September 27, 2010

Sports Drink Pass Through Parents' "Junk Food" Filter

WARNING: Use only in cases of extreme exercise

Here's one of my pet peeves: Parents who otherwise feed their children a healthy diet still let them have sweetened sports drinks, not realizing the stuff is just soda without the bubbles. To this point, this kind of behavior was just anecdata. But, no longer! Turns out that not only are lots of kids drinking the stuff, but that having an otherwise healthy lifestyle makes it more likely a kid will consume sports drinks (via Science Daily):
Children who practice healthy lifestyle habits such as eating fruits and vegetables and engaging in physical activity may be negatively impacting their health because they tend to consume large amounts of flavored and sports beverages containing sugar, according to research at The Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

Researchers examined the association between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, unhealthy and healthy foods and physical activity levels of 8th and 11th grade Texas students to determine the relationship between beverage consumption and other behaviors. Sugar-sweetened beverages are drinks that contain added caloric sweeteners such as sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, including a large variety of carbonated and noncarbonated drinks but excluding 100 percent fruit juice.

Flavored or sports beverage drink consumption increased with levels of healthy food consumption and physical activity when compared to high soda consumption, which was associated with lower levels of these healthy behaviors.

It seems like parents are giving sports drinks a pass right through their "junk food" filters. Score another one for billon-dollar corporate marketing campaigns!

Oh, and the researchers don't give 100% fruit juice a pass either -- suggesting that it's mostly empty calories, too and that kids shouldn't drink more than one glass of juice per day. The researchers observe kids who drink the blue/red/green stuff risk losing all the benefits of their healthy behaviors. In their opinion, sports drinks should be used only in cases of "extreme exercise." Man, I'd love to see that turned into a warning label!

Photo credit: Ben Watts

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September 24, 2010

Philly's Urban Farms are Growing Like...

Philadelphia garden
The place for me: A view of Philadelphia from Glenwood Green Acres, a community garden run by the city in the Susquehanna neighborbood.
Photo: Tony the Misfit

Philadelphia has long been a gardeners' paradise, by East Coast standards anyway. The City of Brotherly Love enjoys relatively short winters and extended fall and spring seasons that aren't so wet and warm that they invite plagues of the pests that rule farther south.

It's not surprising then that urban agriculture has deep roots here -- ones planted long before the recent national renaissance. But Philly's homegrown ag movement isn't just about getting more local produce into farmers markets. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!) It's focused on farming as a source of jobs and skills for city residents as well as a means to provide them affordable, healthy food.

The city is known among food advocates as providing the model for President Obama's Healthy Food Financing Initiative to eliminate so-called "food deserts," or areas without access to affordable, fresh food. Like its inspiration, Pennsylvania's Fresh Food Financing Initiative -- which has helped establish more than 80 grocery stores throughout the state -- the administration's plan would provide low-cost loans to finance grocery stores and supermarkets across the country.

From brownfield to green rows

Philly's municipal support for farming dates back to the Vacant Lot Cultivation Commission established in the late 19th century. Jump forward to 1943, by which time the city of Philadelphia had opened what is now called the W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences. At 150 acres, it's the nation's largest agricultural high school, complete with herds of Holstein and Jersey dairy cattle, Belted Galloway beef cattle, eight quarter horses, a flock of sheep, and a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program -- and a 95 percent graduation rate. Indeed, you can draw a line from these efforts through the city's wartime Victory Gardens, to the anti-blight attempts of the "modern" community garden movement of the 1970s and 1980s, right through to today's reawakened interest in growing food in the city.

Granted, it's by no means a straight line. The anti-blight community garden efforts faltered in the '90s as the city government withdrew its support, for example.

But these days, school gardens proliferate, and the city is home to efforts like Greensgrow (see Grist's recent profile), a city-block sized farm on a former brownfield in the middle of a densely developed working class neighborhood. Greensgrow is now pioneering a pilot project, Local Initiative for Food Education, that gives food-stamp recipients a special veggie box and cooking help (see profile below).

The city is also host to two multi-acre farms, one at the Schuylkill Center, a nature preserve that operates a farm stand and a CSA in a surprisingly verdant area in the northwest part of the city. The other is managed by the member-owned Weavers Way Co-op grocery stores (more on that below, and full disclosure -- I'm a Weavers Way member, and the co-op hosts my Beyond Green blog).

Mayor Michael Nutter has issued a series of food-focused proposals and initiatives, including creating a food policy council and releasing the Philadelphia Food Charter, which puts ag front and center. Even the city's "Greenworks" initiative, designed to turn Philly into "the greenest city in America," sets the goal of increasing commercial agriculture within city limits.

Farm gateThe entrance to Manatawna Farm in PhiladelphiaPhoto: momo goIncubating growth

As a first step toward that goal, this spring the city proposed an urban farm "incubator" at the historic Manatawna Farm, a 19th-century farmstead currently part of Philadelphia's vast Fairmount Park system and right next door to the Schuylkill Center. Dedicated to chemical-free, commercial farming, prospective farmers will pay a $500 fee for a one-year lease on a half-acre plot that comes complete with irrigation hookups, fencing, post-harvest workstations, and even toilets. If this project is fully subscribed, that would put another five acres of land in production within the city limits.

Sadly, Philly is also seeing the NIMBY brigade set its sights on urban ag projects. Neighbors of the Manatawna property oppose the plan and are fighting to stop it. Their motivations are unclear, but it's likely an outgrowth of that strangely American belief among many homeowners that residential areas should host only bedrooms and two-car garages, not jobs and productive activity.

A second urban-farm incubator initiative takes a very different tack, one that will likely bypass the NIMBY brigade and still generate jobs and commercial activity from farming. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Growers Alliance program is an experiment in distributed agriculture. The initiative helps individual growers construct a small set of raised beds. PHS provides seedlings and other supplies and has partnered with Weavers Way Co-op to pick up and bring to market the produce from the various plots spread throughout the city -- in other words, a complete "supply chain" for urban micro-farms.

Philadelphia clearly sees farming as an integral part of its future and shows no indication that urban agriculture is a foodie fad. In this town, growing food is a growing business.

Next: A closer look at three of the projects that are putting Philly on urban ag's cutting edge.

Way Co-op

Northwest Philadelphia

Weavers Way co-opCommunity breadbasket: Weavers Way Co-op market in PhiladelphiaPhoto: pwbakerThe Weavers Way Co-op, a member-owned grocery store and farm, was founded in 1972 to nourish a food desert in the West Mount Airy neighborhood of Northwest Philadelphia. Of course, that term wasn't in wide use back then, but providing affordable fresh food to residents, regardless of income, has always been a core mission of this member-owned grocery store. Over time, the mission has expanded to include issues of sustainability as well as support for organic and locally produced food.

The farm, on the grounds of the nearby Awbury Arboretum, dates back almost a decade, but it wasn't until 2007, with interest in locally grown, pesticide-free produce on the rise, that the co-op decided to hire a full-time farmer and try to make the effort commercially viable. Since then, the Weavers Way farm has grown to nearly two acres, producing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables -- many of them hard to find heirloom varieties -- and now includes a satellite "production farm" solely dedicated to high-demand crops like eggplants and tomatoes.

While Weavers Way has a profitable farm operation, the real "action" is in its non-profit efforts. Weavers Way runs a fully subscribed CSA program in partnership with the W.B. Saul High School, an agricultural high school in Philadelphia. It started the successful school garden at Philly's Martin Luther King Jr. High School, now run by a full-time employee of the school with plans to expand it to other locations.

The co-op currently also grows food on a one-third acre site at the Stenton Family Manor, a local homeless shelter, that produces enough food not only to feed residents, but also to sell at local farm stands. According to Weavers Way Co-op General Manager Glenn Bergman, this kind of project represents the future of Weavers Way farming efforts -- putting food gardens in schools, prisons, and work-release facilities that can offer education and skills creation while feeding hungry residents.

Greensgrow Farm
Concrete ambitions: Built on a brownfield, Greensgrow Farm wants to feed its immediate neighbors in Kensington.
Photo: David Barrie

Greensgrow Local Initiative for Food Education (LIFE) CSA

Northeast Philadelphia

Mary Seton Corboy's newest Community-Supported Agriculture program was, as she put it, "born out of frustration." She'd built a thriving farm and nursery, with a successful multi-farm CSA, at Greensgrow Farm in Philly's gritty Kensington neighborhood, but she wanted to see more of the low-income and working class residents who live nearby eating the products of her hard-won farming success. Yet it just wasn't happening.

Figuring it was a "price point issue," Seton Corboy decided to construct a CSA program for the area's many food-stamp recipients that would take advantage of Greensgrow's creation of a community kitchen at a nearby church. She dubbed the program LIFE (for "Local Initiative for Food Education") and it's a combination of a weekly food basket and cooking classes. To pull this off, Seton Corboy had to find a way around the numerous USDA roadblocks that prevent a typical CSA from accepting food stamps -- mostly due to the fact that the "pre-paid" concept of a typical CSA violates USDA regulations. So Seton Corboy partnered with Philadelphia's The Redevelopment Fund, the nonprofit finance group that had made the "anti-food-desert" Fresh Food Financing Initiative such a success. TRF loaned Greensgrow the money to grow the crops for the CSA shares, which is to be repaid as participants spend their food stamp benefit on the weekly box of produce.

That was just the first challenge. Seton Corboy also knew she had to get past certain issues regarding fresh food and the typical food-stamp recipient. The most frequent objections: fresh food takes too much time to prepare and requires cooking skills that many low-income people don't possess. So she created a "cooking show" style set of cooking lessons. Participants receive chef's jackets and are videotaped as they learn from a lineup of local chefs from local restaurants. The idea was that videos are shared with participants who have to miss a lesson, as well as other CSAs who don't have the ability to host lessons themselves.

But things haven't exactly gone as Seton Corboy had hoped. Only 17 of 25 available LIFE CSA shares were purchased -- and several of those were bought by young Americorps anti-poverty volunteers working in the neighborhood. To this point, the community hasn't embraced even this low-cost version of the weekly produce box.

Seton Corboy chalks some of it up to communications. By and large, food stamps recipients don't live online -- old-fashioned word-of-mouth and paper flyers are the best tools to spread the news. Complicating matters, the LIFE marketing materials referred to the SNAP program, the program's new official name for food stamps. But many recipients aren't aware of the name change -- to them they're still "food stamps" or perhaps "EBT," a reference to the ATM-style card used to pay for food.

Seton Corboy is sympathetic. She she put it, "I'm confused - and I've got a masters degree!"

In terms of the dizzying array of public and private initiatives attempted to improve nutrition and provide benefits, "we're making it more complicated than it needs to be." To her, it's got to stay simple: easy access to healthy food, lessons on how to use the ingredients and continued effort to overcome recipients' perception that healthy food is more expensive.

Seton Corboy admits she hasn't figured out the right formula. But she's not done trying. What has become clear to her is that the prime obstacle remains kitchen literacy. "My job is to bring their sense of what cooking is into the modern era." Yet competing with a blizzard of junk-food advertising has worn thin her patience. As she sees it, the approach to cooking by people on food stamps isn't all that different from many affluent food lovers: "We watch it on TV. Nobody makes it." Until that changes, Seton Corboy seems to suggest, little else will.

Gardener in Philadelphia
Kale and hearty: Growers Alliance member Cynthia Bly in her Northeast Philadelphia garden.
Photo: Philadelphia Horticultural Society

Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Growers Alliance


Growers Alliance is trying to make small-plot urban farming a viable commercial enterprise. This initiative sprouted from PHS's City Harvest program, which is in turn part of Philadelphia Green, one of the nation's largest urban landscape renewal projects. With City Harvest, inmates in the Philadelphia prison system grow vegetable seedlings in greenhouses. The seedlings are then distributed to over 40 community gardens throughout the city. To date, most of the harvests go to feeding the inmates, the growers themselves, or local food pantries. But this year, thanks in large part to a $300,000 grant from the USDA, PHS has begun experimenting with directly supporting commercial growers.

Dubbed Growers Alliance, the program is designed to encourage chemical-free commercial growing on small plots. The project finances the construction of up to six 4-by-8-foot raised beds and provides seedlings grown by inmates or at an expanded greenhouse facility operated by Philadelphia's Weavers Way Co-op farm. Growers are encouraged to sell their produce, and sell they have to neighbors, to restaurants, at local farmers markets and to the Weavers Way Co-op, which operates a dedicated, refrigerated truck (paid for by the USDA grant) that will pick up from any interested Growers Alliance sites.

The 15 current participants have in aggregate an acre of land in production and have grown 9,000 pounds of produce so far this year in their or their neighbors' backyards or in church yards -- not bad for what amounts to a pilot program.

So far, most of the growers are in the west and northwest parts of the city and run the gamut of Philly gardening types. Some are urban-ag aficionados, some are young people and a few are exploring the possibility of making urban farming a career.

But it's the emphasis on distribution infrastructure that makes Growers Alliance stand out. By supplying a truck to make the rounds of the participating sites, the project addresses one of the main challenges to any business -- i.e. where to sell your product. Only in its first year, Growers Alliance has the potential soon to rival the largest Philly farms.

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September 23, 2010

"Minister for Energy and Climate Change"
Living as we do in the reputed "greatest country on earth," you would assume that the biggest and best of everything is here. We've already learned that's a false assumption when it comes to health care. And now, with wind farms, too (via AFP):
The world's largest offshore wind farm was officially opened off the east Kent coast on Thursday, part of the government's bid to reduce the carbon emissions that drive climate change.

...The site, a forest of giant turbines in the North Sea off the coast of the district of Thanet, has 100 turbines installed so far with a total of 341 planned.

Swedish energy company Vattenfall, which built the farm, says it has the potential to power 200,000 homes.

The farm will increase Britain's capacity to generate wind power by more than 30 percent.

Situated around seven miles (12 kilometres) out to sea, the 380-foot (115-metre) high turbines are spread over more than 22 square miles (35 square kilometres) and are visible from the shore.

The farm is expected to produce 300 megawatts of energy at full capacity, which would see Britain's renewable energy capacity rise to five gigawatts.

Gee, it sure would be nice if we invested in something like that! But the thing that caught my eye was the title of the British government official quoted later in the article. He's the Minister for Energy and Climate Change.

So let me get this straight. The UK's "radical" right-wing Lib-Con coalition, the one that dumped Labor last spring and is in the process of dismantling the British health care system and welfare state, even they are completely happy to put "Climate Change" in a minister's job title. And we...? Do...? Sigh.

Photo credit: Vattenfall

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Signs of a Reverse Brain Drain from Finance to Farms

Jurrien SwartsBanking on beets: Jurrien Swarts.Holton FarmsBuried in the Real Estate section in this Sunday's The New York Times was an article on the Solaire, an environmentally conscious apartment building in Manhattan's Battery Park City. One of the perks management offers is the chance to participate in a Community Supported Agriculture share (aka a veggie-box subscription) run by Holton Farms, an eighth-generation Vermont farm. But that's not what caught my eye. It turns out that this CSA program is a bit different.

Firstly, tenants who don't buy CSA shares can still buy from the farm truck when it delivers participants' produce boxes, so it's also a rolling farmers market. Second, as in most CSA plans, members pay an annual fee at the start of the season, in Holton Farms' case $250 to $1,000, to get their share of the harvest. But Jurrien Swarts, a partner in Holton Farms and the man in charge of the program, has structured it as a kind of farm charge account -- and even gave it a "premium" name: CSA Select. In his version, CSA members aren't getting a pre-selected box of produce. Instead, they spend down their "balance" by ordering á la carte week by week from a selection of products from Holton and its 10 other farm and business partners.

If this strikes you as surprisingly market-savvy, then it might not surprise you to learn that Swarts comes out of finance; he's a former analyst with Credit Suisse, reports the Times. Swarts is also the cousin and best friend of farmer Seth Holton, says the farm's website, which explains why he ended up at this particular farm. The article doesn't mention the timing of Swarts' departure, so it's unknown if it was related to the financial crisis. Still, this kind of phenomenon could be its silver lining. Business-model innovation is desperately needed in agriculture, where most small farms still depend for survival on one spouse having off-farm income and where farmers themselves have plenty on their hands aside from their responsibilities as businesspeople. And innovative business thinkers who find themselves ejected from finance where, for all the hours they put in, they produce nothing tangible except huge bonuses for their colleagues, might enjoy working in a field where they literally can get their hands dirty.

So good for Swarts, and good for Holton, for trying out different ways of getting their produce to urban dwellers profitably.

Meanwhile, we've got one right here in Philly, Jason Ingle -- a former NYC hedge fund manager who started a non-profit network of farms in the Philadelphia region called Greener Partners. His goal is to bring food and food production closer to urban areas. Great stuff.

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September 21, 2010

Dogs Keep Kids Active

Score another one for dog owners! Not only does owning multiple dogs reduce the likelihood that your children will have allergies, but a new study out of the UK shows kids who have dogs get more exercise than those who don't (via Science Daily):
Children whose families own dogs are more active than those without, according to new research. Researchers from St George's, University of London studied 2,065 children aged nine to ten, and found that children from dog-owning families have higher levels of physical activity compared to children without.

The team says owning a dog could encourage more children to be active, and help combat rising childhood obesity.
Okay, so it's only about a 3.5% daily increase, but hey, small changes over time and all that. And the kids also spent less time in sedentary activities. Perhaps the First Lady should consider a campaign to increase dog ownership among families as part of her Let's Move anti-obesity initiative...?

Photo credit: Julia Lynch used under a CC license

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September 20, 2010

FDA Accepts Junk Science on GM Salmon

AquaBounty's GE salmonReady to scale up: The AquAdvantage salmon. AquaBounty photoSen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is right: If ever a genetically engineered product deserved the "Frankenfood" label, it's the genetically modified Atlantic salmon created by the Massachusetts-based company AquaBounty. These salmon, which contain growth genes from Chinook salmon as well as the ocean pout, are truly monsters. They grow faster and end up larger than normal Atlantic salmon. And they just received preliminary approval from the FDA; the final nod is likely to come in the next month.

I make no fishbones about the fact that I have a deep skepticism of transgenic food. And it's not because I don't "trust" the concept in some way. What I don't trust is a regulatory system that puts the companies that want to sell you their genetically engineering product in charge of proving its safety. Can no one in charge see the flaw in this logic?

This standard doesn't just apply to genetically engineered food, of course. It's true for drugs and industrial chemicals as well. Indeed, an entire "product defense" industry has sprouted up to help corporations publish favorable and, sometimes misleading, science with which to gain government approvals and fend off safety concerns.

The current process surrounding GE salmon is but one example of the perverted regulatory process now in place at the FDA (as well as the EPA). Thanks to outdated laws and pernicious incentives, foods like GE salmon are evaluated as "veterinary drugs" and companies' own research is considered "objective."

So we should be thankful that blogger Jill Richardson put together this careful and lengthy review for Alternet of the safety studies behind this new GE salmon. Unfortunately, the news is not good. Consumers Union senior scientist and biologist Dr. Michael Hansen characterizes the supporting science performed by AquaBounty to Richardson as "sloppy," "misleading," and "woefully inadequate."

One thing that stood out to me is the shockingly routine dismissal by the FDA review board of a high "physical deformity" rate among the genetically engineered fish. You'd think something like that would raise eyebrows among regulators. However, as you'll see below, AquaBounty found an effective, if scientifically unsound, way to downplay these unfortunate side effects of their genetic manipulations.

The ultimate goal, as far as AquaBounty is concerned, is to publish results that let advocates of genetically engineered food declare, as this one did today in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, that the genetic manipulation of the fish "confers no detectable difference in its appearance, taste or nutritional value." (Aside from the small problem that loads of the salmon were deformed, that is.)

Yet AquaBounty's submissions to the FDA were apparently sufficient to convince the FDA's Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee of the salmon's safety. To accomplish this, AquaBounty apparently had to take a few shortcuts. Here are some of the questionable scientific techniques that have CU's Michael Hansen so upset:

  • Small sample size: Some tests, such as those used to determine rates of deformity in the fish, had sample sizes as small as six fish. At least 30 would be need for a statistically significant finding.
  • Non-random samples: The company culled deformed fish out of the test samples and didn't identify other samples as randomly selected. This is a big scientific no-no. If you're cherry-picking, you're cheating.
  • Ignoring bad years in favor of good years: AquaBounty's test were conducted over several years, yet most of the results were from 2007 -- the best year for the fish and the worst year for the non-genetically engineered "control" fish. Data from 2005, where the GE salmon fared poorly, showing high rates of deformities, were strangely absent from AquaBounty's results.
  • Setting detection limits too high: In tests for the presence of growth hormone, AquaBounty seems to have set the limits too high, thus ensuring that all their fish would "pass" the test. As Hansen described it, it's like a cop with a radar gun that doesn't go below 120 mph marveling "See! No one's speeding!" Even then, several GE fish still showed detectable levels of an "insulin-like growth factor" -- a potential cancer risk.
  • Using non-standard measures: In tests to indicate "allergenicity" of the salmon, AquaBounty used something it called "relative allergic potency," which does not appear to have any scientific basis. Still, the GE salmon registered high levels of this measure.
  • Not bothering to use current technology: There are far better techniques for measuring a food's potential allergenicity than the ones AquaBounty chose to use.

We can and should have the debate over the wisdom of introducing wholly novel, transgenic products into the food system, not to mention into our bellies. But this particular fish story is really about a broken and corrupt regulatory process. Clearly, the FDA wants to approve these products. They want to "help" their "customers," aka food companies, and no longer seem to have public safety at the top of their priority list.

The FDA will soon hold public meetings for the GE salmon: one on September 19 to review the science; if it is approved, then a second meeting on the 21st will cover whether it should be labeled and how. Let's hope that someone calls bullshit on the junk science behind AquaBounty's product, and that the agency listens.

Get Off Your Ass Alert: If the AquAdvantage salmon gets approved, the FDA will also take into consideration public comments as to whether "we should require labeling for such
food beyond that required for food from other varieties of Atlantic salmon," it says. You can tell the agency your answer to that question via written comments until November 22.

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September 17, 2010

Fixing Food Safety Will Take More than a New Law
Let me start by saying I'm not quite as convinced as Tom Philpott that the food safety bill, about which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday "we’re not going to be able to get this done before we go home for the elections," is really dead. GOP Sen. Tom Coburn has placed a hold on the bill -- against the apparent wishes of even the GOP leader Sen. Mitch McConnell. My reading of the coverage is that there's still quite a bit of posturing going on -- as Senators do enjoy doing.

Indeed, I wouldn't count out a last-minute change of heart from Coburn, especially if he gets an earful from constituents and colleagues.

However, Philpott's main point -- that the FDA and EPA are hopelessly captured by the industries they are charged with regulating -- is spot on. The same issue came up with financial regulatory reform -- many pundits and bloggers have pointed out that it doesn't matter how much power regulators have if they are unwilling or too incompetent to wield it. Just because the Securities and Exchange Commission can now act more aggressively against banks doesn't mean they can't be sweet-talked out of it by lobbyists, just as they were before the financial crisis.

It's the same with the FDA. There's no question that existing law gave the FDA plenty of power and opportunity to go after the farm behind the current salmonella egg scare. But they didn't -- whether through communications breakdowns or due to simple acceptance of a system that relies on corporate self-regulation. Much of the source for the enforcement crisis springs from the legacy of years of Republican anti-government rhetoric along with various legislative tactics they've used that were designed to undercut regulators authority and autonomy. Now we're stuck in the viscious circle of ineffective federal agencies convincing voters that government isn't worth investing in, which makes the agencies even more ineffective. Wash, rinse, repeat.

As important as the food safety bill is -- and it is important and we may yet see it passed -- the real problem is that one of the major political parties has successfully eroded the federal government's ability to regulate industry and thus protect its citizens. President Obama, superman though he may be, is in no position to reverse that trend without an awful lot of public support. In the end, it won't be that the FDA and EPA that have failed us. It's that, through apathy, inattention and gullibility, it will be we who have failed them.

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September 15, 2010

Michelle Obama: Fix School Lunch or Else!

Kids jumping in front of White HouseKids exercise in a video from Let's Move, Michelle Obama’s campaign to fight childhood obesity. The do-or-die moment for school food approaches -- the House is due to take up its version of the school lunch re-authorization bill, also known as the "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act," later this month. Of course, even if it passes, the differences between the House and Senate versions must be reconciled before the bill can become law. And if Congress is unable to act between now and December, school lunch reform will have to start from scratch come January with a new and more Republican Congress.

With the stakes so high, First Lady Michelle Obama renewed her call for passage at a speech in Louisiana the other day and in doing so, directly linked school lunch reform to her larger Let's Move anti-obesity initiative. "It's important to be clear," she declared. "Unless we pass the Child Nutrition legislation that's before Congress right now," Let's Move may fail.

Yet, while she mentioned the "critically needed investments" the reform bill will offer schools -- though most advocates believe the bill remains woefully underfunded -- she downplayed the biggest impact that passage of the school lunch reform bill may have. If the bill becomes law, then for the first time the USDA will wrest control from local school districts and their food company partners of so-called "competitive foods" in school. These are the products that schools sell to students to subsidize the costs of feeding low-income kids (since government money doesn't cover the full cost of school meals). While most schools have restrictions on the nutritional value of the meals themselves, the "competitive foods" don't -- and that's how food companies and cash-starved school boards sneak soda, chips, cookies, brownies, and other sugary and salty treats into school vending machines, stores and snack bars and thence into schoolkids' daily diet.

But the reform bill would go a long way toward ending all that. The USDA would be able to set standards for these other foods -- although, as good-food advocate Jill Richardson pointed out recently, it's premature to assume that it will lead to a junk-food ban. But if nothing else, it will begin a needed debate over these foods.

Richardson rightly asks, "If the schools were relying on junk food for money, what will they do when the junk food goes away?" Even so, we can't have a system that requires kids to eat junk so that schools can afford to serve them a healthy meal.

Indeed, the fight against childhood obesity may hinge on this issue of junk "competitive" foods in schools. A study by a team from the University of Michigan Medical School just published in the Journal of School Health looked specifically at kids' consumption of foods sold in vending machines, school stores, and snack bars (but outside the cafeteria) and concluded that these foods play a large role in schoolkids' poor diets.

The researchers found that over 20 percent of schoolkids ate from one of these school-based sources of junk food on a given day -- including over 50 percent of middle schoolers and almost 90 percent of high schoolers. Interestingly, kids who received free or subsidized meals ate these foods at about the same rate, so price is not stopping even low-income kids from hitting the vending machines.

These foods were significantly higher in calories and sugar, and lower in fiber and other nutrients than the food served in the cafeteria. As a result, kids who ate them were on average consuming an extra 250 calories a day. Given that even 100 excess calories can lead to obesity, the researchers note that this finding has huge implications for public health.

In short, allowing "competitive" foods in schools makes kids' diets worse -- and clearly contributes to childhood obesity.

All this to say: Congress, pass the damn bill.

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September 10, 2010

The BPA Saga Continues...

Canned foodOn the heels of Canada's recently announced ban on bisphenol-A (BPA), The New York Times has a substantial report reviewing the state of the science regarding the safety of this substance. Used primarily to line food and drink cans, some studies have shown BPA to be a hormone disruptor and a potential factor in the rise of obesity. Even the FDA has acknowledged we should reduce our exposure to it.

The Times piece is dedicated to comments from scientists, rather than from industry spokespeople, which is all to the good, though I'm not crazy about the headline: "In Feast of Data on BPA Plastic, No Final Answer." The good news is that the thrust of the article undercuts this declaration quite a bit.

It's true that the piece is chock full of scientific circumspection -- many scientists are waiting for definitive results before declaring an unequivocal position on the BPA controversy, including whether low-dose exposure to the chemical truly represents a health risk. But most
scientists quoted in the article chalked up much of the uncertainty to details of the experimental techniques used, rather than to real doubts about the underlying hypotheses. In fact, the only denials mentioned were from industry and the Republican party -- and no corporate or GOP spokesperson seemed willing to offer a quote on the subject.

The real takeaway from this latest review is that just about everyone is waiting for the completion of the two-year, government-sponsored National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences safety studies that are currently under way. As Times reporter Denise Grady put it, "disputes arise in part because scientists from different disciplines -- endocrinologists versus
toxicologists, academic researchers versus those at regulatory agencies -- do research in different ways that can make findings hard to reconcile." Once again: It's the process, not the facts themselves, that keeps the BPA "debate" alive.

For this new research, scientists will have to follow strict experimental guidelines (over which there has been some controversy). The hope is that the new results will be both consistent and comparable, so that when the studies are complete, we'll finally get the "answer" on BPA.

But the article makes one fundamental, and understandable, mistake. By focusing on BPA, it indirectly supports the industry insistence thatBPA's safety must stand or fall on its own merits. In other words, if BPA doesn't represent on its own an overwhelming threat to human health, then it shouldn't be banned.

Grady acknowledges in passing, but gives short shrift to, the sea of endocrine disruptors that surround us. Chemicals that are just as ubiquitous as BPA -- pesticides like atrazine, which
are endemic in the water supply of large parts of the country; common sunscreen ingredients like oxybenzone; even other plastic ingredients like phthalates -- are also hormone disruptors. The real risk they represent is in combination, not necessarily in isolation. And when they
are addressed in isolation, it's much easier for industry to defend an individual chemical against the attacks: "It's not all BPA's fault! The risk is very modest," they might argue. "So don't ban it! Ban some other chemical!"

That's why some scientists, and some environmentalists, are rightly treating BPA as a member of a dangerous and disruptive class, not as Public Enemy Number One.

I was also a bit disappointed at the continued acceptance of the industry line that there are no good alternatives for BPA from a food safety perspective, and thus we must continue to use it in canned-food linings (which is the primary way we are exposed to it). This is really about industry laziness and opposition to regulation. Even if you ignore the organic food companies like Eden and Muir Glen (owned by General Mills, for goodness' sake) that are already using BPA alternatives, you can't ignore this (via Food Production Daily):

A new polymer coating suitable for use as a lining in food and beverage cans is free from bisphenol A (BPA) and is produced using around 60 percent less energy than traditional epoxy materials, said the US company behind the product.

Design Analysis Inc, of Jacksonville, Florida, said the PolyKoat thermoplastic polyester coating is free of all volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and is a greener alternative to competitive food can linings. It can be attached directly onto a range of hot and cold-rolled metal packaging substrates; galvanised and tin-free steel and aluminium.

The coating performs as well as epoxy linings with vastly reduced production costs and contains no BPA, company commercial vice president Jeff Sawka told

Oh, and the new polymer already has FDA "food contact" approval. In some ways, the "there's no alternative!" argument is the most powerful one that industry has. Congress is all too easily swayed by complaints of inconvenience and impossibility from corporations -- and all too unmoved by safety concerns for everyday Americans. Nor do the large food companies seem interested in doing the right thing on this one.

But once a viable BPA alternative gets a little publicity, the question will turn to "why don't you just use this stuff instead" -- and the industry's last real pro-BPA leg will get kicked out from under it.

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