FOOD POLITICS

Foresight on Food Politics

Foresight on Food Politics: The trouble with food deserts

Does Nebraska have a food deserts problem? One legislator wants to find out

Two related legislative actions this session attemped to get their hands around the issue of "food deserts" in Nebraska, those areas the U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed are under-served by retail outlets capable of providing healthy, affordable food, leaving residents there at higher risk of obesity and other diet-related health problems. Lincoln Senator Matt Hansen's LB 945 would have directed $150,000 annually for the next two years toward economic-development grants aimed not only grocery stores, but also farmers’ markets, food cooperatives and community gardens. LB 945 stalled in committee, based on the objections of, among others, NGIA Executive Secretary Kathy Siefken, who argued the bill could actually exacerbate the problem it was meant to solve. Funding food cooperatives or farmers’ markets that compete with small rural grocery stores operating on already thin margins, she said, could drive even more retail outlets out of business.

Hansen followed up with another resolution, minus the pricetage, calling for the legislature's ag committee to study the issue and report back to the legislature along with recommendations. The study would look at existing scientific literature and consult with experts to identify factors that limit access to healthy, affordable food, look for  public and private initiatives that can stimulate private investment in grocery and "other food-sourcing enterprises," inventory public and private money to combat the problem, and examine the role of public and private stakeholders in the issue.

The idea of food deserts, as Farmer Goes to Market has reported before, has an intuitive attraction, according to University of Arkansas ag economist Di Zeng. With a supermarket difficult to get to in those areas, residents presumably obtain and consume more energy-dense, unhealthy foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants, resulting in poorer diet quality and more obesity. It's a narrative that's become conventional wisdom in the new food movement and was reflected in Hansen's comments in support of the initial funding bill. USDA says millions of Americans now live within one of these low-income pockets of limited food access, and Hansen claims 325,000 Nebraskans live in such food deserts, disproportionately affecting low-income and minority communities.

But how certain are those numbers?

An extensive review of the literature in the May 2015 issue of the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy attempts a more exhaustive examination of the reasons why nobody has yet successfully established a meaningful definition of food deserts nor even how to measure one. Even the definition of what it means to lack access to healthy food remains elusive. In the review, a team of economists from USDA argue too much of the focus has been placed on the amount of distance between healthy food sources and low-income citizens, and too much attention has been paid to the resources consumers have to get to stores and buy once there. Their list of what's wrong with measuring food deserts includes these holes:

1. Too much emphasis on geography and not enough on individuals

Focusing only on low-income areas and neighborhoods implies that everyone in the same area has the same access to healthy food, which isn't necessarily true. And because results can be easily changed by the way the geographic data is sliced, it's often too easy to juggle the numbers to correlate with the outcome you want, the researchers say. Although some individual-level measures of food access like Gallup Polls have been tried and "are a step in the right direction," the need for more individualized data about food access is still lacking.

2. Over-emphasis on low-income areas

Although the intentions may be good in targeting public dollars to areas that may have high concentrations of individuals who face food access barriers, the poverty level of a neighborhood doesn't always accurately predict supermarket proximity. In fact, the review authors note, because higher-income areas are typically less population-dense than low-income ones, poorer residents within those higher-income blocks could be more likely to be too far from a healthy food retail outlet. Using some of the current estimates, in fact, of the estimated 2.3 million households that are located more than one mile from a supermarket and do not have a vehicle to get there, 1.4 million live in moderate- and higher-income areas, while only 900,000 are in low-income areas

3. It all may be relative

One of the most important holes in the research that leads to criticism of food-desert definitions is the uncertainty whether relatively poorer access to healthy food sources really translates into inadequate access. For example, one relative measure of poor food access compares the relative square footage of grocery retail space per person in a neighborhood against with the average square footage of grocery retail space per person for a whole city. In order to justify such a relative measure of access as meaingful, you have to assume that having relatively unequal access to healthy food means anything in terms of absolute deprivation of access to healthy foods. We really don't know whether those two follow, the researchers argue.

4. Definitions may be painted with an overly broad brush

Over-generalized and sweeping definitions of poor food access by geography brush aside vast differences across the country in factors we know affect food access: factors like population density, vehicle availability, natural and man-made barriers to access and availability of roads, sidewalks and public transportation, to name only a few. For example, under USDA's original definition of food desert, people in rural areas must be 10 miles from a store before they are considered low-access, while in urban areas the distance is only 1 mile. Rural populations as a whole may have greater access to vehicles, but USDA's  measure does not consider vehicle availability. Obviously, any household in a rural area without a vehicle and located more than one mile from a store would likely have just as much trouble accessing food as their urban counterpart, yet they would not be considered in a food desert by that definition.

5. Store square footage may be meaningless

One of the common food-desert measurements, square footage of grocery per capita in an area--typically less than 3 square feet of grocery retail per person--may be one of the most meaningless. It assumes availability of healthy food falls when square footage falls, which is not a safe assumption, they argue. What if store space grows for a region, for example, but more space is  devoted to non-grocery goods or larger-sized products? In fact, according to one study they cite, that 3-square-feet food-desert threshold would mean the entire city of New York qualifies as food desert.

6. Need doesn't equal store viability, and vice-versa

Methods of measuring food deserts that compare estimated demand within an area against actual grocery sales are likely to underestimate the real need in some areas even while overestimating the need in others.

7. “Adequate” and “inadequate” are judgement calls

To be useful in making policy decisions, food-desert distinctions have to eventually be turned into actionable numbers, they note. Yet how the meaningful numbers are distinguished from the trivial ones are "not always obvious." Distinctions like distance from a store and vehicle availability "may be reaonsable from an empirical standpoint," they write, "may have precedent in literature, and may be conceptually straightforward; but they are, ultimately, judgments."

8. General holes in assumptions

Attempts to gauge the level and importance of food deserts are hampered by general limitations like availability of accurated lists of stores in an area, vast differences in food offerings across stores, presence of non-traditional outlets like dollar stores and pharmacies, and the reality that low-income shoppers in low-access areas may be just like all other consumers--they may shop where food is cheapest and not where the analysis says they should. All those factors confound attempts to easily define a food desert and its meaning.

Foresight on Food Politics: Do your food concerns pick your presidential candidate?

How food attitudes reflect presidential support

As part of his regular montlhy surveying of at least 1,000 US consumers that match the demographics of the country in age, gender, education and region, Oklahoma State Ag Economics Professor Jayson Lusk tracks the ebb and flow of concern over typical food-safety issues, such as E. coli, Salmonella, GMOs and others.

In February, Lusk threw in an additional question asking survey respondents to pick their favored candidate for the presidential primaries. "Just for fun," he says (because the sampling is not big enough to be highly dependable), he matched the survey respondants' level of concern about certain food issues against their choice of candidate, creating a food-based matrix showing likelihood of candidate support.

Lusk found Donald Trump supporters had the highest concern for E. Coli and placed the lowest relative importance on the food values of naturalness and the environment. Trump supporters also ate the most red meat. Sanders supporters eat the least beef, pork and total meat, and also put the least relative importance on food prices. Clinton supporters were the most concerned about GMOs, and they placed the highest relative importance on naturalness, nutrition and environment when buying food. How do your food concerns and candidate choice measure up?

How does your food concern predict your presidential candidate?

Foresight on Food Politics: Farmers continue battle against EPA over-reach on water

Does this look like a navigable waterway?

Nebraska's representatives in Washington have stepped up the fight against what farmers believe to be regulatory over-reach by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding how it intends to regulate  small streams, ditches and wetlands. They say they oppose a proposal by EPA to widely expand its oversight of business and farms by changing the definition of waters that fall under the agency's regulation.

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse joined Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe to pen an official letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch in late January seeking a formal investigation into whether EPA broke federal law by promoting the so-called Waters of the United States regulation. Sasse's letter followed a December rulling by the Government Accountability Office finding the agency violated the law by using social media to push the regulatory change, including urging people to pressure their congressional representatives. Calling the campaign "covert propaganda," GAO found EPA personnel had posted on nearly 1,000 social media accounts in favor of the regulation without identifying that the messages were coming from a government agency.

“Despite the fact that the Government Accountability Office found that they broke federal law by running a covert propaganda campaign to support their sweeping WOTUS (Waters of the United States) rule, the EPA has doubled down on their lawlessness,” Sasse said in a written statement. “It’s time for the Department of Justice to investigate.”

Sasse's letter comes on the heels of a vote in the Senate by Democrats that blocked the chamber from taking a vote to override President Obama's veto of a law that would have shut down the WOTUS regulations. That vote to invoke cloture was eight votes short of the majority needed to attempt an override, ending the latest Republican attempt to dump the rule.

“The bill the president vetoed would have stopped a rule that threatens the economic security of countless Nebraska families," said Nebraska Senior Senator Deb Fischer. "Nebraskans value clean water. They also work hard to preserve and protect this critical natural resource. While the courts explore the legality of this rule, I will continue the fight to protect Nebraskans from this unnecessary federal intervention.”

Earlier this year, the American Farm Bureau Federation released a set of maps from neighboring Missouri showing how EPA's re-interpretation of the act would "radically expand" its jurisdiction over land use. "That expansion comes even as major parts of the rule remain largely incomprehensible to experts and laypeople, alike," Farm Bureau adds. The maps show the dramatic expansion of EPA's regulatory reach under its new interpetation.

As currently interpreted. The maps' base layer shows areas regulated as tributaries and adjacent wetlands, without what EPA considers a significant connection, which must now be shown on a case-by-case basis.

EPA's interpretation, adding "ephemeral streams." The next map adds low spots in the land that drain and channel water away from farmland after a rain but are otherwise dry. The EPA has sometimes asserted jurisdiction over that type of area in the past, but only when a specific investigation has shown it connects with downstream waters. Under the new rule, all such "ephemeral tributaries" are automatically regulated.

Adding "adjacent waters." By expanding the definition of regulated "adjacent waters" to cover all waters (including wetlands) that lie, even partially, within 100 feet on either side of these newly regulated ephemeral drains, EPA's regulatory reach vastly expands.

Adding the entire flood plains. Next, and according to Farm Bureau where the vast uncertainty for farmers comes in, EPA adds any part of a water or wetland lying within the 100-year floodplain of a tributary, and not more than a quarter-mile from the tributary. Farm Bureau argues the uncertainty springs from the fact that many areas lack flood zone maps, and that most ditches and ephemeral streams lack mapped flood zones. The result is that farmers and other landowners lack even the basic tools to identify wetlands or other waters that are automatically regulated under the rule.

The final reach. The almost unlimited reach of the rule shows in the final map layer that covers waters that are not "tributaries" or "adjacent," but may still be jurisdictional based on a "significant nexus" to downstream waters. Expanding this zone of uncertainty covers the entire landscape in many parts of the country, the group points out.

“This is far from over," Sasse said. "WOTUS still faces a battle in the courts. The president’s disappointing veto sides with overreaching EPA bureaucrats instead of Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers — those who know and care most about agriculture and conservation policy. Nebraskans are committed to seeing this fight through.”

Foresight on Food Politics: What the end of GMOs would really cost

What would the end of GMOs cost?

You've heard the accusation: Companies that market genetically modified crops talk a good game about the need to increase farm productivity in order to feed the world, but when all things are considered, their high-tech products really do nothing to feed the hungry. Typical runs the line from Environmental Working Group, for example: "Given that creating just one genetically engineered crop variety can cost upwards of $130 million, you’d think Big Ag companies would invest in strategies that have been proven to work and less on GMOs that may not even increase crop yields. But what corporations really care about is increasing their profits, not feeding a hungry world."

But now a study, presented at this year's annual meeting of the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association by Purdue ag economics professor Wallace Tyner, makes the first real attempt to tally the economic and environmental consequences of losing the GMO traits for the major U.S. crops of corn, soybeans and cotton.

Tyner's study first collected from published scientific studies the best predictions for how much U.S. farmers would lose in productivity if they moved completely away from GMO traits. Then, Tyner and his study co-authors plugged those yield losses into a complex mathematical economic model. That model used actual economic data to model--as realistically as possible--how those productivity losses would impact the entire economy.

Their results showed losing the ability to plant GMO crops in those crop categories would cost in several ways:

■ A significant amount of land would need to be converted from other crops, cropland, pasture and forest in order to meet the global demand for food that would not go away simply because farm production declined.

■ The amount of land drawn into producing those three major crops would likely surpass that drawn into use by the entire U.S. ethanol program.

■ Environmental emissions caused by agriculture would increase by between 7 percent and 17 percent.

■ Crop prices would increase. Price changes for corn were as high as 28 percent and for soybeans as high as 22 percent under Tyner’s modeling. Those predicted price increases, again, were on average higher than those actually observed by ethanol mandates.

■ Food costs for consumers would increase by an estimated $14 billion to $24 billion per year.

Foresight on Food Politics: Agriculture's future challenge, according to Mike Johanns

Receiving his award as the 29th Service to Agriculture Award winner at the Nebraska Rural Radio Association  in Lexington, former U.S. Senator, Secretary of Agriculture and Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns paints a challenging picture of the task Nebraska's farmers are up to in the near future. 

 

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In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.


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