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Saturday March 24, 2018

Is the food dessert phenomenon real?

The idea of “food deserts,"  low-income pockets with limited access to healthy foods that USDA says millions of Americans now live within, has an intuitive attraction, says 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.

The one hole in this appealing story, Zeng will tell the annual meeting of the Allied Social Sciences Association in January in San Francisco, is that the numbers simply don't support it.

Zeng's latest work helps disentangle all the "confounding mechanisms" that are over-simplified by the food deserts narrative. He reports that the widely held theory in the scientific literature that longer distance and thus more difficult access to the supermarket leads to obesity in nearby citizens is not generally true when individual preferences and travel costs are considered. This reality helps explain, at least in part, why researchers who actually measure the association between the food environment and obesity levels have found only mixed and contradictory results. 

To really get at the question of food deserts, he writes, it is necessary to consider the particulars of individual cases which the food-desert generalization averages, including special food environments, extreme preferences, random supermarket travel, and income changes. For example, he points out:

  • Longer distances to a traditional supermarket may incentivize residents to walk, increasing exercise and health.
  • A closer store could allow a resident to make more frequent trips and facilitate her buying fresh items. Yet, the gas money she saves would also be available for additional food items, some of which may be less healthy.
  • In contrast, a nearer store for another might simply mean that unhealthy food items are available at lower time and monetary costs. Longer supermarket distance unambiguously reduces the weight of a person who already eats healthy, but is ambiguous for an unhealthy eater. Supermarket access alone does not determine the effect on weight regardless of the supermarket travel pattern, he says.

Such "heterogeneities," or variability in how real people behave in theoretical settings, generally don't get considered in existing studies given data limitations. Important features are also missing on the supply side. For instance, supermarkets generally provide foods, including unhealthy foods, at lower prices than the alternative retail outlets, which could inadvertently increase food consumption and therefore result in weight gain.

Neither limited supermarket access nor low income has any clearly established effect on weight, Zeng concludes. Until the conflicting forces he identifies are formally analyzed, the concept of food deserts does little to guide policy-makers in preventing increasing obesity rates.

Do large farms really exploit their workers?

"Is it a stretch," historian Dan-el Padilla Peralta asked a lecture the last week of October before the Department of English at University of Nebraska, "to compare today's immigrants with Roman slaves?" The Princeton- and Oxford-trained classical historian, himself a child of undocumented immigrants in this country, lays out an interesting case that a globalized economy that contributes to a necessity to emmigrate may owe something to its immigrants. However, his rhetoric comparing today's U.S. immigrants to Roman slaves as "bound to farms with little to no prospect of relief" betrays the prejudices of many against today's large farms. Factory farms, writes Huffington Post "traveling research scholar" Lucas Spangher, for example, are rampant with poor pay, long hours, harassment, abuse and a frightening pace so strict workers take their bathroom breaks in their pants rather than risk blame for slowing down production.

It's a common meme among advocates, popular food writers and documentaries, writes University of Colorado at Boulder sociologist Jill Lindsey Harrison in the December issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values: Contrasting the honorable labor of ‘‘family farms’’ with the exploited labor of ‘‘factory farms," or criticizing only the labor relations on large-scale farms while giving small ones a pass.

There's only one problem with that contention, Harrison writes: Nobody's ever really done the heavy academic lifting of actually studying the relationship between farm size and job quality for hired workers. So, she and fellow researcher Christy Getz did it, using two independently conducted, mixed-methods case studies—one on 300 organic fruit and vegetable farms in California and the other on 83 Wisconsin dairy farms of different sizes.

Their results showed that despite the differences between these two commodity sectors, large farms in both cases fared better than or no worse than smaller farms for most job quality metrics studied, with only a few exceptions.

Pay and benefits. Although the small California farms reported higher average entry-level wages, differences in top wages were negligible. For the Wisconsin dairies, entry-level hourly wages were highest on large dairy farms and lowest on medium-size farms, although the differences were not statistically significant. In both states, the larger farms were more likely to report offering nonwage benefits, including health insurance, paid time off and a paid retirement plan. It was also the larger farms in the California study that were more likely to report using formal systems to supervise and manage workers, including an employee manual, discipline and termination practices, formal grievance procedures, formal job descriptions, employment contracts and policies in Spanish. Additionally, large farms were significantly more likely than small farms to report they provide supervisors with specific guidelines or training to ensure formal respect of farmworkers. In contrast, the smaller growers tended to be more ad hoc in their worker management, depending on one-on-one contact and working side-by-side with employees.

No pay difference between large and small farms

Opportunity to advance. In the Wisconsin dairy study, farm size appeared to make no impact on the ‘‘intrinsically’’ rewarding nature of entry-level jobs on dairy farms—in other words, how well entry-level jobs keep workers interested and permit them autonomy and creativity. Big or small, farmworkers equally recognize that milking is boring, dirty and strenuous. However, the study found that workers’ opportunities to get promoted out of that low-level work increases as farms get larger. The data show small dairies, in contrast, tend to hire labor only for the tough job of milking, because the better non-milking jobs go to dairy owners and their families—who also, by nature of the business' demography, tend to be white, U.S.-born.

For their part, the smaller California growers did tend to be more likely than the large farms to claim to use more efforts to protect the safety and health of their workers by limiting handweeding or stoop labor, as well as to a set number of hours each day and pay by the hour to avoid speed-related accidents associated with piece work.

Why the ancient love affair with meat continues today

The Huffington Post this week features a long ode to Netflix-streamed Japanese anime spotlighting the emotional challenges of eating animals. New York food and pop-culture authority Fabio Parasecoli hopes his tender biography of Hachiken, the lonely meat-ambivalent hero of the Silver Spoon series, will lead more "young urbanites" to reflect on the source of their meat.

Today's social climate finds many of your meatcase shoppers--even in meat-loving Nebraska--similarly confronted by what one social scientist calls the “meat paradox:" Even as they enjoy this staple of your business as a staple of their diet, the constant criticism of farm-animal production surrounding them may leave them morally conflicted by the thought of using animals for food. Meat eating is still the norm in the United States, even though many people consider vegetarianism to be morally admirable – even meat eaters themselves, according to some research.

How can consumers hold such opposing attitudes, often happily? Here are the four general reasons that always bring shoppers back to meat, guilt-free and ready to buy, according to research:

1. It's natural. Social psychologist Melanie Joy, author of Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows, first introduced the concept of the "the three Ns" for resolving the conflict in meating-eating in 2010. The first of those appeals to man's natural craving for meat. Socialization teaches consumers that meat-eating is in our biology, that the craving is natural and that man evolved to eat meat and that, by extension, eating an all plant-based diet is inherently unnatural.

2. It's necessary. Meat-eating is needed for survival or, at least, to maintain full strength and vibrance for healthy individuals. The necessity argument is reinforced by the belief that humans can't eat enough high-quality protein or get sufficient vitamins and minerals from a strict plant-based diet.

3. It's normal. Strident veganism aside, most of our shared social channels, from family members to churches to media and organizations reinforce the widespread belief that eating meat is what most people in civilized society do and what most people have come to expect. The flipside of this reinforcing belief is that it's still the abnormality to not eat meat.

Reasons for eating meat4. It's enticing. Beyond Joy's three Ns, British moral psychologist Jared Piazza adds an important and often under-appreciated last N to the list in his recent article in the journal Appetite: "Nice." Meat is enticing because it uniquely satisfies omnivore cravings. He believes the enticing aspect of meat eating has largely been ignored by theorists because it's a weak moral defense. However several lines of evidence suggest the simple enjoyment people get from eating meat is a major barrier to reducing meat consumption or encouraging them to adopt vegetarianism. He and his research colleagues conducted a series of six studies that demonstrated it's an important element in justifying people's meat eating.

Both Piazza and Joy, a vegan and animal-rights activist and speaker, position the four Ns as a moral defense mechanism that supports denial of underlying guilt. However, the justifications also function as reinforcement to encourage your conscious shoppers' choice to eat meat, and the four-N scale serves as a thrifty and efficient method of categorizing them that fits generally.

Nebraska now ranks as the 20th most obese state in the country, according to a new study from the Trust for America’s Health, up three places from its 23rd spot on last year’s report. The current adult obesity rate in our state stands at nearly one in three people.

Were that news not bad enough, the other shoe has just been dropped in a study conducted by a group of physicians from Kings College of London and published in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The researchers studied a sample of obese medical patients aged 20 years and older from a 10-year period in the United Kingdom’s Clinical Practice Research Datalink, the nationalized health records system that includes nearly 7 percent of all citizens. The study analyzed about 78,000 men and almost 100,000 women, out of a total record set of nearly 279,000 records, who were identified as obese to some degree. The researchers followed their progress for nine years, and they excluded those patients who had gastric bypass surgery.

The British researchers found that for a "simply" obese person--that is, someone with a body mass index between 30 and 35--the probability of getting back to a normal weight was just 1 in 210 for men and 1 in 124 for women. For the morbidly obese--those with a BMI between 40 and 45, the chances of ever returning to normal weight was just one in 1290 for men and one in 677 for women. The annual probability of losing just 5 percent of bodyweight for the morbidly obese was one in eight for men and one in seven for women.

For those who did lose 5 percent of  body weight, just over half had gained the weight back and more by two years later; by five years later, nearly eight in 10 had. The British researchers note that kind of weight cycling has been linked to a higher risk of sickness and death than stable obesity.

What the food waste controversy really means

English comedian John Oliver's 17-minute monolog trashing America's food wasting binge on his HBO series Last Week Tonight earned more than 2 million YouTube views and renewed praise from food activists who see this issue as the tip of our wider food-system problems. “The amount we throw out has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s," Oliver ranted. "At this rate, in 40 years when you order pizza from Domino’s, they’ll just deliver it straight to the nearest dumpster. As they should–but that’s not the point here.”

Recognizing the risk in taking a professional comedian at his word that he's trying to make a serious point--even though we are assured by media commentaters that half of today's Millennials consider political satire shows a frequent source of political news--Oliver's send-up of our food waste problem may have bitten off a little more than he can chew by raising some serious questions:

Why food? Following Oliver's mouth-agape revelation that some fruit is left to rot in the fields because it won't grade high enough to be worth the cost to pack and ship it, in fairness one could wonder when we'll see a similar bit about the waste of perfectly fresh jokes that didn't make it out of the writer's room to be broadcast. Shouldn't America's comedy-starved be permitted access to second-rate comedy, even if it is a little muddy, fumbled and forced? It again raises the age-old question: Why is the food system, and its members like commercial grocers, singled out for unique criticism as a cultural touchstone and political issue? Notwithstanding a few flimsy attempts to demonstrate something unique about food because it intimately touches us all, no cultural commentators have really identified why the food system--and in some cases, the food system alone--warrants such heavy scrutiny.

Where's the cloud behind this silver lining? In sharp contrast to Oliver's grinning gloom-and-doom, economics scholars like Robert Hahn of the American Enterprise Institute argue critics have it precisely backwards when it comes to waste: Waste, repugnant though it may be, is a sign the system is succeeding, not failing. ''The primary reason so much gets tossed is that America has the cheapest food in the world," Hahn has said, capable of giving even the poorest the opportunity to waste.

Better still, studies show the vast majority of food that gets wasted--nearly two-thirds of it--gets wasted by the consumer, not the production and delivery system, precisely because it's fresh and perishable: Most of the 154 pounds wasted by each person per year, according to research firm Garnett, consists of fresh fruits, vegetables and salads---exactly the type of healthier food the food movement urges people to have more access to and is the mark of a healthful food chain.

Give us liberty, or give us blemished apples? Like so many of today's food issues, the food-waste question is a question of consumer freedom. “Consumers typically demand a wide variety of high-quality, cosmetically appealing, and convenient foods,” a USDA report on the issue said in 2014. “As a result, blemished, misshapen, or wrong-sized foods are often discarded to meet minimum quality standards.” A widely cited Natural Resources Defense Council report guessed that out of all the produce that’s thrown out, 10 percent to 30 percent gets wasted simply because it looks bad.

On a deeper level, that type of encouragement of food beautification by culling the substandard does not sit well with much of today's political left, which uses food to find wider cultural meaning. “It’s time we had a reality check in terms of how the food is grown,” according to Dana Frasz, founder and director of Oakland's Food Shift, which politically advocates for waste prevention. “The culture of perfection is so ingrained in our society, whether you’re talking about human bodies or your houses or your food."

That type of "food shaming" is a small manifestation of the wider environmental activism that abandons economic logic for belief in a more religious fundamentalism, writes economist Steven Landsburg, author of Why I Am Not An Environmentalist:

"After my daughter progressed from preschool to kindergarten," Landsburg writes, "her teachers taught her to conserve resources by rinsing out her paper cup instead of discarding it. I explained to her that time is also a valuable resource, and it might be worth sacrificing some cups to save some time. Her teachers taught her that mass transportation is good because it saves energy. I explained to her that it might be worth sacrificing some energy in exchange for the comfort of a private car. Her teachers taught her to recycle paper so that wilderness is not converted to landfill space. I explained to her that it might be worth sacrificing some wilderness in exchange for the luxury of not having to sort your trash. In each case, her five-year-old mind had no difficulty grasping the point. ...We do not recycle. We teach our daughter not to recycle. We teach her that people who try to convince her to recycle, or who try to force her to recycle, are intruding on her rights."

Where's the fine line between "should" and "must." The largely unspoken truth about such a reality check is that if the free market isn't imposing it as strictly as critics like Frasz would have it, then it's going to have to eventually be imposed by political and regulatory systems. Think it can't go that far? Retailers in France now face new legislation that forces them to donate any food they can't sell to charity or face possible criminal prosecution. Forget the reality that the supermarkets themselves will be compelled to absorb the cost of distributing that charity, never mind the statistics showing only a small percentage of the waste is directly caused by the retailer, the legislation's sponsor, Arash Derambarsh, told the London media the push must start with them. "My only problem," he countered his critics, "is that these [88 pounds of food each retailers waste per day] will not go to the garbage, but will go to the plates of poor people."

Have market forces just become too messy? It's the system, not the individual shopper, who is to blame for our waste problem, according to critics like the aptly titled Green Left Weekly. "Limiting personal consumption is a good idea where possible. But it hardly scratches the surface of the ecological problem, which lies in how our stuff is made and distributed," writes editor Simon Butler.

Much of the criticism of food waste, including Oliver's, is a revisitation on a theme that has been rehashed for centuries, writes food historian Warren Belasco. "For millennia," Belasco writes, "food has meant unrelenting drudgery, not just for cooks, but also for all food workers--farmers, field laborers, butchers, grocers, clerks, servers, and so on." But standing amid today's supermarket cornucopia of "too many food choices" (as some advocates voice their longing for a simpler system), it's easy for us to forget one of the aims of the early 20th century liberal Progressive ancestors of today's Food Left. Their goal was to make the food system not less efficient, as often becomes the practical goal today, but to make it more efficient. The Progressive aim was to, in effect, he says, "disappear it" and its never-ending hunger for labor, capital and the kind of day-upon-day demand in human toil that literally wore out producers like my grandmother.

Spent-on-food1aThat's all good news, save for one problem: The aim was accomplished not by the public service, shared sacrifice, intellectual guidance and omnipotent hand of government that exemplified the ideal social model of the '60s left. The world was fed better, faster and cheaper by the selfish, messy, profit-driven capitalism of John Deere, McDonald's, Continental Grains, and Kraft Foods. The average American blue-collar laborer has been freed more thoroughly by a food system that allows him to devote over 90 percent of his income to something other than feeding his family than all the anti-globalization marches that voice support for a localized food system. In that sense, the conflict going on between the free-market economies of American agriculture and the planned economies of the local community food security movement is an old, old fight reconfigured.

Today's insistence on viewing the food-waste problem through the lens of a "socially just" and "sustainable" capitalism ignores the fact that the root cause isn't too much food. It's too little prosperity. Recycling bread loaves past their "sell by" date doesn't end hunger. Improving the economic opportunity to buy them fresh from your shelf does.

Or, as the American Enterprise Institute's Haun succinctly puts it, ''If you want to feed the poor, give them food stamps."

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