A Friedman alum recently sent me a draft plan for how to fix the broken U.S. food system, wondering what I thought of it. That prompted a long response which I’ll share with you here.

If you’re in a hurry — tl, dr: The real culprit behind our food woes is systemic political and market failure, and the best way forward is smart regulation aimed at structural change, alongside individual responsibility for what we say and do every day. That lesson follows from the exemplary work of the Movement for Black Lives and so many other youth-led efforts that we might call Gen C activism. The discussion below is not specifically about Black Lives, or about climate activism, but is what I’ve learned from those movements about social change.

Now, the long version:

Any effort to “fix our broken food system” starts with a diagnosis of the problem, observing the many ways that existing institutions harm workers, worsen health and degrade our environment. The draft reform plan I was sent attributes our many woes in agriculture and nutrition to the most visible actors involved, namely the highly specialized agribusinesses and large-scale corporations that supply most grocery stores and restaurant meals. Based on this observation, the plan endorses a widely shared vision of more localized production, whereby each place becomes more self-reliant and resilient through self-provisioning.

Is food sovereignty’s focus on localism the way forward for our food system? Or is the effort to build shorter, locally-controlled supply chains likely to leave other structural problems unchecked? In my view, blaming specialization and trade for our problems is mostly a distraction, and local self-provision is fine as far it goes but that’s not very far. Like other social movements today, we can go look more deeply at the underlying causes of what we see. The food system experiences a variety of political and market failures, the remedies for which include smart regulation aimed at structural change accompanied by individual responsibility for personal choices. That diagnosis comes from academic research in agricultural and food economics, but its societal and policy implementation is heavily influenced by the Movement for Black Lives and responses to climate change and COVID.

In this view, food-specific instruments like package and menu labeling, school meals, dietary guidelines, fruit and vegetable vouchers as well as soda taxes and nutrition education can all be extremely helpful — especially big programs like SNAP and WIC — but more durable solutions for the whole population come from recognizing that our food system is not just crops, livestock and home cooking: it’s a giant manufacturing and service industry and should be treated as such, with the same kind of regulatory attention that governs transportation, housing, health care and other sectors.

…and now, the really long version:

To start, some context and motivation: Over the past few years, the Movement for Black Lives and young people’s activism around school shootings, climate change and now Covid-19, which I’ll call Generation C, have profoundly altered how I think and talk about food systems. There are threads of continuity but also novelty, unpeeling layers of structural conditions and personal experiences that shape language and understanding. My own life has been propelled by countless privileges, thanks to how my family became white in America. In my view now, Black Lives and Gen C point the way to positive change in three distinct ways:

  • First, who’s in charge: older people like me (next birthday is #60, same as Barack Obama) should soon step back and let younger people run things. There is a big need for the wisdom of elders, but my own role is mainly to help Tufts grads go out and do the work.
  • Second, structural change. Both the Movement for Black Lives and much of Gen C activism is explicitly anti-capitalist, especially regarding corporate control of government. The system they oppose is what economists call crony capitalism, where legislators and judges and agencies serve the owners of existing businesses instead of newcomers, customers and workers.
  • Third, individual behavior. Social science teaches us how large-scale long-term forces reflect and shape our small everyday actions. To shift the whole, each of us has a responsibility to signal our intentions, aligning what we say and do with our social goals. I am a proud member of the Heterodox Academy, and am well aware that overzealous speech police can lead to firing the innocent and self-indulgent guilt, but change starts and ends with personal responsibility for what we do in our professional and personal lives.

For the food system in particular, my perspective comes from working on farms as a kid, then surveying hundreds of farm families in grad school, analyzing terabytes of other data in countless ways and about 40 years of reading everything I can about agriculture, food and nutrition. Most of what I know is academic economics, the kind of social science that I teach in NUTR 238, but I also read a lot in the natural and health sciences.

From all that data and experience, one simple thing we’ve learned about the food system is that supply chains deliver what you put into them. Specialization and long-distance trade can bring good things, like year-round vegetables and rewarding jobs, and they can also do many bad things. For innovation and investment to deliver more of what we want, companies need a regulatory environment and price signals to move in that direction. Most of my adult life has been lived in the Reagan-Bush-Trump era of deregulation and corporate influence in government, but we could soon enter a new era of collective action and personal responsibility.

Fixing the food system in a climate-smart, post-COVID era where Black Lives Matter could involve the Federal government, but only if the U.S. as a whole has a sufficiently large wave election to shift control of the Senate as well as the White House. If that doesn’t happen, the Federal government will remain part of the problem rather than the solution, and steps forward will be taken only by state and local government in progressive places, and by individual consumers, farmers and companies everywhere who choose to align their private behavior with their social goals.

In economics as in medicine, successful interventions start with correct diagnoses and specific remedies, aiming to limit solve problems effectively with few side effects. The way COVID hit the food system, for example, includes illness among meatpackers and migrant farmworkers (migrant meaning that they move from farm to farm). Outbreaks at big companies got the headlines, but the virus itself spreads wherever it can. The astonishing COVID map from Leah Douglas at FERN reveals that, as in nursing homes and other workplaces, big groups are more likely to have cases but may actually be safer on a per-capita basis if the space is managed well. Replacing one 2,000-worker plant with ten 200-employee facilities or a hundred 20-person sites could be better, worse or the same for their communities, depending on how workers are treated.

Even where the illness itself is controlled, COVID has killed jobs for millions of low income workers, and forced a sudden shift to groceries for food at home. Did having a highly specialized food system with long supply chains make us more vulnerable to COVID, or less? The transition from restaurant supply to retail sale did involve a lot of spilled milk and spoiled vegetables, but was about the same problem as switching toilet paper from office to home use.  In any case the resilience of supply chains is no consolation to the millions of food workers who lost their jobs, disproportionately Black and brown and low-income people with limited education, but their job loss is a different problem than supply disruption – and the solution to food-system unemployment is not to have all those restaurant kitchen workers become local farmers, since there is not nearly enough capital or land to go around.

At last, we get to the conclusion of this essay:  If our food system woes aren’t caused by the big specialized companies involved, what is it that caused our many problems in agriculture, food and nutrition?

For that I’d say: The systemic failures behind our food woes are regulatory in nature. We are trying to manage agriculture and nutrition using institutions like the USDA and FDA that are over a hundred years old, and our debates focus on Farm Bill measures, tax/subsidy instruments and programs that help some people while leaving structural problems unchecked. Food-specific instruments like SNAP and WIC as well as package and menu labeling, school meals, dietary guidelines, soda taxes and nutrition education can be shown to help, but the most durable large-scale solutions for everyone come from recognizing that our food system is fundamentally like other manufacturing and service industries and should be treated as such. Most importantly:

  1. For heathy diets, we need to treat nutrition and food safety the same way we’ve gotten safer electrical appliances, buildings and transportation. What’s sold at grocery stores and restaurants should be governed the same way we govern what’s at hardware stores, auto dealerships and apartment buildings, ensuring that consumers have choice among options whose safety and functionality is enforced by law.
  2. For decent jobs, we need to help food service and farmworkers the same way we’ve improved employment conditions elsewhere, with minimum wages and collective bargaining and labor protections that treat every worker with dignity and respect.
  3. For environmental quality, we should treat water and farmland the same way we treat resources in other sectors, with direct regulation of pollutants and other external harms; as with housing, the goal should be more farming rather than less, adopting new practices that reduce the overall footprint of the whole system.
  4. For plant and animal life, we should treat antibiotics and pesticides the same way we should treat other public health concerns, with a focus on harm reduction from misuse.
  5. For monopoly power, we need the same anti-trust enforcement to promote competition, entry of entrepreneurs and survival of small businesses as in other sectors.

The pattern here should be clear: all too often, we still think of food as it comes out of the ground, to be managed with 1930s-era policy instruments.  One we see food as a modern manufacturing and service sector like any other, where agriculture produces ingredients and food companies make food, then we recognize the opportunity for a lot of helpful regulation.  That may seem like an anti-market view, but it’s straight from the modern ‘neoliberal’ playbook of policing the marketplace to be a level playing field so it can attract as much activity as possible, to be pro-farmer and pro-business in a way that promotes public health and long-term resilience.

To conclude… this is a teaching blog, aimed at supporting NUTR 238: Economics for Food and Nutrition Policy. The purpose of that course, and of academic economics in general, is to help people identify and meet our societal goals. These goals include all peoples’ dignity and living standards, human health and the environment as well as “the economy” in the sense of market activity. Like all of economics, our goal is to identify both market failures and policy failures, and help people solve both with the appropriate instruments. In the U.S. food system, the most under-used part of the policy toolkit is regulation, due to decades of anti-regulatory fever that came to power with Ronald Reagan in 1980. The era of electing leaders who dislike government may finally be coming to an end. If America does have a sufficiently strong wave election in 2020, the U.S. and the world could begin using a more complete armory of policy instruments to improve the food system and so much else — with hundreds of Friedman School graduates on the front lines of change.

 

Today I did a CELT workshop on what I’ve learned about online teaching at Friedman so far, in a series for faculty to share experiences and lessons learned for the coming year. We had 49 participants from all parts of the university. By coincidence, that’s the same size as my Spring class, so we were able to practice the same engagement tools as I used with students last semester. Here’s a quick summary:

The story begins with my pre-COVID teaching methods. I’ve now taught introductory classes on food economics for about 30 years in various settings, the main lesson from which has been the astonishing power of a traditional lecture. I have seen a few great teachers in my life. A skillful lecture is a magical thing, and I try my best every time. The background slides below illustrate some aspects of how I ran the class until COVID arrived.

For remote teaching, my main adaptation has been to sharply reduce time devoted to verbal Q&A during the lecture, and replace it with Zoom tools that elicit much more frequent participation from everyone each day.

The first kind of active learning that we do more often with Zoom is through clicks on instant polls, some prepared ahead of time using PollEverywhere or Zoom’s own multiple-choice questions, but also a lot of planned or improvised Yes/No questions. Some of my yes/no questions are about peoples’ backgrounds and situations (e.g. “have you ever worked on a farm?”) but most are about class content (e.g. “has total calorie consumption per person in the U.S. risen over the past decade?”). .

My yes/no questions about students’ backgrounds and interests are primarily to ensure that the students and me all know where we’re coming from, and that all students feel recognized as valued members of the class. The purpose of the factual questions is for students to practice making errors and fixing them. Many smart people find mistakes so unpleasant that they don’t learn very much. The factual yes/no questions give every student a safe way to practice being wrong, and fixing their mistakes with speed and self-confidence.

Formulating questions so they have yes/no answers can be tricky. I wish Zoom offered a third option, and some faculty use the open hand to mean ‘don’t know’ or some other choice. For maximum flexibility, however, the huge new kind of active learning that Zoom allows is use of the chat box. The slide below explains what I’ve learned about texting in class. During the CELT workshop, faculty participants filled the chat box with great ideas and suggestions from which I learned a lot — demonstrating that faculty, just like students, can type way more than they can say.

The third new active-learning technique allowed by Zoom that we discussed in the workshop is quick formation of small breakout groups For example, with just a few clicks I can divide the class into random pairs or trios, and give them a few minutes to develop a list of examples or possible solutions to a problem. I think it’s particularly helpful to have breakout group participants all type something in the chat box afterwards, instead of having just one rapporteur summarize what everyone said.

My conclusions for the CELT workshop are summarized in the slide below. We’ll be talking about these ideas a lot over the coming months, and I expect to learn a lot more next year about what really works best.

 

This semester’s all-school speaker series ended with two panels on COVID-19, first on disease forecasting from Elena Naumova & Ryan Simpson, and then on impacts in ag., food & nutrition from me, Sean Cash and Norbert Wilson.
You can stream the archive of recorded video, or download my slide deck. My opening summary of the situation is an expanded version of an EconoFact memo, and here is a gallery of the slides for a quick scroll, followed by links to selected online resources:

…and the deck ends with links to selected online resources:

1. Boston-area volunteering
— Public health students supporting local public health agencies
— Health science students supporting medical staff at BMC & HMS
— Neighbor-to-neighbor mutual aid compiled by Boston Public Library

2. The basics
— Our indispensable U.S. CDC & Massachusetts Dept of Public Health
— Announcements and info for Tufts University & the Friedman School
— Covid-related nutrition advice from dieticians in the US and UK

3. Data on impacts and responses
– Epidemiological forecasts
   – for the U.S. and individual states, from IHME
   – for the U.S., UK and Europe, from Imperial College MRC
– Global monitoring from Our World in Data
– Daily situation reports from the WHO
– Africa-specific info from Amref, AfricaCDC, and WHO-Africa

4. Agriculture, food and nutrition
–UN Standing Committee on Nutrition list of resources
–UN system agency responses from FAO, WFP & UNICEF
–Research from the Center for Global Development & IFPRI
–Global impacts on school meals: https://gcnf.org/covid

6. The great migration to online learning
— AAUP on Coronavirus impacts & response in higher education

 

The slide deck can be downloaded here. Feel free to adapt & use! Slide #3 is a gif showing spread across countries.

For the full thread on twitter, click below:

 

Public outreach generally works better on twitter, but here is a blog version of some posts there about COVID-19 in the food system. This virus is tearing a huge hole in the fabric of every society on earth, with a sudden, synchronized loss of life and well-being that makes almost everything harder. With fewer people and less resources, we will have to work smarter and better.

First of all, who does what work in the food system, and how can we help? Last year I posted some data on who does what work in U.S. food systems. Prompted by this crisis, I just added links to the best job listings for Tufts Nutrition grads in a new menu to the right of this post.

Then to prompt discussion in our weekly PhD student seminar, I prepared a few slides that should be self-explanatory. Imagine below, or to use in other settings you can download the slides.

The last slide was a summary of my COVID-19 links in the post preceding this one (scroll down to see). There are also links to great things posted by other Friedman faculty such as Patrick Webb’s essay on social bridging, a multi-author piece on social networks in humanitarian crises, and other items collected on the Friedman School’s page of faculty writing about COVID-19.

 

Many organizations have stepped up with amazing resources on COVID-19 impacts and responses around the world. Here’s a set of links I’ve found helpful that might be of use for students, faculty and staff around the Friedman School of Nutrition or in related groups. Categories shown are in rough order of urgency and relevance for us, especially regarding impacts and responses in agriculture and the food system. Please comment or email to me any additions or updates.

1. Boston-area volunteering
— Public health students supporting local public health agencies
— Health science students supporting medical staff at BMC & HMS
— Neighbor-to-neighbor mutual aid compiled by Boston Public Library

2. The basics
— Our indispensable U.S. CDC & Massachusetts Dept of Public Health
— Announcements and info for Tufts University & the Friedman School
–Covid-related nutrition advice from dieticians in the US and UK

3. Data on impacts and responses
–Epidemiological forecasts
– for the U.S. and individual states, from IHME
– for the U.S., UK and Europe, from Imperial College MRC
–Global monitoring from Our World in Data
–Daily situation reports from the WHO
–Africa-specific info from Amref, AfricaCDC, and WHO-Africa

4. Agriculture, food and nutrition
–UN Standing Committee on Nutrition list of resources
–UN system agency responses from FAO, WFP & UNICEF
–Research from the Center for Global Development & IFPRI
–Global impacts on school meals: https://gcnf.org/covid

5. Analyses and writing of special interest (to me)
— IRI on consumers’ response in terms of food purchases
— Eater’s data on impacts for US restaurants
— IEG Vu on food system in Italy (+ useful weekly agribusiness briefing)
— Gro Intelligence ag data analyses: https://app.gro-intelligence.com/signup
— Economists estimating the payoff from social (physical) distancing

6. The great migration to online learning
— AAUP on Coronavirus impacts & response in higher education
— Michael Bruening’s version of I will survive (>2 million views!)

5. A daily general news source that won’t drive you crazy
— Website and newsletters from Axios (“smart brevity”)

 

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:

Diane took this picture, standing on a chair — I’m lost in the far back left

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:

In the end… leftovers!
 

Aging as gracefully as I can… looking back about ten years, here’s a repost of food economics in doggerel:
http://freakonomics.com/2009/06/04/why-are-kiwis-so-cheap
and also a link to my farewell to Purdue grad students when I moved to Tufts:
http://freakonomics.com/2010/06/10/toward-an-ethical-economics-of-food-policy

 

This year, my back-to-school week included a lecture for the University of California’s Network on Child Health, Poverty and Public Policy, which had a 3-day multidisciplinary talkfest for UC researchers to share insights about the many different methods and kinds of data used to study child well-being. The organizers asked me to do a one-hour session on what economists can learn from nutritionists, focusing on global undernutrition and the dietary transition. This seemed like a good opportunity to try flying less, so thank you to Marianne Bitler and Tim Beatty for the invitation, and willingness to experiment with an online talk and Q&A.
Participants were grad students, postdocs and faculty from various fields across the UC system. Marianne and Tim asked me to share whatever I thought would be most helpful, so I talked about three things:
Vocabulary, and some of the many language barriers that make it difficult for economists and nutritionists to learn from each other;
Nutrition, and what’s been discovered about food that could help us understand global undernutrition and the dietary transition to improve health in the U.S. and elsewhere; and
Economics, especially what’s known about agriculture and the food industry to help improve diet quality.

The resulting 59 minutes of presentation and Q&A is below, recorded from the classroom system. Comments welcome, easiest by email, and you can also download the slides here.

EconoNutrition: Using economics and nutrition to address global undernutrition and the dietary transition from William A. Masters on Vimeo.

 

Premixed, fortified infant cereals are eaten in small quantities but play a big role in the world food system. They were first developed in the 1930s at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (as “Pablum“) then spread quickly to near universal use in nutrition assistance programs, evolving from INCAPARINA in the 1960s to SuperCereal+ today. Similar products are sold in almost every food market around the world, with many local versions jockeying for shelf space against multinational brands like Nestle’s Cerelac. Here are some packets sent to me for the study of 108 foods from 22 countries described in a recent New York Times story.

In my office I’ve kept the packaging from over 200 samples collected in dozens of countries, for the publications described on my research page. Photos are helpful to show their diverse package types, reflecting the different ways that premixed cereals can be made and marketed. What they have in common is being premixed and usually precooked, providing a starchy staple like wheat, rice or maize fortified with soybeans and often other ingredients such as powdered milk. To see how these foods are made and marketed, I’ve also done a lot of infant food tourism to see these products in action, including pics of how they’re made and packaged in Ghana, from me in 2010 and an undergraduate project in 2019.

We also have many photos of how premixed cereals appear on retail shelves in Colombia (2017) & Ghana (2018), and from a student in Thailand (2018), as illustrated by these two examples:

The genius idea behind infant cereals is that premixing and precooking allows the dry flour to be stored and quickly boiled up in small portions, making a semi-soft porridge that can be fed to infants as one of their first solid foods after 6 months of age. That porridge helps caregivers complement continued breastfeeding with additional protein, lipids and micronutrients needed for rapid growth, while also introducing mashed or chopped versions of family foods until the child can chew and digest sufficient quantities of the family diet after about 2 years of age. Simple versions of these cereals can be made inexpensively by local millers, and they can be very nutritious — but often aren’t, because there are not yet any international standards that could be use to ensure uniform ingredient ratios and predictable contents.

The tragedy of premixed cereals is that users cannot see, smell or taste their nutrient composition. Caregivers know this, so the market for premixed cereals runs on trust that producers will maintain high standards and never cut back on their most expensive ingredients. The need for trust helps explain why heavily advertised multinational brands succeed despite competition from local millers, why local firms often choose to signal their quality by charging prices far above their cost of production, and why creating and enforcing international standards for nutrient composition and marketing would help caregivers access local versions at low costs.

Last and least, about sharing photo albums: All of this had been more easily accessible on the sadly defunct G+ platform: