Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Amid Growing Inequities, Wall Street Journal Tells Readers to Stockpile Food

Amid sobering news of a deflating economy, Wall Street Journal columnist Brett Arends urged readers to start investing in their kitchen pantries. Arends compared current food cost inflation with the spike in gas prices earlier this decade, while warning that the reality of food shortages could catch many consumers unprepared, like $4 gallons of gas. “The emerging bull market in agricultural products is following in the footsteps of oil. A few years ago, many Americans hoped $2 gas was a temporary spike. Now it's the rosy memory of a bygone age,” said Arends. Attributing rising food costs to the demands of the biofuels industry and of the growing middle class in China and India, Arends fails to mention the export restrictions that these countries have imposed in order to meet domestic demands and which are likely the direct cause of recent sharp increases. Arend also fails to acknowledge that concerned consumers buying in bulk have already prompted rationing at major wholesale stores; that those hit hardest by the current crisis are incapable of “stocking up;” and that middle class hoarding will in fact exacerbate the problem. His stark “every man for himself” proposal contrasts sharply with the recent opinion of Kaushik Basu, Professor of economics at Cornell University, who finds the source of the crisis in the increasing vulnerability of low-income populations worldwide. Said Basu, “Relative price fluctuations are an unavoidable part of an efficient economy. This becomes worrying when some people are so poor that a small rise in price becomes a life and death question for them. This crisis therefore should also be a reminder that the level of inequality that prevails in the world today is untenable.”

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Rice Rations Indicate Further Trouble for Food Economy

Following a spike in rice futures, several wholesale retailers, including Sam’s Club, Costco and online distributor Patel Brothers, have announced that they will ration customer purchases of imported specialty rice. The cost of rice has risen 68% since the start of 2008, prompting business owners and individual consumers to stock up before further cost increases. Recent food cost inflation has left few food staples unaffected, but the rice spike, Reuters claims, has been exacerbated in part by product loyalty, which, for many consumers, takes precedent over buying domestic products. In an attempt to insulate local markets from further food shortages South Asian rice exporters have been reserving more rice for local sale, thus limiting U.S. imports. Long-grain imported varieties, including basmati and jasmine, are the only rice currently under ration, while domestic supplies remain stable. "California's had a pretty good crop, but basmati and jasmine consumers have a history of not switching," said U.S. Department of Agriculture rice specialist Nathan Childs. "They could always have bought cheaper Calrose. But they don't." U.S. rationing is indicative of an uneasy month for international food markets, following deadly food riots in Haiti and Yemen at the beginning of April.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Calorie Posting Law Brings a Shot of Nutritional Reality

This week, many Starbucks customers have been confronted with a decision beyond the familiar terrain of tall, grand√© and venti: though a vanilla frappucino may be worth $4.05, but is it worth 480 calories? Calorie consciousness has become a bit easier for New Yorkers since last Wednesday’s court decision requiring chain restaurants to prominently post the calorie contents of their menu items. The law represents a victory in the city’s attempt to combat rising obesity rates. Despite a further ruling that delayed calorie-posting mandates until at least April 26, Cosi, Starbucks and Chipotle were among chains that chose to disclose calorie information before the law takes effect. Customer reactions ranged from blais√© to alarmed as they confronted the nutritional reality of their regular orders. “Wow, the blueberry scone is 480 calories. It makes me not buy, for sure,” said Starbuck’s customer Helena Hungar. Chipotle customer Ralph Arend was unmoved: “If you’re really concerned, you can cook for yourself.” But for those who rely on fast food restaurants for cheap accessible food, especially in neighborhoods where there are few other options, calorie posting may serve as a clear reminder of the inequities of access to nutritious food and limited nutritional options available even among competing chain restaurants.

Courting Supermarkets, City Turns to Pennsylvania Precedent

In the fight to woo new groceries to underserved neighborhoods, New York will likely model policies on Pennsylvania’s $120 million Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which has attracted 50 food stores to the state since 2004, and was recently cited among the top 50 public programs in the nation by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Business. The initiative offers a combination of financial incentives, including tax credits, state funding and private grants, for supermarkets that serve fresh food in low-income areas. The state’s interest in the Pennsylvania program follows a sharp drop in the number of city supermarkets over the past six years: a trend that state officials hope to rectify, while improving on current methods for food retail development. Previous city projects include a joint venture with the East Harlem Abyssinian Triangle and the Abyssinian Development Corporation that brought Pathmark to 125th street in 1999, and with it, nearly two hundred new jobs for neighborhood residents. Said New York State Agriculture Commisioner Patrick Hooker at a recent listening session of the State Board of Food Policy, “I think we’re on a track that will lead to better food access in lower-income communities. We’re familiar with [the effort in] Pennsylvania. I’m looking forward to moving ahead with that.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Despite Deadlines Farm Bill Debate Proves Interminable

The farm bill again received new life in a one-week extension passed by President Bush late Friday, April 18, which marked the end of a previous one-month extension. The most recent extension was prompted by legislative request in what many hope will be the final, or at least penultimate, effort to harmonize House and Senate versions of the bill, and to produce a substantially trimmed bill that would meet with the President’s demands. Legislators may propose another extended deadline in order to prepare the bill for a final vote. Though optimists may see an end in site, some are predicting further extensions of the 2002 farm bill lasting a year or more. Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, notes: "Every extension is bad for hungry people, because every extension means that food stamps benefits still have not been raised and that food bank shelves have not been filled." The farm bill is a massive piece of legislation that includes provisions for the food stamp program, agricultural subsidies, nutrition and conservation initiatives.

CSAs Offer Mutual Benefit for Farmers and Low-Income Members

For low-income CSA members, weekly deliveries of fresh produce contribute to healthy meals and strong communities. Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) allow individuals to purchase shares of a farmer’s crop that they receive in the form of produce deliveries over the course of the growing season. Farmers benefit from the advance payment for the seasons crop, while CSA members gain reliable access to fresh, organic, local produce. CSAs are a win-win proposition for many low-income families in neighborhoods where fresh produce is much less accessible than processed, packaged food. Though the expense associated with traditional CSAs often limits enrollment to affluent members, New York City CSA sponsors NYCCAH, Just Food, and United Way work to increase access to their CSAs by accepting food stamps; allowing members to pay for their shares in installments; and enrolling a percentage of higher-income members to offset the cost of low-income member shares. For Zoraima Rodriguez, president of the United Tremont CSA in Mt. Hope, the CSA contributes not only to her family’s health, but to the strength of her neighborhood. CSA-sponsored family cooking classes unify neighbors in the common goal of eating well. Says Rodriguez, “my girls used to eat a lot of McDonald’s before and different street food. Now they don’t ask for it. They eat more fruits; they eat more vegetables. I see that they’re more active…in the community.” This year NYCCAH will co-sponsor the second season of the West Harlem CSA and the founding season of a CSA in Long Island City. For further information or to join one of these CSAs, please contact Michael Paone in West Harlem at 212-316-7490 ext. 7591, mpaone@nyccah.org or Danielle Seidita in Long Island City at 212.741.8192 ext. 5, dseidita@hungeractionnys.org

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Judge Upholds Decision To Require Calorie Postings

On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled to uphold the city's policy requiring that calories be posted on some menus, saying that the law is a reasonable approach to the city's goal of reducing obesity. The law is scheduled to take effect on Monday and applies to restaurants that have more than 15 outlets across the country. Fast-food chains like McDonald's, as well as sit-down restaurants like Olive Garden and TGI Fridays would be affected by the new policy. Some restaurants like Starbucks and Chipotle have already started to post calories on menus. Although the rule will take effect on April 21, restaurants will be given a grace period to make the necessary adjustments, but as of June 3rd, those not in compliance will be subject to fines.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

50 city green carts to roll out fruit, veggies for healthier diet in Queens

According to a Health Department survey, 90% of New Yorkers said they ate fewer than the recommended minimum five servings of fruits or vegetables a day, and 14% said they ate none at all. The city is hoping that a plan to place 50 new "green carts" in Queens will give borough residents more access to fresh fruits and veggies. On Monday, city health officials told members of the Queens Borough Board that the carts, which could appear as soon as this summer, will appear first in sections of southeast Queens and the Rockaways. Hopefully, with 50 “green carts” to roll out this summer and permits for an additional 50 carts to be issued the following year, areas essentially known as "food deserts, where options are very limited and the quality of options that do exist is fairly poor," will begin to disappear, and eating the recommended minimum servings of fruits and veggies will become part of a daily routine for all New Yorkers. The first set of new cart permits are targeted for the neighborhoods in the 100th, 101st, 103rd and 113th police precincts in Queens.

Rampant inflation on grocery aisles prompting citywide belt-tightening

With food prices soaring, dieting may be the only way to save money at the grocery store. The cost of basics like milk, bread, potatoes and bananas has jumped in the past year, forcing families to nix luxuries, steer away from organic goods and buy more house brands. "I think it's affecting everybody," said Elize Joseph, 48, a nursing attendant from Flatbush, Brooklyn. "To spend $40 on groceries is nothing. It doesn't go a long way". The weak dollar, rising cost of wheat, corn, soybeans and milk and higher energy and transportation costs have all contributed to driving prices up. According to the US Department of agriculture, eggs cost 25% more in February than they did a year ago, and milk and other dairy products jumped 13%, while chicken and other poultry rose nearly 7%. "You can cut back on buying clothes and shoes but you can't do that with food. You have to eat," Joseph said.

Complexity be damned: the Farm Bill explained

In just two days, the Farm Bill, one of the more complex and wide ranging pieces of legislation, will expire. The farm bill is made up of ten “titles” ranging from forestry and energy; credit and commodities; to nutrition and conservation. The nutrition title accounts for over half of total farm bill spending, most of which goes to food stamp and emergency food programs. Both House and Senate versions of the proposed farm bill would increase funding for nutrition and for the first time food stamps will be automatically adjusted to account for inflation. If an agreement on a new bill can't be reached before then, the U.S. will either revert to the only other permanent farm legislation it has in place, a bare-bones act from 1949, or wait until a new bill can be drafted next year. However, given the exponentially rising cost of food, increases in the food stamp program may not be enough for the millions of Americans living in food insecure households and the emergency food programs they turn to for help.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Food Costs Rising Fastest in 17 Years

The U.S. is wrestling with the worst food inflation in 17 years, and analysts expect it to only get worse. U.S. food prices rose 4 percent in 2007, compared with an average 2.5 percent annual rise for the last 15 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the agency says 2008 could be worse, with a rise of as much as 4.5 percent. For the poor, any increase in food costs sets up an either-or equation: Give something up to pay for food. For the poorest U.S. families, the higher costs may mean going hungry. A family of four is eligible for a maximum $542 a month in food stamps, which has never lasted the whole month, and now will last for even fewer days. And some economists believe that higher food prices may be here to stay.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

State Cuts Hunger Funding by 16% Despite Current Food Crisis

Governor Dave Patterson and the State Legislature slashed funding for emergency food programs by 16% in the state budget passed on April 9. The decision, which hunger advocates call “unconscionable,” was also avoidable. The State Assembly had previously introduced a plan that would secure funding for emergency food by calling for either evenhanded taxing of state residents earning over one million dollars a year, or by decreasing funds for state-supported corporate welfare. Emergency food programs that receive state funding have already been hit by food shortages and unprecedented demand. These cuts are the latest blow in the ongoing struggle to secure food the millions of New Yorkers who experience food insecurity, while government policies continue to fuel the wealth of rich New Yorkers. Said NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg, “Had the State simply accepted the Assembly proposal to restore adequate taxation to the very wealthiest state residents or had the State reduced corporate welfare, it could have had plenty of money left over for true priorities such as fighting hunger, improving education, and making health care affordable. Once again, the State has very distorted priorities.”

Consumers Edit Grocery Lists as Prices Soar

Brooklyn grocery shoppers are relying on comparison shopping and product substitution to minimize increased grocery costs as food prices surge. One grocery store customer likened her continuing search for cheaper groceries to the practice of driving all the way to New Jersey for cheaper gas; while other customers have had to cut expensive items out of their diets, to be replaced with cheaper options like pasta and canned tuna. Staples like milk and eggs have been subject to the highest increases, with the cost of a gallon of milk rising 33 cents in the past month. Food stamp benefits have not been adjusted to reflect inflating prices, forcing many recipients to rely on overburdened soup kitchens and food pantries. Like individual consumers, emergency food programs are now rationing resources in order to make ends meet. The increase in food prices is expected to continue as the cost of grain surges, due in part to the demands of the rapidly expanding biofuels industry.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

PBS Hunger Series Will Feature Brooklyn Pantry

Hanson Place Campaign Against Hunger, a food pantry in Fort Greene, will be featured on Bill Moyers Journal as part of an ongoing series on world hunger. The episode, which will air on PBS this Friday, April 11, at 9pm in the New York metro area, will address the food and resource shortages faced by emergency food programs in the U.S. The series analyzes the varied manifestations of hunger worldwide in an attempt to explain the political and social conditions that impede equitable food distribution. The first episode of the series, which can be viewed in it's entirety here, focused on relief efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where aid workers often resort to using bicycle teams to haul tons of food into villages because trucks can't handle the rough roads outside of Kinshasa. The series ultimately posits the plausibility of worldwide hunger relief only if international food policy and grassroots efforts are both orientated towards long-term, creative and sustainable solutions.

Bringing Food to the Presidential Race

Amid tense farm bill deliberation, an increased demand on emergency food programs and a failing economy, food policy has become an issue of universal significance. Yet discussion of food policy has been relegated to the edges of the current Presidential race. Acknowledging this lack of discussion, Alexandra Lewin, a Cornell Doctoral student has compiled Corporations, Health and the 2008 Presidential Race, which highlights each candidate’s relationship to the food industry; from voting records and public statements to disclosures of the amount each candidate has received from industry donors. The report focuses on health and nutrition programs, as well as local agriculture, with little emphasis on the federally-funded Food Stamps program. Lewin observes that none of the candidates have been openly critical of the food industry and that the advocates, journalists and voters should seize the Presidential race as an opportunity to force the candidate’s clarity on their food policy stances, thus pushing food and nutrition policy to the forefront of debate.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Executive Director Berg Urges Council’s Commitment to Anti-Hunger Initiatives

In his testimony before the New York State Council on Food Policy on April 3, Coalition Executive Director Joel Berg enumerated the Council’s responsibilities to the goal of alleviating hunger in New York City: a goal which has been impeded by current policies, dysfunctional food systems and barriers to the Food Stamp program. Berg urged the Council to end finger imaging for Food Stamp applicants, while concurrently expediting Food Stamp determinations and allowing applicants to apply online and by phone. “In just the city alone, failures in government policies are keeping food stamp benefits away from hundreds of thousands of low-income New Yorkers, depriving them of literally hundreds of millions of dollars in federal entitlement spending that could be going to feed their families. Much of that money could have also gone to the state’s small farmers and food processors,” he said. Berg further exhorted the Council to provide for universal, in-classroom school breakfasts, which would effectively combat childhood hunger while increasing academic performance among city children. These initiatives are dependent upon healthy food systems and federal policies, which go hand-in-hand to sustain nutrition education, farmer’s markets and food-related small businesses. Berg identified the Food Policy Council as a fundamental link between community projects and federal funding, whose action will be of great importance to the futures of the 1.3 million New Yorkers currently forced to rely on emergency food programs.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

With Lack of Food Comes Loss of Choice

For emergency food programs and the growing numbers of customers forced to rely on them, the reality of under-funding and overwhelming need are accompanied by a steady erosion of their freedom of choice. For Linda Hill, pantry manager at the Morris Senior Center in the Bronx, this loss of choice means turning customers away with little more than a few apples or potatoes. The Food Bank for New York City, who provides food for Morris Senior Center and other city emergency food programs, is calling this the most severe shortage of resources in their 25-year history, as the amount of food they receive from both the government and private donors has dropped sharply. “It’s frustrating. We used to get 10-pound bags of chicken and ground beef. Not anymore. We have sauce but no spaghetti. You want to at least give them a meal,” says Hill. Emergency food providers are waiting to see whether Congress chooses to extend current farm bill provisions for the coming year, or to pass the new farm bill which could prevent shortages from getting worse. The farm bill, which would also slightly increase funding for the Food Stamp program, still falls short of offering the resources needed to end hunger. Until our representatives make that commitment, many more will face the choice between paying for necessary living expenses or for food.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Consistent Healthy Eating Linked to Academic Achievement

Kids who eat fruits and vegetables are likely to perform better on academic assessments, according to a new study published in the Journal of School Health. The study tracked the dietary habits of 5,000 fifth-graders whose diet quality was measured by their intake of essential nutrients like calcium, fiber and vitamin C, as well as their consumption of salt, saturated fat, and other problematic foods. The data was adjusted to account for sociodemographic data while also taking into account further quantifiable differences such as height and weight. Researchers found that students with higher quality diets were as much as 41% less likely to fail standard reading assessments than their peers with lower-quality diets. This study expands upon previously established links between breakfast consumption and school performance, and emphasizes the importance of consistent healthy eating, which is often unattainable for children living in food-insecure households. Researchers encouraged schools to emphasize nutrition and free meals programs, stating that “these findings support the broader implementation and investment in effective school nutrition programs that have the potential to improve student's diet quality, academic performance, and, over the long term, their health."

As Food Stamp Enrollment Rises, a Call for Accurate Benefits Levels

Amid economic instability, food stamp enrollment in the U.S. is expected to hit 28 million in the coming fiscal year, up from 27.8 million this year. 14 states have already reached record enrollment, while 40 reported an increase in recipients in the past year. Though food stamp enrollment in New York City has been on the rise for the past decade due to the positive influence of advocacy and the negative effect of a troubled economy, city food stamp participation is still 24% below peak enrollment in 1995. Nationwide the percentage of Americans receiving food stamps is currently less than during the 1990s recession, states are seeing enrollment numbers continue to rise as unemployment has increased and wages have stagnated. Rising food costs are concurrently threatening the spending power of food stamps and the resources of food banks. Some first-time food stamp recipients are finding that benefits will not be enough to cover their food costs, as the standard deduction used to calculate benefit levels, which was fixed in 1996, has not been adjusted for current inflation rates, despite the fact that the cost of feeding a family of four on a budget has risen 6% in the past year alone. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, by adjusting benefits levels to the current economy, a family of three would receive an average of $37 more in benefits a month: no small difference when the average benefit equals about $1 per person, per meal. Indexing of benefits, like much nutrition legislation, is bound in the fate of the farm bill, to be determined April 18.