Hunger in Plain Sight

There are hungry people out there, actually; they’re just largely invisible to the rest of us, or they look so much like us that it’s hard to tell. The Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program, better known as SNAP and even better known as food stamps, currently has around 46 million participants, a record high. That’s one in eight Americans — 10 people in your subway car, one or two on every line at Walmart.

We wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but as it stands, the number should be higher[1]: many people are unaware that they’re eligible for SNAP, and thus the participation rate is probably around three-quarters of what it should be.

Food stamps allow you to shop more or less normally, but on an extremely tight budget, around $130 a month. It’s tough to feed a family on food stamps (and even tougher without them), and that’s where food banks — a network of nonprofit, nongovernment agencies, centrally located clearing houses for donated or purchased food that is sent to local affiliated agencies or “pantries” — come in. Food banks may cover an entire state or part of one: the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, for example, serves 53 counties and provides enough food to feed 48,000 square miles and feeds 90,000 people a week — in a state with fewer than four million people.

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Posted in Food Politics

The Food Movement Takes a Beating

AN election that saw great strides for women, gay men and lesbians and even pot smokers left the nascent food movement scratching its collective head. We’re going to see marijuana legalized before we see a simple change in food labeling that’s favored by more than 90 percent of Americans? Or a tax on soda, a likely contributor to the obesity problem?

Possibly.

Proposition 37, which would have required packagers to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.’s) as such, was on the ballot in California. As recently as two months ago, the vote for labeling appeared to be a shoo-in. But then the opposition spent nearly a million dollars a day — a total of $46 million, or about five times as much as the measure’s backers — not so much chipping away at the lead but demolishing it.

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Posted in Food Politics, Slow Food

Buying the Vote on G.M.O.’s

Supporters of ingredients derived from “genetically modified foods,” which hereafter I’ll call G.M.O.’s — genetically modified organisms — are mostly the chemical companies who make them or other people who make money from them. They assert that a) there’s no proof that G.M.O.’s are harmful to humans, and b) studies demonstrating that they might be are largely flawed [1]. Point B might even be true, although since the chemical companies largely control the research, it’s hard to tell.

But even if there were a way to guarantee that food produced with G.M.O. ingredients is not directly bad for you, it remains clear that such food is in general bad for all of us, based on the collateral damage from producing it.

What most genetically engineered crops have in common is that they’re bred to be super-resistant to chemical herbicides, chemicals that will kill pretty much everything except the specified crop. And as the weeds that those chemicals are meant to kill adapt and grow bigger and stronger, more and stronger chemicals are needed to try to deal with them.

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Posted in Farming, Food Politics

My Dream Food Label

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What would an ideal food label look like? By “ideal,” I mean from the perspective of consumers, not marketers.

Right now, the labels required on food give us loads of information, much of it useful. What they don’t do is tell us whether something is really beneficial, in every sense of the word. With a different set of criteria and some clear graphics, food packages could tell us much more.

Even the simplest information — a red, yellow or green “traffic light,” for example — would encourage consumers to make healthier choices. That might help counter obesity, a problem all but the most cynical agree is closely related to the consumption of junk food.

Of course, labeling changes like this would bring cries of hysteria from the food producers who argue that all foods are fine, although some should be eaten in moderation. To them, a red traffic-light symbol on chips and soda might as well be a skull and crossbones. But traffic lights could work: indeed, in one study, sales of red-lighted soda fell by 16.5 percent in three months.

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Posted in Food Politics

The Domino Theory, Redux

Imagine you had a multibillion-dollar industry that was (a) enormously profitable and (b) under frequent attack from public health researchers because (c) it’s demonstrably bad for the health of your customers.

This was, of course, the story of the tobacco industry, and it is – right now – the story of the sugar-sweetened beverage industry.[1] Like the cigarette makers, the peddlers of soda cannot do much about any of this: they owe it to their shareholders to maintain those profits, and the products they sell evidently cannot, no matter how hard they try, be tinkered with to change factors (b) and (c). [2]

Even if the beverage industry were composed of the nicest people in the world, it will not stop marketing to children unless it’s made to; indeed, these marketing efforts are within the rules of the game, however deadly they may be. The outcome of those rules and the marketing they allow is pandemic obesity and all the costs associated with it, which have been detailed enough elsewhere to pass over here.

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Posted in Food Politics

That Flawed Stanford Study

I tried to ignore the month-old “Stanford study.” I really did. It made so little sense that I thought it would have little impact.

That was dumb of me, and I’m sorry.

The study, which suggested — incredibly — that there is no “strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” caused as great an uproar as anything that has happened, food-wise, this year. (By comparison, the Alzheimer’s/diabetes link I wrote about last week was ignored.)

That’s because headlines (and, of course, tweets) matter. The Stanford study was not only an exercise in misdirection, it was a headline generator. By providing “useful” and “counterintuitive” information about organic food, it played right into the hands of the news hungry while conveniently obscuring important features of organic agriculture.

If I may play with metaphor for a moment, the study was like declaring guns no more dangerous than baseball bats when it comes to blunt-object head injuries. It was the equivalent of comparing milk and Elmer’s glue on the basis of whiteness. It did, in short, miss the point. Even Crystal Smith-Spangler, a Stanford co-author, perfectly captured the narrowness of the study when she said: “some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious. We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.” That’s because they didn’t look — or even worse, they ignored.

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Posted in Food Politics

Guns, Butter, and Then Some

Back in the administration of W., we looked for the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That was the wrong place; they’re here at home. Normally the W.M.D. I write about is the Standard American Diet (yes: SAD); occasionally I talk about food safety, or climate change, or related topics. But no matter what you look at, the basic problem remains so-called leadership that cannot stand up to big ag, big food, big energy, Wall Street …or the N.R.A.

Since 9/11, 33 Americans have been killed by “terrorists”; roughly 150,000 Americans have been killed by non-terrorists: that is, your run-of-the-mill murderers. Murder, like the leading cause of death — heart disease — is often preventable, through regulations, education and medical intervention.

We don’t know why Jared Loughner — had you, too, forgotten his name before he reappeared in the news on Tuesday? — shot Gabby Giffords, but we do know that he told his shrink that he wished he’d taken the antidepressants he’d been prescribed before the shooting. We don’t know why James Holmes allegedly shot up the Batman crowd, but we do know he was acting in a weird manner, and though his analyst told the police he was troubled, there was no one to help him. We gather that the suicidal Wade M. Page was a racist so ignorant he didn’t know a Sikh from a Muslim.

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Posted in Food Politics

Unanswered Questions for the U.S.D.A.

My column this week is about a “lovers’ quarrel” between the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (N.C.B.A.) and the Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.). Following the withdrawal of an article in an internal U.S.D.A. newsletter supportive of Meatless Mondays – an occurrence that appears to have been directly triggered by an angry rant by the N.C.B.A.’s president – I asked both organizations for interviews; both declined. Here are the questions I had for the U.S.D.A.:

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Posted in Food Politics

No Meatless Mondays at the U.S.D.A.

A trade organization exists to promote the interest of its members; at least some of its work involves lobbying the government for preferential treatment, though most trade organizations would label this “fair.” It’s a clear mission and an unconflicted one; whether the interests of the trade organization coincide with those of the public at large is a matter of chance and not a governing concern. Thus in the course of the events of last week — events that will go down as an amusing footnote in the annals of food progress, and further evidence of government cowardice — the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association acted appropriately: it defended the interests of its members without worrying about the interests of the rest of us.

The Department of Agriculture, however, has multiple missions. One is “to keep America’s farmers and ranchers in business.” Sadly, although the statement doesn’t say which farmers and ranchers, in practice this has meant those who produce commodity crops: wheat, rice, cotton, corn and soybeans, and the animals and junk food whose production relies on the last two. The second is “to end hunger and improve health in the United States.” Last week, the U.S.D.A. betrayed its mission to improve health, acting in a cowardly fashion. For that it should be taken to task.

The events, which unfolded last Wednesday afternoon, could be seen as funny.

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Posted in Food Politics

The Endless Summer

Here’s what American exceptionalism means now: on a per-capita basis, we either lead or come close to leading the world in consumption of resources, production of pollutants and a profound unwillingness to do anything about it. We may look back upon this year as the one in which climate change began to wreak serious havoc, yet we hear almost no conversation about changing policy or behavior. President Obama has done nicely in raising fuel averages for automobiles, but he came into office promising much more, and Mitt Romney promises even less. (There was a time he supported cap and trade.)

It has been well over 100 years since the phenomenon called the greenhouse effect was identified, 24 years since the steamy summer of ’88, when many of us first took notice, and, incredibly, 15 years since the Kyoto Protocol. That agreement stipulated that signatories would annually reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases and was ratified (and even acted upon) by almost every country in the world, including every industrialized nation but one. That would be the United States. Now that’s exceptionalism. (Bill Clinton signed Kyoto; George W. Bush, despite an election pledge, repudiated it.)

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Posted in Food Politics