A BACTERIA-KILLING TEMPERATURE.

The ad also displays the Cook, Clean, Chill, Separate logo and the admonition to “Keep your family safer from food poisoning.  Check your steps at foodsafety.gov.”

Mind you, I’m highly in favor of following food safety procedures at home.

But most food safety problems are not due to the failure of home cooks to use thermometers.

They are caused by failures to observe food safety procedures during commercial production and preparation.

Shouldn’t meat and poultry be safe when you buy it in the supermarket?

This ad implies that the principal responsibility for food safety lies with the end user—you.

If you get sick it’s your fault because you didn’t use a meat thermometer?

USDA and DHHS:  how about getting the Ad Council to encourage meat and poultry producers to make sure their products are safe in the first place.

May 10 2012

GAO says U.S. food safety system needs work, resources

The Government Accountability Office is complaining again about the inadequacies of the American food safety system, and with good reason.

Its 2012 Annual Report, Opportunities to Reduce Duplication, Overlap and Fragmentation, Achieve Savings, and Enhance Revenue, says that the food safety system is:

fragmented and results in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.

In 2007, GAO added food safety to its list of high-risk areas that warrant attention by Congress and the executive branch.

More recently GAO found that this fragmentation extends to the responsibilities across multiple agencies to defend food and agricultural systems against terrorist attacks and natural disasters…Many of these activities are everyday functions or part of the broader food and agriculture defense initiative and would be difficult for the agencies to separately quantify.

This report repeats what the GAO has been saying since the early 1990s:

there is no centralized coordination to oversee the federal government’s overall progress in implementing the nation’s food and agriculture defense policy.

Because the responsibilities outlined in this policy (HSPD-9) are fragmented and cut across at least nine different agencies, centralized oversight is important to ensure that efforts are coordinated to overcome this fragmentation, efficiently use scarce funds, and promote the overall effectiveness of the federal government.

Reminder: the present food safety system is mainly divided between two agencies: USDA (meat and poultry) and FDA (everything else).

Centralized oversight of food safety?  What a concept.

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