Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"Food Stampers are Fat and Ignorant, So They Need Another $31 Million Government Program."

Somebody said "Do something" about the 47,636,000 people receiving government food stamps. They're too fat because they buy sodas and junk food, and don't have the knowledge or access to fresh produce in order to change. Voila: another big government program.

The press release today from the US Department of Agriculture is basically a call for organizations to apply for their slice of a $31,500,000 pie--make that broccoli pie. The government wants to fund programs to lure these food stamp (now called SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients to veggies.

It seems the Feds keep trying to change poor peoples' SNAP decisions.

This comes after recent reports that Americans are already health-ifying their snacks--though Pop-Tarts remain their most beloved grab-n-go.
The implication is that SNAP-sters are fatter than other groups, and that they stay that way because they buy junk food instead of produce. It's not their faults--they're ignorant and can't find produce to buy in their "food desert" neighborhoods, now renamed "Promise Zones." All they need is "incentives" to buy lettuce and squash, and they'll slim down, get healthier and thereby save taxpayer money on healthcare in the end. This is speculation without research basis, of course.

Nevertheless, over the years, the government has spent millions and millions of dollars in hopes of saving...well, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack boldly asserts it's "billions." This round, the funds come via the 2014 Farm Bill: "The Farm Bill builds on historic economic gains in rural America over the past five years, while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for taxpayers."

After the platitudinous self-congratulations, Secretary Vilsack laments, "Too many struggling families do not have adequate access to nutritious food. Helping families purchase more fresh produce is clearly good for families' health, helps contribute to lower health costs for the country, and increases local food sales for family farmers." Good for taxpayers? Not so much. SNAP cost them--us--nearly $80 billion (with a B) in 2013 alone. That doesn't count this new $31 million, of course.

While pushing produce, the government's proposal evokes anothe
r food: alphabet soup. The money's a carrot-on-a-stick for groups to start ever more bureaucratically-overseen programs (each one with an external evaluator and internal evaluation), under the auspices of FINI, the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program: "FINI is a joint effort between NIFA [National Institute of Food and Agriculture] and USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees SNAP... Funding for the FINI program is authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill.

Are you confused yet? If so, there's a webinar Oct. 2 to explain.

It's condescending to assume that SNAP-sters buy junk because they don't know better, and need an "incentive" to buy veggies. Good health, it seems, is not enough.

I doubt there's any American child or adult who attended school who escaped learning about nutrition. It's true that if consumers steep themselves in media, they may be bombarded by ads for sweets--as well as admonishing doctors and commercials for "healthy" and "nutritious" ingredients.

Even McDonald's touts fresh apple slices for kids. And this week, the chain cleverly provided lines of would-be purchasers of the new Apple iPhone 6 freebie fruit (or apple pies).

I think there's money to be made in a device grocers install near various types of products to "incentivize" purchases. When a shopper's hand reaches for soft drinks, cookies or sugary cereals, it's zapped with low-dose current. When his hand approaches zucchini, plums or avocados, he gets a puff of happy pheromones.

Hmm, maybe I ought to apply for a grant. After all, the USDA seeks programs that "Test innovative or promising strategies that would contribute to our understanding of how best to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants..." 

I realize my idea, while meeting the criterion, is a tough sell. Unfortunately, those eeevil grocers are in cahoots with the nefarious processed foods industry, and want you to buy items with the most profit for them--so while they say they support SNAPping up celery, they prefer carts filled with Mallomars and ice cream.

Ummmm, no. Could it be that SNAP recipients' higher rates of obesity and related diabetes have a more complex cause? Could faulty assumptions about the causes of obesity and poverty underlie this $31 million program to make produce appealing to the poor? There's a lot of money resting on those assumptions; perhaps they should be proven sound first.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Pop-ularity of Pop-Tarts

Strawberry Pop-Tarts!
Much has been made of the drop in sales of unhealthy foods. We're a health-conscious nation now, eager for our chia seeds, kale and gluten-free bread. No longer do we super-size our sodas;  McDonalds serves kids apple slices (and now Go-Gurt Strawberry yogurt) instead of fries, and The Department of Agriculture is instituting Michelle Obama's pet mandate to increase whole-grains, fruits and veggies, and fat-free milk in school lunches.

So, with all this healthy food propaganda, why have sales of Pop-Tarts--the quintessentially sugary, processed snack food--increased every year for the last 32? Why are Pop-Tarts, available currently in 32 flavors (I counted), the best selling Kelloggs product ever? Do you know that flavor is Pop-Tarts' "Spookilicious"? (It's chocolate fudge. Buried in the ingredients is cocoa.) Have you tried the "Limited Edition Red Velvet" flavor yet?

Then there's the study that just came out saying eating fat is good for you, and eating carbs is not. At the same time, sugar arch-enemy Robert Lustig warns that sweets are the gateway to obesity and a myriad of ills--pushed literally down our throats by a nefarious food industry.

In the midst of this media food-guilt bombardment, Pop-Tarts rule. They have everything wrong with them, and everything right. First, the wrong: processed to perfection, the Frosted Cherry Pop-Tarts (random example) contain high fructose corn syrup, soy bean and palm oil (saturated), and sugar. To be accurate, the first ingredient listed is flour (for gluten fans), then corn syrup, then high-fructose corn syrup, then dextrose, then the oils, sugar and--who knew?--cracker meal. Down the list are dried cherries and, in another surprise, dried apples.

Now the "everything right" with Pop-Tarts: Easy, quick, nostalgic and taste good. These trump experts' warnings when you're in a morning rush. And your kids are.

Speaking of apples, I came across an interesting product that most people wouldn't realize coats the cut-up fruits and vegetables sold in schools and restaurants. It's called NatureSeal. This product is an undisclosed "generally recognized as safe" proprietary blend of "vitamins and minerals" that food sellers use to coat food slices and pieces so they won't discolor. This compound comes as a powder, gets made into a dip or spray and then, once the food is encased, allows it to look great for "up to 21 days." Your 21-day-old avocado slices won't turn brown and the skin won't curl. You might think the avocado on your sandwich is fresh; that's debatable.

NatureSeal has a formula for dried fruit used for processing, "especially beneficial on dried apple rings and pieces." You know--the ingredient in Frosted Cherry Pop-Tarts. I don't recall ever seeing NatureSeal listed as an ingredient in anything, including McDonalds' kids' meals with apple slices.

Grocery Store Convenience
Mmmm! a healthy tray of NatureSeal, shown on its website.
When you buy that fruit platter or veggie-and-dip array for your party or meeting, you might be enjoying a hearty serving of NatureSeal, who cheerily tells grocers and food retailers, "Extending the shelf-life of your fresh-cut produce can significantly reduce your shrink.
Whether it's your salad bar or pre-made, grab & go items, NatureSeal has the solution." Indeed, a solution that saturates every bite of your oh-so-healthy, perfectly preserved ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables.

Back to Pop-Tarts. My parents never bought them, they look too cloyingly sweet to me, (and they contain beef gelatin--surprise!--so they're not kosher) but when you look at sales growth of food items, they're a never-dying phenomenon, racking up $187 million in sales last year.

The message? Americans will eat what they please, thank you. They may cave to know-it-all experts some of the time; they may buy some quinoa and kale, but by-golly, they're not Pop-Tart averse.

Second message: marketers will do what they have to in order to capitalize on food fads, like dousing easy-to-eat fresh fruits and veggies with a chemical mix. The "vitamins and minerals" that comprise NatureSeal are chemicals, too. I haven't checked, but I wouldn't be surprised if organic produce when cut for sale also comes dunked in NatureSeal dip.

Is it a good thing that Americans eat veggies and fruits, no matter how they're sealed for presentation?  Is it a bad thing that Pop-Tarts are so pop-ular? Well, I always go back to the same basic truth: If people just tuned out all the noise and turned inward to listen only to their bodily requirements for what and how much to eat, maybe food could become the fuel for accomplishment rather than a distraction from important tasks and connections between people.