Three experts on child nutrition

Posted February 25, 2010

The new episode of IATP's Radio Sustain looks at child nutrition through three very distinct lenses. First, Rod Leonard, former USDA official and IATP board member, shares his experience of helping launch the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program in the late 1960s. “The brain is growing at a much different rate up to age five than it does after that period, so […] the WIC program fulfills a social responsibility that can’t be met by any of the other food programs.”

We also talk with Rosemary Dederichs, Director of Nutrition for Minneapolis Public Schools, about a new set of USDA nutrition guidelines for the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. She was part of a panel of experts charged with bringing nutritious foods to the lunch table while staying within budget, a complex task when you consider that the National School Lunch program feeds more than 30 million kids every day.

Farm to school programs offer one emerging option for districts looking to bring fresh produce to their menus. JoAnne Berkenkamp, director of IATP’s Local Foods program, describes her goal as “emphasiz[ing] farm to school strategies that work within schools’ budgets. […] That’s critical, because when it works within the existing budget environment, that’s when you get change that becomes woven into how they do business. That’s a form of change that’s sustainable.”

Listen to the episode here (mp3).

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Agriculture and floods

Posted February 25, 2010

As the spring thaw begins in many parts the country, flood season in the Midwest will soon be upon us. Communities in the Red River Valley and even St. Paul are already bracing for the worst. Are we experiencing more floods in this age of climate change? What role is agriculture playing? And what could be done to better adapt or reduce their effects? These are some of the issues looked at in the new book "A Watershed year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008."

In June 2008, the rivers of Eastern Iowa rose rapidly, flooding farmland and displacing thousands of residents and hundreds of businesses in east-central Iowa and southeast Minnesota. While the book, edited by Cornelia Mutel, focuses on Iowa, it offers lessons for the whole Midwest Corn Belt, which stretches from Nebraska through Ohio.

Several of the chapters zero in on the role of the corn/soybean agricultural landscape (two-thirds of Iowa) in decreasing the region's ability to absorb water."It would be difficult to find two crops that do a worse job of handling Iowa's rainfall," write Laura Jackson and IATP Senior Fellow Dennis Keeney in a chapter on how perennial farming systems could better resist flooding. Perennial plant roots add to the organic matter of the soil, and that soil can absorb tremendous quantities of water without producing runoff into rivers and streams.

"Scientists studying the problems of surface and groundwater contamination, the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and flooding have arrived at the same conclusion: we need to re-perennialize the landscape," write Jackson and Keeney.They argue for more cover crops, longer crop rotations and more grass-based farming integrated with livestock. They suggest policy reforms that would reward farmers for the proportion of precipitation landing on their field that stays on the farm for a significant time period, and other farmer incentives to replace row crops with perennials.

"As flood damages increase, the need for hydrological resilience grows more urgent," write Jackson and Keeney. "A re-perennialized agricultural landscape will still produce food but also will restore community values and ecosystem services that have been lost."

You can order the book here.

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Proposed locks for Miss River: Big price, little benefit

Posted February 23, 2010

Imagine the federal government chucking $2 billion down the Mississippi River. Wouldn’t happen, right? Unfortunately, it could, if the Army Corps of Engineers gets the go-ahead to build seven new navigational locks it wants on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.

As part of the Nicollet Island Coalition (NIC), IATP co-released a report today, Big Price, Little Benefit, criticizing the Army Corps’ plan to build the new locks, concluding that the project would be not only a waste of taxpayer dollars, but would also do nothing to repair devastated fish and wildlife habitats that river navigation systems have heavily damaged.

For years, the Army Corps has argued that the volume of traffic running down the Mississippi merits new lock construction. For just as long, IATP and the NIC have argued that the data just don’t bear that argument out. Since the 1970s, barge traffic has fluctuated, remaining relatively flat. Even the increase in corn production generated by the ethanol boom didn’t create increased barge traffic—most of that grain stayed local.

IATP wants Midwestern farms to thrive. It’s clear, however, that lock expansion on the Upper Mississippi will do nothing to help grow farmers’ incomes and would likely contribute to environmental degradation. Two billion dollars could go a long way toward investments in making Midwestern agriculture more diverse, more ecologically sustainable and more profitable.

Find the report and executive summary here: Big Price, Little Benefit.

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Join us for the webinar: Bridging Food Systems and Public Health

Posted February 22, 2010

The latest issue of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition (JHEN) lays out a blueprint for research and policy within agriculture, food and health to advance a food system that supports healthier diets and reduced obesity.

Three of the lead authors of the special JHEN issue will participate in a webinar tomorrow at noon Central time to discuss the latest research on food systems and health:

  • Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LD and IATP Food and Society Fellow
  • Michael Hamm, PhD, of Michigan State University
  • David Wallinga, MD, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

You're invited! Space is limited, so please register here.

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The new face of USDA [and the old one]

Posted February 19, 2010

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from the 2010 USDA Outlook Forum.

Where am I?

When I arrived early to the afternoon session at the USDA Outlook Forum on sustainable agriculture, I did a double take. On the screen at the front of the hall was a 30-foot-tall image of IATP’s Food and Society Fellows web site! Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was at the podium preparing for her talk, and she wanted to download a video about the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act that she knew we were involved in producing. This is the new face of the USDA, and it’s evident everywhere. There were presentations on Native American tribes in South Dakota using community development financial institutions to build a locally-owned economy; 2000-member CSAs clearing $1 million/year in Pennsylvania; landscape approaches to sustainable biomass production; and lots and lots of talk about organic.

Exciting stuff, but really only half the story. Secretary Tom Vilsack’s keynote really embodied the conflicting interests and priorities that somehow coexist in the Obama USDA. There was a lot to be excited about, including a defense of U.S. support for long-term agriculture development (not just food aid) to poor countries, an enumeration of domestic programs to assist local and regional food systems, and a stirring call for a new generation of young Americans to rebuild rural communities. But the free trade and biotech agendas were also in there, including an ominous reference to our duty to “educate” other countries about the wonders of biotechnology. It was like listening to a mashup of Farm Aid and a Monsanto shareholders meeting.

It’s hard to imagine that a guy [Vilsack] so smart is unaware of the diametrically opposed views of food and agriculture the Department is espousing. Thanks to a refreshing new openness, you can decide for yourself: speeches and presentations should be available for download here after the forum concludes.

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Game on for child nutrition

Posted February 11, 2010

Earlier this week, First Lady Michelle Obama announced her Let's Move initiative to combat childhood obesity. Rising childhood obesity rates, however, tell only part of the story. As IATP Food and Society Fellow Andy Fisher writes in a new article, the states ranking highest for childhood obesity also have the highest rates of hunger. In other words, hunger and obesity are two sides of the same broken food system—where obesity-driving food prevails and healthy food is not accessible for everyone.

Fisher's article appears in the latest IATP Food and Society Fellows digest—a must read for those concerned about child nutrition. Congress is currently debating the Child Nutrition Act (CNA). The CNA comes up only every five years. Two big programs within the CNA are the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. In other words, the stakes are high for those dealing with obesity and hunger.

The digest includes articles by Debra Eschmeyer on the school lunch program; Arnelle Hinkle on healthy snacks; school lunch videos by Shalini Kantayya and Nicole Betancourt; Mark Muller on the child nutrition policy landscape; Alethia Carr on the WIC and SNAP programs; and IATP board member and former USDA official Rod Leonard on the origins of the WIC program.

In these times of tight budgets, it's hard to think of a better investment than child nutrition.

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Katie Couric challenges antibiotic use in factory farms

Posted February 11, 2010

Katie Couric's two-part series (see part one and part two) on antibiotics and agriculture that ended last night won't help agribusiness sleep any better. The series highlights the human costs of this practice through the story of poultry workers infected with the antibiotic resistant MRSA bacteria (IATP's David Wallinga and Marie Kulick have highlighted this emerging threat). It includes an admission by FDA Deputy Director Joshua Sharfstein that monitoring (some would be a start) of antibiotic use at these industrial operations needs to be improved. And finally, it shows that this massive overuse of antibiotics isn't necessary—Denmark and other countries in Europe have seen their hog industry do just fine after limiting antibiotic use to sick animals.

It's hard to overstate how important this issue is to the big industrial hog and poultry companies. There is a sense of near panic in agribusiness publications like Feedstuffs and Meatingplace, where the challenge to antibiotic overuse is daily front page news.

What is most telling from the Couric series is the response from the National Pork Board, arguing that costs would increase for consumers without using antibiotics as the industry does today (largely for growth promotion and to prevent the spread of disease linked to overcrowding). The industry doesn't acknowledge the considerable hidden cost of contributing to rising antibiotic resistant bacteria—a cost not reflected in supermarket aisles. 

No wonder common-sense restrictions on unnecessary overuse of antibiotics in animal production, proposed in a bill rapidly gaining support in Congress, has kicked the industry's lobbying machine into overdrive. Hopefully, Couric's series will open a few more eyes in Congress. 

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Getting US Dietary Guidelines right

Posted February 5, 2010

Every five years since 1980, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture set the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for healthy eating and ways to reduce diet-related disease. These guidelines are about more than just personal advice. They serve as the basis for federal food and nutrition education programs including research, labeling and nutrition promotion. The U.S. school lunch program, the food stamp program and the Women, Children and Infant (WIC) program all use the U.S. dietary guidelines as the scientific underpinning for their work.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee holds its next public hearing to consider input on February 9–10 and you can view it via webinar. IATP submitted its comments earlier this week, encouraging the committee to take a systems-based approach to promote healthier food. This includes greater support for locally produced food, more fresh and less processed food, and an emphasis on grass-fed beef. 

The final guidelines are expected this fall. You can find out more at the Dietary Guidelines Web site.

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Do we need a US Department of Food?

Posted February 4, 2010

If we want to fix our broken food system—a system that isn't working for farmers, consumers or the environment—changing government policy is essential. In the U.S., policy set by Congress and implemented by government agencies deeply affects what, and how, food is produced and consumed. Most food system reformers have rightly zeroed in on the USDA and the 5-year farm bill as the main targets for change.

A new IATP paper by Maggie Gosselin identifies many other government agencies that also impact our food system. The report, “Beyond the USDA: How other government agencies can support a healthier, more sustainable food system,” analyzes more than a dozen federal agencies and their role in administering programs, grants and regulatory oversight that affect food. This agency-by-agency review covers food safety regulations, community economic and housing development, health education, food procurement, labor standards, trade negotiations and transportation infrastructure.

Currently, there is no integrated approach among government departments and agencies to address food-related issues. It's not uncommon for the policies of one U.S. agency to undermine the work of another. The paper recommends that there be greater coordination among federal agencies and, as a start, that the USDA, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) convene an interdepartmental task force on food policy.

To find out more, check out the full report and our press release.

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CBS to air antibiotics and agriculture series

Posted February 3, 2010

Update: The CBS feature has been moved to next week due to a high volume of material, which may expand the feature into a three-night series. More updates will be made on this story as information becomes available.

Tonight, CBS News with Katie Couric will air the first of a two-part series on public health risks associated with the overuse of antibiotics in industrial animal production. Antibiotics are often added to animal feed to increase growth and prevent disease in confined animal feeding operations. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that over 70 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are used in animal production. Such use is contributing to growing antibiotic resistant bacteria that is affecting our ability to treat disease. Just about every medical association, including the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association, have called for an end to the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. Even many farm groupsKeep Antibiotics Working coalition are supporting the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act in Congress to address this very issue.

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