November 29, 2010

McDonald's: Still Not "Part of the Solution"

Mark Bittman has a piece on NYT's Diners Journal blog that looks at "efforts" by McDonald's to be, as it's CEO Jim Skinner said, "part of the solution" to the obesity crisis. Bittman looked at a Yale Rudd Center study that examined thousands of meals from fast food restaurants and compared them to the government's Institute of Medicine guidelines for nutritional quality. What did he find?:
The Rudd Center study found that out of a possible 3,039 kids’ meal combinations at the 12 restaurants – that’s one main dish, one side dish, and one beverage – only twelve meals (0.4 percent) meet all three nutritional requirements for preschool-age-children, and only 15 meals ( 0.5 percent) meet all three for elementary-school-age children. Of the 189 possible Happy Meals and Mighty Kids Meals at McDonald’s, none meet all three nutritional requirements. Subway and Burger King are the only restaurants with meals that meet the standard. In discussing McDonald’s’ part in the obesity solution, Mr. Skinner wisely points to the apple slices – though he does not mention the caramel dipping sauce – and the 1 percent milk. Those two items, which are the only side dish and beverage pictured in the kids’ meals sections of the McDonald’s Web site, easily meet the nutritional requirements of the study.

There are two problems, though. The first is that apple slices and a glass of milk do not make a complete meal. As soon as you tack on a main dish, the combination automatically becomes unhealthy for children. The second problem is that based on the visits recorded in the study, more than 80 percent of the time McDonald’s employees did not offer a choice of side dishes to customers who ordered kids’ meals and more than half of the time employees did not offer a choice of beverage. On the occasions that no choices were offered, French fries and a soft drink were provided by default. All in all, more than 90 percent of the side dishes received were French fries, and more than 75 percent of the beverages received were soft drinks.
Some solution.

Flickr photo: bee side(s)

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November 23, 2010

Beachfront Property Available. Climate Denial a Must.

It looks like some states are finally getting around to serious planning for the minimum six to nine feet of sea-level rise that we can expect between now and 2100. Via the NYT Green Blog:
New York State and California are creating blueprints for how governments should plan, and pay for, a wholesale retreat from the shoreline in anticipation of a possible rise in sea level of three or four feet or more by 2100.
The most recent report, written under the auspices of the nonprofit Pacific Council on International Policy and released Monday morning, warns that “the upfront costs of adapting to climate change will not be trivial; yet to do nothing and rely on reacting after the fact to deal with the impacts” would entail “prohibitive” costs.

The report offers extensive advice on creating mechanisms to document the impacts of climate change and to then use the information to plan responses at the local, regional and state levels. It also recommends the establishment of a Climate Risk Council, a technically sophisticated five-member group appointed by the governor that would assemble and make available data on climate-related risks.

Among other things, it could offer advice to both the state insurance commissioner’s office and private insurers about how to incorporate climate risks into insurance policies.
Speaking of insurance companies, that will be the tell that the business community has turned against the GOP's policy of climate denial. Once the actuaries start charging people for climate risk then it will be hard for them to maintain that rising seas and all the rest is a left-wing fantasy. Meanwhile, one of the states that remains firmly in the Head in the Sand camp is Florida -- ironic because they are most at risk and will likely have the hardest time adapting to rising seas.

But perhaps they'll get bailed out in the end by climate denial. After all, who better to sell all that prime oceanfront property to for premium prices, than a bunch of people who think climate change is a load of hooey?

Flickr photo: fotografar

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November 22, 2010

Motor Trend to Rush: You Lie!
Apparently, Rush Limbaugh didn't think much of Motor Trend's decision to make the hybrid-electric Chevy Volt its Car of the Year. Motor Trend's Todd Lassa did not take this slam sitting down. He reviews and debunks a series of lies Rush has told about the car, but really it's the tone that's the killer:
So, Mr. Limbaugh; you didn’t enjoy your drive of our 2011 Car of the Year, the Chevrolet Volt? Assuming you’ve been anywhere near the biggest automotive technological breakthrough since … I don’t know, maybe the self-starter, could you even find your way to the front seat? Or are you happy attacking a car that you’ve never even seen in person?

...You’ve made two king’s ransoms by convincing legions of dittoheads to tune into you every day. I wonder, do you ever ride in anything that’s not German or Anglo-Saxon? Do you have any idea how powerful IG Metal is, and of the size of Germany’s social safety net?

...[T]he Chevy Volt is, indeed, a technological breakthrough. And it’s more. It’s a technological breakthrough that many American families can use for gas-free daily commutes and well-planned vacation drives. It’s expensive for a Chevy, but many of those families will find the gasoline saved worth it. If you can stop shilling for your favorite political party long enough to go for a drive, you might really enjoy the Chevy Volt. I’m sure GM would be happy to lend you one for the weekend. Just remember: driving and Oxycontin don’t mix.

Democrats could learn a thing or two about how to handle Rush and his ilk. Nicely done.

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November 19, 2010

Visiting the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Thanks to Fast Company, we get a sense of what it's like to sail through the great Pacific Garbage Patch, "a country-sized mass of plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre." In other words, it's where a shocking amount of the world's plastic garbage ends up and it should be enough to make a recycling partisan out of anyone:
Earlier this week, we had the chance to sit down with two people who voyaged into the gyre this past summer: Mary Crowley, Project KAISEI co-founder and executive director of the Ocean Voyages Institute and Nick Mallos, a marine scientist with The Ocean Conservancy. The pair took part in a 20 person, three-week expedition in August on the research vessel Kaisei that took them from San Francisco to San Diego...

One of the most striking things about traveling into the so-called plastic island is that it isn't much of an island at all, Mallos explains. "It's more like an archipelago. It would be so much easier if it was all together in a bunch."

"After a while, you get into a routine, the trash becomes commonplace until you look at a GPS and notice you're 1,000 miles from San Francisco and Hawaii, surrounded by debris. It's a surreal experience," Mallos says.

The heaviest concentrations of trash were between 1,200 and 1,900 miles offshore, but Mallos and Crowley first observed trash on the expedition just 500 miles offshore. "We've seen everything from toothbrushes to a car fender, and every type of container imaginable," Crowley says.
The group is trying to figure out a way to clean up all this garbage -- one idea is to use technology that converts non-recyclable plastic back into diesel fuel -- and will likely entail an entire flotilla of "oil skimmers, barges, and even cranes and excavators" serving a recycling "mothership." Here's a video from a 2009 expedition to the patch by the group that gives us all a look at the very real consequences of our disposable consumer culture:

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November 8, 2010

Pushing Cheese is the Least of USDA's Problems

The New York Times article by Michael "Tainted Beef Pulitzer" Moss on the USDA and dairy producer-funded Dairy Management Company that spends $140 million dollars per year to convince Americans (successfully, it turns out) to eat more cheese has gotten a surprising amount of attention as the Bailout You Never Heard of. Firstly, let me say that I object to that label!

It's not fair to Big Pork which in 2009 received the real Bailout You Never Heard of -- to the tune of $150 million dollars of direct government purchases of surplus pork for use in school lunches.

The fact is this latest agricultural support outrage is simply business as usual at the USDA.

Indeed, if the article has a shortcoming, it's Moss's tendency to downplay the link between ag policy and these marketing efforts. For example, the major "conflict" that he cites is "in the Agriculture Department's historical roles as both marketer of agriculture products and America's nutrition police."

No, the real conflict is between the USDA as a marketer and the USDA as a regulator of agricultural production -- the confused nutritional message is honestly just window-dressing to this larger problem. After all, amping production to levels far beyond what the market can bear isn't the only way to provide support to farmers, but that's pretty much all we do.

In Canada, for example, dairy and poultry are subject to supply management programs. With supply management, producers set targets based on domestic demand, prices are stable and thus the need to produce more to make the same amount of money goes away. For you doubters, I would point out that the one US group that uses its own version of supply management, the farmer-cooperative Organic Valley, was the only group to come out of the recent milk price crash virtually unscathed. Dairy is especially sensitive to extreme price swings because the price of milk is set by its price on the Chicago Board of Trade Commodity Market, which has proved highly volatile and prone to manipulation by speculators.

Of course, there's a big problem with supply management: You can't do it if you're trying to up production to meet big export targets, as with President Obama's announced goal of doubling US exports. And the USDA's main solution to the troubles of the rural economy is to send Tom Vilsack and US Trade Representative Ron Kirk flitting across the globe looking for new markets for our vast agricultural surpluses.

The point is that, despite blogger Matt Yglesias's assertion that if Republicans were sincere about their deficit-cutting zeal, they'd help attack -- pardon the pun -- federal pork like this, this kind of waste is baked into the federal agricultural policy cake. It's not that we have a "market-based" system for ag products. We don't. It's also not the case that we have a system designed to create surpluses. We have a system designed to keep prices low and "help" farmers through development of export markets. When you throw out all the rhetoric about rural economies and aiding small farmers, that's what you're left with. And as any economist will tell you, those kinds of goals inevitably lead to huge oversupplies.

Moss mentions that, before the Dairy Management group existed, the government "solved" the problem of surplus cheese by storing it caves in Missouri and calling it a "stockpile." Does anyone think that was a better program?

The problem, which we are nowhere near solving -- in fact, we're still at the "unwilling to admit we have a problem" stage -- is that USDA farm policy is an unmitigated disaster. The marketing programs are the least of it. After all, let's say USDA Chief Tom Vilsack woke up tomorrow morning and declared an end to all federal marketing compacts that conflict with USDA nutrition policy. From this day forward, we will finally have the vegetable marking blitz of which nutrition advocates have dreamed for years.

What on earth would we then do with all those millions of pounds of cheese?

Flickr photo: Patrick Hoesly

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November 2, 2010

Is School Lunch Reform Down to "Smart Cafeterias"?

Cafeteria of the futureThe smarter lunchroom. Click to go to the Times' interactive version.Rendering: Brian Wansink, David Just, Joe McKendry/NY TimesWith the opportunity to "go big" on reforming school lunch slipping away, the latest push appears to be to "go small."

Researchers David Just and Brian Wansink of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs are pushing a set of "nudge-y" ideas out of behavioral economics to reform the lunchroom and get kids to eat the healthy food that reform-minded school food directors are serving. because, as they wrote for The Atlantic's website, "Food isn't nutritious until it is eaten."

They also recently published an instructive infographic on The New York Times website that demonstrates the different possibilities a "smart cafeteria" could offer. (Click the graphic to see the full, interactive version at the Times.)

Just and Wansink observe that:

Restaurant owners know that subtle changes in how food is presented can have a large impact on food choice. These same tools can be applied within the school lunch context with surprising results. One school in upstate New York was able to increase consumption of salads by close to 300 percent by simply moving their salad bar six feet from the wall and placing it near a natural bottleneck in the check-out line. Another school increased fruit sales by 105 percent by moving the apples and oranges from stainless steel bins into a well-lit and attractive basket.

Even better, these techniques don't require much in the way of new training, new recipes -- or new money.

I'd like to think that the food revolution only needs to rearrange the lunchline, rather than our priorities as a nation (see France). Maybe so.

But let's not lose sight of the stakes. New research has given the lie to the myth of the "fit but fat" child. Obese children can have normal blood pressure and even normal cholesterol and yet, when given echo-cardiograms, show clear signs of heart disease. Specifically, Canadian doctors discovered that obese children display "stiffening" of the aorta -- a symptom of heart disease typically seen in middle-aged men rather than middle-school kids. As one of the scientists in the study put it, dryly but chillingly, "Aortic stiffness is associated with cardiovascular events and early death."

It's enough to make me think Michelle Obama should rename her Let's Move initiative to "Let's Move ... Or Else."

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