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Should EBT replace summer school lunch?

Now that Nebraska children have returned to school, experts predict a large share will, overnight, have better access to reliable healthy meals through the federal program that cuts the cost of school lunches for poor families. During the school year, the federal government subsidizes free and reduced-price lunches for an estimated 22 million schoolkids in this country; on average, 41 percent of Nebraska schoolkids eat free or at a discount—more than 90 percent in some districts.

But in summer, that number drops to under 4 million across the country, distributed through 50,000 locations. That inaccessibility by most kids who aren't in summer school has led some policymakers and advocates to be concerned about whether those school-age children are going hungry during the summer.

To test that question, Congress earmarked funding as part of the 2010 Agriculture Appropriations Act to increase the amount of EBT funds it sends to those households getting free school lunch in a handful of test-pilot locations. The "Summer EBT for Children" increased payments to households with school-age children who, in the prior school year, had been on the reduced-price and free lunch programs. A total of ten state and Indian-reservation agencies in 16 sites participated in the evaluation. Over the course of the pilot's three years, program benefits were distributed randomly to about 100,000 households.

"The findings are simple and dramatic," according to a new report on the pilot's results, soon to be published in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy: A $60 per-child monthly SEBTC benefit reduced the level of so-called very low food security among children by one-third—a three percentage-point decline from a control group level of 9.1 percent. Very low food security means someone in the household was hungry at some point in time but could not afford to eat. The benefit increase also reduced food insecurity among children by one-fifth—an 8.3 percentage-point decline from a control group level of 43.0 percent. Food insecurity means someone in the household may have been able to eat whenever hungry, but couldn't afford to eat what they wanted at some point.

Affect of additional summer EBT payments on food security

Additional benefits also improved the food security for the adults in the household alongside the children, the study shows, and the impact may have been even larger among households the poorer they were. These results, the authors write, suggest that a nationwide SEBTC-like program would have substantial impacts on child, adult and household food security. Funding for such a nationwide implementation of the benefits program that would shift food purchasing subsidies from schools to retail grocers would have to be passed by Congress, likely as part of the next Farm Bill coming in 2018. Interested retailers should monitor developments closely, as changes are likely to be complicated by a concurrent move to possibly block-grant SNAP funding to states.

CNBC reported in early August that with average retail egg prices at a market low of just $1.33 per dozen, consumers are—surprise!—"balking" at paying the higher cost of cage-free eggs. CNBC's grim news arrived just as the country's powerhouse animal-rights group, Humane Society of the United States, was continuing to publicly flog compliant retailers to "voluntarily" commit to the society's vision of a cage-free future by imposing the demand on their egg growers.

CNBC highlights one grower in California—ground-zero for the cage-free movement, where citizens backed a ballot initiative in 2008 to legally require that eggs in that state eventually be raised without benefit of the traditional cages. The CNBC-featured grower complains that with costs of $1 to $2 more per dozen than growers of conventional eggs, he is now being forced to sell eggs at below his cost to produce and to cut his flock.

"Despite promises by retailers and restaurants to convert to cage-free," sums up CNBC's Jane Wells, "some of them are starting to change their minds. And that's no yolk."

Here's the not-so-funny lesson for the food chain: The market stubbornly prevails. Food producers and retailers who rush to try to turn political virtue-signalling into a marketable product trait may get stuck paying the costs. That's especially a risk when outside interests like HSUS push through legislation and regulation without regard for either true consumer demand or food-production realities.

The latest evidence of that reality: University of Connecticut ag economics professor John Bovay, in a study scheduled for publication in the journal Agricultural Economics looked at the impact on consumer demand when tomato producers, under pressure from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, adopted similar "voluntary" food-safety standards in the face of food-poisoning outbreaks in 2007.

Florida's tomato-grower organization wrote the requirements into a federal marketing order that applied to essentially all tomatoes grown in Florida, while the California grower cooperative whose members produce the vast majority of fresh California tomatoes likewise required it of the cooperative's members.

Bovay used USDA terminal market price data and the shipping-quantity data to track consumer demand for tomatoes from five different production regions before and after the standards were imposed: Florida and California, and Mexico, Canada and the rest of the United States.

His analysis shows no evidence that demand for fresh tomatoes improved in response to the collective food-safety practices. Adopting standardized, collective, food-safety practices was relatively unimportant in determining demand for fresh tomatoes, he says, even as FDA and consumer groups were demanding farmers produce them.

The pattern is similar to the outcome of mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) of seafood, meat and other perishable commodities in 2002's Farm Bill, he says. Although COOL was shown to have an effect on demand for shrimp, according to one study, other work showed it made no significant impact on demand for U.S.-raised meat.

The implication for produce growers and handlers who adopt supplier standards is as grim as it is for the CNBC egg grower: They are likely to incur additional costs—$10,400 per regulated farm in the tomato growers' case—without improving either the perceived quality or demand for their products. "When the costs of complying...are passed through to consumers," Bovay notes, "some substitution to products unaffected by the rule (and with lower relative prices) is likely to occur."

If benefits to society do come out of those standards, whether in the form of reduced food-borne illness in the tomato growers' case or in the form of questionable improvements to animal welfare in the case of cage-free eggs, farmers, handlers and retailers are likely to subsidize those benefits, not get paid for them.

The effect should make perfect theoretical sense, writes Swedish organic advocate and sustainability consultant Gunnar Rundgren. The unregulated market offers no guarantees. And he believes that free market is not at all efficient in translating a consumer's true willingness to pay for indirect benefits of a product into an increase in income for the farmer who agrees to make changes in production to accomodate. In the particular case of "fair-trade" items, he says the balance of power still remains tilted against the farmer.

"Buyers...dictate most of the conditions. Their view of what is fair and just is what is codified; as are their definitions of quality rules. There are no codes of practices for the supermarkets to follow, they can and sometimes do mark up fair trade products as much as they want. The consumers who buy the products are also not subject to any commitments—they can buy or not buy on a whim. The producers," he writes, "are mainly objects in the marketing..., in much the same way as the fake Grandma is on a biscuit-maker’s packaging."

 

More science on these food issues? Yes please!

On this year's annual Earth Day, April 22, about 1,000 people in Omaha joined protestors in 600 other cities to March for Science, according to the World-Herald. The movement was part of an international show of support for "evidence-based decision-making," according to the march founders. Among those speaking in Omaha against global warming, lead poisoning and other science-related topics, says the World Herald, was Alan Kolok, director of the Nebraska Watershed Network, an organization of college students that supports small-scale farming, sustainable development and tighter restrictions on pesticides. Like several of the sponsoring organizations of the March for Science, Kolok said he is encouraged by the public's response to "resistance to science" in making policy. Some of those sponsoring groups include:

  • The Union of Concerned Scientists, a continual critic of biotechnology in food production.
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest, the group with a long, dubious track record of lobbying for cost-boosting food-service regulations, including banning trans fats, regulating salt as hazardous, mandating nutrition information on menus, and restricting youth access to vending machines.
  • The Center for Food Safety, a major partner in the “Keep Nature Natural” campaign, which receives funding from the organic food industry to "combat the negative effects of technological progress." 
  • Environmental Defense Fund, the environmental-activist group that dresses itself up as a “partner” in helping businesses improve their sustainability, such as recent restrictions on diesel-driven generators many supermarkets rely upon.
  • Friends of the Earth, a self-professed "outspoken" environmental justice organization that has helped prevent marketing of genetically modified salmon in the United States.
  • Riverkeeper Alliance, an environmental group that aims to protect rivers from livestock farms not by encouraging use of scientific technology, but by impeding farms' growth or forbidding them outright through local regulations.

Now that these political groups have discovered the need to support more and better science in policy making, Farmer Goes to Market asks, Please, could we in the food chain get a little more support for science on these issues, too?

GMOs

A recent survey showed 88 percent of respondents said foods containing genetically modified organisms should be labeled so consumers can assess their risk, but the same poll found only about 40 percent admitted to anything more than a fair or poor understanding of what GMOs really are. Is that fear grounded in scientific reality?  A 440-page report by the National Academy of Sciences, the non-profit non-governmental organization that serves as the science advisor to the U.S. government, summarized years of research on genetically engineered crops. And its conclusion: No meaningful evidence has been discovered in any of that research showing that genetically engineered crops now in use are any different from conventionally bred crops. No evidence has come forward that GMO crops have had a direct negative impact on the environment.

Because of that lack of evidence, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has officially said there is no need to label GMO products. The safety of biotech products has been likewise officially confirmed by numerous scientific groups, some of which sponsored the March for Science, including:

  • The American Medical Association
  • The Society of Toxicology
  • The International Life Sciences Institute
  • The National Academy of Sciences in the United States
  • The Royal Society of the United Kingdom
  • The World Health Organization
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • The European Commission

In 2016, more than 100 Nobel-recognized scientists published a letter reprinted by the Washington Post demanding the environmental organization Greenpeace call a halt to its campaign targeting GMOs. The scientists called it a "crime against humanity" to stand in the way of GMOs needed in agriculture to prevent global starvation. “The scientific consensus," the laureates' letter in the Post said, "is that gene editing in a laboratory is not more hazardous than modifications through traditional breeding and that engineered plants potentially have environmental or health benefits, such as cutting down on the need for pesticides."

Antibiotics

Despite food marketers' wholesale rush to adopt and hype "raised without antibiotics" programs, no scientific evidence supports the claim that antibiotic use by farmers has caused human diseases that can't be treated. Even the scientific critics of farm antibiotic use speak only in terms of likelihood and probability that farm antibiotics could be the contributor to human drugs becoming less effective in fighting illness in people. Arguments that focus the blame for failing human antibiotics on farmers ignore the reality that, according to experts, from at least 95 percent to as much as 99 percent of the drug-resistance problem can easily be laid at the door of human drug over-prescribing and abuse.

Hormones.

The resistance to science when it comes to labeling "hormone-free" foods is so thorough that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration actually requires marketers to remind shoppers of that science on each label (“From cows not treated with rbST. No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows”) and ("Raised without the use of hormones. All chicken and pork are raised without the use of hormones.")

Still, advocates for small-scale and sustainable agriculture continue to misuse science in trying to connect hormone use in beef with reports that boys and girls appear to be maturing from months to years earlier than commonly used norms. That hormone non-science pervades the Internet, typically culminating in advice to buy and eat organic produce and free-range, organic meats to reduce exposure to added hormones.

Although it's understandable to assume the implantable growth hormones farmers use in beef cattle might cause changes in people who eat the meat, any real danger is a non-starter, according to the science. The fact is, the natural proteins in both plant-based and animal-based foods form hundreds, if not thousands, of naturally occurring steroid hormones in almost all foods. And all are broken down by the process of digestion in the stomach, which means by the time they enter the bloodstream, they will have been so reduced to their component parts that they will have lost any ability to biologically affect the human reproductive system.

In fact, most scientists who understand the biological mechanics of early puberty agree that youth today, particulary young women, may be maturing earlier than their ancestors because, ironically, their diets are better than they've ever been. Girls in particular must achieve a certain body mass for puberty to begin. Today's relatively better nutrition—and, yes, today's increase in obesity—means modern girls reach that critical mass at an earlier age than their mothers and grandmothers, which is the likely reason they are entering puberty sooner.

Organic.

Every year, the Pesticide Action Network returns to reprise its frightening but highly scientific-looking story of poisonous pesticides lurking in your produce section. The California non-governmental organization urges citizens to repeat the information provided by its website and other materials as often as possible, and it all sounds quite scientific: "Our website WhatsOnMyFood.org links pesticide food residue data from the USDA with toxicological profiles for each chemical, making this information easily searchable. The end result is a litany of common pesticides, most showing up as residues on any of 93 different foods listed, ranging in incidence from none at all to as high as nearly 90 percent. But in all the scientific smokescreen, Pesticide Action Network fails to enter the most important scientific discussion of all: Does it matter?

As Farmer Goes to Market has cautioned in the past: The Network’s data on incidence of pesticides has to be correctly decoded. Only then does it form a more accurate picture of the real issue—exposure. We found that in all cases, the amount of produce necessary for adults and children to eat daily, according to the minimum safety standards established by scientific testing for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are far beyond the physical capability, let alone the desire to do so.

That kind of fast-and-loose interpretation of pesticide science is precisely what led to a blistering 2014 indictment of the "pesticide-free" tendancies of organic marketing, accusing the organic-food industry of building its 3,400-percent increase in sales over the last quarter century only by using deceptive marketing practices. The 16-page research review studied more than 150 existing scientific sources to evaluate the organic industry's health claims--both those actively expressed and those only assumed by consumers but permitted to stand by marketers. The results?

"Our review," the authors write, "suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and advocacy related practices with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed USDA Organic Seal."

Cage-free.

Half a year ago, McDonalds surprised the food world by pronouncing it would require all the eggs it buys to come from farms that refuse to put hens in cages, opening a floodgate of other companies who have now made similar claims. Six months later, the burger maker's poster child for its self-proclaimed "transparent, science-based" decision, world-famed animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin, was pleading her case to Toronto's Globe and Mail that, well, McDonald's hadn't really consulted her about whether any good scientific reason existed to do so.

Had McDonald's done so, it might not have gotten the answer its marketing department wanted. California, Michigan State, Iowa State and USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists, for example, spent three years analyzing hen housing, measuring its environmental impacts, hen health and welfare, and egg quality and safety. Their findings suggest cage-free may actually be worse for the hens. Two-times the number of hens died in cage-free systems than did in traditional caged or in cages furnished with perches and dust-bathes. While some were killed by other chickens in the barn, most cage-free chickens died from disease.

Sustainability

Physician Henry I. Miller, a fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford and a founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, calls today's infatuation with sustainable food little more than "Affluent Narcissism."

As Farmer Goes to Market has cautioned before: Blindly following the sustainable-food line will take grocers onto thin ice when it comes to health claims. The science doesn't support those claims. The even worse news: The science has also called into question sustainability's claims about environmental protection, as well.

For example, University of Oregon's Julius McGee tested the relationship between the recent growth in organic agriculture and greenhouse gas emission that could be traced specifically to agriculture. His study, in the June 2015 issue of the journalAgriculture and Human Values, is one of the first large-scale empirical analyses of certified organic farming and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. In it, McGee offers the surprising and contrarian conclusion that not only has organic farming not helped reduce greenhouse gases and global warming, it has in fact increased climate change.

Numerous studies like McGee's demonstrate any promise for food sustainability lies not in reducing the use of scientific farming technology, but in increasing its use to grow more crops on less water, land and fertilizer.

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