At TPMDC, Brian Beutler explains why the U.S. does not have enough money to pay for food assistance programs, safety regulation, better school food, or support for sustainable agriculture.
At TPMDC, Brian Beutler explains why the U.S. does not have enough money to pay for food assistance programs, safety regulation, better school food, or support for sustainable agriculture.
The title of this post is a quote from Steve Clapp’s article today in Food Chemical News about the unspoken message behind formation of a new group called AGree (Agriculture, Agree, get it?). AGree, according to its gorgeous website, aims to “advance the well-being and prosperity of people in the United States and abroad by transforming food and agriculture policy.”
AGree is a bold new initiative designed to tackle long-term agricultural, food and rural policy issues. AGree has significant funding from eight of the world’s leading foundations for at least the next eight years…We also recognize the interconnected nature of agriculture policy globally and we seek to break down traditional silos and work across issue areas.
The funders? These are heavy hitters: Ford Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation.
Who is running the show? AGree is to be led by former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman; Gary Hirshberg, chairman and CEO of Stonyfield Farm; Jim Moseley, former USDA deputy secretary in the first Bush administration; and Emmy Simmons, former assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
What’s the plan? AGree will “Build bridges among groups that have not traditionally worked together…This approach is needed because policy reform efforts targeting the food and agriculture system have traditionally operated in many independent silos – governmental, political, stakeholder, geographic and substantive – that have made transformative change impossible.”
Steve Clapp quotes Dan Glickman saying that AGree is going to “operate outside the partisan political process” because “Food policy is too important to be left to the food industry.”
What are we to make of this? It’s much too soon to say but it reminds me of two previous efforts to forge consensus among stakeholders.
One is a group that I belong to called PAPSAC, which stands for Private and Public, Scientific, Academic, and Consumer Food Policy Group. The group, organized by Ray Goldberg, has been meeting for about 15 years, first at the Harvard Business School and more recently at the Kennedy School. The meeting brings together high level CEOs of food and agribusiness companies, government officials, people in business and public relations, academics, and advocates to exchange views in private. Its original purpose was to try to find middle ground on controversial issues such as genetically modified foods. But one of the unstated hopes was that consumer advocates would relent on opposition to GM foods.
The second example is the ill-fated Smart Choices. This, you may recall, was an attempt of the Keystone Center to get food companies and academics to agree on common standards for front-of-package labeling. When it became evident that food companies were calling the shots, the consumer advocates dropped out. The result? The Smart Choices logo appeared on Froot Loops and failed the laugh test.
The problem with attempts to build consensus is that the sides aren’t equal. Agribusiness calls the shots or won’t play.
I’m curious to know how the leadership intends to proceed. At the Future of Food meeting in Washington this week, Gary Hirshberg made it clear that he is a strong proponent of organic agriculture and strongly against GM. I don’t see easy bridges between stakeholders with this particular issue, but maybe AGree will start with easier ones.
If I read between the lines correctly, AGree will convene meetings and produce policy papers. The group seems to be steering clear of the 2012 Farm Bill until after it’s passed.
As with all such things, let’s wish the AGree leaders luck and give them a chance to see what they can do.
Sam Kass, White House chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives gave the keynote address to members of the The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) at its New York City Regional Conference on Friday.
The IACP is much more than an organization of cooks. Every member I talked to is engaged in some incredible farming, gardening, school, or other kids’ project, each more exciting than the next.
Kass spoke to an audience of people who care deeply about food, cooking, health, and kids, and eager to hear what he had to say. Me too.
The core of his speech was a review of the accomplishments of the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign, which has just completed its first year. These, in sum, are considerable:
Over this past year, we’ve seen the first signs of a fundamental shift in how we live and eat.
We’ve seen changes at every level of our society—from classrooms to boardrooms to the halls of Congress.
We have begun to see this change because people from all over the country, parents and teachers, doctors and small business owners, have started demanding change.
…Parents asked for more fresh, nutritious food in communities. So we’re working to bring more grocery stores into underserved areas.
Parents wanted healthier, more affordable options on those grocery store shelves. So we collaborated with food companies and retailers to provide healthier products….
Parents asked for more information about the food you buy for your kids. And today, we’re seeing better, clearer labels on beverage cans….
Parents asked for better food in your kids’ schools—the kind of balanced meals they are trying to make at home. So we’re working to put salad bars in 6,000 schools across the country. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, historic legislation that will provide healthier school meals to millions of American children.
Parents asked for healthier communities that can sustain healthy families. And through Let’s Move Cities and Towns, 500 mayors have committed to tackling obesity in their communities….
Parents asked for practical, affordable, real-life advice to keep kids healthy. So we launched a public service campaign and a website—letsmove.gov—with helpful tips on exercise and nutrition….
If we can do all this in the first year, just imagine what we’ll achieve next year and the year after that….
These kinds of changes will not come easily….There will certainly be many roadblocks and setbacks. But we need to keep working to break through and work in a collaborative way.
Here’s the speech in its entirety. It may sound speech-written and not overwhelming, but consider the context: This is the first time food, nutrition, and health have gotten anywhere near this kind of attention at that level of government (at least, food writer Laura Shapiro tells me, since the time of Eleanor Roosevelt).
For the First Lady to take on these issues is truly extraordinary. Mrs. Obama has no legislated power whatsoever. She only has the power of leadership and persuasion.
That the kind of changes she is trying to make will not come easily is a breathtaking understatement. The roadblocks are formidable. Mr. Kass made it abundantly clear that the White House is trying to do what it can, and then some.
His speech was moving and inspiring. It’s up to us to cheer them on in every way we can, and also to keep the pressure on to do even more.
If you were a UK Health Secretary faced with soaring rates of obesity, alcohol misuse, and diet-related diseases, what would you do? Were you to take an evidence-based approach, you might consider minimum pricing per unit of alcohol and restrictions on its availability. You might look at toughening the regulation of how the least healthy foods are marketed to children.
You could even demand that manufacturers reformulate their least healthy products to meet minimum nutritional standards. Or you could, if your name was Andrew Lansley, dismiss all of the above and instead invite representatives of McDonald’s, PepsiCo, and the drinks giant Diageo among others, to submit their policy suggestions on how best to deal with the UK’s public-health crises for a forthcoming governmental white paper.
After the initial surprise, it can still take a while for the bizarre reality to sink in—that the companies who have profited the most from the epidemics of obesity and alcohol misuse should now be responsible for setting the agenda on public health simply beggars belief.
…The creeping influence of corporate power on public policy is not news to anyone in the UK, but the breathtaking speed and scale by which the UK coalition Government is embracing the agenda of business at the expense of the health of the electorate is an unwelcome novelty. By putting the interests of big business at the heart of public-health policy, Lansley is ensuring that the UK’s big society will not be shedding the pounds any time soon.
The Lancet is a British medical journal with unusual and highly commendable editorial interests in international public health. I’m happy to see it take on questions about the role of corporations in obesity. The British Food Standards Agency was doing a good job of trying to institute policy approaches to obesity prevention, but these are not popular with corporations. Recall: eating less is very bad for business.
And this kind of resistance to policy approaches is not just a British or European problem. Our corporations also prefer what they do to be voluntary. So this is a cautionary tale.
Thanks to the New York Times for telling us about the Census Bureau’s release of the 2011 Statistical Abstract of the U.S. This is lots of fun and the Times’ account picked out a few highlights of what has changed since 2000:
Every now and then, I enjoy answering questions posed by Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman. Here’s one for today.
(With a click of her mouse, Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):
The Palin/Beck/Limbaugh axis of egos is vigorously defending junk food, lamenting the passage of the food safety bill, and decrying all efforts to address our obesity epidemic, even as David Frum, a rare voice of reason (sometimes) on the right, tells CNN that obesity poses a greater threat to our national security than, say, openly gay soldiers.
You yourself are under fire yet again (sigh) from those uber-astroturfers at the Center For Consumer Freedom for having the audacity to question whether our cherished principle of free speech entitles Big Food to emblazon the labels of its edible food-like substances with Big Lies (i.e. dubious, unproven health claims).
Why do you think that the issues of junk food and obesity have become so incredibly politicized?
Dr. Nestle: Politicized? Of course they are politicized. Junk food and obesity are key indicators of political divisions in our society. For starters, junk food is cheap and obesity is more common among low-income populations. So right away we are into divisive issues of income inequality and class and, therefore, who pays for what and which sectors of society get government handouts.
The minute we start talking about small farms, organic production, local food, and sustainable agriculture, we are really talking about changing our food system to accommodate a broader range of players and to become more democratic. Just think of who wins and who loses if $20 billion in annual agricultural subsidies go to small, organic vegetable producers who are part of their communities rather than to large agricultural producers who do not live anywhere near their corn and soybeans.
The issue at stake is who gets to decide how food is grown and what people eat. For as long as I can remember, big agriculture and big food were in control, in close partnership with congressional agricultural committees and the USDA. Today, the food movement–democracy in action, if you will–is challenging their authority and power. No wonder defenders of the status quo don’t like the challenge. It is only to be expected that they are fighting back.
I see the intensity of the debate (and, alas, the personal attacks) as a clear sign that the movement is making headway. The system is clearly changing. It has to change if we are to address obesity, climate change, and the other unsustainable aspects of our present ways of doing food business.
Anyone who is working to reduce income inequity and to make healthier food available to every American has to expect to encounter the methods corporations always use to fight critics: personal attacks, claims of junk science, invocation of personal responsibility, cooptation, and plenty of behind-the-scenes lobbying.
Telling truth to power has never been popular. But I’m convinced it’s worth doing.
I had a good laugh when Dick Jackson, who chairs the Environmental Health Sciences department at UCLA’s School of Public Health, forwarded this article: “McDonald’s and PepsiCo to help write UK health policy.”
I assumed this was another priceless piece from The Onion, whose recent article on the effects of the U.S. Farm Bill on soybean production is equally hilarious.
But no such luck. The British food writer, Felicity Lawrence, has three investigative reports in the November 12 issue of The Guardian (U.K.). You want to see food politics in action? Watch what is happening in Britain since the conservative government of David Cameron took over (I have commented on this previously).
Lawrence writes that the U.K. Department of Health has invited companies such as McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars, and Diageo to form “food networks” to write policies to address public health problems such as obesity, alcohol, and diet-related disease. I have highlighted some of the critical issues in red.
The food network to tackle diet and health problems includes processed food manufacturers, fast food companies, and Compass, the catering company famously pilloried by Jamie Oliver for its school menus of turkey twizzlers. The food deal’s sub-group on calories is chaired by PepsiCo, owner of Walkers crisps.
The leading supermarkets are an equally strong presence, while the responsibility [for the] deal’s physical activity group is chaired by the Fitness Industry Association, which is the lobby group for private gyms and personal trainers.
In early meetings, these commercial partners have been invited to draft priorities and identify barriers, such as EU legislation, that they would like removed. They have been assured by Lansley [the health secretary] that he wants to explore voluntary not regulatory approaches…Using the pricing of food or alcohol to change consumption has been ruled out. One group was told that the health department did not want to lead, but rather hear from its members what should be done.
As for what this means:
Jeanette Longfield, head of the food campaign group Sustain, said: “This is the equivalent of putting the tobacco industry in charge of smoke-free spaces. We know this ‘let’s all get round the table approach’ doesn’t work, because we’ve all tried it before, including the last Conservative government. This isn’t ‘big society’, it’s big business.”
Lawrence has two additional articles on the background of this move. “First goal of David Cameron’s ‘nudge unit’ is to encourage healthy living” explains that the focus of these efforts will be on food and alcohol choices:
The idea is that individuals can be persuaded – “nudged” – into making better choices for themselves without force or regulation. The coalition agreement talks about “finding intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves.”
Her second background piece, “Who is the government’s health deal with big business really good for?”, explains how this happened.
It must have felt like a new dawn for the food and drinks industries. After more than four years of determined and co-ordinated lobbying, they were about to achieve the corporate PR agency dream: being invited to write the policy themselves. And, if the Conservatives won the election, in Lansley they would have a health secretary who understood them.
He not only subscribed to the libertarian view that public health should be more a matter of personal responsibility than government action; he bought in to the whole pro-business PR view of the world….Lansley had already adopted several of the industry’s favoured approaches to the food, drink and health crises, promising that “government and FSA promotion of traffic light labelling will stop”; that there would be no mandatory extension of advertising restrictions; and that alcohol strategy would focus on the responsible drinking messages and improved labelling the industry preferred to regulation.
Lansley also committed to avoiding a narrow focus on “fear of junk foods” that might demonise individual manufacturers’ products, and to talking instead in terms of diets as a whole, of the balance of energy in and energy out, and of portion size. He had said the government and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) would “highlight the continuing contribution made by business to improving diet by reformulating its products“.
Yeah, right. Even The Onion could not make this up.
Could this happen here? Grass-roots democracy, anyone?
In a move that surprises British commentators, the U.K.’s The Food and Drink Federation is calling for more government regulation.
This call is based on a report commissioned by the Federation, Future Scenarios for the UK Food and Drink Industry, which summarizes interviews with food manufacturers, policy makers, civil society representatives, farmers, and retailers, about their visions for the future of the industry.
While the most desirable future was one where sufficient resources were available and consumer behaviours had responded to global pressures, manufacturers and retailers surprisingly preferred a situation where more government intervention was necessary.
What’s going on here? “It’s about putting in place the right structures and frameworks that give industry the kind of coherence to make investment decisions.”
However, all participants recognised that resource demand would most likely outstrip supply unless action was taken. Even more disastrous would be the scenario where there was insufficient government control and a lack of engagement by people; a severe supply-demand gap, resulting in social unrest.
Oh. Investment decisions. And preventing social unrest, of course.
The report concludes that “there is a need for a shared vision for the future of the UK’s food industry based on strong evidence, consistent regulation and consumer engagement.”
Consistent regulation? This from an industry that successfully lobbied for removing regulatory power from the Food Standards Agency?
As in the U.S., the British food industry wants regulations when they protect industry interests, but strongly opposes those that favor consumer interests.