Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) releases report on SNAP and nutrition

Whenever thoughtful Republicans and Democrats and non-partisan analysts get cajoled into spending significant time in a room together to focus on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) policy, they tend to come up with some common themes:

  • placing a high value both on food security and nutrition goals (not just one or the other);
  • encouraging SNAP to play a constructive role in a labor market centered strategy for poverty reduction (not just focusing on food provision alone); and
  • broadly supporting SNAP overall (not thinking of SNAP as an excessively generous welfare program).

The Bipartisan Policy Center's SNAP report this week in 2018 follows in the shoes of earlier conversations, such as the 2017 joint work of the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings, and the 2016 work of the National Commission on Hunger.

My Tufts Friedman School colleagues Norbert Wilson (as panel member) and Jerry Mande (as advisor) did great work on the BPC report, titled Leading with Nutrition: Leveraging Federal Programs for Better Health. Another panel member was Mariana Chilton, who also had made valuable contributions to the earlier National Commission on Hunger.

Most readers likely will focus on the BPC's recommendation to limit sugar sweetened beverages. But it also is good to notice the broad bipartisan support for SNAP, which contrasts with current winds from the administration:
Task force members shared an appreciation for the importance of SNAP in reducing food insecurity and poverty among low-income Americans. The program plays a positive role in supporting families and communities across the country; thus, it is our strong view that any changes to increase SNAP’s focus on nutrition and healthier food choices must be undertaken in ways that strengthen the program and make it more effective. Given that existing SNAP benefits are relatively meager (less than $1.39 per person per meal), we strongly oppose any changes that would reduce the value of SNAP benefits or make them more difficult for qualified individuals to access.
You may think such reports bland, but I think quite well of them. I would be happy to trade our current political environment for the more sedate political world these commissions inhabit. The BPC could not have anticipated -- and certainly did not directly comment on -- the administration's entirely distinct budget proposal, including harsh SNAP cuts and a Harvest Box proposal, which may be more central to the national SNAP policy argument this year.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

U.S. Food Policy: An Introduction (Second Edition)

The book Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction, whose second edition has just been released in the Earthscan Food and Agriculture Series (Routledge), prepares readers to make their own distinctive contribution to a lively conversation about our food system.

There is no reason why food policy debate should continue to mirror the current dysfunctional state of our national political debate. We can do better.

The first in a series of related videos asks: Who should study U.S. food policy?

Routledge provides a free sample chapter on the author Q&A page.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Federal court stops $3 million annual checkoff payments for obsolete "Other White Meat" slogan

The federal district court in Washington, DC, yesterday stopped the $3 million annual payments that the federal government's semi-public pork checkoff program makes to the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), a private trade association, for the purchase of the "Other White Meat" slogan.

The ruling confirms something that I have been reporting for a dozen years. In 2006, the pork checkoff program first announced plans to purchase the industry's own slogan from NPPC for $60 million, in payments of $3 million per year for 20 years. At the time, I noted that USDA was keeping the financial appraisal secret. I had serious doubts that the slogan could be worth such a sum, because who else but the pork board would want to buy it? Were the artichoke producers vigorously bidding up the price for the "Other White Meat" slogan?

It seemed clear what was really going on. The semi-public checkoff program, which is established by Congress and overseen by USDA, must follow rules such as never using its money for lobbying or other types of political influence. The inflated payments circumvented these rules, allowing the checkoff program to shift $3 million each year to the private trade association, without expecting any actual goods or services in return.

This pork industry plan seemed bad for the public interest and bad for pork farmers whose mandatory payments fund the checkoff program. A new report this week from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says more broadly that checkoff programs have shortcomings in transparency and in USDA oversight of contracting.

Over the years, I requested the appraisal under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but USDA refused my request and then on appeal just sent censored documents with the actual financial details blacked out. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was finally given the actual appraisal many years later, and, as expected, it fell far short of justifying the sale price.

Many years have passed, and the federal district court yesterday said the initial 2006 sale -- however bad it may be -- now falls under a statute of limitations. But, the court allowed the plaintiffs, including HSUS and a pork farmer in Iowa, to question a USDA decision in 2016 to continue the payments. By that time, USDA had a new appraisal, which had the same problems as the earlier appraisal.

In yesterday's ruling, the federal district court sharply summarized why the sale fails to meet the standards of the federal government's Administrative Procedures Act (APA):
The Secretary approved spending $3 million per year for the purchase of the trademarks for another ten years based on an expert’s determination of their replacement cost, that is, what it would cost to develop and market an entirely new promotional campaign today. But neither the agency nor the expert adequately explains why this calculation sheds any light on what the 2016 review was supposed to ascertain: the current value of the set of four trademarks to the agency. The fundamental problem is that the three trademarks that include The Other White Meat slogan have been declared to be obsolete, and they have been retired from active use. So their value is minimal, or at best, undetermined. And the record contains no effort to ascertain the value of the fourth mark – the “Pork and Design” logo that consists of the word “pork” written across a blue triangular “pork loin silhouette” – at all. 
The Secretary’s 2016 decision also fails to explain why it makes sense to predicate future payments on the cost of replacing The Other White Meat when the cost of replacing The Other White Meat has already been incurred. Moreover, while the agency states that the expert endeavored to calculate the value of the marks based upon the cost of developing a new trademark with the same level of effectiveness as the old trademarks, “as measured by aided awareness studies of the percentage of people who are aware of the trademark,” there is no data in the record underlying the expert’s selection of 40% awareness as the target measure. The expert simply cut the high level of awareness garnered by The Other White Meat slogan in its heyday in half and calculated what it would cost to buy something else that effective now. But without any analysis of how much The Other White Meat still resonates in the consumer consciousness today, or, more important, whether the blue triangular logo has gained any traction in the market at all, this approach to quantifying “current value” is completely arbitrary and cannot pass muster under the APA.
Although the pork industry and USDA surely will appeal the decision, it is pleasing to see the problem with this payment stated so clearly by a federal court.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Consumers who value nutrition, animal welfare, and the environment tend to purchase less beef

New research released yesterday from leading agricultural economists Glynn Tonsor, Jayson Lusk, and Ted Schroeder finds that growing media coverage and consumer concern about climate change and the environment would lead to lower demand for beef.

The new report somewhat pushes back against a long tradition of economic research emphasizing prices as a key determinant of consumer demand. The authors, economists at Kansas State and Purdue, show that the impact of beef prices has declined over the years. They find that pork and chicken prices affect beef demand less than one might expect from prior research. They argue that media coverage, consumer demographics, and consumer "values" may matter more.

The study is based in part on consumer survey data and in part on an econometric analysis of beef sales data, market prices, and indices of media coverage for many topics.

The survey analysis found that consumers who value convenience, taste, and appearance have higher demand for ground beef. By contrast, consumers who value nutrition, animal welfare, naturalness, and the environment have lower demand for ground beef.

Source: Tonsor, Lusk, and Schroeder, 2018.

The econometric analysis found that beef demand declined in the 1990s and again in the Great Recession, but it has been rebounding recently from 2011-2017. In older years, much of the coverage in the media data concerned nutrient content issues such as zinc and protein. In recent years, the leading topic in the data is climate change. The study reported elasticities, showing the percentage change in quantity demanded in response to each 10% change in an explanatory variable. In recent years, each 10% increase in coverage of beef taste, tenderness and flavor was associated with a 5% increase in beef demand. By contrast, each 10% increase in coverage of climate change was associated with a 2% reduction in beef demand.

The study paid attention to the amount of media coverage, and to variation from one month to the next. Although media coverage of climate change was high in recent years, it did not jump around much from one month to the next. So, the study could not show definitively whether climate change coverage will strongly influence future changes in beef demand. Much depends on whether media coverage of climate change stays constant or increases over time.

The findings about environmental values and climate change are notable, because consumers may become more aware in the next several years that climate change is a critical global challenge. The journal Climatic Science reported in 2014 that reduced beef and dairy consumption is "indispensable for reaching the 2 °C target with a high probability, unless unprecedented advances in technology take place."

The findings about nutrition also are interesting. There is strong evidence to recommend reduced consumption of some meat products, such as processed meat. The nutrition science community has a vigorous ongoing debate about recommendations about meat intake more broadly. The most recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report recommended a healthy dietary pattern that is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and several other components, and "lower in red and processed meat."

The beef demand report released yesterday was funded by the Cattlemen's Beef Board, one of several major federal government checkoff partnerships designed to increase consumer demand for beef, pork, and dairy products. These checkoff programs were established by Congress, are overseen by USDA, managed by an industry board, and funded by a mandatory assessment or tax on producers. The federal government enforces collection of the assessment. With total funding of more than half a billion dollars annually, these boards are much larger than any federal initiatives to promote healthy eating or consumer lifestyle change to protect the environment.

The Cattlemen's Beef Board and its primary contractor, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), heard preliminary results in 2017 and were "invited to provide feedback guiding the remainder of the project." In the final report, the authors advise the industry on how to keep increasing beef demand.

Because the study found that values and consumer demographics, rather than prices, were key determinants beef demand, they advised the industry to focus on "sources of current demand strength." For example, the authors advised the industry to market beef to African-American and Hispanic consumers:
One specific household characteristic of note is how African-American and Hispanic residents exhibit strong desire for beef. As the share of the U.S. population comprised of these two races is projected to grow refined focus on specific desires of these groups is warranted.
As an economist in a nutrition school, I think the federal government's semi-public checkoff programs should avoid that approach [edited Feb 1], during a time of great concern about health disparities for Americans of different races and ethnicities. But, one can see how the analysis would tempt the beef industry to consider this approach.

On the flip side, the authors advise the industry on how to address "drivers of weakening demand":
Issues including safety and climate were found as current demand detriments. Ultimately the feasibility of impacting these areas must be considered before final decisions regarding industry investment are made.
As the climate changes, it is conceivable that media coverage will ignore the impact of food choices, and that consumer awareness will be stagnant. It also is possible that more sectors of the media will  take climate change seriously, and more consumers will come to appreciate the flavors and nourishment of lower-carbon food choices. In this second scenario, this study shows that the agricultural economy may need to accept and adapt to a reduction in per capita beef demand.

Friday, January 26, 2018

What makes a neighborhood thrive? Looking beyond proximity to the nearest supermarket

The United States has a largely automobile-centered approach to grocery shopping. Most Americans shop at their primary retailer using their own automobile.

There are some interesting differences by income. According to data from USDA's Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS), about 95% of comparatively well-off households do their primary grocery shopping in their own automobile. By contrast, for low-income households, only about 65% do this grocery shopping in their own automobile. Clearly, there are more low-income Americans than high-income Americans who lack easy access to grocery shopping. Yet, when we diagnose the problem of "food deserts" and contemplate new public policies to attract supermarkets to low-income neighborhoods, we must recognize that the local consumers are not a captive audience. Many people at all income levels have choices and mobility, and they can use their spending power to seek the prices they want at distances greater than a mile from home.

In a new study in Current Developments in Nutrition, my colleagues Michele Ver Ploeg, Abigail Steiner, and I find no association between the risk of household food insecurity and having a nearest supermarket as close as 1 mile or less from home. In one sense, this result is surprising, because the "food desert" literature is heavily focused on the presence of supermarkets at very close distances to home. In another sense, this result is consistent with other recent research about the effects of introducing a new supermarket.

A long time ago now, in 2011, this blog described a visit to the Hill District in Pittsburgh, where residents had long awaited a new supermarket to fill an empty lot in the middle of the neighborhood. Over the subsequent years, researchers studied changes in the neighborhood in comparison to another Pittsburgh neighborhood that did not get a new supermarket. The study found some improvements in resident food choices and perceptions in the Hill District, but many residents continued to shop elsewhere, and the changes in choices were not limited to those residents who patronized the new store. Some of the most important effects of a new supermarket may relate to the local economy and land use in low-income neighborhoods. [Note: edit Jan 30] It's not just about the food in the supermarket.

NPR's Marketplace this month described a controversy over the closure of a Safeway supermarket in Greeley, Colorado. Local officials were upset that Safeway put a clause in the property sale document, preventing the new owner from opening a new supermarket. For Marketplace, Safeway's "restrictive covenant" appeared as the villain in the story. And yet I found myself sympathizing with Safeway, which has other nearby stores that would have to compete with not just a new store on the old property but also two Walmart supercenters in town, less than 5 miles away. See this Google map. It is a rough lot in life to compete against Walmart for the grocery business of a mobile car-owning public, as in Greeley. Sometimes, it is not realistic to expect the local economy to sustain more and more supermarkets. If we want to retain supermarkets in smaller lots in a downtown neighborhood, policy-makers may need to show restraint in the number of supermarkets zoned city-wide. When we seek to address food deserts in low-income neighborhoods, we don't just want supermarkets to locate in a particular place, we want them to locate where they will thrive.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Coalition Building and Alliances in Andy Fisher's Big Hunger

In Andy Fisher's ferocious condemnation of anti-hunger organizations -- titled Big Hunger: the Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups (MIT Press, 2017) -- there is much to appreciate.

The book rightly uses a poverty-centered lens to diagnose the causes of food insecurity and hunger in the United States. It skewers a narrow type of charitable anti-hunger work that focuses only on food delivery without looking upstream at the causes of hunger. It provides a perceptive and engaging account of the relationship between national organizations, such as Feeding America and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), and their regional allies, such as Joel Berg of Hunger Free America. It recounts an array of silly tone-deaf hunger-themed corporate marketing campaigns, such as the Snickers Bar Hunger campaign. It offers an astute history of the cooperative but tense conversation between public health nutrition advocates and anti-hunger advocates about SNAP reforms designed to promote dietary quality.

Still, I doubted the sincerity of the closing chapters' wishes to "foster increased dialogue across the movement" or to build "new alliances" between groups with diverse public interest goals. By and large, this book is a highly public wallop, bloodying the nose of the leading advocacy organizations that have for decades rallied political support for essential U.S. anti-hunger programs. This book makes lively reading, and has some good reporting, but I'll be surprised if it becomes the reading-club book for any constructive cross-sectoral dialogue.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Where are the dairy checkoff reports to Congress?

The fluid milk and dairy checkoff programs are required by law each year to submit a Report to Congress. But these reports have gone missing since 2012.

Under the federal government's authority, the public-private checkoff programs collect several hundred million dollars each year in mandatory assessments from dairy producers, to be used for industry projects and marketing initiatives such as "milk mustache" posters, "Got Milk" ads, Domino's and Pizza Hut marketing partnerships, and other fast food industry collaborations. The USDA reports play a key role in transparency for these federal programs.

The most recent report on USDA's website is the 2013 report covering the 2012 checkoff activities and budgets. When the annual reports stopped appearing, I assumed USDA had simply delayed sharing them on the website. This blog first pointed out their absence in 2015, more than two years ago. Finally, in answer to my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request this summer, USDA told me in July that it would not share any documents, because the department had never published the reports or submitted them to Congress as required.

This morning, the lead story by Catherine Boudreau for Politico's Morning Agriculture covers this issue.
The Agriculture Department hasn't published legally required annual financial reports on a $400 million dairy research and promotional fund for the past four years, lending ammunition to farmers and other groups pushing for more transparency in checkoff programs.
A USDA spokeswoman told POLITICO the reports on the dairy checkoff are in the final clearance stage and should be posted within the month. The 2016 report is still in the works, she added. But the agency declined to explain the yearslong delay. In July, USDA turned down a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents from a Tufts University professor, saying that it had no records to send because the reports hadn't been published.
One of the best things about the annual reports, when they were still being published, was the independent evaluations by leading agricultural economists such as Harry Kaiser at Cornell and Oral Capps and Gary Williams at Texas A & M. At the 2016 annual meeting for AAEA, Kaiser and I organized a lively discussion of checkoff programs and nutrition.

The Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), which advocates for reform of checkoff programs, also wrote about this today. The OCM points out that former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack now is the CEO of the checkoff-funded U.S. Dairy Export Council.

I share the view of others quoted in the Politico article, suggesting that Congress should strengthen oversight over these programs and make both their finances and activities more transparent.