by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Coronavirus

Jul 20 2020

Conflicted nutrition interests in the midst of Covid-19

Simón Barquera, who directs the Center for Research on Nutrition and Health at the National Institute of Public Health in Cuernavaca, sent me a copy of this letter, which he found on Twitter (but it’s no longer there):

It’s from the president of the Mexican Society of Nutrition and Endocrinology thanking Coca-Cola for donating Personal Protective Equipment to deal with Covid-19.

The Mexican Nutrition Society has a cozy relationship with Coca-Cola?

I wonder what that’s all about.

Conflicts of interest anyone?

Jul 10 2020

Weekend reading: more reports

CAST [Council for Agricultural Science and Technology: Economic Impacts of COVID-19 on Food and Agricultural Markets:  This is a collection of 16 articles by various experts on the effects of Covid-19 on food, agriculture, and forestry.  The report is here.

IATP (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy): Milking the Planet: How Big Dairy is Heating Up the Planet and Hollowing Rural Communities: The report is here.

FAIRR (a global network of investors addressing issues in meat production): An Industry Infected: Animal Agriculture in a post-COVID world.  The report is here.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds globally, we are presented with a real-time case study into the vulnerability of animal agriculture systems to external shocks. It has reminded us of the vulnerability of human health to disease risks stemming from both wild and domestic animals, and has served as a warning of the role modern animal production systems can play in increasing zoonotic disease risk.

The British Meat Processors Association is not happy with this one, it seems.

 

Jul 3 2020

Weekend reading: catching up on recent reports

Read these and you will be up to date on anything known about food systems in the age of COVID-19.

FAO and Hopkins Dashboard

This gives data on aspects of food systems—supply chains, food environments,  consumer behavior, diets and nutrition, and the effects of key drivers like climate change and income, 170 indicators in all—on the food systems of 230 countries and territories.  This is one-stop shopping for this kind of information.

“What struck us back in 2017 while working on the UN High Level Panel of Experts on Food Systems and Nutrition Report was the lack of accessible, organised, quality-checked information on food systems. Without that data, it’s difficult to identify the best evidence-based actions that could improve food systems,” said Johns Hopkins Global Food Ethics and Policy Program Director Jessica Fanzo. “It was really important to us, given the level of complexity and interconnections inherent to food systems, that the data be presented in a way that is easily usable – and that’s what the Dashboard does. Now decision makers have easy access to both data and to policy advice that is specific to their situations.”

Oxfam: “Exposed: How US supermarkets are failing their workers in a global pandemic”

Oxfam analyzed the formal policies of major US supermarkets during the first months of the pandemic, including Albertsons/Safeway, Costco, Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods/Amazon in five key areas: paid sick leave, hazard pay, protective gear, engagement with workers and worker representatives, and gender and dependent care. While all of these supermarkets stepped up some of their policies, none of them are doing nearly enough as they continue to make outsized profits on the backs of their low-wage workers.

Here are the Press release and the report.

CGIAR: Actions to Transform Food Systems Under Climate Change

Nothing short of a systemic transformation of food systems is required if we are to feed the world’s current and future population sustainably under climate change…we aimed to identify the high priority actions that we must collectively take now, for climate change adaptation and mitigation in food systems.  [Note: CGIAR was formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, but now goes just by CGIAR]

Here is the report.

HLPE [High Level Panel of Experts] 15: Fooc Security and Nutrition: Building a Global Narrative Towards 2030.

Following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the HLPE was asked to urgently prepare an issues paper on the potential impact of the pandemic on global food security and nutrition for an extraordinary meeting of the CFS on 19 March 2020. The key findings and recommendations from this issues paper have been updated and included in this report…The current COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented in its global scale and the situation is changing rapidly, with many unknowns. It serves as a reminder of the fragility of the global food system and the importance of global coordination.

Here is the report.

 

Jul 1 2020

Tracking COVID-19 in meat-packing workers

Leah Douglas of the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) is keeping an ongoing map of where COVID-19 cases are clustered among meat-packing workers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million workers, has these numbers for its members:

  • 29,000 infections
  • 238 deaths

Public Citizen reports that the USDA’s Inspector General’s latest report finds that the USDA used unreliable data and hid data from the public in order to allow higher line speeds in meatpacking plants.

The meat industry is defending against these charges.  See FoodManufacture.com’s “Coronavirus: meat industry in the firing line.”

But the U.S. is not alone in having appalling conditions in meatpacking plants, as FoodNavigator reports.  European meat-packing plants are just as bad, according to a report from the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions.

If anything good comes out of this pandemic, let’s hope it’s to do fix long-standing appalling conditions in meatpacking plants.

Need a movie?  Try Eric Schlosser’s and Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation from 2006.  It’s a fictionalized account of what happens in meatpacking plants, not much appreciated at the time it came out, but I bet it looks much more timely now.

Jun 30 2020

USDA’s food boxes: some feedback

Last week, I asked readers to tell me how the USDA’s Farmers to Families food box program looked on the ground.  I got a bunch of responses, but let me start with Andrew Coe’s op-ed in the New York Times, or, as he wrote me, his rant titled: “Free produce, with a side of shaming.”

The subheading: “Instead of beefing up the SNAP program during the pandemic, the government opts for a return to Depression-era food lines.”

The goal of the people on these lines?  “A food pantry that has cardboard containers stacked on the sidewalk in front.”

These are “U.S.D.A. Farmers to Families Food Boxes,” each holding 23 pounds of produce: apples, cantaloupes, potatoes, yams, oranges, iceberg lettuce, onions. When the men and women at last get to the front of the line, they are given one of these boxes to put in their shopping carts and take home. This food is supposed to help tide them over until they get a job, or until the next week, when they can line up again on the same sidewalk.

OK.  So my questions about this emergency—and highly unsustainable method for achieving the program’s concurrent goals, feeding the hungry and buying from farmers who don’t have any way to sell their products–are (1) is it providing decent food to those who need it, and (2) is it helping farmers who need help.

My correspondents provided some answers, although not enough to really know what is going on.

Two people sent me box labels:

One reader referred me to Instagram photos from #farmerstofamiliesfoodbox, and a Vermont public radio discussion of the boxes.

Another Vermont reader said that “The main contract was landed by a well-regarded local food service company – with the initial support of our agency of ag folks – and they’ve worked very closely with a number of other state, private and nonprofit groups to get a fair bit of regional and Vermont products – especially dairy – in the boxes.”  She referred me to an article about the program with this photo of a box with local dairy.

A California reader who works at a food bank said:

We had tons of food that volunteers bagged up individually. One big bag would get eggs, celery, potatoes, apples, nectarines, tangerines, and 1-2 bread products. When cars came to pick up their food, in addition to the bag above, which often had more than what’s noted there, they got a “regular” veggie farm box from Farm Fresh to You, a local CSA. It was all packed up and ready to go, delivered by a truck on a pallet.

I received a lengthy explanation from a food sourcing coordinator at a food bank in Colorado.  Here are some of her comments:

  • We’ve seen our distribution increase by 40% since March.
  • We secured a partnership with a large produce distributor in Missouri for produce boxes, and a regional milk distributor in Colorado. Deliveries from these vendors began on May 20.
  • They’ve addressed issues with box size, transportation and pallet structural issues, and cancelling loads or adding additional deliveries as we requested.
  • We are receiving 3.2 million pounds of CFAP product each month from these vendors, in the amounts and delivery schedule that we requested. This is a 50% increase over our pre-COVID monthly distribution numbers.

She talked about the problems they were having:

There was definitely a lot of confusion, miscommunication, and misinformation given to both food banks and the distributors by USDA. The program was touted to the food banks as being “truck to trunk”, with distributors delivering directly to distribution sites. However, after the vendors were awarded, the vast majority indicated that they…only had the capacity) to deliver to food bank warehouses with commercial dock doors and large amounts of storage.

When food banks attempted to push back and request funding from USDA or distributors in order to cover the substantial costs to them that this model would incur, the USDA told distributors that they could not subcontract with us. One vendor said that these requests amounted to “extortion” by food banks. [Our] Food Bank…ended up having to secure an additional warehouse, hire 5 staff, and rent 8 new vehicles in order to handle the amount of product we are receiving. The cost to us is about $100,000/month in order to take on the additional product. None of that cost is reimbursed by USDA, which is reimbursing the entire costs of procurement, packaging, and transportation for the distributors. Here’s a link to an article about those additional costs…. we’re fairly unique among food banks in being able and willing to incur those additional costs.

She sent a photo of what’s in the boxes, judging the quality as very high.

Does the program benefit small producers?

  • The milk distributor is a local company.
  • The onions and potatoes are also sourced from Colorado growers…[but] the Colorado growing season doesn’t kick into full gear until late June.
  • Our meat is coming out of Wisconsin…subcontracted with another distributor…so I don’t know where that meat comes from.
  • Many of our small farms who originally submitted bids for the program and were not awarded have not been included in produce sourcing by the distributors that were awarded.

Her conclusion: “While CFAP has definitely been a big lift for us to get up and running, and has had many stumbling blocks since its inception, the enormous amount of high-quality, very in-demand product that we’ve been able to distribute to our clients across Colorado and Wyoming has, in my mind, made the program a success for us.”

OK, so the program is working, as far as it goes, but at great cost.  I’m with Andy Coe on this one.  This is helping distributors more than farmers, and is demeaning to recipients.  There are much better ways to solve both problems.  If only we had the political will to take it on.

Addition

Jerry Hagstrom, of The Hagstrom Report, to which I faithfully subscribe, writes:

I don’t see any of your readers making the following points:

  1. The object of the box program was to find a way to make use of the foods–particularly fruits and vegetables but also pork, chicken and dairy– that were intended for restaurant and institutional use, much of which would spoil if a quick way was not found to use it. Increasing SNAP benefits would not address the problem of figuring out how to distribute food that was intended for restaurants and institutions. As I understand it many of the farmers and distributors engaged in that business do not have any relationship with grocery store distributional channels.
  2. The SNAP program requires applications and documentation before someone is approved for the program. That takes time. The box program has moved food fairly quickly.
  3. As far as I know, food banks do not ask people if they are low income. So people who are suddenly low income can go there and get food, which they cannot do so quickly through the SNAP program.
  4. It would seem to me the food box program was a short term solution, although I don’t know what the farmers and distributors that have been selling to the restaurants and institutions are supposed to do if that demand does not return quickly. Should they go out of business or should some system be found to keep them in business until demand picks up? Would that mean continuing the food box program?

These are worth considering.  But the real question, it seems to me, is how to develop a food assistance system that helps people who need food in a more efficient way, while helping farmers find outlets for what they produce that guarantee them a decent living.  We all need to be working on that.

Jun 25 2020

The continuing saga of the food boxes

The USDA says 20 million food boxes have been delivered to food banks through the Farmers-to-Families program, which aimed to buy food from farms that had no way of selling what they produced, package it in boxes, and deliver them to food banks.  The announcement comes with a very long list of testimonials, and a video that you can watch here.

The USDA’s website about this is here.  The program is described here.

Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic.  The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says that the food box program is not exactly doing much for small farms.

Most of the news coverage on the CFAP Food Box Program, and the Congressional attention that follows, has focused on large contracts awarded to companies without much experience in the distribution of specialty crops. This also caused the larger specialty crop industry to raise concerns about the early shortcomings of the program.

What has received much less attention has been how the program has or has not benefited local and regional food producers despite the fact that the program was clearly intended to support these farmers. Grant applicants were required to discuss how their proposed project supports the mission of facilitating agricultural markets and how they “intend to engage small farmers (e.g those farms servicing local and region interests and farmers markets).”

And Chuck Abbott, of FERN’s Ag Insider, says USDA offers few yardsticks for measuring its food-box program.

For USDA, the most important number in its food-box giveaway program is how many boxes are donated — 18.4 million as of Friday, according to a tally on the homepage of the agency that runs the program. Officials declined to provide other details, such as the average cost of the boxes or how long the $3-billion initiative will be in operation.

I would like to know:

  • What’s in the boxes?
  • What food?  How much food?
  • What is its quality?
  • How are food banks handling this?
  • Are recipients happy with it?
  • Is the program helping small farmers stay in business?

Does anyone know?  I haven’t seen answers to these questions yet.

 

Jun 24 2020

Keeping up with COVID-19 and meat: items of interest

The meat industry is in deep trouble.  Even industry insiders are taking it to task.

I could hardly believe this piece in Forbes by Hank Cardello.  It sounds just like something I would write.

3 Ways To Fix The Meat Industry’s Empathy Problem

The meat industry is antithetical to everything Millennials value. Their treatment of employees runs counter to Millennials’ No. 2 value: empathy, according to a Gallup report. Their role in global warming is antithetical to Millennials’ concern for the environment. Their price-fixing is antithetical to Millennials’ demand for transparency and decency. Their role in promoting products increasingly linked to global warming and poor health is antithetical to the priorities of younger workers, who say they want to work for a company with a purpose.

And from Politico: A bipartisan group of senators is asking USDA to rethink regulations that create “impediments to a diversified meat processing industry,” joining calls from House Republicans earlier this month to ease restrictions on product labeling, food safety inspections and other rules that they say keep small meatpackers from gaining a foothold in the highly concentrated sector.

The Senators’ letter is here.   It notes:

Four beef processing companies control 80% of the market and they use high-capacity processing facilities to perform their work. This oligopolistic market structure has exhibited its weakness during COVID-19. When high-capacity processing facilities experienced outbreaks amongst employees, operations were forced to shut-offor slow down production, leaving the rancher with livestock they could not moveand the consumer with either empty grocery shelves or overpriced products.

And The Counter reports that China is refusing to buy meat produced by Tyson.

On Sunday, the Chinese government announced it would suspend imports of poultry from a Tyson plant in Springdale, Arkansas. By Tuesday morning, the country had also paused imports from a Brazilian beef supplier and a British pork company. All had reported cases of Covid-19 at their facilities.

So interesting, all this.

Jun 22 2020

The NCD Alliance has a map of industry marketing responses to Covid-19

The NCD [non-communicable disease] Alliance is a network of more than 2000 organizations in 170 countries.  Its purpose to to raise awareness of NCDs—type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and the like—among international agencies and to develop civil society capacity to prevent these conditions.

It has produced an interactive world map of examples of unhealthy industry responses to Covid-19.

Here’s an example from Jamaica.

This is an easy, one-stop shopping place to find out how food companies are exploiting Covid-19 to market products.

Make a note of it.