Sunday, December 9, 2007

Weekend Update

It's a time of year for giving, but for many of the nation's food banks, the cupboard is bare. A steep drop in farm surpluses along with stinginess on the part of the federal government and a surge in the number of needy American families is leaving many food charities in the kind of crunch they haven't seen in more than a generation.

“We don’t have nearly what people need, and that’s all there is to it,” Greg Bryant, director of the food pantry in Sheffield, Vt., told the New York Times. “We’re one step from running out.”

Demand is up because Americans have loaded themselves with consumer debt and now many of them are facing foreclosure because of the sub-prime housing loan debacle. Meanwhile, farmers are doing extremely well. Supplies from the federal farm surplus program dropped to $67 million worth last year, from $154.3 million in 2005 and $233 million in 2004. And big food retailers and doing a much better job of controlling inventories and selling their extras to food discounters.

“Every week there’s less and less food,” said one man who was waiting with his family for a delivery from a food bank in Manchester, NH. “It used to be potatoes, meat and bread, and last week we got Doritos and flour. The food is getting shorter, and the lines keep getting longer.”

“Donations are down, and people who need help is up,” said the director of a food bank in Cincinnati. “So what are we going to do? We just made the decision that instead of giving people six or seven days worth of food, we’re going to give them three or four days of food, which is a drop in the bucket.”


The rest of us may have enough to eat, but the question increasinbly has become, "Is it safe?"

A panel of experts recently took a hard look at our federal food safety watchdog, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and concluded that the answer to that question is a resounding, No! As we've seen recently with tainted foods entering the country from China, the responsibilities of the FDA keep growing, but funding for the agency has failed to keep up. In fact, the FDA is an agency in tatters.

“This was the first time that a group of people got together and really looked at all the areas that the FDA has to cover,” said one of the experts who reported on the agency's health. “We were shocked at the scope of its responsibilities, we were shocked at how little its resources have increased, and we were surprised at the conditions those in the FDA had to work under.”

The FDA's computer system is ancient and broken. “Reports of product dangers are not rapidly compared and analyzed, inspectors’ reports are still handwritten and slow to work their way through the compliance system, and the system for managing imported products cannot communicate with customs and other government systems,” the report stated.

The agency often misses significant product arrivals because its computers are so poor that they cannot distinguish between shipments of road salt and those of table salt, the report said.

At the root of the problem: Congress and a series of presidents and their administrations that have stripped the FDA of assets.

And you thought the federal government was there to protect us?


For the nation's schools, the question lately has been how to get unhealthy foods off school grounds. Food activists are split over legislation now working its way through Congress that would allow vending machines to remain in schools selling diet sodas and sport drinks.

The big junk food makers have pledged to remove high calorie soft drinks from the nation's schools. But apparently they never miss a chance to make a buck if they can somehow have a hand in shaping the rules to fit their whims. Or, they come up with ingenious methods to squeeze their products into the school routine.

In the latest gambit, McDonald's has taken to advertising on children's report cards, and rewarded kids who get good grades with happy meals. Reports Advertising Age:

The Golden Arches picked up the $1,600 cost of printing report-card jackets for the 2007-2008 school year in Seminole County, Fla., in exchange for a Happy Meal coupon on the card's cover. With 27,000 elementary school kids taking their report-card jackets home to be signed three or four times a year, that's less than 2 cents per impression.

Children who earn all A's and B's, have two or fewer absences or exhibit good behavior are entitled to a free happy meal at a local McDonald's -- so long as they present their report card.

The new ploy caused blood to boil among the food activists. "Lots of companies advertise directly in schools, but I think McDonald's has taken this to an all new low by advertising on report cards," said Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "It bypasses parents and targets children directly, [telling them] that doing well in school should be rewarded by a happy meal."

We're waiting for the day when Ronald is peeping through your bedroom curtains and doling out fries for cleaning up your room.


Just in case you missed the message about how soft drinks and other sorts of junk are taking over our diet, a study from the University of North Carolina finds that the calories Americans consume in the form of beverages has grown to 22 percent of their daily caloric intake.

That would represent 100 percent increase since 1965, when U.S. consumers got slightly less than 12 percent of their calories from beverages. The latest year for which figures were available was 2002, so it's anybody's guess how many calories we are swilling today. But as of that year, the study reports, Americans were downing fully 222 calories just in soft drinks and other libations.

Would that be something to toast to?


The answer, of course, would be to eat healthier foods. But a new study out of the University of Washington finds that while the cost of junk food continues to drop, healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables are just getting more and more expensive.

A survey of grocery stores found that some produce items went up 20 percent in the last two years, and that eating wholesome foods may be out of the reach of poorer Americans.

"Healthy foods are gradually slipping out of reach for all but the affluent consumers," said Adam Drewnowski, director of the University of Washington Center for Public Health and Nutrition and an author of the study.

"Foods we thought of as being everyday, healthy, nutritious foods are becoming luxury items."


We've spent so much time ragging on the food coming out of China the last year we think it only fair to report that the Chinese government says it has been closing improperly run factories and food production facilities at a rapid pace in recent months.

Chinese officials all along insisted that their products were--by and large--safe. But they've embarked on a six-month campaign to root out dangerous foods, drugs and other tainted products.

Regulators say that this year more than 20,000 tons of substandard products were removed from shelves in rural markets and stores, and that they had closed more than 47,000 food factories that were operating illegally.

Last month, the State Administration for Industry & Commerce said that during a four-month period ending in October, the government had banned nearly 9,000 pork production facilities from operating.


Finally, we want to leave you with happy thoughts of suburban sprawl co-existing and even supporting local farms, rather than just wiping them out to make room for housing developments.

An article in The Nation reports on "conservation communities," where suburbs and farms coexist happily, one supporting the other. At one such organic farm outside Chicago, the nearby residents can even help with chores.

Sounds like back to the future to us.

Bon appetit...

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