As Congress considers appropriations for the farm bill, which funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program--even while USDA reports a record 48 million Americans have now joined participation in the program--advocates actively and vocally champion the value of the food stamps program. USDA argues SNAP is not only the “largest program in the domestic hunger safety net,” but it also helps low-income families in making food choices that help them meet dietary guidance for health.
"SNAP is important beyond alleviating hunger," argues the non-profit anti-poverty activist group Nebraska Appleseed. "It aids in improving nutrition and health, especially among children, by increasing access to healthy and nutritious foods including fruit and produce."
But does it?
Researchers in collaboration with the Economic Research Service of USDA in 2004 conducted a sweeping review of the existing scientific literature on that question. Examining a wide range of diet-related outcomes for studies published between 1973 and 2002, they found little evidence of any significant association between SNAP and individual dietary intake. A few studies did find the program is associated with improved nutritional intakes; however, a few have also likewise found similar association with poorer nutritional intake.
In an attempt to try to help settle the question, USDA just released a new detailed study that looked at the Healthy Eating Index scores for adults in low-income households that do and do not participate in SNAP. The study also tried to go further by attempting to tease out the confounding effects that could impact not only the HEI for different groups not related to food-stamp use, but also which might affect their tendency to enroll in the food-stamp program in the first place. You can read the entire report here.
As with the 2004 review, the researchers once again conclude the evidence as to whether SNAP participation either benefits or harms the quality of participants' diets remains largely inconclusive. However, some important points do emerge from the work:
Getting an unbiased estimate of the effect of SNAP on diet quality is a difficult task, the authors caution. It is reasonable to believe households that choose to participate in SNAP have differences compared to similar low-income households that don't enroll--differences that could affect their quality of eating regardless of being enrolled in SNAP. For example, households that participate in SNAP might value food and nutrition more than similar households that don't. Those confounding factors make any question of how to alter the program (for instance, by lobbying for their increased use at farmers markets) without reducing its effectiveness a difficult question, one that warrants further research.
In today's quest to cure the general public of its presumed food-related health issues like obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the "natural public policy imperative," according to a pair of New York marketing researchers, is to use policy that can "nudge" consumers from buying and eating unhealthy food toward the healthier food options policy makers decide to be more appropriate. In the eyes of advocates like Yale University professor Kelly Brownell, for instance, who sees the path to healthier food choices as no different than the path to a tobacco-free world, the solution is as simple as having the political will to add surcharges and subsidies on sinful foods to promote healthier food consumption behavior.
Although that economically driven incentive system may be clear, it is far from simple, according to an upcoming study soon to be published:
A team of researchers led by North Carolina State economist Chen Zhen directly tested whether the idea that forcing consumers to pay more for sugar-sweetened drinks will encourage them to lose weight because they drink less holds true in the real world, where policy often ignores the practical fact that shoppers may simply switch an artificially inflated "sinful food" for a cheaper one nearby on the shelf. Zhen notes existing research has found little to no relationship between existing tax rates and body weight. It shouldn't come as a surprise, he notes, because current taxes on soft drinks designed to raise revenue rather than cut caloric consumption are trivial in comparison to those taxes that are designed to impact behavior, particularly tobacco taxes. Meanwhile, he notes, estimates of the impact tobacco-scale taxes might have on soft drink consumption do suggest they would reduce consumption; however, they haven't taken into account consumers' ability to simply switch to other non-taxed, high-calorie foods.
To attempt to do that, Zhen and others used a sophisticated demand-estimation model looking at household Nielsen Homescan consumer purchase panel data. They modeled household purchases of a set of 23 food and beverage categories, including three major sugar-sweetened beverage categories--soft drinks, energy drinks and juice drinks--attempting to simulate the effects of a half-cent per ounce increase in their price. In addition to the change in drink consumption and calories consumed, they also modeled the expected change in fat and sodium.
The result? Across households of all incomes, about one-half of the reduction in drink calories a price increase would result in would be offset by increases in calories from other foods and beverages. Although a price increase would be expected to lead to a net reduction of 7.9 kilocalories per capita per day, it would increase daily per capita fat and sodium intakes by 0.2 g and 49.8 mg, respectively. The increase in the price of sugar-sweetened drinks also would be expected, according to the model, to lead shoppers to drink less milk, less 100-percent juice, and less bottled water, even as it would induce an increase in diet soft drinks.
Bottom line: Ignoring the cross-effect of a sin tax on soft drinks on other foods means policy makers could be overestimating the effect of such a tax on overall calorie reduction by over 100 percent on average. In addition, a "back of envelope" calculation in the overall welfare loss for low-income households caused by such a tax is about $5 per household per year more than high-income households because low-income households reported higher sugar-sweetened drink purchases. This difference in welfare loss between low- and high-income households reinforces another ugly reality of the sin tax: It's a regressive tax that hits the poor relatively hardest, at least in the case of sugar-sweetened drinks.
They can be hazardous to your longterm business health. Look carefully behind the agendas of some of these “pro-food” groups
Ever since both the Governor and several Nebraska farm organizations pronounced the group persona non grata in the state, the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States has taken most of the heat for activism against traditional agriculture. However, behind HSUS lies a whole second tier of activists with much broader aims than ensuring safe and healthful food, who have successfully grafted their political agendas to the food-system movement. Before grocers and farmers ally with these groups to improve food access and react to perceived “consumer demand” for system improvements, it’s important we consider: Do they really hold your interest at heart?
The grand-daddy of “science-based” criticism of many foods and food-systems practices, CSPI has 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.
Founded in 1986 to oppose industrial agriculture and technology, IATP lobbies U.S. companies to limit trading to organic foods, like “Peace Coffee,” (in which, coincidentally, the group’s principles have had a financial interest). The group has been a vocal critic of crop biotechnology.
This coalition of more than 300 organizations lobbies for local regulation and policy developments that encourage “social and economic justice, anti-hunger, environmental, community development, sustainable agriculture, community gardening and other fields.” In practical terms, these local councils often involve themselves in city hall and state legislatures, direct farmers market activities, farm-to-school provisioning and other marketing channels that bypass the traditional supply chain. “We seek to develop self-reliance among all communities in obtaining their food and to create a system of growing, manufacturing, processing, making available, and selling food that is…grounded in the principles of justice, democracy, and sustainability,” according to the Coalition’s mission statement.
The $6 billion charitable behemoth PEW Trusts has contributed more than $1 billion to several activist environmental groups over the past decade, including $3.4 million to the Johns Hopkins University-affiliated Center for a Livable Future. This critic of all agriculture except small-scale and “urban” farming also supports the “Meatless Monday” campaign to scare consumers into cutting — even eliminating — their meat purchasing for at least one day every week.
GRACE targets not only modern agriculture through it’s “Factory Farm” project, but also traditional energy production and internal combustion automobiles as being too favorable to “corporate profits.” GRACE has mastered the tactic of mobilizing local groups to protest and to lobby regulators. It also urges consumers frustrated with slow progress by their supermarkets in offering “local” food to apply the same pressure to them..
Though the 300,000-member environmental- activist group dresses itself up as a “partner” in helping businesses improve their sustainability, many of its dictates are painfully costly to small business, such as the recent restrictions on diesel-driven generators many supermarkets rely upon.
The return of the president and CEO of Washington, D.C.'s, Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle, to Nebraska last month was a quieter affair than his last appearance nearly three years ago. On the heels of that 2010 visit by Pacelle on behalf of his organization, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman famously promised to "kick their butt out of Nebraska," citing the group's longtime "anti-agriculture" position.
“The Humane Society of the United States is not connected with our local humane societies, who do a good job,” the Governer told the Brownfield Radio Network. “The Humane Society of the United States is anti-agriculture and they’re out to destroy animal agriculture…. They’re making a mistake if they think they come to Nebraska and defeat us.”
When Pacelle made his 2010 appearance in Lincoln, he was met by a hostile crowd and a newly formed farm-group coalition, determined to prevent a repeat in Nebraska of statewide ballot initiatives in other states that attempted to place financially crippling restrictions on animal agriculture in those states. Upon his return June 27 and 28, however, the tone was decidely more relaxed and cooperative with the farmers of the state. While here, the head of the most powerful animal-rights advocacy group in the nation, backed by $167 million in annual revenue, met with farmer members of his new state Agriculture Council, toured an organic milk and cheese farm nearby, and assured those who heard him that his was now a mission of conciliation. His outreach went so far as to convince the Lincoln Journal Star reporter covering the appearance that the group no longer considers it necessary to advocate for legislation to achieve its current top objective: elimination of the gestation crates that pig farmers typically use to manage pregnant animals.
“It’s entirely unnecessary,” he assured the Journal Star, “because the market atmosphere has overtaken gestation crate issues.”
But does the new tone of cooperation mean HSUS has softened its stand regarding farming practices like gestation crates? Not likely.
The last year has seen a reduced focus on legislation by the society and more direct involvement with food manufacturers and retailers to advocate for voluntary change. Numerous food retailers and quick-service restaurant chains have announced they would soon begin to demand their pork suppliers phase out the use of gestation crates, in the interest of satisfying "consumer demand" for an end to the practice. Smithfield Foods, the country's largest pork farm, for example, first announced in 2007 it would gradually abandon the practice over a 10-year period. Although Smithfield had earlier backed off on its promise because it was facing financial hardship, Smithfield President and CEO Larry Pope said the company’s hog operations had converted housing for 30 percent of its sow herd and was now back on track to meet the 2017 goal.
In the last year, Wendy's, Burger King, Safeway, Sonic, Denny's, McDonalds, Cracker Barrel and Kroger have all released statements in conjunction with the association--often sharing the same language, if not written directly for them by HSUS--announcing they plan to pressure pork suppliers to abandon the practice.
Despite an absence of any meaningful research that demonstrates any real consumer demand for an end to the practice--except that research created by the association in order to support its mission--retailers do appear to be proving Pacelle correct: the market may be changing to favor the HSUS position that many mainline farm organizations continue to see as simply the first shot in further restrictions on agriculture. And like the HSUS-backed egg-laying hen housing bill introduced into this session of Congress which would cost the egg-production chain anywhere from $4 billion to $10 billion to institute, they consider such "market driven" tactics as simply another means by which HSUS hopes to make animal farming so financially burdensome as to make it ultimately unsustainable in present form.
Groups like the Nebraska coalition We Support Agriculture argue that despite what HSUS and Pacelle say, they see collaboration by retailers and farm groups like the Nebraska Farmers Union as an unhealthy alliance that will ultimately damage the financial viability of Nebraska's food system. not just for the large farms HSUS actively opposes, but for small farms and other chain members, as well.
“I would not take Wayne Pacelle at his word if he said the sun was out at noon today,” Larry Sitzman, executive director of the Nebraska Pork Producers, told the Lincoln Journal Star.
QI wonder when I read the news reports about farm-animal identification. Why on earth would cattlemen and cattlewomen want it? It simply baffles me.
A The federal government's newly launched second attempt at a national livestock identification program has come under criticism from farmers, generally smaller ones, who argue it's an onerous burden that unfairly singles out the small farm for regulation.
However, those who advocate for the program say some system is needed to help identify and stop a disease epidemic should it ever break out in U.S. herds. Why?
Veterinary researchers at University of California at Davis published a complex mathematical model in this month's issue of the scholarly journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine that simulated how difficult it would be to find and contain a case of Foot and Mouth Disease if it broke out somewhere among that state’s 22,000 dairy herds. Foot and Mouth Disease is a caused by a highly contagious virus, which typically affects cattle and sheep. It is notoriously difficult to contain because it can be spread not only via movement of infected animals, but also by farm vehicles, clothing, feed and other animals, including wildlife. When Great Britain suffered an outbreak in spring of 2001, an estimated 7 million sheep and cattle were eventually killed in an attempt to halt spread of the disease, eventually costing the country’s food chain $13 billion.
The California researchers compared the predicted results of containment efforts assuming either an electronic tracing system, a paper-based tracing system of variable efficacy, or no tracing system at all.
Their results estimated that an electronic tracing system would reduce the average number of infected farms by anywhere from 8 percent to 81 percent, depending on how big the farm that first spread the disease was and what species of animals it housed. The electronic system also simulated a decrease in the average length of the epidemic, from at least 200 days down to 42, if the initial infecting farm was a small dairy; from 110 days to 45 days if it were a large dairy. Even relying on a paper-based tracing system was better than no tracking system at all, the researchers found, although it was not as efficient as an electronic tracking system.
The United States’ current lack of a national animal movement database, they argue, leaves the food chain at the mercy of often inefficient state tracking systems that can’t share incompatible data or integrated technology, hindering their ability to efficiently track infected animals. According to USDA, it’s possible that with current systems an animal may be identified multiple times and yet still not be fully traceable. And, ironically, their success in reducing disease has resulted in reduced participation in these programs, so the U.S. traceability infrastructure is even less effective than it was in the past.