Michele Simon, Eat Drink Politics
Michele Simon is a public health lawyer who has been researching and writing about the food industry and food politics since 1996. She specializes in legal strategies to counter corporate tactics that harm the public’s health. She is president of Eat Drink Politics, an industry watchdog consulting firm.
Michele Simon has taught Health Policy at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and lectures frequently on corporate tactics and policy solutions. She has written extensively on the politics of food, and her first book, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, was published by Nation Books in 2006.
She has a master’s degree in public health from Yale University and received her law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody I’m Caryn Hartglass and you are listening to It’s All About Food, a very happy December to you. What is it, December 21? Oh its winter. First day of winter. Don’t we love that no matter where you are I hope you are warm and comfortable and thank you for joining me today. As you know on Its All About Food we talk about my favorite subject food and its impact on health, environment and animals. And there are just so many different interesting things going on about food some of it it’s really great and delicious and some of it’s quite unbelievable. And we are going to be talking about some of that frustrating unbelievable stuff today and I have a great guest today, Michele Simon is a public health lawyer who has been researching and writing about the food industry and food politics since 1996. She specializes in legal strategies to counter corporate tactics that harm the public’s health. She is president of eat, drink, politics an industry watchdog consulting firm. Michele Simon has taught health policy at the University of California Hastings College of the law and lectures frequently on corporate tactics and policy solutions. She has written extensively on the politics of food and her first book, Appetite for Profit: How The Food Industry Undermines Our Health And How To Fight Back was published by Nation Books in 2006. She has a Master’s degree in public health from Yale University and has received her law degree from the University of California Hastings College of the law. I want you to all shout with me together ‘I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore’ and welcome Michele Simon to Its All About Food.
Michele Simon: Thank you thanks for having me.
Caryn Hartglass: Hi, how are you doing today?
Michele Simon: Good thanks.
Caryn Hartglass: Great, I wish there were a gazillion of you Michele.
Michele Simon: Well I do what I can. There are actually, there are more and more all the time. They are just not as visible maybe.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah well it’s so confusing. It’s hard to know who to trust and very often when I’m kind of confused I go to your site, because I know that I can trust you.
Michele Simon: Thanks.
Caryn Hartglass: Just for people to know you have two websites, appetiteforprofit.com, what a great blog and then eatdrinkpolitics.com. So what’s going on in the food industry where there seems to be so many different things, every day there’s something so scary happening.
Michele Simon: Well there is a lot going on but I think the good news is increasingly there is more information to uncover, what’s going on and there’s increasing awareness unfortunately that’s still relegated to a relatively small part of the population but there are all kinds of references going on to spread that information the trouble is so many people still live in parts of the country where even if they have access to information they don’t have access to the actual healthy food that is optimum for their health so that’s where policy change comes in and that’s where we really have to build a broader political movement.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, I’m traveling a bit and normally I live in New York City and I don’t have a car so particularly frequent the places that I’m interested in going to on foot but in California right now we rented a car so I can get around a little bit more and I’m kind of seeing a little bit more of what’s going on around the world. I guess some of the good things are stores like Target and others are now serving more “healthy” food. Somebody had to make that happen
Michele Simon: Target? Yeah I’m not going to food shop there but they have bananas and lettuce there now which…
Caryn Hartglass: It’s just interesting I don’t think where I’m at right now its that critical but in areas where they don’t have access to a lot of healthy food sometimes in stores like that it’s beneficial to find fruits and vegetables.
Michele Simon: Yeah it really spends on the area. Some evidence suggests that when big box stores like Target or certainly Wal-Mart, when stuff like that come in sometimes under the guise of saving a poor neighborhood or area from being a food desert the opposite happens to it. There was actually just a report out from New York City where Wal-Mart wants to go into Harlem and they did an analysis to show based on the experience in Chicago where there are now three Wal-Marts, the surrounding stores many of them shut down, and so the impact can actually be negative in terms of the net loss of food stores in the neighborhood so having a Wal-Mart in an urban area has a very different impact than say, well of course it has the same devastating economic impact no matter where they are, but the other thing to keep in mind is these big box stores, it’s not just a food issue, there is also the labor, just a complete devastation of the standards for labor with a store like Wal-Mart coming in and evidence has been born out that they are joining in the local economy because people who can’t even live on these low wages that Wal-Mart pays, yeah I’m going into a whole new area here, but to just say “oh well look at these great big stores that are selling produce” that’s true and that does help maybe for some people that are able to drive to that store but many people in poor areas don’t have that kind of transportation and so there are just reverberations throughout any area. What we really need is localize solutions to this problem in terms of small stores Farmers market, local ways to get fresh food into neighborhoods that is sustainable for the local economy.
Caryn Hartglass: In New York City we don’t need a Wal-Mart and we have all different kinds of suppliers of food and fortunately there are a lot of farmers in the area and there is a lot of people that are making it possible to get healthy food into the area. Now I know that in the area of Harlem there are some pockets where people have more challenging needs and access to healthy food but I know Wal-Mart has been trying to get different areas of New York City and we’re fighting it. They try to get into near my neighborhood in Queens and it didn’t happen. And it’s just frightening to hear that they want to get into Harlem but okay we need to do whatever we can to keep them out.
Michele Simon: Right. Yeah I mean Wal-Mart’s game is expansion. I mean they are the fastest growing retailers and they expanded into groceries just in like the last ten years or so and within that time they’ve become the largest, they’ve surpassed all the other huge chains…
Caryn Hartglass: …I’m not supporting the big box stores at all but those that are already in place unfortunately, I guess the lesser of all the evils is for them to have some food.
Michele Simon: Absolutely, no I don’t have a problem with supermarkets I mean those are really important in any neighborhood. That’s different than a store like Wal-Mart which is just a monster.
Caryn Hartglass: That evil monster. Ok. so a lot of people want to trust the government to some degree and believe that we have regulatory policies and groups in place that are going to keep our food safe, keep our food for our children and our schools and our stores safe and healthy and more and more we are learning that there’s more to it and we unfortunately can’t trust men to some degree and maybe this is becoming more prevalent now that so many things have gone wrong with the economy and we know that the government has not been behind the 99 percent in making things livable for the common folks. I know I get really confused we hear a lot of sound bites about all kinds of different things and sometimes I believe some of the sound bites and sometimes I don’t and then I try and find the house bill or the senate bill or a piece of legislation and read what’s really going on and sometimes people are making scares that aren’t necessary true but a lot of times they are true. There are a lot of things that are really hard to understand in legislations even for our congress people.
Michele Simon: Yeah well that’s why we have lobbyists. I mean that’s the sad reality is that lobbyist have sort of filled in a lot of the gaps where even you’re right even people whose job it is to not only understand legislation that their voting on but actually write it, those two function have largely been taken over by corporate lobbyist because they obviously have the time and resources to be in there and so many legislators are just overwhelmed with what’s going on but there are staffers of course that fill in those gaps as well but the point is that corporate lobbyist really have so much power and this is also why we don’t have that level Plainfield when it comes to policy making so yes it can be complicated but part of the game that corporate America plays is to obscure policy making, make policy have to be way more complicated than it really is or has to be and that way the common folks are just too busy watching Dancing With The Stars to notice that Congress has just passed one of the most devastating threats to civil rights that we’ve seen in a long time with this recent vote that the rest of Americans at the slight hint of anything that sounds like terrorism. There’s a lot that’s just part and parcel of the game that’s played in Washington there, maybe more nefarious but the bottom line is we have a broken political system which favors corporate interests and money interest over the rest of us that don’t have those kind of resources but what we do have is the people on our side and we’re seeing for example with the growing occupy movement we’re seeing pockets of resistance and frustration being expressed in a number of ways and so I do think there is hope in that people are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore and it remains to be seen where that anger and frustration will go but I do think there’s a growing sentiment.
Caryn Hartglass: Nothing is going to happen unless people insist on it. And I like your bring up people watching dancing with the stars is not particularly that program but just sitting back and thinking things are going to happen without each of us individually getting involved in one way or another and that doesn’t mean that we have to be politically involved but we can be involved with our dollars, we can be involved in our communities, there’s just so many things, we need to be paying attention. And you mentioned briefly something that the government has with regards to calling people terrorist, can you give a little more detail…
Michele Simon: Yeah I mean that’s not related to food it’s just a piece of legislation that got passed but I don’t really know the details about it I just know people are really up and arms about it because it had to do with sort of ignoring something called due process which is in our constitution and…
Caryn Hartglass: This is a recent legislation.
Michele Simon: Yeah, but the point is that these things happen while people aren’t paying attention. I don’t know what lobbyist interest would have been behind that necessarily but you never know if it’s the prison industrial complex or some military unit that is going to get some kind of government contract to settle I mean odd are any piece of legislation that gets pushed through without much public scrutiny there’s some money interest behind it. That’s just how our system works.
Caryn Hartglass: I want to talk about some specifics. So you’ve written a number of blog articles and some journal articles and I thought we might touch on some of them because it really highlights what’s going on and might clarify some confusion or things that people should really focus on. So sometimes we talk in this show about labeling and how hard it is to figure out what’s going on, on nutrition labels and what to pay attention to and the fact that they’re in really small print that makes it even more difficult for a lot of people who don’t want to put their reading glasses on. And you recently had an article printed in the journal of hunger and environmental nutrition about regulating the front of package labeling.
Michele Simon: Right.
Caryn Hartglass: Can you talk a little bit about that?
Michele Simon: Sure, So back in 1990 we had a law passed that requires the nutrition labeling that you see on the back of packages around the sides of packages. That’s the nutrition fact labels that says how many calories, and has a breakdown of various nutrients and ingredients required to be labeled there, and that’s all subject to FDA law and you know industry can’t monkey with that it has to be strictly followed. But the front package is kind of a free for all and that’s the most important real of state this is which and how industry and marketers refer to it because that’s where at the point of sale a shopper is making a crucial decision about whether to buy coke or Pepsi and so the idea there is to use in any way possible what are called callouts or other forms of marketing to grab the shoppers attention. And what that has resulted in is all kinds, especially an increasing environment where people are more aware of their health we’ve seen an increasing encroachment of really illegal health claims on the front of packages. Over the years the FDA has set some guidelines for the types of health claims that can be made on the front of a package so things like ‘low salt’ or ‘low sugar’ those have specific FDA definitions or ‘helps lower cholesterol’ there’s certain claims the industry can make but are subject to certain FDA guidelines okay so anything outside of that has been pretty much a free for all and so in order to kind of get a handle on this problem we’ve had an effort by FDA to start thinking about how to put additional regulations on these sorts of marketing claims and we’ve also had an arm of congress call the institute of medicine which is a committee of experts to look at this issue and come up with recommendations.
Caryn Hartglass: Can we trust them?
Michele Simon: Yes. Actually the institute of medicine is one of the rare bodies that can be trusted for the most part, I mean it’s not to say there aren’t politics involved but the whole kind of thinking behind the institute of medicine is that they are an independent body. They will be commissioned by congress for a report, committee members will be selected but for the most part IOM reports are held up as sort of an actual place to look for good science. Now of course then what happens between the scientific recommendation and the political black box is a whole other story but the point is the IOM has made certain recommendations, the FDA is sort of seating on it and the purpose of my article was to re-ask the question is this whole exercise and trying to come up with for example putting number of grams of sugar or grams of salt on the front of packages and these are the sort of ideas that are being considered really necessary or is it an exercise in futility given that first of all the same information is already in the nutrition facts label and secondly do we really need to be kind of bringing our hands over how to slap a healthy label on processed food because really what we need to be turning to as a nation is eating, not food that comes in a box with a label but real food that comes from nature and that’s grown in the ground that we buy hopefully locally if we have access to a local farmers market so it’s not to say that you know, we all rely on packaged foods from time to time I do as well but it just seems to me that by, and of course industries all over this and have their own set of guidelines now that they are following they call it the nutrition keys, at first it was called the nutrition keys I think they have since changed it to some other silly name called backs up front. This is the game the industry plays whenever there’s a threat coming down from the federal government, any governmental body, to the business practice they try to co-opt the process by saying “no, no, no we don’t need any government intervention, we’ve got it cover, we have our own great system” and of course it’s to their benefit, right, to be throwing out certain nutrition information and so forth. But it just confuses the consumer because usually it doesn’t really tell you anything helpful, it’s just more marketing. So the purpose of the article was to put all this into context and say let’s stop worrying about this front of the package nonsense we definitely want to stop the industry from making deceptive claims and there’s plenty of those to be stopped but we don’t really need more nutrition labeling. Just turn the package over, you may even burn a calorie picking up the box, turning it over to see the nutrition facts which is pretty clear, of course there’s always room for improvement but the information is pretty much there at least for the type of information that they’re putting on the front of the package. It would really be redundant, instead what we need, of course my joke about it is, is enough to just, for example, tell folks who walk into McDonalds, how many calories is in that Big Mac? Because my joke is – you have to attach a copy of Fast Food Nation to every hamburger to really get consumers enough information to go on and what’s going on. Just having a few more points of data isn’t really going to fix the mess we are in.
Caryn Hartglass: We need to change the way we think about food.
Michele Simon: Right.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, I like that and I don’t hear that very much. You know a lot of people focus on getting the label right and we really need to rethink the whole thing, it’s not the label it’s eating fresh, whole, locally grown, organic, plant foods
Michele Simon: Right.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. Okay. So we need to shift that thought. Very good okay let’s move on, well can we talk a little bit about marketing to children. It’s such a scary thing and we see it in so many different ways and we’ve seen it with kids’ cereal specifically I’m personally just a straight oatmeal person just give me oatmeal raisin fresh fruit but most kids are eating just horrible things out of a box… with toys.
Michele Simon: Right. Yes well you know the food industry has done a very good job of creating a whole separate sector of food aimed at children and there’s no need for kids to have special food. Kids can eat oatmeal just like you do, but that wouldn’t help the likes of Kellogg’s and General Mills and so instead they invented a whole category of children’s cereal that they’ve just loaded up with sugar because kids do have a sweet tooth and then adding fuel to the fire they market these products with all kinds of child family cartoons and then engage in cross marketing arrangements with companies like Nickelodeon so you have all their favorite cartoon characters the children love on these boxes, and all that results in the industry cause a “nag factor” or “pester power” which any parent knows is trying to take a small child to the cereal aisle and they also position these products at a child’s eye level so next time you’re in the supermarket if you haven’t notice already you’ll see at the two or three foot level are all the children’s cereals whereas the higher you go are the more adult oriented cereals. There are many ways marketers manipulate their environment for children to be targeted with their messages and so there is a growing hue and cry about this problem really going on for decades now and yet we can’t seem to get much action at the national level anyway because the same reason that we have been talking about the food industry has just done a bang-up job at keeping government at bay thanks to putting up front a lot of money into the federal government and in particular we’ve had this experience in the last two years of in effort by the federal government to simply put voluntary guidelines around how industry markets to children so the Feds have pretty much given up the idea of actually regulating the marketing to children so instead they embarked in a process to engage in actually setting scientific standards for how the food industry could improve its marketing practices so you know limiting the amount of sugar, salt and fat and so forth. This process has been dragged on because industry went ballistic and this is to show how much they don’t want anyone telling them what to do even though this is all always going to be a voluntary process. And so they went to their friends in congress and have the most recent sort of almost nail in the coffin we’re not sure yet but their attempt to put the nail in the coffin has been inserting language into the recent budget bill that was passed to acquire a cost benefit analysis of this report that is trying to be finalized by these poor agencies led by the federal trade commission and it makes no sense either from a legal perspective or just a common sense one because like I said this is meant to be voluntary so how can you do a cost benefit analysis on something that we don’t even know if any of the food industry is going to take up. But no matter this is just a big stall tactic and it may be the end of this report, except we are not sure if that’s the case, but it seems likely that we won’t see anything more about this.
Caryn Hartglass: No, one thing specifically that’s happen recently is that with McDonald’s in San Francisco and their little toy that they give with the Happy Meal and I was reading a bit about that and how some of the legislation to prevent the marketing to kids with the free toys kind of blown up a little bit.
Michele Simon: Right.
Caryn Hartglass: Because corporations always look for the way around laws.
Michele Simon: Right. Yes that’s why they hire lobbyist to write the laws and then when they don’t get to do that they then hire lawyers to get them to figure out a way around the law so in this instance, this is an effort by San Francisco to not ban largely called the Happy Meal Ban, it was never meant to ban anything but simply put some again reasonable nutrition guidelines on restaurants who choose to use toys as incentives and other incentives that are targeted to children and so of course McDonald’s being the largest purveyor of this idea, with their Happy Meals, kind of became the target and did the most heavy duty lobbying to stop that local ordinance from going thru but the community prevailed through a lot of community organizing that bill did pass and then was just up to go into effect in December first and then McDonald’s announced that they had found a way around it by charging 10 cents so unfortunately their bill was worded to only apply to free incentives and so McDonald’s is saying they’re now charging 10 cents to get around that language. I’m not convinced that that’s actually an adequate way to get around it an I’ve talked to some others that agree that they could just be playing games with how they are pricing the happy meals now but never the less that’s what they’ve done so instead of actually improving the nutrition quality of the food that they’re serving to children god forbid they should do that of course they announced that they are doing that on their own but it’s not nearly sufficient to meet the San Francisco guidelines instead of doing the right thing they found a way to scrub the wall.
Caryn Hartglass: Well these 10 cents, I was reading the actual cost of the toy it’s worth more than 10 cents.
Michele Simon: Right. Which is why it’s very suspect that this is inadequate to get around but it remains to be seen how San Francisco will respond. We’re not hearing anything out of the city attorney’s office about what they think of all this but who know something may happen in the next months.
Caryn Hartglass: Well Michele I want to talk about a few more items but I think we can take a quick break and when we come back I want to talk about nutrients in alcohol, I want to talk about jumping jacks, I want to talk about the milk industry a little bit. There are just so many things to talk about but let’s just take a quick break and we’ll be back in a couple of minutes.
Transcribed on 2/15/2014 by Alma Yesenia
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food and I’m here today with Michele Simon and we are talking about the food industry and food politics. So, I’m always promoting a healthy plant based diet to my friends, my family, my listeners and encouraging people to eat more whole, fresh, locally grown, organic, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, raw nuts, and seeds trying to minimize the amount of processed foods that we eat and getting to the kitchen and preparing more of our own foods that way we can keep track and control of the added sugar and salt and oil and all those things that affect our health. And one of the things that I personally don’t like is I don’t like to buy foods that are fortified with vitamins. I like to eat whole foods that have the vitamins in them naturally. Sometimes, when we get foods that have added vitamins to it, we may be getting too much of something or we may be getting something that really doesn’t work well unless it has a whole bunch of other things we haven’t even identified yet that come in whole foods. And now, they’re even adding nutrients to alcohol. How crazy is this?!
Michele Simon: Man…well, you know …one industry sees another one doing something crazy and they figure they might as well copy it.
Caryn Hartglass: And people are buying it!
Michele Simon: Well, you know, I mean…why not? Marketers tell you to buy it. I mean there’s nobody telling you not to buy it. There’s very few compared to…
Caryn Hartglass: Well we’re telling you not to buy it! Hahahaha
Michele Simon: Yeah I’m sorry but, the marketers have a bigger budget then your end does so…there you go! Yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, right!
Michele Simon: Here’s the thing, people need to have, especially educated people, …upper-middle class, people need to have more sympathy. I hear this a lot, “well, people are just too stupid if they don’t realize that eating McDonald’s every day is bad for you.” You know, why should people realize that? Who really assigned that to them? The federal government? Do you think the average person… barely making ends meet is really paying attention to the My Plate diagram that the first lady is promoting? I mean…
Caryn Hartglass: No, I don’t think so…
Michele Simon: I mean, be real, right? No, all they’re seeing is messages from McDonald’s to tell them to come be happy to spend a dollar. It’ll taste good and… go on with their day.
Caryn Hartglass: And then they see commercials for the drugs that are going to take care of the pain that they have or problems that they have from eating these horrible foods.
Michele Simon: Right! Right. Right, we have a medical system that’s built on treatment and not prevention. This is just a, it’s a sociology; it’s called normalizing and what’s normal…people are just doing what’s normal. And it’s actually outside the norm to not be eating bad food every day or to be eating a diet you described. And it actually, it takes more than just knowledge and willpower. It means going against a very strong social tide. And that’s another factor that I think often doesn’t get taken into account by some smug vegetarians I know who think people just need to wise up and stop eating meat. It’s like, you know, if you are in a social circle where everyone else eats meat, your entire family eats meat, it’s very difficult to then step outside that normal pattern of behavior and say I’m going to go eat these plant foods. And it takes a very strong-willed person to do that and a certain personality even and it’s just very difficult. That’s why we have to change the social norms. We have to change the environment that we all live in to make the healthy choice the default and the easy choice.
Caryn Hartglass: Now alcohol, that doesn’t come with a nutrition label on it, does it?
Michele Simon: No.
Caryn Hartglass: How is alcohol legal?
Michele Simon: Well that’s a good question. I’ve actually asked some people and it’s probably mostly not legal. And in fact the federal government, the federal agency that does regulate alcohol has said alcohol companies are not allowed to make nutrition claims. However, they do allow certain additives because its similar to food…that pretty much federal agencies fall asleep at the wheel. So, they’re able to get these products rubber stamped, marked and then see whether anyone starts marketing them a certain way. So, there have been some announcements from the feds. For example, the wine industry has, for years, tried to make the heart healthy claim on wine bottles and the feds have said no; that we’re not going to take a potentially deadly product and market it as a health food. You know, I mean, as much as the wine industry likes to claim to the contrary, wine does contain alcohol and it can kill you. And so, we do have some regulations. The problem is they’re not always enforced and so we see products that are being labeled as (in the alcohol industry) they’re labeled as natural or with B vitamins, or my favorite is protein vodka… that’s probably not legal. Really. Or they, they do it in a way that’s sly. They may not say protein is good for you. They’ll just say contains protein, which you kind of interpret on your own, it may not be, obviously deceptive. So it’s just the wild west of marketing claims that are out there on both food and alcohol and unfortunately we have a federal government that really doesn’t the capacity, I mean, to be fair its not only the industry that calls the shots when it comes to policy, but it’s also just the sad truth that we don’t put enough dollar into proper oversight. And so the food and drug administration is woefully underfunded; it has been for many years. Whether it comes to going after deceptive marketing claims or food safety, there simply aren’t enough inspectors to go around. And so that, of course, is another game the industry plays. They don’t like the policies and they can always just starve the beast. And that’s a very effective way of making sure that any government policy that’s on the books don’t get enforced.
Caryn Hartglass: Ah, I want to scream!
OK, but there are things we can do. And I think we’re seeing more public outcry, as you mentioned before in pockets. And another sad thing is how we treat our children. And that’s done with the school lunch program. It seems sometimes that the worse of everything, if it doesn’t sell or has problems or whatever, it gets into the school lunch program and we give it to our kids.
Michele Simon: Yeah, well, how much time do we have to talk about the school lunch program?! So there has been an effort, again going on for decades, trying to improve school meals and some of that has been successful. There are certainly different programs and champions of the school food that have been successful. However, for the most part, school meals remain dismal. And because we don’t have the likes of Anne Cooper, one of the more famous school chefs who has been extremely successful in her work for the Brooklyn School District (and now she’s based in Colorado), but you know, we don’t have enough of her to go around. There are others, but…you know. So, what happens is kids get fed, for the most part, awful food (highly processed). Increasingly, schools don’t even have kitchens, so they’re not even cooking food from scratch. They’re just reheating it, which means they are getting all kinds of processed dreck, from school food, large food providers. So like Sodexo, massive food companies that buy food from processors and then they provide it to the schools kind of in heat and serve ways. This is a system that has been going on for many years and benefits these passive food companies. And we have the added problem, on top of the school meals, is what are called competitive foods. These are foods that are sold outside the school meal program. They are a la carte meals that are sold on the school food line, sometimes fast food. And then there’s the whole vending machine and school stores that sell almost all junk food (candy, ice cream, soda, you name it). This has been a problem that we’ve gotten some traction on. Over the years there’s been efforts by, as an example, almost every major city school district in the country has fairly decent nutrition guidelines on the types of foods that can be sold through the school vending machine. New York has a very good policy. Seattle, L.A., Chicago, Boston; those cities have really taken a lead on this, unfortunately haven’t seen all that go to the rest of the country, there have been some improvements made there, but there is still a long way to go. This often comes down to money. That we don’t prioritize school food enough so schools are left to deal with amounts to a dollar a meal. You can get a value meal at McDonald’s for a dollar (or a cheeseburger I guess), but that goes to show you what the average food service provider is left to deal with in schools. There was an effort to increase the amount of money per meal with the School Food Act that was passed last year. And, to give her credit, the first lady really championed that piece of legislation. It did increase the reimbursement rate, as it’s called, by six cents. They wanted double that, but they were only able to get six cents per meal. Woo hoo, now we have a $1.06 to play with. Clearly not enough to improve meals considerably. Now there are creative ways to deal with that but again you need schools that are willing to cook, which means spending more on staff. Obviously that’s labor and so forth. It’s a very complicated web.
Caryn Hartglass: I read that it’s not necessarily more expensive to get local people back into the kitchen and preparing meals.
Michele Simon: I think it depends. I saw the article that you’re referring to and it was a little over simplified. I think the point that article was making is that schools think that by farming out the processing. So, part of work that’s done with school meals is commodity foods, like chicken and cheese and other animal products, are s send off to processors like Tyson to bone the chicken and turn them into nuggets and then they get shipped back to schools. And the argument is: well, the money that we are paying Tyson, we should be keeping in the schools and doing something more healthy with chicken then turning it into nuggets, but I don’t think it’s that simple because Tyson, being such a massive company is able to work more cheaply than hiring someone in every school district to do that job. So, plus they’re shipping it to China by the way, I mean there’s all types of stories of food being shipped to be processed and then shipped back. That’s the economics of scale. The bottom line is the bottom line. We do need more money and even if some of the ways schools are spending money now doesn’t make sense; I’m certain that’s true. We need more money to help them to do a better job
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, let’s talk about price fixing. You have an article about the dairy industry making a killing by killing cows in the food safety news. And that’s certainly an interesting thing. A lot of people think that prices for food is based on the simple theory of supply and demand, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Michele Simon: Right. Price fixing is a tricky one and that article I wrote was to draw attention to a lawsuit that was filed based on research uncovered that showed the dairy industry has been engaged in price fixing. In that particular situation, they did so by killing 500,000 cows. And I will say, this practice isn’t that unique. Unfortunately, what tends to happen, in the dairy industry especially, is that when prices fall, there’s a glut on the market and you can’t just, as dairy farmers like to tell me, you can’t just turn off the cows. So, like any other industry situation, you can just stop production when there’s a glut on the market. Obviously it’s a bit different when you’re dealing with actual animals. So, in order to keep from going out of business from an increase of supply, they will “cull the herd” as it is called and so they kill animals in order to put some breaks on the glut of milk in the market and that increases prices because of simple supply and demand. In this case they did this probably illegally because it’s one thing to do that; it’s another thing to have an entire industry agree to do it. The definition of anti-trust is when industry members come together and agree. Now, again, they have argued back to me that this is something that is allowed; that dairy industry has an exception to anti-trust rules and that is also true to some extent. However, it is not true when it comes to trade groups. And in this case, these were trade groups who engaged in this practice. The dairy industry is extremely complex, both in corporate structure and in pricing. And the other thing I wanted to draw attention to with that article is how we have a number of government policies that really help dairy farmers by keeping prices up. This may have made sense back in the early part of the last century, like many of our agricultural practices early on to be helping small farmers earn a living and to be helping people get access to food. I don’t have a problem with dairy in the diet, but the problem is this has all gotten kind of out of control. And now we have a situation where the dairy industry has completely brainwashed Americans to think that dairy is an essential part of the diet and that has gone along with government support over the years. And that is what keeps the dairy industry humming along. But really only at these very high consolidated cooperate mega-farming levels. Small dairy farmers have, for the most part, gone out of business. That’s the real crime here. I’m not talking about a few cows here and there, which would be ok if it’s just a small part of our diet. I’m talking about huge concentrated animal feeding operations, or capos, which is how the federal government refers to them. These are just factories with animals turning out the least healthy type of dairy and all of it very much supported by our federal taxes.
Caryn Hartglass: These factory farms, these capos, are probably one of the worst things that humanity has ever come up with. Not only are they horrifically cruel, the food that they produce is really marginal in terms of benefits and it’s certainly devastating on the environment. Is there any hope to see these things go away? I read all kinds of articles, especially what’s going on globally, where the trend is to have more of this than less of it.
Michele Simon: You’re right, globally it’s pretty scary because what’s happening is as American markets get saturated with animal products, the industry has nowhere to go but the developing world. And of course, China and India look to America and the West, as this is what they want! Because who would want to stay in poverty? Of course they want to have the same type of comforts that we have. The problem that goes with that is our unhealthy way of eating. Increasingly our meat production here is being exported to these other countries. But, like you say, what’s even more scary is the capos that are now being replicated in other parts of the world. It’s probably one of the scariest things I can think of. Not only for the horror for the animals and for their health, but for the wreckage of the planet. We know there is a direct connection between factory farming and global warming and destruction of our soil. You name the environmental hazard and it can be connected in some way to factory farming. It’s pretty bad, the idea of spreading the horrors that we are creating here in this country to other countries. All I can say is when the “you know what hits the fan” is really only when perhaps we might wake up to realize that we’ve done something very wrong.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, well hopefully we’ll get smart before it gets too horrible. But it already seems horrible. Are you familiar with the Farm Bill?
Michele Simon: I am. Not intimately. Not as much as some others but…
Caryn Hartglass: All I know is, when I read about it it’s so overwhelming and so confusing and so convoluted, and if there is any light to be shed on it, I would like to see it!
Michele Simon: Right. It’s another one of these massive pieces of legislation that is deliberately kept obscure to keep real people from paying attention. Of course the big agribusiness lobbyists are paying attention because they’re the ones right in there writing the bill, but it is really important and I think some of the writers have really done a good job getting this issue out there (at least to those of us who are paying attention). In other words, people who have previously only thought about the health impacts of our diet are now starting to understand that our agricultural policies are deeply connected to the food choices that are even available to us. The Farm Bill is one of the most important vehicles for that connection between the agricultural policy and our health. One of the biggest components that has gotten the most attention is farm subsidies. The Farm Bill is where we say how much money goes to subsidize all the wrong things. The biggest crops to get subsidized are things like corn and soy, which go not to feed people with corn on the cob or tofu. Rather, most of the corn goes to feed animals. It’s these cheap inputs into the factory farms which keep our highly animal centered and processed centered food diet. It’s both inputs for feed as well as things like corn syrup and hydrogenated oils, which are a huge component of processed foods. So this is a problem that the growing body of activists have come to recognize. The problem is the Farm Bill only comes around every five years and as my colleague calls it, it’s like the Olympics; it’s a spectator sport. We haven’t quite figured out what to do about that and we’re actually going into the next vision of the Farm Bill, which is for 2012 and we’ll see how it goes. Things aren’t looking very good because they are, of course, in budget cut mode and the GOB is proposing some cuts to subsidies, which is a good thing. Also, very important are the nutrition programs (things like food stamps and the WIC program), which are becoming more and more important. Of course, as the economy continues to spiral downward, more people need these vital safety net programs that we have. So, now the fight is going to be, not really whether to cut it all, but where the cuts will come from.
Caryn Hartglass: Is there anything we can do; the general public?
Michele Simon: Yes, I just recommend people get involved wherever they can. I can’t tell you “go join this group” or “go to x school”. I say find the point of entry that makes sense for you, that really has meaning for you. If you have kids in school and you want to see the school meal program improve, see who else you can find in that school (parents, teachers, principals, etc.) to help make that happen. If the Farm Bill is something that gets you excited, there is no shortage of groups to help support volunteer work to get engaged with. And anything in between at any level, whether it’s at school, local level, community level, or statewide groups, there is a great school program that operates in almost every state and there are federal organizations that are working hard every day to try to improve our policy to fix this mess. These days, especially in the age of Internet, anyone with a computer can find a way to get involved.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, Absolutely! Well, If people are making New Year resolutions, I think getting more involved would be a good one, on any level.
Michele Simon: Absolutely. And if you have time to volunteer, great! If you don’t have time, then donate some money. Even ten dollars would help.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, and also… everything you buy, think about where each dollar is going and what you’re supporting with your dollars because that’s really where it all happens. If we’re not buying the products that we don’t believe in, they go away.
Michele Simon: Well I say it’s a two-prong approach. One is to start with how you eat and, of course, we all have responsibility to shop responsibly, but the thing is you can’t stop there. You need to take the next step and make sure that the same access that you have is available to everyone and that’s naturally where policy change comes in.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Well, Michele Simon, thank you so much for everything you do. Thank you for joining me at this hour of It’s All About Food. I hope you have a really lovely holiday season here.
Michele Simon: Thank you. Thanks for having me Caryn.
Caryn Hartglass: And your website is again eatdrinkpolitics.com and apetiteforprofit.com. Thank you again! I’m Caryn Hartglass, you’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. We are in that holiday season time, lots of lovely rich foods going around out there and I want to remind you that while you’re having a good time while you’re having those great treats and things, don’t forget to eat your greens. They are what is going to help you detox, stay strong, and have lots of energy. And if you go to my website responsibleeatingandliving.com you can watch the food show that we just created last week called It’s All About Greens and gives you great tips on juicing, steaming, salading, food eating… all the ways to get your greens so get ‘em.
I’m Caryn Hartglass, you’re listening to It’s All About Food and that’s it. And I’ll be back next week with two great guests: Laura Theodore, the jazzy vegetarian, and Latham Thomas talking about greening the planet one belly at a time. Have a delicious week.
Transcribed on 4/3/2014 by Chelsea Brewer