5 Reasons I’m Optimistic about Child Nutrition in America

First Lady Michelle Obama has done more for childhood nutrition in the past month than food advocates have seen in years! With the recent anniversary of her Let’s Move campaign, a slew of positive legislation is being pushed through with lots of help from the First Lady. But the folks in Washington aren’t the only ones prioritizing childhood nutrition. Below are signs from all across the country that the food landscape for kids is turning a corner.

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Image via Obama Foodorama

1. Universal Free Meals: Schools can opt to offer universal free meals to all students, regardless of income, at schools in which at least 40% of students are eligible for free meals through the National School Lunch Program. In schools that have at least 65% of students eligible for free meals, the universal free model is actually cost neutral! This program puts an end to the stigma of being eligible for free meals, students being turned away from lack of funds, and the burdensome paperwork associated with the tiered system.

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Lunch in DC public schools: Chicken Quesadilla on Whole Wheat Tortilla, Black Beans, Salsa, Local Apple & Milk, by DC Central Kitchen (image via CSPI)

2. Limit on junk food marketing: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Michelle Obama to announce the USDA’s proposed rule for School Wellness policy, which includes a first-ever component that bans unhealthy marketing on school grounds. This means phasing out on-campus advertising of soda and junk food on scoreboards, vending machines, menu posters, cups and plates, and more. What is considered junk food? The proposal uses the same guidelines in USDA’s Smart Snacks in School rule, which includes limits on total calories, sugar, salt and fat, and requires healthier ingredients, like whole grain and low-fat dairy.

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Self-serve fruit at Ashland public schools in MA (image via CSPI)

3. Healthy food marketing gets a boost: Vegetable companies (including Bird’s Eye and Bolthouse Farms) are venturing into the healthy food marketing by using tactics such as extreme ads (think Mountain Dew-style) and partnerships with Disney to tempt youngsters into eating their veggies. Additionally, the First Lady announced a commitment from Subway introducing their “pile on the veggies campaign”. This effort will focus on increasing consumption of fruits of vegetables among children, and will set nutrition parameters for what can be offered on the children’s menu. That being said, food companies (Subway included) can still be counted on to push unhealthy foods, but a targeted healthy food marketing campaign is a much needed step in the right direction.

Bolthouse Farms

Bolthouse Farms takes a cue from junk food purveyors in this ad for baby carrots (image via NPR)

4. Students eat more produce: A study from the Harvard School of Public Health found a 23% increase in fruit consumption and a 16% increase in vegetable consumption after the new school nutrition guidelines were introduced in 2012. Contrary to popular belief, the study did NOT find a corresponding increase in food waste.

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Lunch from Saint Paul public schools (image via CSPI)

5. Obesity rates for young children may be dropping: According to a major federal health survey, obesity rates for 2-5 year olds have dropped by a whopping 43% in the past decade. While skeptics are wary that a drop this large is a statistical fluke, this potential drop is the first sign evidence that we may be turning a corner in the obesity epidemic. Let the public health efforts continue!

– Kelly

P.S. To learn more about the school lunch program, see here.

Why I love the new food label

Food labels have been long overdue for a make-over. After years of pressure from consumer advocacy groups and health experts, the FDA finally released a proposed new food label. *slow clap*

New Food Label

Why do I love it?

  • Added sugars! While the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to 6 tsp/day for women and 9 tsp/day for men, there was no way to know how much you were getting because added sugars weren’t required to be on labels.
  • Fiber gets redefined: If approved, the “fiber” on a label will reflect only the the intact, unprocessed fiber in whole foods, and exclude purified fibers such as maltodextrin and inulin (which are added to processed foods).
  • Vitamin D and potassium: Requiring these two nutrients (in place of Vitamins A & C) is much more relevant to the health needs of today’s population.
  • No more serving size trickery. Have you ever been able to get 4 servings out of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s? I didn’t think so. On the new label, serving sizes for many foods have been updated to reflect more realistic (in other words, larger) portion sizes.
  • And most importantly, it’s easier to read! With this new design, your eyes are drawn towards the important information. The calorie count jumps out at you and the % Daily Value of Nutrients is much easier to trace.

There is also an alternate proposal, which I like very much. It is even clearer about which nutrients are beneficial (“get enough”) and which ones we need to limit (“avoid too much”). See below:

Alternate Proposed Food Label

These proposals are scheduled for publication in the Federal Register on March 3.  After that, the FDA will collect comments for 90 days. To read the reports detailing the proposed rules and changes, see this FDA webpage. First Lady Michelle Obama has been instrumental in getting this legislation approved, and in record time! This is basically the food industry’s worst nightmare, so expect a carefully strategized counterattack during the comment period.

Score one for public health and food policy!

– Kelly

First hurdle: Trans fats. Next project: Palm oil

Trans fats have been long demonized, and have already been largely removed from food products. Nevertheless, there are still a few products, such as Bisquick, that will need to reformulate after the FDA’s recent decision to pull trans fats from the GRAS (generally regarded as safe) list.

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Some Girl Scout Cookies, including Caramel deLites, contain both partially hydrogenated oils (aka trans fats) AND palm oil

Currently, products can claim to have “0g trans fats” as long as there is less than 0.5g trans fats per serving. To determine if a product is trans fat free, you need to check the ingredient list for “partially hydrogenated oils”.

One ingredient that food manufacturers are replacing trans fats with is palm oil. This is problematic for two reasons. 1) While not as dangerous as trans fat, palm oil is largely saturated fat, the type of fat that is believed to raise LDL cholesterol and increase risk of heart disease. 2) Mining of palm oil causes massive rainforest destruction, and is the reason that orangutans may become extinct in our lifetime.

Interested in learning more?

  • To read more about the ban on trans fats, see this article
  • To see a list of products that still contain trans fats, see this list
  • To learn more about how palm oil is affecting wildlife, see here

orangutan

Rainforest destruction for palm oil plantations is causing orangutans to become extinct

Moral of the story: If you don’t have to stir your peanut butter, something’s not right. Avoid foods with added fats (including both partially hydrogenated oils AND palm oil), and make an effort to eat home cooked meals rather than relying on processed snack foods.

– Kelly

Female Food Heroes: 9 Women Shaking Up our Food System

1. Michelle Obama

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Through the “Let’s Move” Initiative, First Lady Michelle Obama has been a relentless voice in championing healthy habits. It is inspiring to see one of the most public figures in America devote herself to such a noble cause, addressing not only the American public, but the food industry as well. I am particularly impressed by her September 18th address on food marketing to children (check it out here).

2. Marion Nestle

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Marion Nestle is my absolute favorite voice in the nutrition and food systems arena. While not a Registered Dietitian, this NYU nutrition professor and public health expert has a no-nonsense interpretation of nutrition science that simply can’t be argued with. Her bluntness is refreshing, and she has no problem pointing fingers when talking about the culprits of obesity. Marion Nestle has written several insightful books, and I am completely addicted to her blog, foodpolitics.com.

3. Kathleen Marrigan

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Kathleen Marrigan has been a champion of organic and local foods from the very beginning. In fact, her MIT dissertation became the basis of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act. In 2010, Time Magazine named Kathleen Marrigan as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.  She has held various positions for the US Department of Agriculture throughout her career, including most recently the Deputy Secretary (a post from which she retired in March of 2013). During her time there, she managed the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, and worked tirelessly to strengthen the American food system. Oh yea, and she’s a longhorn (hook ’em!).

4. Frances Moore Lappe

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In 1971, 27 year old Frances Moore Lappe wrote the book on sustainable diets. Literally. In Diet for a Small Planet, she made made waves by re-framing world hunger as a problem of distribution, not a problem of production. Since then, she has authored or co-authored 17 other books related to world hunger and living democracies, and has co-founded 3 organizations (Food First, the Small Planet Institute, and the Small Planet Fund). Her enthusiasm has been an inspiration to numerous activists over the years, and I am proud to be a new member of the Small Planet Institute team.

5. Anna Lappe

Anna-Lappe

Anna Blythe Lappe is the daughter of Frances Moore Lappe, and was also a co-founder of the Small Planet Institute. Anna has written multiple books, including the recent publication, Diet for a Hot Planet. She is also an advocate for “real food” and sustainable food systems (causes near and dear to my heart!) Check out her TED talk on food marketing to children here.

6. Alice Waters

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When people search for the beginning of the local food revolution, many people point to Chef Alice Waters. Since the 1971 opening of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters has shown consumers the magic of local, seasonal food, as well as helping chefs and other members of the food system see that eating locally and seasonally is not only possible, but profitable as well. In 1996 Alice expanded her reach into children’s food and nutrition education by founding the Edible Schoolyard Project.

7. Ann Cooper

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Chef Ann Cooper, aka the Renegade Lunch Lady, is working hard to show our kids what healthy, delicious food looks like. Reforming the National School lunch program is a HUGE challenge! (I would know, I spent 6 weeks managing an elementary school cafeteria). So I applaud Ann for acting not only as a role model in her own school district, but as a consultant and advocate as well.

8. Ellie Krieger

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“To get people to eat well, don’t say a word about health. Just cook fantastic food for them”- Ellie Krieger

Ellie Krieger is a Registered Dietitian, television chef, James Beard Award winning cookbook author, and consultant to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” anti-obesity initiative. With her recipes, Ellie Krieger proves that healthy eating is not a punishment, and that choosing health does not mean sacrificing taste. It’s exciting to see RDs become public figures and have the opportunity to model healthy behaviors!

9. Vandana Shiva

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Located in India, Dr. Vandana Shiva is a world renowned expert on agriculture and food systems. She started started research and advocacy organization Navdanya “to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming”. A relentless advocate for environmental activism and biodiversity, Dr. Vandana Shiva has also authored numerous books.

That’s my list! I would have loved to feature 10 women (because 10 is a nice, even number) but these were the main ones that came to mind. Any ideas?

– Kelly

P.S. For photo credits, click the image.

Sustainable Aquaculture Interview with Fishmonger and Gastronomy Student Noel Bielaczyc

New Deal Fish Market

This week I met up with fishmonger and fellow Gastronomy student Noel Bielaczyc at his place of work, New Deal Fish Market (622 Cambridge St). Noel gave me the inside scoop on sustainable aquaculture, and also expanded my knowledge on the different varieties of fish available. Check out the interview below…

New Deal Fish Market

Kelly: How did you first get interested in seafood and aquaculture?

Noel: When I moved to Ann Arbor for college, I saw a fish market and I knew I wanted to work there. I love fishing and the water, so it’s a natural mix of interests.

K: Can you tell me a bit about organic seafood certification and how valuable that is?

N: I’m kind of skeptical about the organic seafood label. It only applies to farm raised fish and just means that plant portion of their feed (soybeans, corn, etc.) was organically raised. But fish like salmon are primarily carnivores, so how can you say that the fishmeal (wild anchovies, sardines, etc.) component of their diet is organic? This label only makes sense for fish that can be raised on an entirely vegetarian diet, like tilapia and catfish. Your best bet is to look for wild, domestic seafood.

K: Can fish be farmed sustainably, and if so, how would we know?

N: I have heard of a few cases of fish being farmed sustainably, but that is not the majority of the farmed fish on the market. It can be done well, but it’s not enough to feed the world.  Because salmon are carnivores, you must catch fish to grow fish, which leads to a net loss. [Salmon farms] are not really doing anything to increase supply.

K: How can consumers help support a sustainable aquaculture system?

N: If the only fish you eat are shrimp, cod, and salmon, you’re missing the point. If you want to be a responsible seafood consumer, you’ve got to branch out. Additionally, shellfish is some of the best stuff you can get. Shellfish aquaculture (like clams, mussels, or oysters) is almost like planting seeds, and it’s not nearly as intensive as salmon farming.

K: A February 2013 New York Times article reported that approximately 1/3 of the fish on the market are mislabeled. How can consumers avoid getting duped? Is there anything that should raise red flags?

N: You are most likely to run into that [deception] at a restaurant, because there’s less seafood expertise, the supply chain is longer, and there’s lots of pressure to control costs. If you are eating an $8.99 platter of scallops, snapper, and haddock, there’s a good chance it might not be what you think it is. [In order to avoid getting duped,] find a fish market you trust and fishmongers you can develop a relationship with. Over 80% of our seafood is imported, so one of the safest things you can do is buy domestic seafood whenever possible.

K: Do you know of any restaurants in Boston that source fish responsibly?

N: Bergamont gets their fish from us, and they do a really great job. East by Northeast buys from us as well. I’m sure Legal Seafoods is doing something right, but I’m not really sure what their practices are. Smaller, independent places are going to be your best bet.

K: Many home cooks are intimidated by the prospect of cooking fish. Any tips?

N: The most important thing to remember is that it’s actually quicker than cooking almost anything else. Let your fishmonger do the dirty work (scaling, gutting, filleting…)! My favorite way to eat fish in the summer is actually raw. Just throw together some dry scallops, good olive oil, onions, and grapefruit juice, and you’ve got yourself a beautiful crudo. If you are unsure about which fish can be eaten raw, you have to ask, and not all fish markets are like that.

New Deal Fish Market

Looking for the best catch in Boston? Then visit the team at New Deal Seafood! Noel helped me pick out some excellent Striped Bass from right here in Massachusetts. Do you have a favorite type of seafood to cook? Do tell!

– Kelly

Sustainable Aquaculture Video and Book Recommendations

Despite the fact that many species of fish are endangered and over-fished, seafood has been gaining attention as a potential solution to feed a growing population. Coming up on the blog I have an interview with a local fishmonger and fellow gastronomy student who knows a thing or two about responsible aquaculture. Until then, here a few video and book recommendations to tie you over…

Sustainable Aquaculture Video Recommendations:

To learn more about the pros and cons of farmed fish, check out this entertaining TED talk from witty Chef Dan Barber.

Since moving to Boston, I have had the pleasure of seeing Chef and National Geographic Fellow Barton Seaver speak twice at various events. In the TED talk below, hear his take on the sustainable seafood movement.

Sustainable Aquaculture Book Recommendations:

sustainable aquaculture book & video recommendations

In Four Fish, author Paul Greenberg focuses on America’s four favorite fish (salmon, seabass, cod, and tuna) to explain how aquaculture morphed into it’s current state, and offers suggestions to set us on a more sustainable path.

Sustainable Aquaculture Video & Book Recommendations

The Perfect Protein, by Andy Sharpless, is a relatively new release (May 2013) that explores the role of seafood in feeding our growing population. With a foreword written by former President Bill Clinton, this pick has been getting lots of buzz.

Sustainable Aquaculture Video & Book recommendations

If you enjoyed Barton Seaver’s TED talk above, then check out his first cookbook, For Cod and Country.

Check back soon for the interview!

– Kelly

 

The Link Between Hunger and Obesity

When most people imagine what hunger looks like, they imagine emaciated children with protruding bones and bare feet, likely to be found somewhere in war-torn Africa. But what if you saw a child that was overweight, or even obese. Could that child possibly be hungry? If they are obese, surely they are getting enough to eat, right?

This is one of the problems with identifying hunger in America. Although these problems appear to be contradictory, hunger and obesity are actually very closely related. How so? People experience hunger for many reasons, but almost all of them can be traced back to poverty. Some people simply cannot afford food, or have budgets so tight that they do not know where there next meal is coming from. When they do buy food, they are looking to fill themselves up. Junk foods are cheap, easy, and offer immediate gratification. This explains the paradox of why many people shopping at food pantries appear overweight, rather than emaciated.

In addition to financial access to food, some people lack physical and geographic access. While not incredibly common, a population of America’s poor lives trapped in what is known as a food desert. For these people, there is no accessible supermarket. Fresh produce (and often frozen produce) is out of the question. While canned vegetables, dried beans and whole grains may be available; many of America’s poor don’t know what to do with these foods, or how to combine them into a satisfying meal. Processed snack foods are cheap and have extremely long shelf lives, making them attractive choices to people that suffer from hunger or food insecurity. Simply put, empty calories are much easier to come by.

Looking for more information on this topic? I highly recommend A Place at the Table, the new documentary film that came out about a month or two ago. The film explores problems of poverty and food security across America, and gives excellent examples of how obesity and hunger are so closely related. Another resource regarding the paradox of hunger and obesity is the book Stuffed and Starved, by Raj Patel. I haven’t read it yet, but it is definitely on my list. Lastly, here is a USDA interactive map to find food deserts in America.

Images via GristMagnolia Pictures

– Kelly

Janet Poppendieck on School Lunch

“We have made serving lunch to children in school really complicated and inconvenient.” – Janet Poppendieck

This week, scholar, activist, and sociology professor Janet Poppendieck visited BU for a lecture titled Universal Free School Meals: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. I am embarrassed to admit that when I first saw the advertisement for this lecture, I interpreted it to mean that Poppendieck thought that the time was up for school lunch, and that school lunch was perhaps a fruitless pursuit.

Thankfully, I read Poppendieck’s new book, Free For All: Fixing School Food in America, and quickly discovered that I was wrong.  Poppendieck’s central argument is that a universal free lunch would help to alleviate many of the ills associated with school food, and she gives well-researched examples of why this may be.

Admittedly, the book started off as a repetition of things that I already knew about the school lunch program. School food today is often frozen and prepackaged. Menu choices are often carnival foods such as fries and pizza. The history of the school lunch program as a commodity program has allowed it to become this way.

However, Poppendieck’s discussion of the problems with means testing and the tiered eligibility system in chapter 7 introduced a new wave of thought to me. Poppendieck argues that the 3-tiered system breeds resentment and cheating, and also creates problems that interfere with the purpose of the program. To this point, I knew that students in the reduced price category oftentimes do not have enough money to pay even the reduced price. However, I was surprised to learn that 21% of families with very low food insecurity (formerly known as food security with hunger) have incomes too high to qualify for free or reduced price lunches. This shocking statistic is surely the sign of a broken system.

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Fruit & Veggie set up (typical of what I saw in Austin Independent School District)

While universal free lunch might sound fine and dandy, the biggest question I had was about how a multibillion-dollar program like that would get funded. Luckily, Poppendieck did address the financial issue. “There is no such thing as a free lunch, but how we pay for it is a social choice,” she said to the audience. While her book, written at the peak of the economic downturn, mostly focused on federal funding programs, Poppendeick’s lecture included evidence that states can also play an important role. She gave recent case studies of universal free programs in both Vermont and West Virginia, and also discussed the effects of recent legislation, such as the Community Eligibility Option under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.

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Balanced salad from Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District

Poppendieck also emphasized the importance of integrating the lunch hour into the school day as a way to promote better health and a place to learn social skills and etiquette. “The cafeteria is our largest classroom,” Poppendieck said, quoting an educator from Vermont. Chapter 8 of Poppendeick’s book also gives several inspiring examples of schools that are using the lunch hour as a learning tool and a jumping off point for hands on education.

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Oatmeal sundae bar in Provo

Whether or not you think that universal free is the right direction to go (I’m still on the fence about the whole funding issue), I highly recommend Janet Poppendieck’s book. It is a great summary of all of the factors affecting the school lunch program today, and gives an excellent history of how it came to be for those that are interested but don’t have much experience with the program. After being fortunate to converse with Poppendieck both before and after the lecture (and get my book signed!), I am now interested in reading her other two books: Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement and Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression.

Images via UCPress, CSPI Pinterest Page

To learn more about the challenges facing the lunch program, as well as the progress that has been made, see my previous post about school lunch.

– Kelly

Top 10 Things You Need to Know about the Farm Bill

  1. What is the Farm Bill? Simply put, the Farm Bill is a piece of legislation that determines which foods will be plentiful and inexpensive. It gets reworked about every 4-7 years, the last one being passed in 2008. We were due for a new Farm Bill in 2012, but as people following the issue already know, the 2008 bill was left to expire.
  2. Where does Farm Bill money go? Contrary to popular belief, most of the Farm Bill money (73%) goes to nutrition programs, not subsidies for commodity crops (which only gets 14%). Additionally,  7% goes to crop insurance, 6% goes to conservation programs, while less than 1% supports exports and renewable energy investments and research.
  3. How does the Farm Bill help Americans? Most Farm Bill money goes to nutrition programs, the most notable program being SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). With more Americans than ever before (about 45 million, half of which are children) relying on nutrition assistance programs, any spending cut to this area would be devastating, causing hunger and public health problems across the country. At only about $1.50 per meal, SNAP benefits are meager enough already.
  4. Does the Farm Bill help family farmers? While many family farmer do rely on subsidies to stay afloat, 60% of farmers don’t get subsidies. Additionally, the richest 10% of subsidy recipients get almost 75% of the payments. So while many family farmers do rely on these payments, loopholes that allow large agribusinesses to collect the majority of the payments need to be closed.
  5. Who gets subsidies? Almost 70% of commodity subsidies go to just 5 crops: corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and cotton. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts are considered “specialty crops” and are largely ignored by Farm Bill policies. Commodity subsidies keep the building blocks of junk food (high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil) cheap, which in turn, keeps junk food cheap.
  6. What’s the deal with biofuels? Currently, 40% of our corn crop is being diverted away from food for human consumption to be used for biofuels (corn ethanol). Biofuels are meant to displace oil, so this could be good, right? Wrong. Currently,  ethanol output is displacing only 8% of gasoline. The same amount of gas could be displaced if we increased fleet wide fuel economy by just 1.1 MPG across the board! And if that weren’t enough, it takes at least 2/3 gallon of oil (gasoline) to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. That is ridiculous!
  7. Does the Farm Bill align with U.S. Dietary Guidelines? If Americans increased their fruit and vegetable consumption to meet the USDA dietary recommendations, the US would need an additional 13 million acres of these crops! That’s more than 3 times what we currently devote to fruit and vegetable production. Without research devoted to more efficient produce farming, or economic incentives such as subsidies, there is little motivation for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables. It simply isn’t profitable.
  8. Does the Farm Bill promote sustainable land use? Some of the biggest conservation programs for land and wildlife are actually funded through the Farm Bill, but conservation programs get only a small percentage of the budget. The financial risks of farming are so high, that farmers plant “fencerow to fencerow” regardless of what is needed, because it is the only way for them to stay afloat. More money should be put into conservation policies to help reward farmers that are good stewards of the land. Right now there is no incentive for them to farm sustainably, except for the Conservation Stewardship Program, which is severely underfunded (3/4 applications get rejected due to lack of funds).
  9. What issues should an ideal Farm Bill address? An ideal Farm Bill should better align crop subsidies with nutrition guidelines, and make all farmers meet certain conservation guidelines before being eligible to receive support. This means no more money for large CAFOs or soil degrading mono-croppers. An ideal Farm Bill should also incentivize sustainable methods such as pasture based agriculture and crop rotation, as well as devote more research to organics and produce production.
  10. What’s next for the Farm Bill? The January fiscal cliff bill included a 9 month extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. This bill extends direct payments to farmers (unless a new Farm Bill is passed before October), protects against a spike in milk prices (the “dairy cliff”), and makes no major changes to SNAP. Unfortunately, the extension didn’t extend funding for organics, clean water initiatives, beginning farmer programs, or disaster assistance. However, the Farm Bill is facing budget cuts across the board in the aftermath of the sequestration. It is still unclear how the money will get allocated. Things are changing quickly, so now is the time to let your voice be heard.

Statistics mentioned above are sourced from Food Fight 2012: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill, the video displayed below, as well as this article.

For those of you that would like to learn more:

  • To learn more about what the Farm Bill is and what programs it supports (or doesn’t), I highly recommend this 14 minute TEDxTalk from Ken Cook (President and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group) called “Turning the Farm Bill into a Food Bill”.
  • For a shorter video introduction, check out this 4 minute video slideshow from Food Fight 2012. While not as informative as the TEDxTalk, it is still a good place to start.
  • As far as reading materials go, I cannot recommend this book enough. In Food Fight 2012: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill, author Daniel Imhoff breaks down the complexities of the bill in an easy to understand manner. The book is filled with colorful graphics and charts to help illustrate the various aspects of the bill. And best of all, Imhoff highlights the loopholes and problems of the Farm Bill, and offers sensible solutions and policy changes to improve it. This book is indispensable to anyone looking to learn more about the Farm Bill and make a difference in U.S. Food Policy.
  • For more information on how you can get involved in improving the next Farm Bill, see this page. Because the Farm Bill extensions expire in October, NOW is the time to get involved!

– Kelly

Food Policy: “Good Foods” vs “Bad Foods”

Going through school and training to become a Registered Dietitian, I was conditioned never to use the words “good food” or “bad food”, in fear that this might give someone an unhealthy relationship with food (becoming obsessive or orthorexic), and also to emphasize that all food can be incorporated into a healthy diet, so as not to turn people away. But if all food can be incorporated into a healthy diet, why can’t we just call it what it is? Junk food. This part of my schooling always bothered me, and after reading Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, I feel that this “no bad food” ideal permeated from a much higher level than from my instructors. Due to pressure from the food industry, the USDA is also conditioned not to identify “good foods” or “bad foods”, and I argue that this is where some of the dietary confusion in America comes into play.

The US Government attempts to provide the American public with trusted dietary information through the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the new MyPlate (formerly a food pyramid). As a nutrition professional, I think that MyPlate is a great teaching tool, and really opens eyes up to just how important fruits and vegetables are. The only time that I find MyPlate difficult to work with is when explaining breakfast, as vegetables are only easily incorporated into omelets, and don’t go well with other traditional breakfast foods such as cold cereal, pancakes, oatmeal, or fruit and yogurt. Making produce the star of the plate was a bold move by the USDA, and will hopefully change the way that Americans conceptualize their meals. This is a huge shift from the “meat and potatoes” culture of the past.

Marion Nestle points out in Food Politics that what research finds to be “healthy” (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) has not changed much at all over the last 50 years, so the fact that most Americans are confused about what to eat is evidence of a muddled system. It is difficult for the government to advise our obese population to “eat less”, when those are the very words that the industry forbids them from using. Nevertheless, I do think that MyPlate’s emphasis on produce is a step in the right direction.

Other culprits for confusing the American public are the food advertisers. Not only have advertisers taught us that junk foods are not “bad foods”, they succeed in highlighting the trendy nutrients that their products are fortified with, making them appear as healthful choices. Meanwhile, the real healthful choices, fresh fruits and vegetables, are excluded from high budget marketing campaigns and are left labeless on store shelves. In Food Fight, Dan Imhoff argues that this is in part due to the fact that fresh produce is considered a “specialty crop”, and does not receive the subsidies or technological advances that commodity crops such as corn and soy (the building blocks of junk food) are privy to.

Again working against the “eat less” mentality are the manufacturers of snack foods. In a post depression and food ration nation, the idea of going hungry between meals has become not only unpopular, but downright un-American. I agree with Cutler, Glaeser, and Shapiro, that snack foods are a driver in generating obesity. Michelle Obama’s 2009 remarks at the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. Conference were spot on, as she clarified to grocers that “it doesn’t mean is taking out one problematic ingredient, only to replace it with another… This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy… it’s about producing products that actually are healthy”. What she fails to mention is that the healthiest products have already been “formulated”, and they can be found in produce stands across the nation.

In short, I do not think it is the government’s place to “tell” people what to eat, as “telling” people what to eat implies lack of freedom, something that Americans are quite turned off by. Rather, I think it is the role of the government to provide American citizens with unbiased sources of dietary information based on the latest research, and to create a marketplace where healthy choices are just as easy to make (if not easier) than unhealthy choices.

Images via: Amazon//MyPlate//Amazon//Huffington Post

– Kelly