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Will All Efforts To Boost Produce Consumption Wind Up Being Co-Opted By Other interests?  European School Fruit Scheme IS Under Pressure To Add Other AG Items. Schoolchildren Apparently Also Need Flowers!

Freshfel, the European Fresh Produce Association, based in Brussels, Belgium, was concerned about proposals to integrate produce with other agricultural products in school programs. It issued a statement:


Freshfel Europe has sent a letter to Commissioner for Agriculture, Dacian CioloÅŸ, questioning the appropriateness and the timing for the Commission consultation on the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) schemes providing agricultural products to school children. The association expresses serious concerns in regard to the policy options envisaged in the consultation, which it finds would be extremely detrimental for the School Fruit Scheme (SFS).

Freshfel Europe — together with Aprifel, AREFLH and EPHA (the European Public Health Alliance) — has addressed a letter to Commissioner CioloÅŸ on the public consultation on CAP schemes for milk and fruit distribution in schools which outlines several options now open for debate. The organization starts by questioning the timing of the consultation, and suggests postponing it until the SFS improvements under the CAP reform (increased budget to enhance accompanying measures and raise the level of the co-financing) are introduced, consolidated and monitored, and the planned evaluation for the School Milk Scheme (due after the summer) is finalized.

Saida Barnat, Scientific Director of Aprifel, and member of the EU SFS Group of experts, commented: “Considering a greater integration of these schemes or even widening further the scope of the products would hinder any consensual communication efforts and will put into question the high level of health protection to children, one of the primary objectives of the SFS.”

Quoting the vice president of the group (Margherita Caroli, MD PhD, in pediatric nutrition), she continued, “No other agricultural product besides fruit and vegetables, is scientifically justified for further promotion to children at schools.”

The letter also highlights the specificity of the products and the logistics of the two schemes, which widely differ and for which a merger would be to the detriment of the need for frequent distribution of perishable products. The letter further observes that while all the objectives mentioned in the consultation paper (i.e., the disconnection of consumers and children with agriculture, the increased globalization and modern way of life, the consumption of highly processed foods high in sugar and fat, the fight against obesity and overweight, the help to small scale farmers by shortening the marketing chains, granting farmers a bigger share of the price to the consumer, the climate change mitigation, the seasonality, the waste, etc.) are laudable objectives, they should not be part of a school program, and can be reached through other CAP instruments.

Diluting SFS messages would weaken the scheme and the efficiency of accompanying measures. Moreover, monitoring and controls would become extremely complex.

Philippe Binard, General Delegate of Freshfel, stated: “In a time of budgetary constraints, it is important to have well-structured, well-funded and efficient policies, and we urge the Commission to first further improve the SFS without jeopardizing its achievements so far.” He concluded: “When launched, the SFS was built on the basis of increasing fruit and vegetables consumption together with a clear health objective. Its merits are more than ever valid today and should not be undermined!”

A ringing statement to be sure! We’ve spoken with Secretary General Binard many times, including these pieces:

Ten Years, Ten Lessons Learned: A Look At The European Produce Industry Through The Eyes Of Freshfel’s Philippe Binard

Pan-European School Fruit Scheme

In Defense Of Cosmetically Challenged Produce

The issue of how best to increase produce consumption among school children is a transatlantic concern, as is the public policy question of how such programs should be funded and organized, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Philippe Binard
Secretary General
Freshfel Europe
Brussels, Belgium

Q: Why is Freshfel Europe expressing serious concerns to the Commissioner for Agriculture regarding policy change considerations to the European Commission’s CAP (Common Agriculture Policy) schemes providing agriculture products to school children?

In your eye-opening interview last October commemorating Freshfel’s 10th anniversary, you tackled our challenge to pinpoint the 10 main issues on Freshfel’s agenda, reflect on the lessons learned and forecast challenges going forward. Number one on your list was stagnating produce consumption. This problem tied into the other issues on your list. However, it’s poignant that you concluded with Number 10, where you emphasized the importance of the School Fruit Scheme in reversing the problem…

A:  Insight on this problem involves a little open-ended politics. I need to be sure to extract the relevance for a more U.S.-oriented audience. Not focusing on European Union “inside politics,” the European Commission is looking for a number of options for maybe improving the functioning of schemes under the Common Agriculture Policy targeting children. The main trouble is that these latest proposed changes are misdirected and will undermine the school fruit scheme.

Q: What sparked the proposed changes and why do you view them as detrimental?

A:  For the time being, the scheme on milk has been there many years and seems not to be working satisfactorily from a good management principle. It has been criticized by audits. We have a relatively young system with our School Fruit Scheme, now three years in its infancy. The European Commission is looking at whether the school fruit scheme needs to have its own functioning or in simplification should be merged with other agriculture products; that there could be a benefit of extending the school scheme to a broader range of products.

This is where we came in arguing with the Commission that this is not a bright idea. The background or the specifications of how and why the existing schemes came about are quite different.  The main reason for the fruit scheme and why the background is important is the need to educate children on fruits and vegetables because they are good for health. They need to get used to the texture and taste. If you look at the main reason for the milk scheme, it was introduced because there was too much milk product in the EU, so it was a way to get rid of the excess.

When you have public money, it’s important to know how to monitor the program and see the benefit of the program, and a broader scheme defeats the ability to do that if you add milk, grain or cereal or meat product in the scheme. There are even talks about adding flowers.

Q: Is agriculture the only commonality between such seemingly discordant products? What benefits could accrue to school children in this scenario?

A: The Commissioner wants to reconcile the scheme with nature and life. He wants to bring in flowers. The broader it is, the more difficult if you want to monitor the scheme.  How do you validate the result of such action? 

Q: This sounds like a case of diverting focus from the original objective…

A: If you have such a broad scheme, it helps shorten the supply chain and eliminate food waste, but the Commissioner is mixing issues.  We need a clear objective. If we dilute the program, it defeats the purpose of what we argued to the EU as the impetus for the school scheme — the stagnation of produce consumption — and it will be very difficult to monitor.

Q: Weren’t there other developments underway for the School Fruit Scheme more to your liking? What happened to the proposed increased funding that had been gaining ground?

A: For the time being, there are proposals already on the table in the current reform of EU policy to improve the fruit scheme. We should give those a chance first and take the steps to improve the scheme by raising financial support. Now, when you participate in the scheme, the EU is supporting 50 percent of the product. There is a financial proposal to raise the EU contribution to 75 percent.

Another element of the proposal is to have the EU co-finance the accompanying promotion measure that needs to be taken in any school scheme. If you don’t have activity to educate the children, the scheme won’t be effective. This is something that had to be financed by each of the countries. This could help to convince more countries to jump into the system. So instead of looking to merge milk and vegetables or extend the scheme to other products, we say first do the financial proposal already on the table rather than launching a new broader scheme.

Q: Is there wide discrepancy in the implementation and success of the school fruit scheme from country to country?

A: There are countries strongly using the scheme-- Italy is the biggest user. It receives close to 20 million Euro out of 90 million available for the school scheme.

The UK hardly uses it. It has a system that is not aligned with the EU’s.  The UK’s school scheme goes through its National Health Service with other parameters. It prefers to go its own way, which is very specific to the status of the UK in the EU, going back to Margaret Thatcher, who famously said, “I want my money back.”

When the funds are being distributed, the EU has to supply money to the UK as well, but if it’s not used, the budget is given to other member states.

As far as the distribution of money for the fruit scheme by country, the second biggest is Germany. If we take the whole budget, Germany will have 11.5 million Euros, Poland close to 10 million as well as Romania, and then France and Spain, both with roughly 5 million.  

Q:  Do you have studies that track progress and target areas for improvement within different countries to validate the need for the scheme and build your case for increased funding?  In the U.S., there is a concerted effort to monitor and document success of initiatives to increase fresh fruits and vegetables in schools. How complicated is such an effort in Europe, where you have such a fragmented system?

A: We don’t monitor it ourselves. There are groups of experts appointed by the EU. When we look at the evolution, each year the number of children participating in the program doubles. In year one, there were 2 million; year two, 4 million; and now in year three, it’s 8 million to show something is going on. I won’t say it’s ideal. There are things that could be improved.

Q: What would those improvements be?

A: For us the weakest point is communication of the scheme within the EU national system and sector. The way it’s implemented, there is a lot of fragmentation. The schools depend on local districts and not in regional or national context, so solutions have fallen at the local level, which translates to lost opportunities in logistics. If the program could organize on a national basis, logistics could be improved. People often don’t even know about the program or how to get involved in it.  Especially with teachers, parents, and school managers, they say, we’ve never heard about it, where can we apply?

There’s a mismanagement of communications at the EU that the scheme is available, and at the national level more could be done. There is opportunity with the proposal for the EU to co-finance members’ accompanying promotion and education.

Q: What is the current status? Is the proposed budget increase for the school scheme likely to pass?  Has that been tempered by larger fiscal concerns and the market’s economic volatility?

A: It’s on the table now almost 18 months because it has a budget. Just like you have the fiscal cliff in the U.S., we have something similar in the EU. There are major discrepancies between the Commission’s proposal for the whole budget and what member states are willing to accept. The member states are reducing budgets.

Our budget line for the school scheme is 90 million Euros for the time being, and with the proposal to change it to 150 million Euros, that budget line for 2014 to 2020 has not been affected, However, as long as there is no final deal with the budget, the approval for the school scheme is dependent on that.

Q: What happens if the broader scheme to merge milk and other agriculture products goes forward?  Could that derail all your progress?

A: The matter is not over for the broader scheme. We’ll see what the main message of the Commission will come out of the consultations in progress. We have strong support, yet we can not rest on our laurels. We must remain vigilant.

Q: Isn’t there a lot more work to be done to build meaningful long-term results in changing children’s eating habits and increasing produce consumption?

A: The scheme exposes children to new eating experiences. To really make a difference, we come to the EU to argue it needs to be much more ambitious. The 90 million Euros corresponds to one piece of fruit per child per week. With one piece, you won’t change eating habits of children, and the scheme needs to be accompanied by more educational programs.

The most effective cases are where the programs are more intense with measures to raise awareness and bring the message home to benefit the family. The comprehensive programs show something happening from the health aspect and overall attitudes of the children.

What’s important is to include diversity of produce. In an apple-producing region, what is brought to school are apples. If the supplier in Spain distributes oranges or mandarins, the likelihood is the children are used to the taste because they have them in their backyard garden. It’s important for kids to discover new products, learn to cut a kiwi or how to prepare broccoli or carrots. These elements of diversification are happening, but need to be more.

The reason why implementation is by the countries is because there is so much diversity.  Take a country like Germany, where it’s done by different regions.  In Spain, the different regions all have their own schemes. Italy also is administratively divided into five regions just to show you the complexity of the situation. The School Fruit Scheme is one of many issues we are involved in. These matters often are not easy to communicate with all the technical aspects and regulations and, of course, there is always politics that gets in the way.


One could argue that there are legitimate concerns over logistics efficiency and program monitoring efficiency, which could be addressed by this kind of proposal to broaden the scope of the program from just produce to all kinds of items.

Mostly, though, it sounds like an effort by other agricultural interests to hop on what they perceive as a gravy train and, to mix metaphors a bit, grab their piece of the pie.

This is, of course, the key problem with any large scale government program. For some reason, people who assume that the individuals in business are always selfish, somehow assume that the individuals who work in government are unfailingly selfless. These people need to study Public Choice Theory:

Public choice takes the same principles that economists use to analyze people's actions in the marketplace and applies them to people's actions in collective decision-making. Economists who study behavior in the private marketplace assume that people are motivated mainly by self-interest. Although most people base some of their actions on their concern for others, the dominant motive in people's actions in the marketplace — whether they are employers, employees, or consumers — is a concern for themselves.

Public choice economists make the same assumption — that although people acting in the political marketplace have some concern for others, their main motive, whether they are voters, politicians, lobbyists, or bureaucrats, is self-interest. In Buchanan's words, the theory "replaces... romantic and illusory... notions about the workings of governments [with]... notions that embody more skepticism."

In the past, many economists have argued that the way to rein in "market failures" such as monopolies is to introduce government action. But public choice economists point out that there also is such a thing as "government failure." That is, there are reasons why government intervention does not achieve the desired effect….

One of those key reasons is that whatever the noble intentions of a program at its start, concentrated interests will tend to bend the program to their own interests. These interests change the incentives for individual politicians and bureaucrats and thus the government bends in their direction. Voters typically have little knowledge of these programs and are little impacted by the small per person cost. So, as Theodore Lowi explained in writing of the Iron Triangle the programs proceed to benefit the interest groups, not the general public.

The organic community is starting to feel this, as large food companies are now getting interested in organics and will push to have rules bent to fit their interests.

Since the produce industry is not the most powerful interest, it stands a good shot of seeing its programs, if they obtain enough scale, being distorted.

So a program focused on making children healthy by changing their dietary patterns may soon be giving out cheese and flowers, etc. Thus, the earnest pleas from our European friends for program purity and focus.

One caution we would add is that there is a tremendous risk when the industry supports programs that are not of a sufficient scale to make a difference. Yes, of course, we know that many times one takes what one can get and then hopes to build. But if giving out one piece of fruit a day doesn’t change consumption or health metrics in a verifiable way, the industry itself runs the risk of being perceived as just another special interest group. It is difficult to do politically sometimes, but we would be better off doing an effective program, as a pilot study, on 10% as many students, than ineffectively giving fruit to ten times that number. This is because an effective study would provide the intellectual ammunition to call for substantial additional funding. Failure to prove effectiveness makes the whole future of the program a matter of politics.

Many thanks to Philippe Binard for helping us to think about such issues.

Pundit’s Mailbag — Wal-Mart’s Empty Case And TV Commercial. Were We Being Unfair?

Our piece — A Wal-Mart Example — What Is The Produce industry To Do When Its Showroom Isn’t Executing Well? — brought this rebuttal from one industry member:

It is unfortunate you chose to publicize this one example which may or may not be representative across a significant number of Walmart locations.

It is especially unfortunate that there was no attempt to present a balanced review, especially if the subject was promoting / increasing the use of produce.

If a more comprehensive picture of what Walmart is doing here had been provided, you would have undoubtedly included mention of their wonderful TV ads that take their produce departments out in the public where they can be sampled and then informed this is all from Walmart.

Good for Walmart, of course, but also for encouraging purchase of more produce.

— Ron Cramer
Senior Global Ornamentals Adviser
Sakata Ornamentals
Morgan Hill, California

We appreciate the input but also think we were pretty clear.

We ran an anecdote, not the results of a national study. We clearly said that this was an “extreme example,” and we were not making a claim that this was a typical Wal-Mart display. Nor were we saying that nothing Wal-Mart does is good. We have written over 1,000 pages about Wal-Mart, much of which you can find here, and the underlying motif has been that whatever things Wal-Mart might do poorly, it has done a great favor for the world and delivered a great blessing to those living close to the waterline by offering economical prices.

In all probability, those low prices have driven consumption substantially higher than would have been the case had a low-priced option not existed.

An extreme example of wasting space and making a bad impression on consumers: A secondary banana display at the front entrance of Walmart Supercenter #2547 in Monticello, NY, on a busy summer Sunday.

Indeed, although we were writing about the subject from the perspective of Wal-Mart and retailers, in general, as a showroom for the produce industry, another critique of that empty display case is that Wal-Mart was losing money by allowing dead space in its stores. Put another way, if that display were properly stocked, volume would increase and Wal-Mart could afford to offer even lower prices. So proper merchandising is part of a virtuous circle in which increased per-square-foot sales allow fixed costs to be spread over higher volume, and thus allow lower prices without any diminution in profits.

Following that piece, we had several phone calls from friends who work at Wal-Mart today and some who have retired from Wal-Mart. They all had different perspectives but none, not one, e-mailed or called to say that “this is inconceivable” or “I’m shocked.” In fact, it is well known both internally at Wal-Mart and in the industry that Wal-Mart’s Achille’s Heel is irregular retail execution.

Which brings us to Wal-Mart’s TV commercials. They are very attractive, and the gist of them is that Wal-Mart does a  “Fresh-Over,” in which it takes various venues such as a local fruit stand, replaces the produce with Wal-Mart produce, and everyone shown can’t believe this great produce comes from Wal-Mart. Take a look at two examples here:

Of course, as we just wrote above, the problem at Wal-Mart is irregular retail execution, not low quality procurement, and the produce in these commercials was not randomly selected off the shelf of local Walmarts. So it is perfectly possible that this produce in the commercials could be terrific and the typical produce experience at Walmart could be disappointing.

One blogger put it this way:

Father’s day I decided to make a fruit salad after seeing the new commercial for its fruits. Have you seen it yet? They replace the fruit and vegetables in a fruit stand with produce from Walmart. Then they have customers rave over the samples they provide. Everyone acts so surprised that the fruit is from Walmart.

I bought strawberries and blueberries the day before Father’s Day at Walmart to add to my fruit salad based on this commercial. Over half the strawberries were mushy and rotten, and about a fourth of the blueberries had to be discarded as well.

Nothing has changed at the Trion Walmart. Same rotten fruit as always on the store shelves as before the commercial plug and freshness campaign.

A few months before the Walmart new freshness campaign started, I went to the store for cherry tomatoes. After adding them to my buggy, an employee in produce came up to my buggy and told me to check them. He turned them over and you could see from the bottom they were rotten. He then checked at least 10 more packages before he handed one back to me that he thought was Okay. The rotten tomatoes were left on the shelf by the employee.

If Walmart wants to do another fruit commercial, I could be in it for them. I wouldn’t have to act surprised if the fruit was juicy, sweet, and fresh. It would be genuine.

For the produce industry, this is all very frustrating. It seems as if every time the spouse of some big mucky-muck at Wal-Mart complains about the quality at the store, the top executive must call someone in perishables or produce and, since those people have no power over store-level execution, they announce a new toughening of procurement specs, which have nothing to do with the problem.

The plural of anecdote is not data, and even many examples don’t substitute for a national study. But the fact that such a display can exist at the front entrance to a store for over two hours tells us that, at very least,  there is a management systems problem in achieving and maintaining optimal retail execution. That impoverishes the consumer experience, makes Wal-Mart less profitable than it could be and deprives produce producers of the opportunity to make a great first impression.

Pundit’s Mailbag – When Children Are At Stake: How Can Schools Prioritize Local Over Safe?

Our piece, Pundit’s Mailbag — The End Of The Yeoman Farmer? Does Society Care Enough About PTI And FSMA To Put The Small Farmer Out Of Business? brought this note exploring the way “loopholes and exemptions” can have consequences that we better deal with up front:

It seems the loopholes and exemptions also have far-reaching effects in terms of what our school children are eating:  

San Diego Unified School District: What is Farm to School

It is notable that there is no mention of food safety in this initiative to bring small local and organic farm produce into our school children’s diets.

I would guess that the majority of the farms involved in these programs are not third-party audited for food safety.

— David Sasuga
Fresh Origins
San Marcos, California

David has contributed many insights to the Pundit including these:

Pundit’s Mailbag — Choice Of Farmer Lee Jones As Keynote Speaker Of IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum at The New York Produce Show And Conference Is A “Most Interesting Strategy”

Fraudulent Farmer’s Markets ‘Detrimental To Legitimate Farms, Retailers And To Consumers’

‘Spiked’ Organic Fertilizer Raises Consumer Doubts About Organic Definition

Pundit’s Mailbag — As ‘Spiked’ Organic Fertilizer Investigation Widens, Potential Grows For Weaker Consumer Confidence In All Fresh Produce

Pundit’s Mailbag — Putting Leadership First: Consider The Example Of The Ohio Florist’s Association

We have also dealt with the issue of schools and local, particularly in regard to UC Davis and its program. We discussed the matter in pieces such as these:

More On PMA Foodservice…Everyone Is In Favor Of Better Flavor But Is ‘Local’ A Solution Or An Ideology?

Dissecting The Meaning Of Local, Sustainable And Flavorful

Tom Reardon of Michigan State University Speaks Out: Wither Local

We Have Our Own Selves To Blame For Poor Growth In Consumption

David’s letter is intriguing because by bringing up school children, he lays bare the choices that are being made. Whatever the arguments for local or small-scale farming, could any parent forgive a school if a child ever died from a pathogen on produce and they learned that the school had elected to waive its requirements for all vendors to be third-party audited for food safety in order to buy from local farmers?

When Jr. Pundit Primo, aka William, fell and hit his head as a toddler, they asked us a bunch of question —  did he pass out, etc. — and when the questions were answered and the examination complete, they announced that they were 99.9% certain that he was just fine. There was, however, a 0.1% chance that in the middle of the night he might have a cerebral hemorrhage and die, and the only way to avoid that possibility was to do an MRI. This would mean staying up several hours, working to calm a frightened child and would cost about $5,000, including the test, reading it, etc.

It was completely irrational to do the test from any societal cost/benefit analysis, but this wasn’t a policy choice, this was our child. There was not a second of hesitation that we should do the test. What if we didn’t and something happened to William? How could we live with ourselves?

Yet schools, for no real reason other than trendiness, are bowing to demands to not enforce rigorous food safety standards. One day, one of the foodservice directors will have a grieving mother in his office and he will have to explain what benefit there was to buying local that was so substantial it was worth waiving requirements for third-party audits, or accepting lower audit standards than national shippers could provide. What in the world will that foodservice director have to say?

Many thanks to David Sasuga of Fresh Origins for bringing this emotional issue to our attention.

Pundit’s Mailbag — 'McDonald’s Study' Bespeaks Need To Promote Healthy Options Long Before Smelling The Fries. But Will That Be Enough?

Our piece Pundit's Mailbag — Do Consumers Eat More When Given Calorie Recommendations At Restaurants? ‘McDonald’s Study’ Demonstrates Nanny-Statism May Have Unintended Consequences, brought lots of comments, including one from a man with access to a lot of data on consumer behavior:

Very interesting write-up…

I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that when it comes to foods, the framework of the consumer purchase decision is made long before the consumer enters the store. In other words, by the time the researchers provided calorie data to consumers in a McDonalds, they were talking to a self-selected group where calorie content is a low priority pre-existing condition.

The consumers walking into that McDonalds have already made their general food purchase choice, and calorie accounting — at least for those consumers — is not in the equation. As you point out, this seems to be observable in the Subway study as calorie-aware consumers started their food quest with the more important task of first selecting where to dine for lunch.

I think what this points out is that the real opportunity/challenge is not about point-of-sale calorie lists but influencing and altering consumer purchase intent before they get to the store or restaurant. Change how consumers think about meal-selection choices and you change where/how they shop and ultimately their purchase behavior. But as you discuss, by the time one smells the fries, the food choice battle is already lost.

— Steve Lutz
Executive Vice President
Nielsen Perishables Group
Chicago, IL

Steve is astute and he identifies that this kind of study is likely to have very different outcomes depending on where one conducts such a study. Where one goes to eat is a self-selecting process, and the clientele at Darden’s Seasons 52 concept is very different from the clientele at Carl’s Jr.

If one really wants to study the impact of giving people calorie recommendations combined with providing calorie counts, one has to start with a representative sample of people. Part of being representative would be that they eat in a manner representative of the population — so if 25% of the population eats at restaurant X every 48 hours, the sample should mirror that. Only then would we be able to say what the impact of providing caloric recommendations would be on the American populace.

This being said, it is not clear that such a representative study would really help that much if the goal is to change eating habits. After all, the researchers studied McDonald’s, not an obscure eatery. If the people who go to McDonald’s self-select for not being interested in such education, well that is just another way of saying that big chunks of the population are not going to be amenable to these types of pitches.

Steve also makes a more subtle point in that he holds open the possibility that these people can be influenced at other times and in other ways. In other words, Steve is arguing that the key decision is to go to McDonald’s vs. Subway, not to choose the Quarter Pounder vs. the Big Mac.

Technically, this is not true. One can eat in quite a healthy manner at McDonald’s — one can drink bottled water and eat salads without dressing and lose lots of weight eating at McDonald’s. Culturally, however, Steve is probably on to something. There are always special exceptions, maybe people traveling without time or only able to select from venues in an airport or roadside service area, or a Mom catering to her teenagers, etc. It is also true that anyone can run into a McDonald’s for a bottle of water or cup of coffee. But, most of the time, people who are focused on health and nutrition are not going to choose to eat at McDonald’s.

So Steve’s assessment implies that whatever marketing, education or promotion the trade or the government is doing should be focused long before the person decides to enter the door at McDonald’s. 

There is little question that Steve is right about this, but it is less clear that there actually is an effective path. After all, all those people at McDonald’s in this study have been barraged with health messaging for decades — in school, in the media, in promotions such as Fruits & Veggies More Matters In the store and, more recently, with the First Ladies’ Let’s Move program.

It may well be that just as “spot reducing” doesn’t work to get rid of love handles, “spot education” doesn’t work to change consumer behavior on areas of nutrition. There are always individual exceptions, and there are clearly medical issues that impact certain people in how they deal with food and exercise but, in general, there is a strong correlation between things such as income and educational level and obesity — the more affluent, the better educated, the less likely one is to be obese.

This suggests that more affluent, better educated people are either better able to absorb health and fitness recommendations or better able to discipline themselves to follow the recommendations. Looked at through this prism, efforts to improve diet and exercise levels would be better directed toward helping kids graduate high school.

If a person is a high school dropout, had children out of wedlock, does drugs and drinks to excess, can’t hold a job because the person can’t show up regularly, it seems unreasonable to think that this person will be punctilious about his or her intake of leafy greens.

Perhaps this study, along with Steve Lutz’s illuminating letter, can lead us all to think about what might actually work in nutrition education. We may find that we have to face some disconcerting truths. That the task for the industry and all who wish to be effective about changing eating habits is not so much nutritional-education as it is focused on helping people to absorb and act on information that could benefit them in all walks of life. The zeitgeist is filled with information, lessons for success: Save your money, finish school, don’t have unprotected sex, don’t do drugs, don’t drink to excess, work out every day and, yes, eat your vegetables. It may be a fool’s errand to think we can pluck out nutrition and through education see dramatic changes in the produce eating portion of these “suggestions for success” — it may well be that if we are to be effective, we have to focus on how people receive and act on information. The job may simply be much larger and more demanding than we have realized.

Many thanks to Steve Lutz and Nielsen Perishables Group for helping us think through this interesting matter.

Pundit’s Mailbag – The McDonald’s Study, Nanny-Stateism And The Role Of Industry Advocacy Groups In Promoting Big Government And Budget Deficits

Sometimes the story behind the story is a bigger issue than the story itself, such was the reaction of one industry participant to our piece titled, Do Consumers Eat More When Given Calorie Recommendations At Restaurants? ‘McDonald’s Study’ Demonstrates Nanny-Statism May Have Unintended Consequences.

Please keep writing articles like this one!

The produce industry seems to be full of willing participants in big government solutions of all kinds, from immigration amnesty, to subsidizing businesses in the so-called “food deserts”.  Our industry needs a thoughtful voice who will question the conventional wisdoms and ask his readers to check their own self-interests and those of their businesses against the greater good of a free people.

— Doug Stoiber
Vice President, Produce Transportation Operations
L&M Transportation
Raleigh, North Carolina

We appreciate Doug’s note and support.  He raises an important point, one that actually has less to do with the produce industry than the future of America. The point is that our political system leads to immense pressure to expand government.

When the last farm bill was being debated, we wrote a piece titled, Farm Bill Passes House…Good For Produce; A Problem for America.

It is “high five” time among those the produce industry retains to represent its interests in Washington D.C. Whereas traditionally the Farm Bill was succor for program crops and had little or nothing for the fruit and vegetable industry, skilled lobbying and persistent effort brought about $3 billion over the next five years for produce interests. United sings the praises of the bill this way:

For almost three years, the produce industry has supported a common goal to engage in developing U.S. farm policy that recognizes the significance of the fruit and vegetable industry in agriculture and advances key policy initiatives that enhance the competitiveness of our industry in the global marketplace. Today, this vision becomes more of a reality as Congress finalizes its work on the Conference Report. For us, this represents a sea-change on how farm policy in this country will be developed in future farm bills.

In particular, this bill will significantly expand the USDA Fruit and Vegetable School Snack Program, expand state block grants to increase industry competitiveness, purchase more fruits and vegetables for school lunch, continue the DOD Fresh Program for schools, provide technical assistance to address international market access issues, invest in specialty crop research including produce food safety, enhance programs to prevent invasive plant pests and disease, and target funding to address conservation priorities.

Most importantly, this Farm Bill will help all sectors of the produce industry deliver the highest quality, safest and most affordable fresh produce to consumers in the United States and around the world. Bottom line, every dollar spent to increase the competitiveness of U.S. fruit and vegetable producers serves all Americans who desperately need our products for their health and which will come back many times over in better health for our children and reduced long-term health care costs for the next generation.

United Fresh also wants to thank the tireless efforts of Congressman Dennis Cardoza (D-CA) and Congressman Adam Putnam (R-FL) for being our “champions” in the House of Representatives. Their vision and dedication to ensuring that fruits and vegetables would be part of the Farm Bill was monumental.

United, WGA, PMA and the whole Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance merit industry praise for tireless effort and intelligent assessment of the situation, prudent strategy development and efficient utilization of industry assets.

From an industry point of view, they played the trade’s cards perfectly. Instead of sitting out the battle or opposing the Farm Bill, both likely to win the industry nothing, our lobbying pros made a deal and brought us into the coalition to pass the Farm Bill in exchange for endorsement of several industry priorities.

So if we played the game so smart and accomplished so much, why does this Pundit feel a little sick? Because when we take off our industry hats and put on our American hats, the whole process reveals deep flaws in our governance structure, flaws that are inflating the budget and weakening our country….

….In fact, although the $3 billion for the produce industry often makes industry releases, the total cost of the bill — in excess of $300 billion — is rarely mentioned.

Don’t be upset that the trade only succeeded in getting 1% of the bill — that was truly a great accomplishment. Trading a particular industry’s support for 1% of the cost of a bill is par for the course. The thing to remember is that exactly what has gone on with this bill goes on with bills all the time.

In this case, we got a little for the home team — most of the time, the money is going to coal mine owners or used car lot dealers or some other industry that traded its support for cash. It usually isn’t even on the radar screen of most in the produce industry.

Maybe there is enough “time we got ours” sentiment to make this all seem great. But it is worth noting who pays for all these payoffs to buy industry support for every law. We call those payers taxpayers, like all of us. And this whole process impoverishes us all.

What happens is that some small group — say sugar cane growers — gets a subsidy, and because the subsidy is large and the number of sugar cane growers are few, they are intently focused on the subsidy. So they work for candidates who support the subsidy, donate money to the politicians who support the subsidy, etc.

In contrast, the subsidy is paid for by hundreds of millions of people paying a little more for the sugar in their coffee. Most voters won’t even know they are paying more, and if they did, the amount would be so small it wouldn’t be determinative in their vote, much less motivate them to campaign and donate to candidates who oppose sugar subsidies.

So, in the end, politics becomes all about politicians looking for special interest groups whose support they can buy off at the expense of the general welfare.

So the problem is you have a group such as the produce industry, which is almost surely opposed to giving farmers in big program crops subsidies, but because the odds of being able to stop such a program are small and the benefits to stopping it would be spread among the whole population, the intelligent thing to do is to sell the produce industry’s support for the Farm Bill in exchange for a small allotment for our favored programs.

Multiply that across every industry and every law and you understand why our system isn’t working as well as we need it to.

Asking people to be selfless and disregard their own interests is not likely a sustainably successful strategy. The Founders thought that by pitting faction against faction — see Federalist #10 — they could keep a check on the propensity of interests to capture government in their own interest. This works but only as long as the sphere and budget of government is limited. If government can do anything and spend anything, then the factions just agree to all eat at the public trough.

Those urging things such as balanced budget amendments are searching for the kind of structural change that would make a difference in the way factions negotiate. We don’t know the solution yet, but we know it will take more than urging people to leave self-interest at the door.

Many thanks to Doug Stoiber for weighing in on this important topic.

Pundit’s Mailbag — How To Help People Make The Right Choices At Restaurants…. Is There An App For That?

How do we help people make good choices?

This is the question our piece — Do Consumers Eat More When Given Calorie Recommendations At Restaurants? ‘McDonald’s Study’ Demonstrates Nanny-Statism May Have Unintended Consequences — posed in the mind of one thoughtful professor:

While I understand the political slant of the authors, the goal should be to find strategies to help people make good food choices, not to make political points.

As with making calorie decisions at one meal, one scientific article does not validate or invalidate anything, unless it is a very innovative paper.

In my case, I respond to the cost/item, and unless there is a big quality difference, I do not want to be faced with spending $8 for either 350 calories or 1000 calories. I recognize the cost of fresh vegetables are more than fat intellectually, but emotionally it is hard to spend more on less.

It also depends on where the meal is placed in my total food intake. Is it a snack, a big meal, or do I know I will not eat again for 12 hours?

I would value an app that one could use to determine the meal content relative to my particular need, so I do not need the calories or the grams of protein on a board, but somewhere accessible.

I would rather know if the total and relative fat, protein, and carbs are within the bounds of good nutrition, so there is a balance and quantity issue.

Charles Shapiro
Professor of Agronomy and Horticulture
Soil Scientist — Crop Nutrition

Department of Agronomy & Horticulture
University of Nebraska
Concord, Nebraska

Professor Shapiro’s note strikes at the heart of the difficulty in getting people to reduce calorie content when dining at restaurants, especially fast food restaurants. Marketing efforts in these venues typically focus on giving more for less. The whole “value meal” concept is a way of, in effect, saying, “if you buy a burger and soda, we will throw the fries in for free.” This strikes most people as a good deal. You have to have reached a higher level of consciousness to say “no, that is a bad deal for me because I don’t want those extra calories.”

At retail, one can offer a BOGO or similar promotion and the food is not designed for immediate consumption, so the “buy more for less” philosophy doesn’t necessarily impact calorie consumption – one reason retail promotions are difficult, as often one is just stealing sales from next week.

In restaurants, though, although sometimes people will take extra food home, in many cases the reason they are at a restaurant, especially a fast food place, is that they are on-the-go and thus storing food for future use is inconvenient. Psychologically throwing food out is “waste,” which their mothers taught them is “bad,” and so promotions that give more food for less encourage higher calorie consumption.

Restaurants prefer this type of promotion because it allows the business to increase revenue rather than decrease revenue when promoting. In other words, McDonald’s could offer 10% off everything to drive sales. This may result in getting less money per customer than it might have gotten otherwise, so sales would have to increase sufficiently to offset the 10% price reduction.

This is difficult because most people only want one Big Mac right then and there, so even deep price discounts don’t necessarily make people buy more although they may attract more customers. Alternatively, McDonald’s could do what it has done and it could create a value meal that costs a little more than the consumer would have spent on a burger and Coke, but throws in fries — this actually increases the average ring. So even if the promotion attracts no new customers, it will boost sales and, as the cost of food is typically low for things such as soda or fries, the margin hit is slight.

We are not big on government regulation. It often has unintended consequences that negate whatever good the rule was intended to do and, often, the process gets co-opted to favor a particular interest, not the general interest. However if we were told to impose a regulation on restaurants with the goal of reducing caloric intake, we wouldn’t worry too much about lots of education. What we would do is impose a rule that precludes restaurants from offering promotions that are contingent on buying more food; in other words McDonald’s could offer discounts, say 20% off,  but not value meals.

Professor Shapiro also points out that technology can help provide tools that would make it easy for consumers to do the right thing. Doubtless as apps get better, this will help. If one can read a menu with one’s Google Glasses, and simultaneously the glasses tell you what will conform to one’s Weight Watchers program, it may make things easier. We suspect, however, that it will mostly make things easier for people such as Professor Shapiro who are highly intelligent, well educated, disciplined and motivated.

Aristotle expected that if one studied the matter and determined that bitter greens were good for one’s health, then one was going to eat the bitter greens. Personal preferences, flavors and tastes would have been irrelevant. Using our human faculties — our intelligence — we had determined consumption of bitter greens is good for us, so we would to do it. Alas, we may be a tad short on Aristotelians these days.

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