Economic explanations can be like trying to explain why a joke is funny: it takes a long time, and by the end it’s not funny any more. Our explanations can also be like dissecting a frog: it’s weird, and anyway the frog is dead. You get the picture — we can be a dismal science. The aim of our class potluck is to keep our topic fun and alive, poking at dinner just enough to get a clearer picture of what we want when we choose what to eat.
As you can tell from past blog posts, we have prizes for the dishes that contribute most deliciously to a healthy diet while also being either: (1) least cost, (2) most convenient, (2) most environment-friendly, or (3) most culturally significant. Friedman students love their food, so it’s fun:
This year I introduced a surprise new award. I do some actual research on contest design, which teaches us that unanticipated prizes can be especially helpful to recognize and reward things people do for their own reasons. When we introduce new incentives, it’s important not to lose sight of those intrinsic motivations.
The new award this year was for dishes that are most ethical regarding workers in the food system. That’s a top goal for many eaters but it’s so difficult to tell how workers are treated. The prize, a hoodie celebrating the milk with dignity campaign, went to Julia Ryan for honoring the humble but powerful potato on which her Irish ancestors relied.
Before we eat, students explain a bit about what they brought and our faculty judges take careful notes.
A favorite awards category is the most significant, won this year by the poly-cultural Christl Li with a dish she learned from a Ghanaian housemate. And like last year, this year’s potluck featured new recipes — here is the winning entry for a delicious & healthy but also very low-cost item, from our sprouting champion Kelly Cara:
Our 7th annual econ-of-food class potluck, new and improved: now with an original student recipe!
We have these dinners just after the class discusses food choice and least-cost diets, meaning the combination of foods that would meet all nutrient needs at the lowest possible expense. For our weekly exercise, students attempt that calculation given current prices in Boston, and compare the result to what very poor people eat in Ethiopia. You can try the exercise yourself using this spreadsheet preloaded with real data, leading to surprising insight about the link between food choice and nutrient needs.
Actual food choices are not least-cost diets: people choose foods for other reasons, and often do not actually meet all nutrient needs. In class we look at global diets using the wonderful Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio “hungry planet” photos, from which one big surprise is how food choices in poorer places get closer to the least-cost source of essential nutrients, as in the corn, beans, oil and fruit diet eaten by refugees in Chad. Most of us eat more of some nutrients than we need, which is good because — as our spreadsheet exercise reveals — we cannot do the math in our heads.
One insight from our least-cost diet exercise is that, even using a spreadsheet preloaded with items from a well-stocked grocery store and precise measures of food composition, hitting nutrient recommendations exactly requires the use of math programming algorithms that were developed during and after WWII by Stigler and Dantzig. Those formulas are still today being used to improve livestock feed, and to inform nutrition assistance for poor people by the USDA, USAID, WFP and others. Most of the time we have to guess at what’s in our food, and choose items that meet our various goals as best we can. The potluck is a chance to celebrate the diverse objectives we actually pursue when choosing what to eat.
To make the potluck fun as well as tasty and nutritious, we invite students to bring dishes that contribute to an overall healthy diet while also pursuing any one of four common aims: (1) convenience, (2) cultural significance, (3) least environmental harm as well as (4) least financial cost. Each student explained their dish, and my esteemed colleagues Nicole Blackstone, Sean Cash, Parke Wilde and Norbert Wilson declared the winners in each category.
As promised, a recipe: Meghan O’Hearn outdid even Google’s chef Anthony Marco with her Savory Pie a la Stigler:
Stigler’s original estimate of a least-cost diet in 1939 contained only enriched wheat flour, evaporated milk, cabbage, spinach and navy beans. Using Excel to compute the exact least-cost diet in Boston now yields a roughly similar list, including a starring role for depression-era canned spinach, and our latest research from the CANDASA project finds the same kind of items in least cost diets around the world.
Here is Meghan’s recipe — revealing how a little butter, some eggs, garlic, olive oil and spices are enough to turn Stigler’s original mush into a fine quiche:
Stigler’s Savory Pie: yields one 9-inch pie
CRUST (you can use an alternate crust recipe if you prefer)
1 cup wheat flour (plus more for rolling)
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup shortening
4 tbsp water
FILLING (adapted from: https://www.marthastewart.com/1162977/navy-bean-pie)
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 can navy beans, rinsed and drained
4 tbsp. (half stick) unsalted butter
2 tbsp. wheat flour
100 g spinach (~half a bag of fresh baby spinach)
50 g shredded cabbage
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 white onion
1 sprig of fresh rosemary, minced
1 tsp thyme
salt, pepper to taste
1/2 tbsp olive oil or any cooking oil
PART I: Pie Crust
1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Mix flour and salt in a large bowl. Cut in shortening with a pastry blender until mixture is completely blended and appears crumbly.
3. Mix in water, 1 tablespoon at a time, by lightly tossing with a fork. Add only enough water to form mixture into a ball. The dough will be sticky and tough if to much water is added, and it will crack and tear when rolled if too little is added.
4. Roll out dough into circle 1 inch larger than the inverted pie plate.
5. Fold circle of dough in half, and gently lift. Place into pie plate and unfold. Either prick the entire surface of dough with a fork, or weight the bottom of the crust with pie weights while baking. Pie weights can be uncooked rice, dried beans, small clean pebbles, or small balls sold as pie weights.
6. Bake for 10 min at 400 F, and then remove weights and continue to bake for another 6-8 minutes until the crust starts to get some color. Remove from oven.
PART II: Pie filling and bake
1. Saute onion and garlic in cooking oil on medium heat. Once translucent, add shredded cabbage. Cook down cabbage until wilted and add in spinach, rosemary, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until spinach is also wilted– about 4-5 minutes.
2. In a blender, combine drained/rinsed navy beans, evaporated milk, butter, flour, eggs and salt and pepper to taste. Blend on medium-to-high until smooth.
3. Add sauteed vegetables to the the blender ingredients. Blend on low for 20-30 seconds, or until well combined. You can also do this part outside of the blender.
4. Pour filling into the pre-baked pie crust (see above). I ended up with about 1 cup too much filling so I saved that to bake in the future (without a crust perhaps!!). I also poured off some of the liquid (I think in hindsight may be better to use less evaporated milk?)
5. Bake in the oven at 350 F for about 60 minutes or until the filling has firmed and started to brown slightly on top.
6. Let rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.
7. Enjoy your Stigler pie masterpiece!
This year’s class potluck was especially saboroso, with a delicious Sopa Paraguaya from Gabi Fretes — and a wild Puerto Rican Coquito from Nayla Bezares here being praised by judge Norbert Wilson:
Also meaningful, in a different way: Blackbird Donuts (thank you Ilana Cliffer!).
As always, respect and thanks to our august jury of distinguished food economists, not just Norbert but also Sean Cash and Parke Wilde. Time for an econo’food recipe book project, anyone?
Our fifth annual class potluck this week was terrific. We do love our food!
For this year, we were able to schedule the dinner immediately after introducing the idea of optimization in food choice. The class had just completed a data-analysis exercise using the famous least cost diet problem, looking for combinations of foods that just meet daily nutrient needs at lowest total expense.
In NUTR 238 we do the diet problem by hand using spreadsheets, which reveals an amazing fact about food choice: even well-trained nutritionists armed with all the latest data, when asked to solve this problem, consistently choose foods with much more protein and higher cost than humans’ daily requirements. We cannot resist choosing dietary patterns that meet energy needs with expensive protein instead of fat or carbohydrates, and with too much of some nutrients and too little of others. This demonstrates vividly how and why people don’t just count our way to nutrient adequacy. To explain, predict and improve food choices, we need to understand nutrients and then think beyond them to other objectives and constraints.
Putting theory into practice, just for fun our Econ o’Food potluck this year involved prizes for best dishes that might help meet our nutrient needs in any of four different ways:
(1) Frugally, at lowest monetary cost;
(2) Conveniently, with least time needed to prepare and serve;
(3) Sustainably, with least harm to the environment;
(4) Meaningfully, with the most cultural significance for the community.
After much tasting and deep deliberation they decided which lucky students won their share of the world’s favorite treat. The judges explained how everyone’s dishes succeeded at meeting their diverse goals with such panache that I’m not sure about who actually took home the chocolate… which, I suppose, is the point. We’re just starting week 5 of the semester, and have so much more to discover!
This year we had prizes for the best dish in each of five categories, aiming to be as nutritious and delicious as possible while pursuing any one (or more) of the following widely shared goals:
- least monetary cost,
- least preparation time,
- least environmental impact,
- most local or seasonal, or
- most personally meaningful.
From the photo you can see our table of delights. The sourdough rolls on the right won the meaningfulness prize for Kathleen Nay (back row), for a gorgeous story about the sourdough starter that she and her husband began when they were married. Wow.
Sean Cash and Parke Wilde brought their best gastronomic game to the judging, with shoutouts for all the great food ideas of the night. We all ate and drank so well — with an extra jolt for happy winners like Sam Hoeffler, whose prize was a fresh shipment of my personal favorite consumable: coffee, brought home last weekend from Ethiopia.
Lots of fun, thank you all!
A fun feature of NUTR 238 is our annual econ-of-food potluck dinner, to celebrate the privileges of modern food culture. So many choices! The idea is to show off our amazing dietary optimization skills, with prizes for the best dish in each of several categories.
We start with the oldest challenge in the economics of nutrition, with the dish that best contributes to a least-cost diet. We also have a prize for meeting nutrient requirements with the least environmental impact, and another for meeting your RDAs with the most cultural significance. And, lest we forget life’s most implacable constraint, a prize for doing so with the least preparation time. We had serious economists judging the contest, Sean Cash and Anna McAlister, but very unserious prizes: what my wife Diane calls the universal food.
Here are the winners: From left, Anna (judge), Krista Zillmer (for a spectacular Spaghetti Squash Chow Mein) , Quinault Childs (for delicious cricket-flour cookies), Sean and me (with prizes), Aaron Shier (bowing to Milky Way Day) and Kristen Caiafa (for a bag of what is really, truly the global standard in least-cost nutrition).
Of course we also had many other wonderful dishes, from Iyamide’s Sierra Leonean stew to Ashley’s classic carrot cake. As you can see from the detritus on the table, we ate it all.
Happy spring break, everyone!
PS: NUTR 238 alumni can check out past potluck photos here.
- Friedman careers center postings
- Friedman alumni group on LinkedIn
- Nutrition-related jobs (ASN)
- Devex (US and international)
- Economics-related jobs (search “food”)
- Policy-related jobs (APPAM)
- Boston-area intl. dev. jobs & news (BNID)
- Food policy jobs in the US (Daybook)
- Intl. ag and nutrition jobs+news (Ag2Nut)
- Intl. development jobs (search “food”)
- Global health & poverty (80,000 hrs)
- Boston Network for Intl. Dev.
- Solutions Journalism – stories of success
- Politico – US food & ag policy
- Ag2nut – international nutrition
- Chicago Council – global food & ag
- Farm Policy News – from Univ. of Illinois
- The Counter – ‘Fact and friction in American food’
- Food dive – specialist journalism about the food industry
- Food Safety News – nasty stuff to avoid
- Dani Nierenberg’s Food Tank
- Jeremy Cherfas – food culture
- Gro Intel – deep dives into data
- FERN’s ag insider news
- Econofact – US economic policy
- Rudd Center – obesity policy
- David Allison – obesity research
- ANH Academy – mostly Africa & Asia
Data & resources
- My list of resources (experimental)
- WB DIME data analysis handbook
- JPAL how-to research resources
- USDA Econ. Res. Service (ERS) data
- USDA Food & Nutr. program data
- NCCOR – all US food-health data
- World Bank data
- FAO Statistics (FAOSTAT)
- UNICEF statistics
- WHO – child heights and weights
- WHO – global obesity and BMI
- UN system data
- HDX – humanitarian crises
- The dataverse
- IHSN – household surveys
- IPUMS – accessible data (incl. IDHS)
- Euromonitor – branded foods (library subscription)
- Gro Intelligence data
- UNCTAD – international trade
- Parke Wilde – food policy
- Jess Fanzo – food systems
- Marc Bellemare – ag & food econ
- Chris Blattman – dev econ
- Jayson Lusk – ag & food econ
- Diane Coyle – economics books
- Marion Nestle – food politics
- Tamar Haspel – food & ag
- World Bank – impact evaluation
- BITSS – research methods
- Econofact – US econ policy
- Susan Dynarski – education policy
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