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Thursday April 26, 2018

The obesity bill is coming your way

You've heard the doomsayers:

  • According to Marion Nestle, chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University, the cost of chronic illness caused by obesity and poor diet will be "astronomical."
  • James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at University of Colorado, claims that at its current rate of growth, the level of diabetes alone caused by the nation's obesity epidemic "will break the bank of our healthcare system."

Policymakers and public health officials, such as the 2010 White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, have likewise cited increased costs as their rationale for writing policies aimed at slowing the spread of obesity. But so far, what has stopped full-throttle regulation to tackle the problem has been a lack of hard dollar figures regarding how much the fat are costing the public and society.

Controlling the local food system through politics

Advocates of the "local food system" and "community food security" have argued that market forces cannot be trusted to provide consumers with safe and nutritious food. Says one of the most famous, author and activist Mark Winne, for instance, "To get the food system we want, to be sure that healthy and affordable food is available to all, to breathe clean air and drink clean water, to ensure that everyone earns a decent living from their food system work, and to gather as much joy as possible from the physical and social spaces we share as a people, we must indeed be conscientious consumers, but even more important, we must be engaged citizens."

But what exactly does that look like, the image of the consumer turned "engaged citizen?" Now, a new online database of dozens of metropolitan, county and regional food-policy ordinances, statements and plans offers a glimpse at the mechanics of a food system driven by policy rather than markets. Compiled under the urban planning school of the State University of New York at Buffalo, the "Growing Food Connections" program, in cooperation with the American Planning Association and several other local-food advocates offers the searchable collection of policies that explicitly support community food systems. The group advertises the database as a tool to help local food-policy councils--the number of which have roughly doubled nationwide since 2010--to model their own food-related laws and public plans. Meanwhile, it makes fascinating reading for grocers and others who believe the traditional for-profit food system is worth protecting. Some examples:

  • Minneapolis' Staple Food Ordinance of 2008, dictating that all grocery stores seeking a license to operate by the city must offer a dictated minimum variety of "staples," including predetermined mimimum numbers of produce, meats and fish, breads and cereals, and dairy products.
  • San Francisco's Healthy Food Retailer Incentives Program, a 2013 ordinance that although offering financial support to help incentivizes urban retail stores and farmers markets to offer more healthy foods to shoppers in the city, meanwhile specifically refuses to define as a "healthy food retailer" any supermarket with more than 20,000 square feet of floor space.
  • Seattle's 2008 Food Action Plan, which in a comprehensive policy quest to increase the access of that city's citizens to healthy food and reduce inequality in access, specifically addresses the need to use city code administration to encourage urban agriculture, market gardens, community supported agriculture, agro-food tourism, hospitals, schools, jails and small groceries. Notably absent: Any mention of large commercial retail supermarkets. 

For more, check out the advance search tools for the database by clicking here.

What students are learning about the politics of foodMore young men and women now attend degree-granting institutions than ever before, about 140,000 in Nebraska and 21 million across the United States. One in five of those students will wind up in a career within the U.S. food system as scientist, farmer, veterinarian, nutritionist, retailer or other. All will go on to accept their ever expanding role as food consumer.

What are those impressionable young students at the university learning about agriculture, agribusiness and the food chain? A new study summarizing some of the new realities on campus by the publication Truth in Food offers some sobering lessons about today's food and farming political realities:


Food is the medium for many messages

Food is the gateway to all issues. According to the editors of the Winter 2013 Transformations, an academic journal that explores how to teach issues of identity, power and social justice, the study of food “... supplies the ingredients for students to explore economic systems, to analyze cultures, to examine identities and traditions, to connect with communities, and to engage political, ethical, and scientific discourses.” Through its “Teaching Food” special issue, teachers learn how to teach students not just basic culinary arts and food-system structure, but questions such as the economics of food production, the relationship between local and global food systems, how food expresses culture, labor issues, and how to “move beyond the classroom and kitchen and become activists.”

Today's humanities departments have gravitated towards agriculture and food. There, professors of anthropology, sociology, minority studies, political science, and more have grown intensely interested in farm management, food production, food distribution, food consumption and their social, environmental and cultural impact. As the editors of Transformations attest, every major now feels compelled to enter into the discussion about modern farming and food production.

Food and farming ain't pretty. Many students arrive on the college campus holding distorted or preconceived notions about agriculture and modern food production. Others arrive naive, but lack a filter that questions the attack they encounter on the integrity of farming and food production, often relying upon questionable pop-culture sources used as academic support. Irregardless, the result is the same: Both seem unaware of the obvious benefits of a sound agricultural system, proven to strengthen the nation’s financial position, feed its citizens, build up the human person — physically via nutrition and spiritually via the dignity of work — and ensure stewardship of the land and of the animals.

The history of American agriculture and the modern food system, its role in the development of the world, its service to mankind and its lasting impact for the greater good have gone missing in the presentation of agriculture and agribusiness on our college campuses. When one does hear of the marvels of agriculture, it’s often only as a reluctant acknowledgement from an activist professor before he lists a litany of accusations or casts agriculture as “big business,” “big food” or “powerful lobbyists.” Agriculture as noble cause gets lost in the harangue. "Food studies," regardless of the course they are covered within, often begin from the assumptions expressed by a recent National Geographic feature written by Jonathan Foley, a professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the Institute on the Environment:

“Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined — largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe. Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity. As we’ve cleared areas of grassland and forest for farms, we’ve lost crucial habitat, making agriculture a major driver of wildlife extinction.”

Food is the medium for many messagesIt's a food (Information) desert out there. Such activities of anti-agriculture professors on campus often “set off the internal warning buzzer” of those students who may disagree with such a grim assessment. However, once they take the initiative to respond, students do not know where to go for accurate, balanced information about agriculture and the modern food system. As a result, they default to self-directed Internet searches and self discovery. Although every agricultural entity has online resources and some have even been cloaked in innocuous sounding terms such as “Sustainable Table,” “Responsible Agriculture” or “Food Source,” virtually no awareness of these tools exists among college students. Lacking no consensus for a single, reliable resource to support an argument in favor of agriculture, feeling isolated and disconnected from other students on their campus or another school who might share their sentiment, today’s students feel a profound unmet need for not just resources, facts and figures to support their vocation, but also persuasive, well-reasoned arguments prepared to help them launch a meaningful counter-argument in support of the modern food system.

Click here for detailsFor more on the 10 lessons the modern food system can learn from college campuses, click here to download the entire report.

The trouble with soda taxes

"Soda taxes can work, according to a new study," the Huffington Post breathlessly proclaimed in June. "We've just been proposing the wrong type." Post contributor Kevin Short reported on a new study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, in which North Carolina economist Chen Zhen compared the effect of taxing soda by volume vs. taxing soda by the calorie. Zhen's elaborate mathametical modeling showed that a per-calorie tax was more efficient at inclining people to buy lower-calorie drinks than taxes based on the fluid ounce. His modeling predicted that a nickel tax on a every 125 calories--or 6 cents for a 12-ounce Coke--would drive the average American consumer to drink 5,800 fewer calories over the course of a year.

There's only one problem with Huffington's glowing interpretation. According to work published in the very same journal by the very same author, which Farmer Goes to Market reported here, soda taxes may change consumption, but that doesn't mean they work. In the real world, taxing consumers on their soda purchases appears to simply drive them to consume more fat and sodium, potentially defeating the original aim of reducing obesity and improving their health.

That mistake in gauging long-term effect is only one of the problems with soda taxes, Oklahoma State ag economist Jayson Lusk writes in a short commentary for the February issue of the Canadian Journal of Diabetes.  A number of important questions, Lusk cautions, must be considered before legislators leap to consider taxes like the one proposed for Nebraska last year by Lincoln Senator Bill Avery, which was killed in legislative committee.

Taxes may change consumption, but does that equal less obesity? Lusk points out the same logical flaw Zhen identifies in his July 2013 study: Taxes don't just affect the consumption of soft drinks, but of the other foods and drinks around them. Because consumers are free to substitute one drink for another, the only taxes that are likely to significantly reduce obesity are across-the-board taxes on all food and drinks. That kind of one-size-hits-all taxing leads to the second problem Lusk identifies, which is...

Sin taxes are regressive. As regulators have learned from taxing tobacco, sin taxes aimed at changing people's behavior by discouraging poor eating tend to hit the poor harder than the wealthy. And in fact, Lusk writes, because the poor spend a relatively higher proportion of their income than the affluent on food, any tax on food should be considered a regressive tax.

The taxes tend to be hidden. "A tax will be effective only to the extent consumers see it reflected in the retail price," Lusk writes. When taxes get added at the register, as Avery's bill would have accomplished by removing the sales tax food exemption from soft drinks, their effect on consumption can be expected to be even lower than when they are simply added into the shelf price.

Skipped calories do not equate to lost pounds. Or, at least not to the extent that's often assumed by tax advocates. Even if you grant that taxes will force consumers to drink less sugar, the research shows the amount of weight loss that equals is highly unpredictable. Lusk points for example to a recent study showing the traditional assumption that every 3,500-calorie reduction will lead to a one-pound weight loss actually overestimates the actual weight loss by more than a fourth.

Those realities help explain the real-world paradox that the researchers' simulations clearly show soda taxes should affect weight even as real-world taxes seem to have no impact. But there's an even "more fundamental" problem with them, according to this author of The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate. Pronouncing someone else's consumption level of soft drinks as "too much," he writes, smacks of a parternalism that may be justifiable in the case of children and the mentally impaired, but offends when applied to the general population. Granted, excess soda drinking may lead to health problems, but "life is full of difficult tradeoffs," he writes. Some people care about tasty, satisfying food and drink in addition to health. If they don't understand the attendant risks of that tradeoff, he argues, the answer isn't more taxes. It's more information.

Food prices don't cause food insecurityWhile economics researchers actively study the question of how food prices in the developing world impacts hunger and food security, the question is almost nonexistent in this country. That lack is due in part to a lack of suitable food price data to study, says a pair of USDA Economic Research Service scientists. But it's also due to the assumption that in a country where the average consumer spends only about a dime out of every dollar's wages to feed himself, prices matter less.

Is it true?

The researchers, writing in the December issue of the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, used data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey and USDA's recently published Quarterly Food-At-Home Price Database to form localized food-price indices for different regions of the country and then mathametically model the likelihood that theoretical SNAP recipient households in those regions would suffer food insecurity based on food prices.

Their results confirmed what they suspected:

  • Food prices significantly affect food security for households participating in SNAP when those households' incomes are less than two times the federal poverty level, or about $47,000 annually for a family of four.
  • Their results suggest every $10 increase in the price of a market basket designed around USDA's Thrifty Food Plan--a food plan that enumerates the least expensive basket of foods consistent with the Agency's dietary guidelines--can be expected to increase the food insecurity of households receiving SNAP benefits by 5 percent, adults by 5.1 percent, children by 12.4 percent.
  • Their mathematical model predicts SNAP households in regions with the highest 75 percent of the nation's food prices are from 15 percent to 20 percent more likely to be food insecure than those living in regions with the lowest 25 percent food prices.

High food prices increase food insecurity

Their suggestions? They believe indexing SNAP benefits to local food prices could improve the ability of the program to reduce food insecurity and economic hardship in areas with high food prices. Since SNAP has become such a large part of income assistance for low-income families, any change in how benefits are calculated will likely have effects beyond ability to purchase food. USDA currently indexes SNAP benefits for recipients in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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