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August 21, 2009

"TIME" for Change in the Food System

TIME magazine food coverTIME Magazine's current cover story wants you to know that our fossil-fueled, chemically intensive industrial food system is destined to fail. Granted, the second part of that sentence isn't news to Grist readers. But the first part of that sentence is news. Personally, I wouldn't have expected to read the following positively Philpottian (if not Pollan-esque) prose in a national newsweekly cover story:

With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil -- which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills -- our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later. As the developing world grows richer, hundreds of millions of people will want to shift to the same calorie-heavy, protein-rich diet that has made Americans so unhealthy -- demand for meat and poultry worldwide is set to rise 25% by 2015 -- but the earth can no longer deliver. Unless Americans radically rethink the way they grow and consume food, they face a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs -- and bland taste. Sustainable food has an elitist reputation, but each of us depends on the soil, animals and plants -- and as every farmer knows, if you don't take care of your land, it can't take care of you.

TIME Magazine talking about exhausted soil? Whooda thunkit? The importance of Bryan Walsh's piece, of course, isn't in the particulars of its insights or its prescriptions. The importance (aside from its very existence as a cover story) is in its declarative nature...

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August 20, 2009

School Lunch Reform: Now or Never
That's the sentiment in Kim Severson's hopeful NYT rundown on the status of national school lunch reform. Marking the inflection point upon which we teeter -- at least according to Severson -- is the fact that the self-named "renegade lunch lady" Ann Cooper has been invited to speak at the School Nutrition Association's annual meeting.

Cooper, as I wrote previously, established her reputation by overhauling Berkeley, California's school lunch program (with some help from Alice Waters' foundation) and is now moving on to the much larger Boulder, Colorado school district. Meanwhile, the SNA, a food industry-funded association of cafeteria managers (for a detailed backgrounder, see this Tom Philpott post), has a reputation for embracing the processed and the fried. Cooper on the other hand pioneered the "Lunch Box" -- "a system she developed to help school districts wean themselves from packaged, heavily processed food and begin cooking mostly local food from scratch."

Frankly, it's worth marveling at this development a bit more. Back in July, Tom Philpott at Grist ran across comments Cooper previously made at her own blog concerning the SNA's annual convention (in front of which she will shortly be speaking). Said Cooper:

Imagine if Las Vegas built a Costco-themed hotel with a particular emphasis on chicken nugget samples and then filled the building with lunch ladies. That's the best way I can describe the School Nutrition Association's annual food expo, which is taking place right now in Vegas' Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Every summer, thousands of lunch ladies flock to the show to sample the newest industry products for school lunch. They stroll through over 800 booths, tasting everything from popcorn chicken and mini cheeseburgers, to whole-grain doughnuts and blue-raspberry slushees. Forget flipping through cookbooks - today, this is the menu planning process for your kid's school cafeteria.

If you want a bird's eye view of the problems plaguing school food, this is the place to go. The expo boasted 40 booths showcasing ice cream, cakes, cookies, puddings and other desserts. Over 20 booths peddled poultry (mostly breaded) and 20 more featured beef products. Pizza showed up at 12 booths. Fresh fruits and vegetables showed up at only 10.
...
My personal favorite from the show was the Crazy Apple. In an attempt to get kids to eat more fruit, this company has developed apples that taste like bubble gum, cotton candy and tropical blast.

So that's where the SNA is coming from. Given that, I suppose it's true that putting Cooper in a room next to the Crazy Apples display to talk about plain old apples does indeed represent a watershed moment for reform.

Severson does not, however, spend nearly as much time as I just did on Cooper and the SNA -- she instead does an admirable job sketching out the main elements supporting (and standing in the way of) reform. The whole piece is worth a read but a few notable nuggets stand out. First, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of NY is getting behind an increase in the cost per lunch amount of $.70 (which would be added to the $2.68 the USDA currently spends per lunch in the program).

That may not seem like a lot but, as Jill Richardson observes, it's almost double the increase the SNA requested in congressional hearings in the spring and it's approaching the $1 increase that Cooper herself advocates. Severson also covers Michelle Obama's efforts to raise awareness on school lunch reform as well as the strongly supportive comments from Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, Ag Sec Tom Vilsack's number two. Even Slow Food USA's "Time for Lunch" campaign to raise awareness and money for school lunch programs gets a mention.

But it's this bit that sums up the challenge reformers face:
[Some argue] that the U.S.D.A. has a conflict of interest it must resolve: One part of the agency is charged with feeding children nutritious food and another helps large agricultural companies sell surplus food like beef and chicken that is usually processed into packaged products like taco meat or nuggets.
And that conflict was on full display today. At virtually the same time that Merrigan was talking up school lunch reform in the NYT piece, her boss was in Iowa reassuring farmers (via the AP) that these USDA commodity purchase programs aren't about to go away. Their economic impact is simply too great to consider abandoning them:
"This is probably the most direct stimulus you can get in terms of its ability to get into the economy quickly," Vilsack said.

Vilsack pointed to purchases of pork products as an example of how the government is helping producers.

Those purchases came as Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and the governors of eight other pork-producing states sent a letter earlier this month seeking federal help for a pork industry struggling from soaring feed prices and a drop in demand blamed on the swine flu, which prompted dozens of nations to reduce US pork imports.

In the letter, the governors urged the federal government to expand its purchase of pork for various nutrition programs to prop up prices.

"We are cognizant of the need for help," Vilsack said. "We purchased about $117 million of pork through various commodity programs, about 72 million pounds."

Vilsack said his department has used virtually all the money it's been given, and would support efforts to expand the purchase programs.
I don't doubt for a minute that both Vilsack and Merrigan are sincere in their desire for reform of the school lunch program. But at some point, they are going to have to address this issue. It's true that Vilsack's comments represent an attempt to dodge the laughable "swine flu bailout" Big Pork is requesting -- but it's also true that he does want to expand the purchasing programs. And a good portion of that food will end up in school lunches, most of it fried or otherwise heavily processed. As with health care, school lunch reform can't be all or nothing and there's plenty of room for improvement that has nothing to do with commodity purchases. But it certainly seems like the central contradiction at the heart of the national school lunch program remains as resistant as ever to reform.

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August 7, 2009

Sen. Schumer Targets Big Milk
In the last week or so, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has made himself a nexus of Congressional action on the dairy crisis. He was involved in the recent, if minor, increase the amount the USDA pays for surplus dairy products. Next up, he announced his intention to limit imports of Milk Protein Concentrate, a milk-based food additive used in glue. Oh, and in Kraft "cheese" as well. Many experts consider the flood of foreign MPC to be a major contributing factor to the crash in dairy prices.

And now comes the capper. Schumer has demanded that the Justice Department and, interestingly, the Federal Trade Commission investigate diary pricing nationwide. Schumer noted that while wholesale milk prices have dropped by half, retail prices have stayed relatively stable. He also points out that farmers' share of consumers' milk money is down from $.48 per gallon to $.30 in the span of a year and a half. The technique of squeezing your supplier but then keeping the profit is a hallmark of monopolistic practices -- and a phenomenon exacerbated by, if not caused by, regional retail milk pricing covenants.

As a sidenote, here's a fascinating story about a dairy farmer in California who figured out a loophole in pricing covenants that allowed him to undercut the big boys on retail price. In response, Congress, egged on by Dean Foods -- which controls 40% of fluid milk distribution nationwide and 70-90% in various regions in the Eastern US -- along with large producers, quietly and quickly changed the law to make the farmer's loophole illegal (without holding a single hearing) thus preserving distributors' profits and eliminating competition. It's good to be a dairy king.

Speaking of Dean Foods, they gained special mention in Schumer's announcement as a target of the proposed investigations. However, in what is likely to be small consolation to company executives, Schumer stated "that Dean Foods is just one of his concerns." The Senator's main concern?
[T]hat the source of the disconnect between the prices consumers are paying and prices dairy farmers are receiving needs to be identified immediately and appropriate action needs to be taken to correct it.
There's no question that shining a little light on dairy pricing might make a few folks uncomfortable. Indeed, once you start unraveling that tangled web, it's impossible to ignore the level of collusion that goes on. That's the intriguing aspect of getting the Federal Trade Commission involved -- they will likely look into the distribution agreements between Dean Foods as distributor and the Dairy Farmers of America -- an industrial-scale "coop" that controls 40% of US dairy production -- as producer. Clearly, these guys can act as "market makers" -- and if the fact that the DFA was banned from trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and fined $12 million by the government for price-fixing a few years back is any indication, the FTC probably won't have to dig too deep to find market manipulation.

But I wonder if Schumer or the DOJ or the FTC will follow the money all the way to the big boys -- like, say, to Kraft Foods, which controls a significant chunk of the cheese market. While Dean and the DFA effectively have a stranglehold on milk production in this country, Kraft is almost in the same position with its cheese division. Indeed, Kraft's cheese profits have risen almost as much as Dean's milk profits. And Kraft, as I mentioned, is the main user of imported MPC, which it uses for its "processed cheese food" products. They're hard to ignore -- unless, of course, you're under strict orders to do exactly that.

So, Chuck, how far are you willing to go with this? All the way to the top (or should I say the bottom? or is it the middle?) of the food pyramid? Once you take down Dean Foods is Kraft next? A blogger can dream, can't he?

Photo by jonpetitt used under a CC license

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August 6, 2009

Follow the Money -- to Africa!

Paula Crossfield at Civil Eats describes the implications of a recent visit by Ag Sec Tom Vilsack and Sec State Hillary Clinton to a Kenyan agricultural research institute:

Yesterday Secretary Clinton was in Kenya with a delegation that included Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, as well as Representatives Donald M. Payne (D-NJ) and Nita M. Lowey (D-NY). While the group was there on a broad platform to discuss economic development in Africa, including food security issues, the delegation took the opportunity yesterday afternoon to visit the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) lab, which is best known for unsuccessfully trying to produce a genetically modified, virus-resistant sweet potato under a US-led program...

Historically, the introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the US and other countries has primarily profited patent-holding companies, while creating farmer dependence on the chemical fertilizers and pesticides produced by a few US corporations, used to the detriment of human health, soil quality and the environment... USAID is not shy about their desire to promote biotechnology, and have been working towards furthering a GMO agenda abroad since 1991, when it launched the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP).

This comes in the context of a new push within the administration as well as in Congress to use biotechnology in general and GMOs in particular to "solve" world hunger. Leave aside the misguided nature of the enterprise. Or rather, read Paula's post in full to understand the misguided nature of the enterprise. However, it's important to keep in mind the fact that fundamental to understanding American efforts to address world hunger is that they have precious little to do with addressing world hunger.

This is not to say that administration officials don't care about world hunger or don't want to end it. But the sad fact is that, though we may have a part-Kenyan president, neither Kenyan citizens nor African citizens generally are allowed to vote in US elections -- nor, more importantly, are they allowed to make campaign contributions in American elections. The fact is that US development policy, focusing at it does on food, is pretty well captured by Big Ag. Indeed, up til now, the main beneficiaries of US development policy have been US industrial farmers and, of all things, shipping companies. US food aid sent to Africa is sold to the government by American industrial farmers (you didn't think Big Ag donated it, did you?) and then the government pays to ship it (you didn't think it went on government ships, did you?). As BusinessWeek put it in its examination of US food aid spending during last year's food crisis:

The U.S. earmarks about $2 billion per year on food for the world's hungry, more than any other country. Nearly two-thirds of that, however, is spent on items other than food. The $290 billion farm bill, like others before it, requires commodities be bought in the U.S. and shipped to needy countries. And as shipping and delivery costs have risen, the amount of actual food the U.S. sends overseas has fallen dramatically--by 52% between 2001 and 2006--according to one government report. The situation is even more dire this year, due to sky-high prices for commodities like wheat and corn, as well as for fuel.

There was an attempt made during the debate over the 2008 Farm Bill to allow the US government to buy some amount of food aid abroad -- but it failed.

Last year's crisis (and the fact that most other countries have already reformed their development aid policies) has led to increasing interest in ending the US reliance on direct food aid -- a reform supported by most international aid groups. A bill moving through the Senate would do just that. The idea is to spend more money on helping African farmers grow their own rather than continuing to require the continent to rely on food donations from the developed world.

But with the prospect of a shift of the great federal taxpayer firehose away from Big Ag, this being America, other interests have rushed in. In this case, the biotechnology companies. They want a piece of the action. In fact, with their siren songs of magic genetically modified seeds designed for use in Africa -- none of which are on the market and all of which are at best decades away from reality -- these companies have convinced many in the administration and Congress to mandate spending on biotech research as part of US development policy. Of course, "someone" (aka the American taxpayer) will have to pay Monsanto and Syngenta to give their seeds to African farmers -- in the unlikely event, that is, they ever succeed in their quest for the magic seeds. You didn't think these corporate giants would donate their seeds, did you?

Meanwhile, you have a report on world agriculture by an international group of experts funded by the World Bank and various UN agencies and endorsed by 61 countries (not the US, though. The report was too dismissive of, you guessed it, biotechnology) which concludes that spending money in African countries on African farmers in order to teach them agro-ecological techniques and improve the "food infrastructure" is the key to ending world hunger. Ironically, even Hillary Clinton, at the end of her Kenyan speech on the issue which focused mainly on technology, admitted as much.

So when we talk about farming, we're also talking about infrastructure, aren't we...? We're talking about farm-to-market roads. We're talking about storage and warehouse facilities, refrigeration facilities. We're talking about local markets buying from local farmers. If Kenyan farmers were linked up with Kenyan buyers of food, everyone would benefit. Instead of importing food that you can grow right here in Kenya, grow it and then sell it to each other. That's a win-win strategy for farmers and for the Kenyan people as well.

Too right, Hillary. But let's be serious. Spending American money on African farmers -- does that sound like something Congress is likely to do? Monsanto, according to its lobbying reports, has already spent a good part of $4 million lobbying this year alone to make sure it won't. And really, how can African farmers and international development experts hope to compete with 4 million cold hard reasons like that?

Photo by Tracy O used under a CC license

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August 5, 2009

Come Meet Jill!
Jill Richardson -- founder and blogger-in-chief of La Vida Locavore and frequent contributor on DailyKos -- is coming to Philly. She's here to promote her brand new book Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

Jill will be speaking at NW Philly's award-winning Big Blue Marble Bookstore this Thursday, August 6 at 7pm (as in, tomorrow). She'll be talking about her book, food politics and, of course, food. I expect you all to attend.

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