A recent study authored by Dr. Tatiana Andreyeva of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut examined the effects of revisions to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which were enacted in 2009. Andreyeva’s study, which compared point of sale data from participants and nonparticipants at a regional supermarket chain in the northeastern United States, showed an increase in healthy food purchasing as well as a decrease in unhealthy purchases by program participants following the 2009 revisions. Nonparticipants did not display similar improvements in the healthfulness of their grocery purchases.
WIC is a program used by 8 million Americans, including 51% of infants born in the US. According to the USDA’s website, WIC provides “[f]ederal grants to States for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk”. To qualify for participation, a family’s income must be at 185% or lower of the federal poverty line in most states. Unlike the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), WIC participants are somewhat limited in the foods that they are permitted to purchase with their benefits. Traditionally, approved foods have included items such as cereals, some fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, beans, and fish. As of 2009, revisions were made to the approved list of foods to incorporate the 2005 dietary guidelines for American recommended by the Institute of Medicine. The goal of this revision was to promote consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains while decreasing consumption of saturated fat, sugar and cholesterol.
The Rudd Center study provides evidence that incentivizing participants in government funded supplemental nutrition programs to buy healthier foods can improve health outcomes for low income populations. If improved public health for low-income communities is truly on the agenda, legislators should take note of these benefits and evaluate the application of nutrition-related restrictions to the much larger population using SNAP benefits for food purchasing.
The final debate is almost here! If you're like me, your first thought is to thank a higher power that this election is (finally) almost over. My second thought, however, may be a less common sentiment: I am wondering if the candidates will finally address the issues of food policy and the obesity epidemic on a national stage. It's not just me who wants more from the candidates here - most commentary on the topic of Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s stances on food and agricultural issues has concluded that the candidates simply haven’t said much of substance. While Clinton’s husband is famously vegan and she has a track record of choosing organic food, her official website does not include a policy section on food or agriculture. The closest she comes to touching these issues is in a bullet within the “Rural Communities” subsection of the “Economy and jobs” section, where she claims that she will “increase funding to support the next generation of farmers and ranchers in local food markets and regional food systems” and ”create a focused safety net to help family farms get through challenging times”. As for Donald Trump, he famously loves fast and processed food. However, his official website mentions food and/or agriculture related policy in only one place: he bemoans that “the number of Americans on Food Stamps during Obama’s time in office has increased by more than 12 million” within his “Economy” section. He had previously posted a statement that he would curtail the “FDA food police” with claims that this measure would stimulate economic growth but has since removed the statement from his site. The candidates have both asserted a huge quantity of official policy proposals on other major topics ranging from healthcare to foreign policy, so this silence on the issue of food and agricultural policy is salient. Furthermore, considering that diet is responsible for two out of three of the leading causes of preventable death in America, it is shocking that both major party candidates have failed to address policy issues related to food.
When candidates refuse to openly discuss an issue, voters and media can resort to the tried and true practice of following the money to discover their allegiances. In an article for Mother Jones published on September 28th, Tom Philpott aggregated information from the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org campaign-finance database to see which companies (or which company’s employees) are supporting each candidate. In his findings, Philpott determined that Hillary had raised more money than Trump from Agribusiness donors in a ratio of 2:1. When he examined the data at the individual donor level, Philpott found that Clinton’s major donors are large organic food producers/distributors like Nimeks Organics, Lifeway Foods, and Whole Foods Market. Alternatively, his findings showed Trump’s top Agribusiness donors to be large meat producers such as Mountaire Corp, Terra Linda Farms, and Tyson.
Does this mean that Clinton, if elected, would create policies more favorable to big agribusiness than Trump would? Probably not. While I appreciate Philpott’s analysis, his research methods do not amount to a perfect basis for comparison since Trump has experienced a major funding gap overall when compared to Clinton. The gap is staggering: through the end of August, his campaign had raised $165 million compared to the $373 million raised by the Clinton campaign. Due to the overall gap, it is hard to draw conclusions when comparing dollar amounts of campaign contributions to each candidate. Philpott and I agree in his concession that these business donors are probably simply trying to donate to the likeliest winner in order to cull favor in anticipation of the upcoming presidency. Assuming that Agribusiness donors are right in betting on Clinton, given her silence on the issues of food and agricultural issues, they, along with voters, will have to wait until she’s in office to see how policy will be directed.
Taxes (not to mention bans) on soda and other sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) have faced significant setbacks. Despite efforts by the sugar industry to convince us otherwise, there is strong evidence that added sugar in our food and beverages is the smoking gun in the obesity crisis. For now, the battle against sugar sweetened beverage consumption is largely being fought at the city level, taking the form of a steady stream of attempts by municipal governments around the country to tax sugar in its liquid form*. In spite of beverage industry funded campaigns to prevent such initiatives from appearing on ballots, citizens of Boulder, CO will have the opportunity to vote on the implementation of a tax on sugar sweetened beverages in November.
There is a lot of evidence that demonstrates the worthiness of discouraging the consumption of sugary beverages. Added sugar in the American diet has increased by over 30% over the last three decades according to a study of surveys on food intake conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill**. Increased consumption of added sugars is linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The FDA cites sugar-sweetened beverages as the main source of added sugar in the American diet: according to dietary guidelines published in 2010 by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, soda and other SSBs accounted for a staggering 36% of added sugars consumed. Unsurprisingly, this abundant evidence has led many policy makers to conclude that a reduction in the consumption of added sugar could lead to subsequent reductions in disease and healthcare expenditure in their communities.
Based on the above evidence, some lawmakers have tried to implement taxes on the purchase of non-diet sodas and other SSBs. Despite many attempts, only one such tax is currently effective in the US today***. This tax resulted from the passing of Measure D in Berkeley, CA in November 2014 and imposes a tax on distributors of SSBs on a per fluid ounce basis. The measure was modeled on taxes imposed on tobacco, a policy initiative that effectively reduced the rate of smoking in the US. An early study of results in Berkeley showed promising results: consumption of soda and SSBs in Berkeley was reduced by 21% following the passage of Measure D vs a 4% reduction in control cities where similar tax measures were proposed but not passed.
Opposition to the tax appearing on the ballot in Boulder was initiated by a private citizen, Mark Gelband, whose legal fees are being covered by the Colorado Beverage Association. Gelband, who appears to be a frequent instigator of opposition against government regulation regardless of issue, filed a lawsuit that attempted to discredit a petition signed by 9,000 Boulder area residents in support of getting the SSB tax measure on the ballot. A local judge ruled against him, and the citizens of Boulder will subsequently have the opportunity to vote on the measure in November 2016.
I am thrilled to learn that Boulder residents will have the chance to consider enacting a policy measure that has shown promising reductions in the consumption of SSBs. In considering the history of tobacco use in this country, we know that an increase in taxes on cigarette and tobacco sales can be largely credited with a reduction in tobacco related deaths amongst Americans. Based on the soda industry’s attempts to crush local initiatives to tax soda and SSBs, we can assume that industry interests fear that such policy measures will indeed be effective in reducing the sale of beverages containing added sugar. The good news for beverage producers is that these taxes are only imposed on products that contain added sugar, meaning that sugar-free soda alternatives would not be affected. It’s possible that the passing of this measure will incentivize soda companies to invest in the development of healthier beverage options for consumers. This would allow the industry to maintain sales and profits while reducing the consumption of added sugar from SSBs in the population; a win-win for both industry and public health.
*Flavored milk is generally not included in these initiatives despite its containing added sugars
**Additional studies have shown a small decrease in the consumption of added sugar between the late nineties and 2007-2008. Despite this reduction, consumption levels remain well above recommendations. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/94/3/726.full
***While not yet effective, Philadelphia passed a tax on SSBs in June 2016, which is scheduled to take effect in January 2017.
Like all ambitious travelers, I make every effort to eat in establishments frequented by locals when exploring new places. While planning my visit, I typically spend a lot of time researching where to go in order to gain a sense of the best, most authentic food that a place has to offer, and aside from food poisoning, my worst case scenario while eating abroad is to find myself in some sterile locale serving rubbery chicken cordon bleu to tourists.
I recently planned a 9 day trip to Morocco. Given my enthusiasm for discovering food and food cultures abroad, I was frustrated when I experienced difficulty in my attempts to find interesting restaurant options prior to leaving for Morocco. Sure, there were intriguing restaurants to be found that certainly looked worth a visit, but these were primarily at fabulously elegant hotels or run by ex-pats from Europe – definitely not catering to every-day Moroccans.
Once we arrived, I figured that our guides in Fes and Marrakech might help me find local gems. Our guides were excellent, and more than willing to take us off the beaten track when it came to exploring these cities, so I was surprised when they insistently steered us towards eateries where the diners were fellow tourists. After a couple of days looking around, I started to realize why. Morocco has quite a few cafe-type establishments catering to Moroccans, but not once did I see a woman frequent one. To be clear, though full of men, I rarely spotted a man actually eating at a café – rather, the items occupying the tables were limited to mint tea, coffee, juice, newspapers, cigarettes and cards.
I asked Redwan (our guide in Fes) about this observation, and he attempted to explain. Here is what he told me: to a traditional Moroccan, it is considered an embarrassment to eat a meal prepared in a restaurant. Wives and mothers are expected to be excellent cooks, spending much of their time preparing home cooked meals for their families from carefully procured ingredients. They generally learn recipes by heart from older family members starting before the age of 10. Men who eat out are presumed to be not well cared for, and women who eat out are presumed to be lazy and/or inadequately skilled at cooking. Even lunch is served at home, and many workplaces shut down for two hours in the afternoon so that workers can go home for their mid-day meal.
Given their lack of food, cafes are public spaces for men to get together for kibitzing and watching sports, serving a social purpose rather than a culinary one. In accordance with the traditional culture in Morocco, it would not be considered appropriate for a woman to join in this public fraternization with non family members. To prove his point, Redwan explained that it is nearly impossible to find a café with a women’s restroom. I did a few spot checks - he was right!
Alas, my search for eating like a Moroccan was foiled by my lack of an invitation to eat dinner with a Moroccan family. While eating outside the home is becoming more and more common for wealthier Moroccans (mostly younger folks in big cities and still primarily in groups of all men), eating like a local will remain elusive for most visitors.