by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-policy

Jun 21 2022

The UK’s Government Food Strategy: no there there?

The UK government has just published its long-awaited food strategy to almost universal disappointment.

But first, some background. Nearly a year ago, I wrote about the UK’s strategy proposals.  These had been commissioned from Henry Dimbleby, a restaurateur with a deep interest in food policy (the British version of Jose Andres?).

To summarize what I said in July 2021.

Henry Dimbleby described the UK’s National Food Strategy as  a “bit of a labour of love.”  It came a slide deck of 175 items.

A separate document. summarizes the report’s 14 recommendations.  Most of the recommendations dealt with school feeding and feeding programs for the poor.  Others:

Recommendation 1. Introduce a sugar and salt reformulation tax.  This came with a separate report on the impact of such a tax; it recommended using revenues to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low income families.

Recommendation 11. Invest £1 billion in innovation to create a better food system.

Recommendation 13. Strengthen government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food.

So, does the strategy do any of these things?  I have to confess finding the report unreadable.  It is extremely wordy and imprecise, talks a lot about objectives, but says almost nothing specific.  Here is just one example:

The strategy comes at a time of significant increases in food prices, largely because of energy prices and exacerbated by events in Ukraine, which is very challenging for people across the country. We are engaging closely with the food industry to understand price impacts and any mitigating measures, including through our Food Industry Resilience Forum and UK Agricultural Market Monitoring Group. We are also working closely with third sector organisations to understand challenges related to food access.

One section gives action items (I have edited these for clarity):

  • Keep producing domestic food at current levels
  • Promote job training for the agri-food industry.
  • Reduce childhood obesity by half by 2030; reduce diet-related disease; increase healthier food
  • Reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the environmental impacts of the food system
  • Export £1 trillion of food annually by 2030
  • Maintain high standards for food consumed in the UK

How?  It doesn’t really say.  The one action item I could locate is to create a Food Data Transparency Partnership.

The partnership will champion consumer interests, providing people with the information they need to make more sustainable, ethical, and healthier food choices, and incentivise industry to produce healthier and more ethical and sustainable food….This partnership will join up with existing work across government to promote healthier food choices, so that government can speak with one voice to industry. It will also support further measures to strengthen incentives to reformulate food, promote healthier food and turn the trend on the overconsumption of calories to tackle obesity.

Unsurprisingly, reactions have been fierce: not a strategy, disappointing, nothing concrete about obesity , health, or reducing meat as a means to address climate change.  If those things are there, I couldn’t find them.

I also couldn’t find The Guardian’s most amusing criticism of the report:

Among its few policy proposals are the suggestion there could be more fish farming, which is environmentally controversial, and an increase in the use of “responsibly sourced wild venison”.

Is that in the report?  I can’t find any reference to venison or deer, however sourced.

Other critiques in The Guardian are here and here.

This is a lost opportunity, and a big one.  Disappointing, indeed.

May 10 2022

Exciting news: White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health

On May 4, I was sent this press release from Tufts University : White House Announces Historic Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.

Today, the Biden-Harris administration announced that it will hold a historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health this September…This will require bringing together diverse stakeholders, and raising the voices of people with lived experiences in food and nutrition insecurity, hunger, and diet-related disease…

To inform and help achieve these goals…[we]are announcing the formation of the Task Force on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health (Task Force), along with an accompanying Strategy Group on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health to advise the Task Force.

The Task Force brings together a diverse, non-partisan group of stakeholders to inform the goals of the White House Conference. This effort is not organized or endorsed by the White House, but represents an independent effort to convene voices from across the nation to help solve the issues at the heart of the Conference’s focus.

The official White House announcment makes clear that this conference is about both food insecurity and dietary determinants of chronic disease and COVID risk.

Millions of Americans struggle with hunger. Millions more struggle with diet-related diseases—like heart disease and diabetes—which are some of the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S.

The toll of hunger and these diseases is not distributed equally, disproportionately impacting underserved communities, including Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans, low-income families, and rural Americans.

This is exciting news.  As I wrote in a previous post, if you are old enought or up on the history of US nutrition policy, you might remember the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health.  This led to the creation and strengthening of many nutrition programs, SNAP among them.

Tufts held a 50th anniversary conference at which I spoke (videos of the talks are here–I was on Panel 3 starting at about 17 minutes in).

And now for the questions.

Mine is this: What will be the balance between the conference focus on food insecurity (not controversial except for the cost) and the greatly needed fbut highly controversial focus on poor diets and their consequences for chronic disease and COVID risk?

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler asks: What about food safety? 

Let this sink in: The CDC estimates 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States.  It is not that I do not think a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health is important and necessary, but could ya throw a bone to those sickened by foodborne illnesses?

E&E News notes: Biden nutrition conference may fire up climate debate on meat

Of all the food and agriculture interests bound to be represented in the Biden administration’s discussions, meat — and especially beef — may have the biggest messaging challenge, extolling its value in the diet against charges that Americans already eat too much and that raising and sending livestock to market contributes to climate change.

“We look forward to being a part of this important conversation and sharing the science-based, data-driven research regarding the immense environmental and nutritional benefits from cattle and beef production,” the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a producers’ trade group, told E&E News.

I suspect we will have many opportunities to weigh in on this.

I, for one, will be watching the progress on this conference with great interest.  Stay tuned.

Resources

Apr 5 2022

Good news: Another White House Conference on Food

If you are plenty old, or up on your history of US nutrition policy, you might remember the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health.

Tufts held a 50th anniversary conference at which I spoke (videos of the talks are here–I was on Panel 3 starting at about 17 minutes in).

In early December 1969, President Richard M. Nixon convened the first and only White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health to “put an end to hunger in America for all time” and improve the nutritional well-being of all Americans at a time when malnutrition was of urgent national concern. The agenda of the Conference was to draft recommendations that could be implemented by a bipartisan coalition into national nutrition policy.

The conference was notable for Nixon’s amazing speech kicking off the conference.

We see, then, that the problem of hunger and malnutrition is, really, two separate problems. One is to insure that everyone is able to obtain an adequate diet. The second is to insure that people actually are properly fed, where they have the ability to obtain the adequate diet.

On the one hand, we are dealing with problems of income distribution. On the other hand, with problems of education, habit, taste, behavior, personal preferences-the whole complex of things that lead people to act the way they do, to make the choices they do.

Look at what Nixon was proposing:

For the first time–Mr. Moynihan [Counsellor to the President] please notice–for the first time, this new family assistance plan would give every American family a basic income, wherever in America that family may live. For the first time, it would put cash into the hands of families because they are poor, rather than because they fit certain categories. When enacted, this measure alone will either supplement the incomes or provide the basis for the incomes of 25 million American men, women, and children.

The conference was also notable for its hundreds of recommendations—among them, free food stamps, cash income supports, transfer of food assistance out of the USDA.  We didn’t get the Universal Basic Income but we did get food stamps (now SNAP), school meals,and other useful policies.

The Tufts program kicked off demands for another White House Conference, and it looks like we may actually get that.

Congress allotted $2.5 million for a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, Health, and Hunger in the FY22 omnibus spending package (see page 112), as part of efforts to end hunger.

The conference should be developed using a whole-of-government approach- in partnership with the Executive Office of the President, the Department of Agriculture, and other Federal agencies-and in consultation with State, territories, local, and Tribal officials, and a diverse group of interested parties from across the country, including anti-hunger, nutrition, and health experts; the private sector; and people with lived experience of hunger and nutrition insecurity. The conference should examine why hunger and nutrition insecurity persist and how they affect health, including their role in the high prevalence of chronic disease. It should also review existing and crossdepartmental strategies and consider new approaches to improve health by eliminating hunger, reducing the prevalence of chronic disease, and improving access to and consumption of nutritious foods in accordance with Dietary
Guidelines for Americans.

The conference was called for in bills S. 3064 sponsored by Senator Cory Booker (D, NJ) and Mike Braun (R, IN) and H.R. 5724 sponsored by House Rules Chair Jim McGovern (D, MA) and Jackie Walorski (R, IN).

HHS is to work with other federal agencies to “report initial findings” to the Hill about conference plans probably by late July.

This is great news.  Can’t wait to see how this develops.

Feb 23 2022

The plight of small dairy farmers: a difficult dilemma

Lorraine Lewandrowski, a dairy farmer and lawyer who works with small dairies in Herkimer County, NY, is a frequent correspondent.  I am always happy to hear from her because I learn a lot from her and respect her knowledge about small dairies and passion for doing something to help them.  With her permission, here is what she wrote me.

Is there really any hope for the region’s dairy farmers for the future?  It seems that each day we read of NYC officials condemning us and the food we produce, fresh milk, yogurt, soft cheeses, hard cheeses as “ruining the planet” and “bad for health.”  With Mayor Adams having literally  called for a shut down of NY’s dairy farms when he was Brooklyn Borough President, and now calls for VEGAN food as “saving the planet,” why should many of us even go on?

I am working with farmers who are considering suicide, young farmers who tried to farm, but are now locked into a lifetime of debt to pay off the failed farm, and this now….the steady stream of hate directed at us emanating from the city.  Speakers who talk  only “plant based” while trashing all animal ag without any nuance.

Should I just plain tell the people who struggle to live up here on the millions of acres of Upstate grasslands to forget it. Sell it out and go work somewhere.  Or, if you are working a second job to support the farmland taxes as so many do, just sell the land for sprawl or move to another state as several farmers I know have done.

Is it even worth it to try when I don’t see even one urban group standing up for the regional dairy farms?  I’m a lawyer for scores of farmers and hearing the same message from all of them. Why go on?  Personally, I will NEVER work to organize trailers of free milk into NYC again.  Our reward for trying to feed people was a resounding slap in the face from the City and those urban food groups who I had thought supported us upstate.

Lorraine sent the same message to Nevin Cohen, Director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute at the CUNY School of Public Health.  His response to her is also worth reading (also reproduced with permission):

Thanks so much for writing about the challenges facing dairy farmers in NYS. As the descendent of a Catskill dairy farmer – my grandfather owned a small dairy farm in White Lake, NY, and my dad milked cows until he left home for the Army – I empathize with the struggles of today’s dairy farmers.

New York’s farmers, and other farmers throughout the region, have tried to remain profitable in the face of competition from agribusiness, insufficient transportation, processing, and distribution infrastructure, and federal policies that have essentially subsidized large producers. This is particularly true for dairy, a sector that is facing overproduction nationally, consolidation by large corporations operating massive feedlots, and outdated federal policies like the Federal Milk Marketing Order not providing support for small dairies. I understand the enormous financial and emotional strain this places on farmers, and why so many choose to sell their land.

In my opinion, though, the battle is with big ag and USDA, not vegans. Corporate power and an inadequate federal response, combined with development pressures within the region, are far more to blame for falling profits and the pressure farmers face to sell their land than movements to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables. Eric Adams’ rhetoric about veganism may appeal to some (though likely an even smaller number since he was “caught” enjoying a fish dinner the other week), but it isn’t the most important factor driving the drop in US milk consumption or over-production by the massive CAFOs out west. A recent USDA study, for example, found that the growth in nut and soy “milks” over the past decades has been much smaller than the decrease in milk consumption. The perceived health halo around non-milk beverages may drive some consumers but other factors, including competition from beverage manufacturers and demographic changes, are at play.

Dairy farmers in the Catskill provide enormous benefits to New York City and the region, not the least of which is protecting our unfiltered drinking water supply from development and providing high quality fresh, local food. We clearly need to focus more on policies to make dairy farming profitable and to make the point that regenerative agriculture with livestock and produce is healthy and resilient. I would be interested in your thoughts about Sen. Gillibrand’s legislation to require changes to the federal milk marketing order, or whether you have other ideas for policy change. The CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute has monthly forums to address important issues like this. We would be interested in hosting a panel to raise awareness of the obstacles farmers face and identify policies that NYC groups can advocate for.

Lorraine Lewandrowski’s response to Nevin Cohen:

In 1939, it was possible to organize upstate dairy farmers to fight the big-3 milk companies that had a stranglehold on the NYC milk market. Today the battle is in Washington and also against multinational companies like Danone, which just last summer terminated its contracts with organic dairy farmers throughout the NY region…Today, Mayor Adams, talks veganism.

In his Daily News Op Ed two years ago, he called for a shut down of our state’s dairy farms, citing a farmer in CA who plowed up the pastures to plant almond groves.  He urged us to “go plant based.”   Over time, I have come to recoil from the word, “VEGAN.”  Vegans have called my office telling my secretary that my throat should be slit.  At the last in-person conference that a group of us farmers attended, vegans defaced and trashed our table, leaving photos of almond milk plastered on our handouts.  It’s even acceptable for leadership to simply call for death to our farms.  A new member of the NYS Senate Agriculture Committee, Jabari Brisport, led a rally in the City calling for Death to Dairy.  No one says a word and he gets a coveted spot on the Senate Ag Committee.

Senator Hinchey tried to talk “equity” to Mayor Adams last week concerning the watershed farmers, but I don’t think he grasped what she was saying when he said he would direct his departments to look at purchasing more “healthy” food from Upstate.  Is one person the arbiter now?

Lastly, Nevin, as to your question on Senator Gillibrand.  For years, farmers have asked for hearings on the milk price formula, but it never happened.  We are at the point where you can drive for miles up here and see nothing but emptied out farms, a bleak landscape.   There will likely be a new look at the formula. Secretary Vilsack has stated that the farm groups need to come up with a unified proposal.  The small scale farms of the Northeast generally feel that the proposal will be crafted for the larger farms of other regions, as we see now with environmental incentives (digesters for the big guys).  But, we are doing our best to input.

My comment on this exchange:

I too am concerned about the plight of upstate New York dairy farmers (and small dairies in general) and about Danone’s abandonment of them.  But when it comes to vegans, I’m with Nevin Cohen: “the battle is with big ag and USDA, not vegans.”

Vegan and vegetarian diets are healthy and I’m all for them if that’s what people want to do.  Personally, I like and eat dairy foods and think they have a place in healthy diets.  I also think small dairies have a place in healthy environments and that it’s the government’s role to make sure they survive in the face of Big Dairy and its discontents.

No question, dairying can be done in ways that are better for cows and better for the environment.  That’s where we need to focus—on policies that will allow farmers to use better practices and to make a living doing so.

I thank Lorraine and Nevin for raising these issues.  I hope this conversation stimulates serious thinking about how policies can best promote healthful diets and protect the environment.

Feb 1 2022

At last some love for nutrition

Last week was a busy time for high-level thinking about nutrition.

I’ll start with this from Chef José Andrés.

For the rest, I am indebted to Politico Morning Ag for gathering all this in one place.

Nutrition research: Last week, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) appeared at an event focused on “sustainable nutrition science” hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.  The are sponsors of the Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act.  I watched Booker’s remarkably inspiring talk and wish I could find a video or transcript of it.

Booker held hearings on nutrition last year.  I have a transcript of his opening remarks.  Here is an excerpt:

Now let’s be clear about something: the majority of our food system is controlled by a handful of big multinational companies. These big food companies carefully formulate and market nutrient-poor, addictive, ultra-processed foods — ultra-processed foods which now comprise 2/3 of the calories in children and teen diets in the U.S — and then these companies want us to believe that diet related diseases such as obesity and diabetes are somehow a moral failing, that they represent a lack of willpower or a failure to exercise enough.
That is a lie.
It is not a moral failing, it is a policy failure.

Food is Medicine: Food and Society at the Aspen Institute and Harvard’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation released a Food is Medicine Research Action Plan, a lengthy report detailing recommendations for how to bolster nutrition interventions in health care.

Food is the leading cause of poor health in the United States. Over half of American adults suffering from at least one chronic, diet-related disease. This health crisis has devastating effects for individuals and their and families and places an immense burden on our health system and economy. Though food is the culprit, it can also be the cure. Food and nutrition interventions can aid in prevention and management, and even reverse chronic disease. Introduced at large scale, proven interventions could save millions of lives and billions in healthcare costs each year.

Universal free school meals: The Bipartisan Policy Center released recommendations from its Food and Nutrition Security Task Force.   The report has recommendations for strengthening nutrition education and security in and out of school.  For example:

  • Ensure all children, regardless of household income, have access to nutritious foods to allow them to learn and grow by providing school breakfast, school lunch, afterschool meals, and summer meals to all students at no cost.
  • Make Summer EBT a permanent program and allow students to access EBT benefits during school breaks, holidays, closures, and other emergencies.
  • Maintain and, if possible, strengthen nutrition standards for all programs to better align them with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Pandemic EBT program: The Government Accountability Office recommended that USDA do a better job on nutrition assistance during emergencies and of implement the Pandemic-EBT program, which was supposed to give eligible school children charge cards for buying foods, but never worked well.

Sep 23 2021

TODAY: The UN Food Systems Summit

The long-awaited UN Food System Summit takes place today.  The programme includes announcements from more than 85 heads of state and government.

The UN Food Systems Summit was announced by the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, on World Food Day in October 2019 as a part of the Decade of Action for delivery on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The aim of the Summit is to deliver progress on all 17 of the SDGs through a food systems approach, leveraging the interconnectedness of food systems to global challenges such as hunger, climate change, poverty and inequality. The Summit will take place during the UN General Assembly in New York on Thursday, September 23. More information about the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit can be found online: https://www.un.org/foodsystemssummit

Despite its focus on food systems approaches, it is highly controversial—as I explained in previous posts.

In preparation for today’s events, Lela Nargi of The Counter provides a thoughtful summary of the issues: “The UN is holding a summit on building a sustainable future for food and ag. Why are so many people upset about it?

The concerns:

  • Who is behind the Summit? [Proponents of industrial agriculture]
  • Who sets the Summit agenda? [Ditto]
  • What is excluded? [Indigenous practices, regenerative agriculture, agroecology]

While watching to see how this plays out, you can take a look at:

Also from The Guardian:

And for why the issue of agroecology is so important, see Raj Patel’s discussion in Scientific American: Agroecology Is the Solution to World Hunger

Marcia Ishii asks: Could FAO’s partnership with CropLife International have anything to do with the disappearance of agroecology from the agenda?

Jul 22 2021

The UK’s National Food Strategy

Yesterday’s post was about the UK’s efforts to restrict the marketing of junk foods to children.  This is part of a larger effort to establish a rational framework for improving the entire food system.

In 2020, the government published Part One of the Food Strategy Report it had commissioned from Henry Dimbleby.  The report comes with a 3-minute film explaining what it is about.

The Part One report announced a forthcoming Part Two to evaluate the current system and set recommendations, and explained its philosophical basis:

Should nanny tell us what to eat?

The already complex job of working out how to help different people in different circumstances is complicated by one of the fundamental questions of political philosophy: what role should the state play in the private lives of its citizens? Libertarians and public health campaigners have fought a running battle for years over this question. But when it comes to diet, even fierce opponents of the “nanny state” now recognize that the problem is serious enough to warrant greater state intervention….The vast majority of those we spoke to (and almost every parent) said they were fed up with being bombarded by junk food marketing and thought the state should intervene.

Henry Dimbleby’s Part Two report is now out (he described it to me in an e-mail as a “bit of a labour of love”).  Here it is: The UK’s National Food Strategy

His report is based on evidence summarized in a slide deck of 175 items.

The report’s 14 recommendations are summarized, with rationale and references, in a separate document.  Most of the recommendations deal with school feeding and and feeding programs for the poor.  Some are likely to get focused attention:

  • Recommendation 1. Introduce a sugar and salt reformulation tax. Use some of the revenue to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low income families.
  • Recommendation 11. Invest £1 billion in innovation to create a better food system.
  • Recommendation 13. Strengthen government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food.

The first recommendation comes with its own, separate report on the impact of a tax on added sugar and salt.

The responses:

From The Guardian

The government-commissioned National Food Strategy, drawn up by the restaurateur Henry Dimbleby, says the UK population’s “malfunctioning” appetites and poor diets – fuelled by consumer and manufacturer’s reliance on processed food – place an unsustainable burden on the NHS and contribute to 64,000 deaths each year.

Its most eye-catching recommendation is a levy of £3 a kilo on sugar and £6 a kilo on salt sold wholesale for use in processed food, restaurants and catering, which it says would be a world first. This would raise up to £3.4bn a year, some of which should fund an expansion of free schools meals to an extra 1.1 million children and an overhaul of itain’s food and cooking culture… Dimbleby believes the tax would incentivise manufacturers to reduce salt and sugar levels by reformulating products.

From FoodNavigator.com: From taxing salt and sugar to reducing animal proteins: The controversial proposals in the UK’s National Food Strategy paper.  In 2019 the UK government commissioned a review of the country’s food system. Today, the results are in – and the far-reaching paper includes some controversial recommendations…. Read more  [note: This has a good summary of the 14 recommendations].

From FoodManufacture.com

And for a broad look at what’s happening in UK food policy, see: Testing Times for UK Food Policy: Nine principles and Tests, by Tim Lang, Erik Millstone, Terry Marsden.  This deals with holding governments accountable.

The Discussion Paper examines the state of post-EU UK food security and policy. It applies a multi-criteria approach, seeing food not as a matter that can be reduced to one overarching goal – cheapness, say, or supermarket availability – but as an issue on which public policy has to weigh up and include several equally worthy and evidence-based concerns. The report offers an approach to ensuring UK food security in the years ahead. It offers nine public-interest Principles which should guide future food policy. These propose that it is possible to capture a consensus on the need for change and what it entails. Each Principle leads to a Test that the UK public and policy-makers could apply to any policy proposals for the food system that emanate from Government in coming months.

Tim Lang’s book, Feeding Britain, is essential reading to understand what’s happening—and not happening—in the UK.

The UK government is thinking and acting on food policy issues.  If only ours did too.

Mar 18 2021

What’s happening with Brexit?

The UK’s departure from the European Union is now a done deal, but its impact is only just now becaming clear.  Here are some observations of what’s happening.