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June 25, 2009

The USDA, Food Swamps and Sin Taxes

The USDA released a new report on food deserts yesterday and the blogosphere lit up like a Christmas Tree. Which, honestly, saves me a lot of trouble. Jill Richardson pulls out some excellent data nuggets here. To summarize: Food deserts are areas where residents lack access to supermarkets and other outlets selling a broad, range of healthy food. It turns out that only a small percentage of Americans -- 2.2% -- live in true food deserts. At the same time, research indicates that there’s little correlation with access to healthy food and low Body Mass Index (BMI, used as a measure of obesity).

But I wanted to zero in on one aspect of the report that Ezra Klein captured nicely in the title of his post on the report: "It's Not the Food We Can't Get. It's the Food We Can." As he says:

The problem, it seems, is the opposite: food swamps. Areas dense with fast food and convenience stores. As the USDA puts it, "Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity." The concentration of the obesity crisis in high-poverty areas thus brings us back to a pretty well-accepted hypothesis: The problem is with low-income areas where the cheap food is the bad food.

Natasha Chart at change.org then draws a line from food swamps to farm subsidies to falling incomes to obesity (a subject near and dear to my heart as well).

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June 24, 2009

Survey Says!

A new survey came out indicating that (surprise, surprise) only 20% of Americans trust food companies to "to develop and sell food products that are safe and healthy." While the depth to which food companies' reputations have sunk is impressive, the phrase from the survey question is both interesting and unfortunate. IBM(!), who performed the survey, put "safe and healthy" together. As a result, we can't really know which aspect, safety or health, is driving that low number. If I had to bet, I'd say safety since survey results often track media coverage of an issue and there's certainly been no shortage of food safety news. Still, the idea that people get the fact that big food companies' products are unsafe AND unhealthy is pretty satisfying

There was, however, some far more interesting data buried in this survey...

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June 23, 2009

Collin Peterson is Not Killing the Planet

Not yet, anyway. I agree with Tom Philpott that Peterson's meddling in the Waxman/Markey climate bill is far more than a distraction. Weakening the bill out of spite is pretty much the extreme opposite of statesmanship. And I decried Peterson's clearly implied climate denial just the other day. But I'm a bit leery of going quite as far as Philpott did today:

In short, if Peterson wins this battle, our nation's first significant climate legislation will likely end up at worst rewarding, and at best not penalizing, chemical-intensive, greenhouse-gas-spewing agriculture. We will have bungled a major opportunity for positive change.

President Obama has yet to intervene in this battle. Now's the time. Given that he's a farm-state politician himself, am I being naive to hope that he comes down against the agribusiness interests intent on hijacking this bill?

I'm reading about similar pleas regarding the health care bill; pleas which lose sight of the fact that the road for ambitious legislation is ever a long and bumpy one. While Collin Peterson can force exemptions for the agricultural sector in Waxman/Markey and he can threaten to withhold his committee votes -- I seriously doubt that he can truly kill the bill. Yes, he's going to see some of his demands met -- Kate Sheppard is reporting that Peterson's demand for permits to be given away to rural utilities has already been approved. And as for Peterson's hissy fit over the EPA's ethanol/indirect land use ruling, I'd be willing to bet that he'll get some face-saving provision that will allow him to declare victory and go home.

I say all this not because I think Henry Waxman will throw up his hands and allow the bill to be weakened beyond all use. I say this because Henry Waxman understands that the House vote on the bill is only one small step in the process. The Senate doesn't just "receive" the House bill and vote on it. They're working on their own version. And we can thank our lucky stars that Peterson doesn't get to put on a different suit and show up for work as Sen. Collin Peterson. Certainly, the Senate has perhaps even more obstacles to passage than the House (oh, that filibuster!). But it also has a more enlightened Chairman of its Agriculture Committee -- Sen. Tom Harkin.

Harkin will certainly have a say in the Senate's climate bill and his comments on the fracas in the House are tellingly moderate (via the Hill):
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said he has followed that debate and agrees with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) that the legislative language in that bill needs to be more equitable, considering the interests of large urban areas and more rural states. But he acknowledged those places have competing interests.
While he hasn't had to take a stand yet, Harkin doesn't exactly sound like the kind of guy who is ready to drive his tractor over the climate.

The point is that the Senate bill is likely to look quite different from the House bill -- there's no guarantee that any of Peterson's adulterations will be replicated there. And assuming it gets past a Senate filibuster, it then goes into conference commitee where all those differences have to be ironed out. A lot can happen in conference. Bills can indeed be completely transformed. It's often when "the grownups" get together to clean up the mess left by all the little children (if the House and Senate leadership are smart about the conferrees, that is). And Collin Peterson, though he might volunteer for duty, doesn't get an automatic seat at the table. It's up to House Speak Nancy Pelosi to decide. And I don't think she's feeling particularly charitable to ol' Collin these days.

Once the bill moves out of conference, the House and Senate will have to vote AGAIN on the bill. It's that vote -- which is likely months away -- when the rubber meets the road. And it's in the run up to that vote when you'll probably see Obama go into full barnstorming sales mode -- and when, I imagine, many a blustering farm-state representative will indeed quail. We've been promised by White House Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley that Obama is going to push for passage. But we're a long way from that moment. The bill will have several near-death experiences before then (although the possibility of the bill's actual death in the Senate is ever-present).

Ezra Klein wrote today about the timing of Obama's public (and private) push on the health care bill. He said the President should stay out of it, despite recent, early declarations that health care reform was dead. You don't need to change much in Klein's analysis -- which invokes the Clinton health care crash-and-burn of 1994 -- to apply it to the climate bill:

In 1994, President Bill Clinton exhausted his political capital guiding the development of the legislation. Barack Obama, by contrast, has saved his to push for its passage... [T]here's no reason to rush that moment. For now, the White House should have as little to do as possible with the various legislative products. Let the committees absorb the blows of the bad weeks. Let the early coalitions present themselves. Let the Republicans show their strategy in the mark-up sessions. Let the CBO score all the different options. Let the legislature familiarize itself with different revenue options. Wait. Wait and wait and wait. Wait until Congress has pushed this as far upfield as it's able.

Then open up the White House. Then have Obama on TV. Then have Rahm on the phone with legislators. Then take Olympia Snowe for a ride on Marine One. The White House can exert explosive force on a piece of legislation, but it can only do so effectively for a short period of time. That was the mistake Clinton White House made in 1994. By the time their legislation was near reality, administration officials were so deeply involved that they couldn't add external momentum. It is not a mistake that Rahm Emmanuel, who watched it all happen firsthand, means to repeat.

And as a further corollary to those insights, Klein also predicts a "weak" bill will ultimately be passed which, despite meaningful provisions, will still disappoint progressives. And the same will likely apply to the climate bill. Indeed, what if the bill comes through as weak tea? Well, as I argued the other day, there's nothing wrong with that! If the bill establishes a basic legal framework for dealing with climate change, it's a win and must be passed. As an example, I give you the Clean Air Act. Though landmark legislation, it was relatively weak when it was originally enacted in 1970 -- it exempted major contributors to pollution like smog and acid rain. Granted, we don't have the 20 years it took Rep. Henry Waxman to fix that law. But legislation often improves by accretion. Enviros need to keep that in mind when "deciding" whether or not to bail on Waxman/Markey. The fact is that the climate bill isn't dead and Collin Peterson didn't murder it.

Photo courtesy Grist.org

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June 22, 2009

The Lunch Lady Steps Up
Over at Civil Eats, Katrina Heron has a quick profile of Ann Cooper, the chef who remade the Berkeley, California school lunch program. Cooper is now trying to replicate her success in Boulder, CO where, at 30,000 students, the district is three times the size of Berkeley's. Why is this important? Look what she has already done in Berkeley.
Cooper earned national acclaim for remaking Berkeley's meals program top to bottom in three years' time. Out: transfats, high-fructose corn syrup, anything processed and pre-packaged, frozen vegetables, syrupy canned fruit, Wonder bread, vending machine snacks. In: fresh whole fruits and vegetables (many from local organic farms), salad bars with seasonal produce, organic milk, whole grains, fresh-baked breads, composting, recycling -- and breakfast.
And according to Cooper, at least in elementary school (where kids can't go off-campus) participation rates are up, which means kids are actually eating the healthier school food.

Wait, what? Better food produced IN the school kitchen? And still the kids eat it? Isn't that all supposed to be impossible? Cooper seems to have done it in Berkeley. A profile of her that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor last year has some more details:
When she began working as director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) in the fall of 2005, about 95 percent of the cafeteria food was processed. Today, 95 percent is made from scratch. BUSD encompasses 16 schools and about 9,000 students, roughly 4,500 of whom buy lunch at school each day.
Of course, she has one ace-in-the-hole -- Alice Waters. Waters' foundation pays $3.50 per meal to subsidize Berkeley's lunches. But that money is essentially covering something that the federal government won't -- food preparation. Right now, federal subsidies are for the food only -- which is why so much processed food and "fast food" like pizza, burgers and fries dominate school menus. There's no money for kitchen equipment or prep time.

So if we want to see Cooper's school lunch policies succeed nationally, we need to look at changing that funding formula. And Cooper herself doesn't think it will take a monster increase in the federal subsidy per lunch. In the CSM article, Cooper suggests an increase of a $1 per lunch. While that would represent a big jump from the current $2.42, it's not into the stratosphere. We can't move the school lunch program from an agricultural commodities dumping ground to a real nutrition program without facing that particular music.

The CSM piece also has some great stories about kids' willingness to try different (i.e. healthier) foods once Cooper got them into the kitchen or the garden. In one case, fifth graders' objections to Cooper's grilled cheese sandwiches evaporated once she brought them in for a "tasting" of different breads and cheese. And the enthusiasm for the salad bar among middle- and high- school students who have been involved in the Berkeley Edible Schoolyards program is palpable. Success, it appears, means making food a true part of the curriculum.

And as for Boulder, Cooper shows how much can (and must) be done before serving a single lunch. According to Heron:
A lot of her work will involve breaking the district's dependence on the conventional school-food procurement system, which is administered by the USDA via the National School Lunch Program. Even before unpacking her boxes, Cooper has cut loose Boulder Valley School District's four food purveyors and selected 20 new ones to take their place, many of these local producers. "There was one chicken farmer from the western slope who approached me," she says. "But I told him, give me a year before we think about that." Right now, she's focused on debuting a nutritious fall-term menu, encouraging school staff, parents and kids on a new learning curve, and laying plans for a healthy-food purchasing system that's locally attuned and economically viable.
All of which is to say that there are successes out there -- we know what reform looks like and that it can work. As Congress kicks off the reauthorization of the national school lunch program, we can only hope that Cooper's work will be front and center. The question is whether they will be serious enough about reform to embrace it.

Photo of a Berkeley school salad bar from the Berkeley School District website

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June 21, 2009

Organic ≠ Elitist
I've been thinking about a post specifically addressing the issue of "are organics elitist" for a little while. But then Marion Nestle wrote it for me -- in the form of a Q&A with the SF Chronicle:

Q: Aren't organics elitist? People can't buy organic foods if they aren't available at an affordable price.

A: I once heard Eric Schlosser answer a similar question aimed at his book, "Fast Food Nation." He pointed out that social movements have to begin somewhere and that several began with elites but ended up helping the poor and disenfranchised - the civil rights, environmental and women's movements, for example.

I would add the organic movement to this list. It has already forced mainstream food producers to start cutting down on pesticides and to raise farm animals more humanely. As the supply of organic foods increases, and the Wal-Marts of the world sell more of them, organics should become more democratic.

But please don't blame organic producers for the high prices. Until the latest farm bill, which has a small provision for promotion of organic agriculture, organic farmers received not one break from the federal government. In contrast, the producers of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton continue to get $20 billion or so a year in farm subsidies.

Industrial agriculture also benefits from federally administered marketing programs and from cozy relationships with congressional committees and the USDA. In contrast, the USDA considers fruits and vegetables "specialty crops." This kind of food politics shows up as higher prices in the grocery store.

Dealing with the elitism implied by the higher cost of organics means doing something about income inequities. If we want elected representatives to care more about public health than corporate health, let's work to remove the corruption from election campaign contributions. If Congress were less beholden to corporations, we might be able to create a system that paid farmers and farm workers decently and sold organic foods at prices that everyone could afford.

Word up, Marion.

h/t Naomi Starkman via twitter

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June 19, 2009

Is it time to Stop Worrying and Love the AMA?
Forgive me if I can't get all rah-rah about the American Medical Association's recent "vote" in support of sustainable, local, organic food systems. As Sam Fromartz observed, they hit industrial food pretty hard in their report on the food system:
The current US food system is highly industrialized, focusing on the production of animal products and federally subsidized commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans. This has resulted in a highly processed, calorie-dense food supply, instead of one rich in a variety of fruits vegetables, and whole grains ... The poor quality diets supported by this system contributes to four of the six leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers.
The AMA then made three "resolutions":
  • That our AMA support practices and policies in medical schools, hospitals, and other health care facilities that support and model a healthy and ecologically sustainable food system, which provides food and beverages of naturally high nutritional quality.
  • That our AMA encourage the development of a healthier food system through the US Farm Bill and other federal legislation.
  • That our AMA consider working with other health care and public health organizations to educate the health care community and the public about the importance of healthy and ecologically sustainable food systems.
I appreciate mention of of the US Farm Bill, which of course institutionalizes the industrial, monoculture-based agriculture that has gotten us in such a pickle. But the best they can come up with is to "encourage" reform. How very civil of them.

I realize that the AMA doesn't represent all, or even most, doctors. As ThinkProgress reported recently, they use accounting tricks to boost their membership numbers and actually get a big chunk of their budget directly from drug companies (these would be the same drug companies that look at the diabetes epidemic and see opportunity rather than a crisis, by the way). But the AMA has outsized influence in health debates -- and it's not just because people trust doctors (which they undoubtedly do).

The fact is that the AMA spends about $20 million annually lobbying Congress, which doctors' "authority" probably amplifies even more. If the AMA were to shift some of those dollars to lobbying House and Senate Agriculture Committee members to support real reform of the Farm Bill, the school lunch program and CAFO regulation; if they were to start spending serious money working over the EPA, the FDA and the USDA to support real restrictions on the hazardous chemicals that industrial ag pours on their fields (and thence into our water, viz. the Gulf of Mexico); if they were to take an active role opposing the GMO crops that have demonstrated minimal benefit but maximal risk -- THEN maybe I'd grant that the AMA is serious.

But even if that should come to pass, as a political scientist recently observed to me, you simply can't overlook the AMA's decades of opposition to health care reform, specifically provider payment reform, just because they're putting out nice press releases about the food system. The AMA didn't just work to kill the Clinton health plan. This is the group that opposed Medicare, for Pete's sake. And that opposition, which has -- in my view -- led to Americans spending such an outsized amount of their income on health care, ends up contributing to the development of the very food system that the AMA is criticizing now.

As I wrote about for Grist last week, we spend less of our income on food than any other industrialized nation. I observed that for many Americans, raises have come in the form of processed food. But it's also true that people find it easier to skimp on food purchases -- or at least spend as little as possible -- and harder to skimp on medical care for their children. The AMA can't escape some measure of responsibility for that.

If the AMA really wants to help change the food system, they should stop lobbying Congress over their opposition to health care cost controls and start lobbying Congress and the administration in direct opposition to Big Ag. Now that would be worth a little rah-rah.

[Update]: Apparently, I was too hard on the AMA. Ezra Klein says allowing doctors to backstop claims about the problems of our industrial food system is simply a good thing. And I guess I can't disagree with that. I will say that if nothing else it's a clear sign of the mainstreaming of the debate over food -- I just think the AMA needs to show this represents a sustained, serious engagement on these issues. For the fact remains that the real fixes are in Congress, the USDA, the EPA and the FDA. And the good guys keep losing. The other day, Big Meat managed to get themselves exempted from food safety reform. And they're getting the EPA banned from measuring their CAFO's GHG emissions while House Ag Rep. Collin Peterson is looking more and more like he really will he'll derail the Waxman/Markey climate bill. And that was just last week! I want to win some battles in Washington. Is that too much to ask?

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June 18, 2009

Fundamentally Unserious
While Tom Philpott at Grist has been following the cage match between the House Ag Committee and its chairman Rep Collin Peterson, and Rep. Henry Waxman, author of the Waxman/Markey climate bill currently before Congress, the latest doings seem to have broken through to the broader blogosphere. Maybe it's because the prospect that a handful of farm state representatives might really be able to kill our chance to address climate change. Or maybe it was because Peterson declared today that global warming is, all things considered, fine by him. After all, as he told the WSJ, all that warm weather will let farmers grow a whole lot more corn! He's not exactly sounding like a guy about to cut a deal.

Brad Plumer at TNR's the Vine detailed some of the Ag Committee's demands (which Natasha Chart has referred to as simple bribery). All of which is useful analysis. But what this is really about is that a good chunk of congressmen and women are fundamentally unserious about addressing climate change.

And why shouldn't they be? A good chunk of the media, of Americans, of everybody really (perhaps excepting Pacific Islanders) is fundamentally unserious about it. The Obama adminstration released a horrifying new climate change report yesterday and it had the impact on the newscycle of a wet noodle. Obama's science team all but announced the world as we know it was scheduled to end by 2090. Shrug. The tree fell. Nobody heard it. Moving on.

This is the part where some might be tempted to use the boiled frog metaphor. Sadly, it's patently false. Apparently, frogs are smarter than we are. Unlike us, they will act when presented with a slowly warming environment. The term I'm supposed to use (or so Wikipedia tells me) is "creeping normalcy" which:
refers to the way a major change can be accepted as normality if it happens slowly, in unnoticed increments, when it would be regarded as objectionable if it took place in a single step or short period.
Yeah, that's Collin Peterson all over. He doesn't really think farmers will grow more corn -- he's just tweaking enviros' noses with that comment. Collin Peterson simply doesn't believe in global warming -- or doesn't notice it anyway, which ends up being the same thing. Nor does anyone who calls Waxman/Markey an overblown "energy tax" or complains about how it's going to hurt coal-using regions. Let's face it, if you look at climate change legislation as just another regulatory reform then the big picture implications simply aren't scaring you.

Here's a counter example: If NASA announced that the planet-killer asteroid was on its way and we had less than 5 years to do something before it hit, I guarantee you that our response would be pretty energetic (with or without Bruce Willis in charge). But climate change isn't like that -- and it's certainly not like that in the developed West, so we feel free to treat Waxman/Markey the way we treat health care reform. There will be winners and losers and the trick will be how to make sure you're in the right spot under the money tree when Congress starts shaking it.

But I'm not despairing. Not yet. While cap-and-trade doesn't need to pass this year, if we can get it passed in any form, frankly, before Obama leaves office, we'll have the framework we need to start reducing carbon emissions. It can be sucky and remain a solid basis for reform. If we have a cap, we can make it lower. If we need to pay people to shut up and stop mining coal, we can. Let Collin and friends screw around with it a bit more. It's worth remembering that the "nuclear option" of the EPA's unilaterally capping carbon emissions is still on the table. Collin may not be thinking about that, but I guarantee you that Obama and Waxman are.

And as for that Henry Waxman -- the legislative architect of the climate bill, he is, as the Washington Monthly put it in their recent cover story on him, "the right man for the job." This is the guy whose opening acts involved taking down the tobacco companies, single-handedly stopping Ronald Reagan from gutting the Clean Air Act and then managing to expand the act to address smog and acid rain (read the WM piece for more details). As the article summarizes it:
If we are lucky--and it's a frighteningly large "if"--Waxman's fight on climate change is nearing its endgame, requiring not a decade of low-boil persistence but, rather, a couple of years of tenacious negotiating. Passing his energy bill into law will be harder than getting pollution legislation on the books twenty years ago, but it will also be similar--and a chance for Waxman to prove that, even after fifteen years in the wilderness, he still knows not only how to make a deal, but how to make the right one. "Waxman is a very skilled legislator," a former Dingell committee staffer says. "Ultimately, I don't think he would sacrifice his fundamental principles just for the sake of getting a bill. I think he would prefer no bill to a bad bill."
So if Waxman hasn't given up yet -- and he hasn't -- then neither have I. And note that we may be in for "a couple of years of tenacious negotiating." It will be excruciating but, with Congress and corporate America full of Collin Petersons -- not skeptics exactly, but certainly nonchalant about the whole climate change thing, it will be necessary. Creeping normalcy may yet do us in. The term pretty much defines the Senate, especially the creep part. But given that we don't seem inclined to put the frogs in charge, we better figure out soon when to jump.

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June 16, 2009

Desert Blooms

NYC green cartNew York City took a baby step recently towards a state role in distributing healthy food. It significantly expanded a program to bring fruit and vegetable "carts" to low-income neighborhoods that lack good food options -- so-called "food deserts." And if the early response as reported by the NYT is any indication, the program looks to be a rip-roaring success:

...[O]n Wednesday afternoon, an urgent line formed at a cheery new produce cart that had materialized at the corner of East Fordham Road and Decatur Avenue near Fordham University in the Bronx. "These strawberries look great, and they’re a bargain," said Michelle Cruz, a 38-year-old graphic designer who lives nearby and found herself jostling other produce hounds under the cart’s jaunty green umbrellas.

The crowds who appear to be turning out for the carts should give some pause to elitist opponents of such programs who often doubt that low-income residents will put down their sodas and fast food and pick up apples and carrots.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST ON GRIST.ORG...

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June 15, 2009

Ominous Signs at the USDA
It appears that the USDA has learned its lesson from the botched selection process for the head of its Food and Safety Inspection Service. No, they aren't appointing a favorite of consumer advocates. What they are doing is keeping their collective mouths shut. According to my sources, someone has been selected, but his (it does appear to be a he) identity is known only to a small circle of top USDA officials. They've built a firewall around the nomination to maintain secrecy and to ensure that consumer advocates can't gain any traction with their protests. The appointment will be a fait accompli.

But one bit of information has leaked out. Adela Ramos, a former aide to Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin, has emailed colleagues and co-workers informing them that she has been named a senior adviser to the USDA's Under secretary for Food Safety (the official name of the head of the Food Safety and Inspection Service). You don't name a senior adviser if you don't know who the senior adviser's boss is. And the bad news? She's a big fan of -- you guessed it -- food irradiation. Every one of the attempted FSIS nominees so far have shared one quality (aside from being in thrall to industry) -- a love of irradiation as the alpha and omega of food safety. With the senior adviser a committed Zap the Crapper, it's fair to assume that the Under secretary enthusiastically embraces irradiation as well.

Outside of the politics, what's clear from all this is that industrial food producers (especially livestock producers) -- and by association the USDA -- have surrendered on any attempt at truly cleaning up the food system. All they can hope to do is kill at the last possible moment all the deadly bacteria that end up deposited on their products via their flawed and unhealthy practices.

But it gets worse. One of the "Three Mikes," Mike Taylor -- the former Monsanto executive and fellow Zap the Crapper, though too politically "radioactive" for the USDA, will reportedly be named as a White House food safety czar. We'll be lucky if our food isn't glowing by the end of all this (I know, I know, irradiation doesn't make food glow!)

At this point, it's pretty clear that particular person who heads the FSIS is irrelevant. Whoever it is will be charged with selling the country on a massive increase in the amount of irradiated food on store shelves.

Assuming all this plays out as expected, the pressure point becomes -- not the USDA -- but the FDA. They control food labeling requirements for irradiated products. There is an attempt underway, begun during the Bush administration, to weaken existing requirements (including the idea of dropping the word "irradiation" entirely in favor of a less loaded term like "pasteurization"). Without strict labeling, the theory goes, the chances of a public outcry over the practice will be greatly reduced. It will thus fall to new FDA head Margaret Hamburg and her deputy Joshua Sharfstein to make the call. It's entirely unclear where they might stand on all this. And boy, does that matter. Because at this point, it looks like the USDA (and the White House) has gone full bore for Zapping the Crap.

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June 12, 2009

Vilsack is anti-Cheese!
The Des Moines Register reports that, at a recent public event in Iowa, USDA Chief Tom Vilsack quizzed the audience:
Vilsack stumped the crowd with a question as what is the largest-volume commodity that his department provides to schools. It's not potatoes or chicken nuggets. It's mozzarella cheese.

Kids need a more balanced diet, he said.

"Part of our challenge is to figure how to make the kids' choice be the salad rather than the pizza slice."
We can only hope the National Cheese Institute doesn't get wind of this. Not to read too much into this one quote, but I think it should hearten nutrition advocates somewhat. The main challenge of the upcoming re-authorization of the national school lunch program -- aside from boosting funding -- will be to attempt to reorient the program from a commodity dumping ground to one in which children's nutrition is paramount. And, frankly, there are a lot of folks in Congress who think pizza is as healthy as a school lunch need be. It's good that Vilsack understands that's not the case.

Interestingly, his comment can be parsed two ways. The "challenge" is both in Congress, i.e. how to get Big Ag and its supporters to agree to reform, as well as in the lunchroom, i.e. how to get kids to choose the salad over something else. The answer to the former will be lots of noise and good mobilization by nutrition advocates. And I would suggest the answer to the latter lies in Vilsack's new hobby -- school gardens. Put kids in the garden and they will eat what comes out of it.

Vilsack planting an edible garden at a DC school

We can only hope the Secretary doesn't enforce a suit-and-tie dress code in them.

Photo courtesy Good Food Garden (h/t Obamafoodorama)

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June 11, 2009

Big Ag Goes Green

Sadly, the green I'm referring to is the color of money. As Tom Philpott reports, Big Ag is trying to get an agricultural technique known as "chemical no-till" established as a legitimate carbon offset in the Waxman/Markey legislation. There's only one problem, all the research out there says that chemical no-till doesn't actually sequester carbon:
In no-till systems, farmers plant directly into fields without plowing. One of the main reasons farmers plow is to control weeds. In a practice that has become known among critics as "chemical no-till," farmers idle the the plow and rely on chemical herbicides for weed control.

...As a source of carbon sequestration, chemical no-till is a highly questionable practice. In a 2006 peer-reviewed paper [PDF] called "Tillage and soil carbon sequestration—what do we really know?," a group of soil scientists led by John M. Baker of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service took a hard look at conventional no-till. They report: "Long-term, continuous gas exchange measurements have also been unable to detect C gain due to reduced tillage." Translation: No-till doesn't seem to sequester carbon. Their conclusion: "Though there are other good reasons to use conservation tillage, evidence that it promotes C sequestration is not compelling." The report compelled climate expert and frequent Grist contributor Joe Romm to declare that no-till farming "does not save carbon and is not a carbon offset."
So the USDA itself thinks the practice's emissions impact is bogus. In fact, there's even evidence that chemical no-till leads to increased carbon emissions through nitrous oxide outgassing from the synthetically fertilized fields. And who's taking the lead in all this? Why our good friends at Monsanto, of course!
Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" seeds--genetically modified to withstand lashings of Monsanto's herbicide glyphosate--have greatly facilitated chemical no-till in the Midwest: farmers can spray their fields with Roundup as needed, without affecting the crops. According to the Center for Food Safety [PDF], glyphosate use jumped 15-fold between between 1994 (when GMOs were first released) and 2005, generating a windfall in Roundup sales for Monsanto. Monsanto now clears more than $1 billion per year in profits from Roundup alone.
Monsanto has even created a new carbon-trading entity to take advantage of this glyphosate-fueled scheme. These guys don't fool around.

The unfortunate thing is that there is a no-till technique out there whose carbon sequestration benefits have solid science behind it -- the Rodale Institute's "organic no-till" regime, which I wrote about some time ago with regards to saving bees. So, there's hope right?

Nope. Because this is Congress we're talking about. To paraphrase Frank Herbert (and apologies to all you Dune fans out there), "He who controls the committee, controls the universe." And, the man you love to hate -- House Ag Committee Chair Rep. Collin Peterson, is in charge of ag offsets hearings. Guess how many sustainable ag experts or farmers are testifying? Would you believe "zero"?

This is shades of the recent and under-reported harassment of single-payer advocates during recent health care reform hearings. Not only were they not invited, but when a group of nurses attended hearings wearing t-shirts advocating their single-payer positions, they were arrested and thrown in jail. No, I'm not making this up.

If Congress doesn't hear the facts that apparently means they don't exist. So much for the return of science to Washington, DC. When the truth hurts, it's best to ignore it. And barring that, arrest it.

UPDATE: Meredith Niles of the Center for Food Safety has a great summary in Grist reviewing the science of chemical vs. organic no-till techniques.

Photo by Tracy O used under a CC license

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June 9, 2009

Collin Peterson Giveth and Collin Peterson Taketh Away
Marion Nestle ran across a chart that shows the recent sharp rise in sales of "HFCS-free" foods (i.e. foods that use sugar instead). HFCS is in the midst of bad run over its health impact vs. sugar (probably overstated) as well as over the new research suggesting it can be contaminated with trace amounts of mercury. But Nestle goes a step farther and links the recent sales increase for plain old sugar-sweetened products to the current ethanol craze.

That's right. The same boondoggle that's threatening to derail the Waxman/Markey climate change bill is also depressing sales of HFCS. Why would that be? Well, the bad press may have provided the motive for food companies to make the move back to sugar, but it was price that gave them the opportunity. To this point, sugar tariffs have kept sugar prices in the US artificially high. But now with corn prices having moved up to a new plateau, food companies can use more sugar without taking much of a hit to their bottom line (that's reserved for the HFCS refiners).

Of course, there are those who blame high corn prices on the explosive growth in meat production rather than in biofuels, and that's true to some extent. But when you look at charts of total domestic corn use, the slope of the ethanol curve is astonishing. This USDA chart has historical use data through 2009 and estimated use data for later years. Note that the steep climb in corn use for ethanol lies in the historical rather than in the estimated data.

Feed use has indeed been slowly creeping up, but over a longer period and with some bumps. But it's hard to argue with Marion's point about ethanol when you see that massive spike in corn use for ethanol after 2005. So, thanks, Rep. Peterson. Your love for all things ethanol has really put the hurt on HFCS. But at the end of the day, it's important to remember that sugar is no better for anyone's health -- you shouldn't be eating processed food with either. The fact that food companies are still forcing tremendous amounts of sweeteners down our throats makes it hard to cheer too loudly over this "win."

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June 8, 2009

Big Meat Says, "FDA, Stay Away from Our CAFOs!"

cow buttNational Cattlemen: butt out of our business, you ... regulators!Roll Call is reporting that Big Meat is less than pleased with the food safety bill currently moving through Congress. While on its face, this might be surprising, what's been notable to this point, as Jill Richardson recently pointed out, is the overwhelming support the bill has found among other industrial producers. Nothing like a $1 billion in losses from some a little bit of contaminated peanut butter to convince you that maybe, just maybe, the government has a role to play in food safety.

But of course, that logic didn't appeal to Big Meat. This despite the facts that deadly E coli infections are once again on the rise -- the USDA recalled 300,000 pounds of ground beef last month alone. Big Meat's issues are what you'd expect -- the new fees are too high, giving the government mandatory recall power (which it does not currently have) is excessive, and inspecting farms and livestock operations is unnecessary.

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June 5, 2009

Universal Feeding FTW1!
Rep. Chakah Fattah has saved the Philly Universal Feeding Program. Well, at least he says he did. Via PRWire:
The popular and successful pilot program that provides a no-hassle free lunch for tens of thousands of low-income Philadelphia school children will continue through the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, Congressman Chaka Fattah (D, PA-02) announced today.

Fattah spoke today morning with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who told the Philadelphia Congressman he was granting an extension in response to Fattah's May 29 letter and to urgent requests from Pennsylvania's Senators and Representatives.

Chakah, who is my representative by the way, failed to mention the blogosphere's contribution (or Rep. Joe Sestak or Sen. Arlen Specter's or Gov. Ed Rendell's). But all's fair in love and public relations. The fact is that Universal Feeding lives on and will likely be expanded when the federal school lunch program is reauthorized this fall. This whole activism thing is pretty cool, no?

h/t Jill Richardson

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FSIS FWIW
Who says bloggers are ignored by those in power? Or to rephrase. Who says I'm ignored by those in power. I may just have encouraged Tom Vilsack to make a statement:

President Obama has not nominated a USDA undersecretary for food safety because the administration has had a hard time finding a candidate who has not engaged in lobbying, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday.

Following testimony before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on the fiscal 2010 budget, Vilsack said the administration wants to follow its rule "to make sure people haven't had lobbying experience" and is thoroughly vetting all candidates.

Lobbyists say it is hard for USDA to fully participate in congressional consideration of the food safety reform and modernization bill without an undersecretary in place. USDA handles food safety for meat, poultry and eggs and the undersecretary for food safety sets policy and handles international food safety issues.

Oh, sure, the piece says "lobbyists" are the ones making noise about it. But you know it's really just cover for the fact that bloggers rule!

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Quote of the Day
"One of USDA's top priorities is to encourage eating fresh - and locally grown - fruits and vegetables. At farmers markets, especially during the summer months, these are abundantly available."
-- Tom Vilsack at the opening of the annual farmers market at USDA's HQ

I'm not going to argue with that. Now let's keep pressing Tom to put his money where his mouth is.

h/t Stephanie Ogburn via Twitter

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June 4, 2009

"Big Food Under Fire" in Slate
I should probably mention that I have a piece in Slate's current "Food Issue" called Big Food Under Fire. In it I argue that the food industry has little to worry about from new government regulations and a lot to worry about from Mother Nature.

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Triumph of the Sell
Matt Yglesias makes a good point in a post analyzing the food and beverage lobby's mobilization to oppose an increase in sugar/soda/alcohol taxes as a means to fund health care reform:

The fact that the people who sell and market this stuff don't want to pay the tax is, politically, a crucial fact. But on the merits it's neither here nor there. Policymakers aren't supposed to be serving the interests of the guys who make Coors Light ads or who make a living by selling an addictive substance to people with a serious problem.

Right. You'd think this is obvious. And yet our political system, along with the media for that matter, continue to show a bizarre and overwhelming deference to the objections, desires, and, too often, the research of companies whose products would be directly affected by government regulations. Maybe their arguments shouldn't be totally ignored. How about just severely discounted. You know, we get it. A soda company isn't going to like the fact that its product will have a special tax on it. Nor will Sunoco cheer a ban on bisphenol-A. And, make no mistake, they will spend millions of dollars communicating that fact to politicians and consumers.

Look, I understand the political realities of the influence of lobbying and regulatory capture and all that. I get that the playing field is slanted in favor of corporate interests. But this goes beyond corporate lobbyists' ability to dominate the legislative process and beyond the fact that, for example, the FDA relies on product studies performed by the companies who stand to profit from the product at issue. Americans just have way too much faith in corporations, so why shouldn't our politicians and the media?

It's not like this everywhere, of course. Europeans and their representatives take a much more skeptical stance toward corporations. They seem to understand that the profit motive just might cloud a company's judgment. It's not perfection on the other side of the Atlantic, but Europeans do seem to get things right more often that we do. They restrict the use of many toxic substances -- from artificial food colorings to pesticides -- that we still allow. Benefits like universal health care, family allowances, and paid maternity and sick leave are common on the Continent in large part because corporate objections were never taken for anything but what they were -- an obvious expression of self-interest by the corporate sector. There just doesn't seem to be the same willingness to throw reforms out the window because it might inconvenience some corporate citizens.

Whereas here, a bunch of companies making enough noise about being singled out for a tax is often enough to kill it. As if politicians are shocked, shocked to discover that taxing a product will make it more expensive. Who knew?! I remain stumped by why such complaints should carry any weight with anyone. Our willingness to bend over backward for corporations says everything about the vast numbers of regulatory failures we've had over the last decade. People like to laugh off the old "What's good for GM is good for America" line as corporate hubris. But from what I can tell, that sentiment continues to pervade American boardrooms and, too often, Congressional hearing rooms as well. And it strikes me as too deep rooted an American vice to be plucked from the collective unconscious anytime soon.

Update: Chris Hayes at The Nation has a distressing companion piece on the full court press corporate lobbyists have underway against Democrats. Again, institutional issues surrounding corporate influence are huge. But I still don't think that's the whole picture. There's something deeper going on involving a government and media that, rather than seeing their roles as a counterweight to corporate interests, instead see themselves as natural allies. This goes along with a general public that wants to believe that corporations have a consumer's best interests at heart.

Photo by Skelly B used under a CC license

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June 3, 2009

"Who's Hogging Our Antibiotics?"

File this under intriguing. From Ag Professional (via a press release, I think)

A new ad campaign is asking area commuters and people visiting Capitol Hill "Who's hogging our antibiotics?"

The series of ads, revealed in D.C. Metro stations and trains this week by the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, is part of the project's national effort to end the misuse of antibiotics in food animal production. The group says up to 70 percent of human antibiotics are being fed to animals on factory farms, promoting the development of deadly strains of drug-resistant bacteria that can spread to humans.

"Human antibiotics are routinely misused on industrial farms to compensate for crowded, stressful and unsanitary conditions," said Laura Rogers, a project director with the Pew Health Group. "The way we are raising our food animals is putting human health at risk."

The ads can be seen in the Capitol South and Union Station Metro stops during June, as well as in Metro cars on the red and blue/orange line trains. A version of the ads will also be appearing soon online and in newspapers on Capitol Hill.

There is currently a bill that would restrict sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics pending in both the House and Senate (as well as one working its way through the California legislature).

And on the other end of the spectrum, you have the new worldwide advocacy group Avaaz.org, a collaboration between Moveon.org and Res Publica (with the SIEU as a major funder), with an anti-CAFO petition that garnered 200,000 signatures in six days. Is the anti-CAFO movement approaching critical mass...?

Photo by eagleglide used under a CC license

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Humm-dinger

HummerTough enough to drive over the Great Wall? Photo credit: GM.comI can't say as I know exactly what's going through the minds of the top executives at Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company Ltd. who have reportedly just purchased the Hummer brand from GM. I'll say one thing, though. I'm pretty sure they're not Peak Oilers. Still, give them credit for some much-needed greenwashing:

[Hummer spokesman Nick] Richards said the buyer planned to continue selling Hummer's current lineup as it developed "more efficient" vehicles. The brand will eventually sell trucks fueled by diesel, ethanol and other alternative fuels, he said.

That's the spirit! Although getting 10 miles/gallon running on anything will start to pinch when that anything costs $5 a gallon again.

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June 1, 2009

Stalemate at the USDA

It really does seem like Tom Vilsack can't find anyone to run the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. You wouldn't think it would be that hard. There must be dozens of scientists and food safety experts who fit the bill. But this, of course, is the USDA we're talking about -- the poster child for regulatory capture, the phenomenon whereby a regulator acts almost entirely in the interests of its target industry rather than in the interests of the public.

As a result, the head of the FSIS is typically a scientist or doctor with, if not direct ties to the food industry, then at least a career that puts him or her firmly in the industrial food mainstream. For example, the last two heads of FSIS have been Elsa Murano, a Texas A&M scientist who is now that institution's president and Richard Raymond who, before heading FSIS, was Nebraska's Chief Medical Officer and a senior official in its Health and Human Services department. While competent officials, these folks are not crusading reformers, which is just the way the food industry likes it.

Indeed, the word is from within the USDA that, in the wake of the Swine Flu epidemic, USDA Chief Tom Vilsack wants to throw a bone to the livestock industry in particular with the FSIS appointment. Presumably, he's gotten a shortlist from Big Meat and has been working his way down it. The problem here isn't that they can't find a qualified candidate. The problem is that it appears the industry has embraced a particular brand of food safety, with irradiation and chemical treatment of processed meat at its core. The three candidates mentioned for the post so far, Michael Osterholm, Michael Taylor (though it's unclear if he was really up for the job) and Mike Doyle (so many Mikes!) are all champions of what Marion Nestle likes to call "late-stage techno-fixes." Or, as Osterholm Obamafoodorama puts it, "Zap the crap!" But even worse, they are extremely closely tied to the industries they are meant to regulate -- each of the three has at some point performed work for a regulated company or an industry group.

As a result, they have all provoked strong responses from consumer and sustainable food advocates which appear to have successfully punctured every trial balloon Vilsack has floated. In the past, it's hard to imagine that such protests would have gotten very far at the USDA, so I think you have to look at the empty chair at FSIS as a weird sort of victory. With the outcry over food safety in the media and new legislation pending in Congress, the pressure to get someone in there must be enormous. As a result, we've reached a bit of a stalemate since the industry -- out of hubris or ignorance or both -- has proposed a series of scientists who are out of step with the public on their approach to food safety to go along with their severe conflicts of interest. Ironically, according to this Roll Call article, Caroline Smith deWaal, head of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a favorite among consumer groups for the FSIS post, registered as a lobbyist (as part of her job at CSPI). Her lobbyist status has been held up as a disqualifier, naturally. In reality, the food industry would never have swallowed such a powerful consumer activist as head of the USDA's food safety division. Nor would they accept food safety lawyer (and notable WSU alum) Bill Marler as their overseer -- he was also reportedly vetted and then passed over.

But with both sides having been given veto power over the post, it remains empty. And rumors coming out of the USDA suggest that they have simply run out of candidates. Another way of looking at it is that the food industry, having been given the chance to put one of their own in the post, doesn't seem to understand that the rules have changed, if slightly. In the end, they will undoubtedly find someone and it will likely be someone whose record is thin enough that neither side will find they can mount an adequate campaign against him or her. Whether Vilsack's threading that needle will give the USDA's food safety operation a strong advocate or a milquetoast is very much an open question. The performance so far of one of Vilsack's other "compromise" candidates, Janey Thornton at the Federal Nutrition Service, has not given me a lot of faith. In the meantime, food safety in this country isn't getting any better.

UPDATE: It's been pointed out that ex-Monsanto man Mike Taylor, though a former acting head of FSIS under Clinton, was in fact up most recently for the chairmanship of the newly formed President's Food Safety Working Group. He apparently did not get it -- Vilsack and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius are in charge. However, he may or may not still be serving on the working group. Despite the group's spanking new website, the administration hasn't released the names of anyone who's serving on it. The administration's food safety stalemate applies over there as well.

Photo by romainguy used under a CC license

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