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Professors and others teachers often know more about their students’ family backgrounds than vice-versa. That’s part of the job. Teachers need to know when a student’s family life poses an obstacle that calls for accommodation, and students often cite family obstacles as inspiration for their own work. Professors can also provide career advice, celebrate students’ successes and help students in other ways. In contrast, professors usually mention their family only to illustrate an idea.

Here today I’d like to say a bit more about my family, to level the field so anyone who cares might know a bit more about where I came from. I did some oversharing two years ago for the ANH Academy’s Career Journeys, and now I want to post this about my father who died three weeks ago, after three weeks in hospital and hospice care. My job allowed me to stay with him there and take lots of time off, so I’ve been able to think a lot about parents and family background.

For good reasons, discussions of family background usually focus on problems to overcome. Philip Larkin’s famous poem set the tone for my generation, and stories of all kinds are dominated by the trauma plot. There are powerful reasons for that, and schools are doing more than ever to provide trauma-informed teaching. It’s helpful to think of everyone having an invisible backpack with stuff that harms or distracts us, so we can face up to all that — but everyone’s backpack also contains helpful things that propel and guide us.

This post is about the good stuff. My father lived past 90. He was grateful for a wonderful life, proud of his work and family, and he died peacefully after plenty of conversation thanks to brilliant palliative care. Because of him, my mother and many others, my own invisible backpack is full of positives that propel and guide me, with relatively little that harms or distracts.

You can read about my dad in the family’s obituary, Dartmouth’s announcement or other stuff online. This post is to flag that, but mainly to share an abbreviated version of my notes for what to say at his memorial service earlier this week. My sister, brother, daughter and a family friend shared beautiful things about other aspects of my dad’s life. My own perspective that I can share now is this, which I hope might be helpful to others:

What to say at the memorial service, July 9th 2023

I am Roger’s younger son Will. Today you will hear from his three children, me and Kathy and Seth, and from Roger’s colleague and friend Sidney Tarrow, and from my daughter Beatrice representing the grandchildren.

Over the past few weeks, we have heard from many of you about different aspects of Roger’s life. I am grateful for all the stories and memories. He cared so much about all of you gathered here – his apartment was full of notes and gifts and photos of you.

I am here now to share just a few aspects of him as a father: some things he did, and some advice he shared.

The things he did as a dad reflected who he was as a person.

If you knew him as a neighbor, a friend, a teacher or a colleague, you’ll know he was playful and funny, but also devoted and caring. He was like that at home too. When I was little and would get sick he’d distract me with jokes about stomach bugs and butt thermometers, then just sit and hold my hand. All he wanted was for me to feel better. He just radiated love, so I felt it then and I still feel it now.

If you knew him, you know that he showed love through his time and attention, writing notes and doing things. I found a letter he wrote to his mom Gigi about life with two little kids in New Haven, where he said he worked mainly when the sun wasn’t out. On hot sunny days, we went to the beach, and on cool sunny days to the park. Later, when a new highway connector threatened to run right through New Haven’s East Rock Park, he became chair of a save-the-park committee to lobby against it — successfully. Kids play there now, as we did then.

If you knew him, you’ll know he liked the eccentric professor act, Abe Lincoln beard and all. But it was purposeful — he was genuinely enthusiastic about each thing. He wanted you to see what he saw, to understand what he understood. When he caught himself lecturing a bit too long, he’d say “don’t worry there’s no final exam”.  He’d say, “you can always tell a professor, but you can’t tell them much.” And he’d prove that wrong by asking and listening and learning something new, which he’d pass on to the next person.

The advice he gave us reflects what he’d learned. At home he rarely told me what to do, but he surrounded us with opportunities and a sense that what we did could be important. He’d criticize things by saying they’re “not serious” – meaning temporary, not consequential. Being “serious” was high praise. A joke could be seriously funny, or a recipe seriously delicious. Whatever we did, he wanted it to be intentional and helpful for the long run.

The advice he gave was open-ended like that. About jobs and careers, I remember he said one should “find work with people you like”. That seemed crazy, because how would I know my colleagues ahead of time, but it turned out to be great advice. Different kinds of people do different kinds of work, and within each field one should move on to join teams who like and respect each other. 

The most important advice he repeated often was given to him in 1961 by his great teacher Leo Strauss in Chicago. The story Dad told to us is that he’d had just submitted his dissertation and was going to teach at Yale, so he went to Strauss for a final meeting. Strauss was famously brilliant, and you’d think he might tell a star student to go kick butt and set the world straight – but instead the advice was “Roger, always remember there’s a silent person in the room who knows more than you.”

Dad repeated Leo Strauss’ advice like a mantra, to himself and to me and to others. Whether or not it’s actually true, it’s a genius move. Dad wanted himself and all of us to keep learning from what everyone has to say, to temper enthusiasm for our own ideas with humility and openness to new insights. He lived by that advice for most of his life, until his ability to learn new things was impaired by his cancer operation in 1999, stroke in 2000 and then the seizures that ultimately caused his death .

From 1999 to now, after each hospitalization he’d bounce back to the stack of Science magazine and other journals, reading as much as before but it was harder for him to direct his thoughts and absorb new information. He could still access and relay things from the past, so he did that — with the most vivid and urgent idea being the risks of lead poisoning from how water is fluoridated that he had encountered in 1997-98.

I’m saying this now because during his last week in the hospital, that layer of ideas faded, allowing him more access to earlier memories — once again he became the person he was for me in the 1970s and 1980s. His recent obsessions faded away and he talked about being a young dad, proud of his kids, proud of his two very different marriages, content with what he’d accomplished in life. He kept saying he’d had a wonderful life, was at peace with the world and ready to move on.

What Dad lived for, what he most wanted for us, was a flow of new ideas and experiences. He showed love with his time and attention, enthusiastically sharing what he thought would be most useful and interesting in the future. That is what he lived for, what he gave to his children, and what he believed was most needed for the world as a whole. That is also what gave him peace in end. He was happy and proud of us, as I am happy and proud of him – the best a dad could be.


Like most others in higher education, I’ve responded to students’ pandemic stress by figuring out how to do things more flexibly over space and time. For example, this Spring 2022 class can be attended in person or remotely and also watched afterwards, and similarly my midterm exam could be taken either in the classroom (and handed in on paper) or at home (and scanned to PDF then uploaded). These accommodations all require some technical ingenuity and a lot of time and attention, rethinking and perhaps overthinking the basics of higher education — like timed exams.

For students to take economics exams at home without supervision, I switched to an open-book style but kept the time limit which is our standard class session (90 minutes) for the midterm and then twice that (3 hrs) for the final. But my style has always been to enforce time limits only loosely, and some students who took the exam in the classroom kept writing for about 15 minutes past the time limit.

Then today (the Sunday after the exam), I received this note from a student:

I finished the midterm at home, but there were so many questions that I didn’t finish all the questions in the time frame. And according to some in-person students, in-person students were given extra time to answer the questions, but those who took the exam at home did not receive an email about the extended time. I would like to ask if there is any remedy for me to improve my midterm because I think I can finish all the questions of the exam if I have enough time.

That prompted a bout of overthinking… and this reply:

Thanks for writing about this – the rush of writing at the end of an exam certainly feels very important, and it’s good to ask about. I’ll cc the TA team since they might be interested in this question. 

First, the duration of each exam is indeed a significant part of the experience.  If you were to look again at your exam paper now you would notice a lot of things about what you wrote that are influenced by being rushed.  But the differences in total elapsed time among students don’t actually make any practical difference in scoring, I can assure you.  In my experience, the test could have a wide of durations and would give pretty much the same distribution of scores.  For example if we had a fire alarm and the room were evacuated after 20 or 30 minutes, I am pretty confident that the distribution of students’ performance on those fragments of an exam would be very, very similar to their performance after 90 minutes.  And the same applies to a random change in timing at the end:  if I were to announce a 15 or 30 minute grace period to extend time at the end, the distribution of scores would be unchanged. 

So, why have a timed exam, as opposed to a take-home exam of indefinite length?  When you prepare for an exam of this duration, you devote your prep time to practicing a demonstration of your economics skills at that level of depth — and then spend that amount of time actually doing it during the test itself.   After the exam, students usually forget the specific content pretty quickly.  But the experience of learning and then doing over a sustained period of time builds up your skillset in a more lasting way.   So the basic idea is an exam whose duration is a reasonable amount of time for in-depth thought and quick performance for this particular kind of work.  The content definitely matters.  In this case, it’s the analytical diagrams used in economics.  But there is a more universal aspect of timed exams… In my view the duration of each exam (for us, a 90 minutes midterm and then a 3 hour final exam) is designed to achieve goals like these:

  1. To help perfectionists practice working faster and then walking away, so they gain the ability to get more stuff done fast even if it’s not perfect,
  2. To help build up the stamina of people with shorter attention spans, so they gain the ability to concentrate for longer periods of time,
  3. To normalize the duration of an intense work session around the typical lengths of time that people can focus before needing a break,
  4. To experience aha moments of discovery, when you see connections between disparate things revealed by doing them in quick succession,
  5. To experience flow that comes from a sustained period of concentration during which you build new kinds of capabilities.

In your case, maybe goal #1 is actually the most important one, but I think everyone can gain along all of these dimensions to some extent.   Also I would flag that beyond test duration there are many, many differences between taking an exam at home vs. in a classroom.  The test-taking environment can make an important difference, for example table size to spread out things in your field of vision, snacks & drinks if you want, presence of other people and mask-wearing if you find that distracting, etc.  People differ a lot in their needs and preferences, and their situations.  The time difference is the least of it, and this whole email is surely more info about test duration than you probably want to know.  But it is interesting and important to think about, and might be helpful to you personally!

All the best,



A big part of teaching is kvelling about one’s students: sharing pride in their accomplishments. This morning I learned that a paper with seven student co-authors was accepted for publication. Writing the paper was a genuine team effort, so I wrote a congratulatory note to the group. On reflection it might be worth sharing more widely, so here’s my message to them:

You should all be very proud of having built this thing.  It’s a big accomplishment.  We went from a standing start to gathering thread and weaving it together to a publication that describes things in genuinely new terms. The project evolved as we learned, trying to find the best ways to categorize, visualize and describe food price data.  Not to be grandiose about it, I honestly think we did a good thing here.  Research alone won’t change the world. Most people don’t know and don’t care what’s in academic journals.  Research is mainly about what we ourselves have learned, a line on your CV that serves to signal your skills and knowledge.  That’s important in itself!   But research is also what lights the way for activists and implementers, and I believe that in the coming years you’ll see more and more news about retail food prices, diet costs and affordability. Governments will gradually take responsibility for the nutritional quality of what’s in grocery stores and restaurants, they’ll try to make healthier diets affordable for all, and they’ll publish prices by food group to show that nutritious foods are within reach.  If and when that happens, I hope you can see how this project contributed to the change. 

One more thing:  in the coming months it’s possible that other researchers will cite this paper, but that’s hard to predict and recognition really matters only for self-esteem.  Out there in the real world, the most impactful research is not cited because it quickly becomes common knowledge.  I honestly believe we’re already seeing signs of that around our project.  The elements of change were already in the air, and maybe researchers at other schools would have done similar work eventually, but I hope you’ll remember how confusing things were to us before we made sense of them!  The terminology and methods we developed added something genuinely new to the conversation, and fit the moment in way that is readily grasped and used by others. 

So, thank you for everything you did together on this paper — and I wish you all similar success in your next projects!

If you’re curious about the paper, it’s called Review: Retail consumer price data reveal gaps and opportunities to monitor food systems for nutrition, part of our Food Policy for Nutrition project site. Photo of an early author team meeting is below, taken by our wonderful project administrator Hallie Perlick. You can see I was already kvelling:

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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.


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:

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:
— 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”)


Aging as gracefully as I can… looking back about ten years, here’s a repost of food economics in doggerel:
and also a link to my farewell to Purdue grad students when I moved to Tufts:


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.


For Tufts and other schools in Massachusetts, today’s start of the academic year coincides with a primary election for state and federal offices. The campaigns have made some effort at persuasion but most focus is on mobilization:  recent elections have been decided mainly by turnout, by which people invest the time and effort needed to vote.  This morning I’ll walk to my polling place before going in to the office but most Americans don’t have that luxury. Differences in turnout arise precisely because people face very different barriers to voting, which itself is one of the most important questions in American politics.

Starting the school year with an election seems fitting.  I teach at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, where much of the agenda concerns what governments do.  And in education, like politics, enthusiasm matters. It takes effort to get involved — so thank you for showing up, at Tufts or other schools.  And if you’re lucky enough to have elections this academic year, thank you for voting.

Research in nutrition and the health sciences is often kept semi-secret until publication.  Why?  Does it matter?
     Scientists in many fields circulate their work in progress as widely as possible, hoping for feedback and citation even before submission to a journal.  Institutions run their own working paper series (like the Tufts economics department), individuals use their own websites (like my personal site), and many use general repositories (like arXiv and SSRN).  Acceptance at a top journal certifies the quality of the final version and facilitates dissemination, but draft work in the physical and social sciences is typically circulated as widely as possible before publication.
     In nutrition and health research, the default rule is secrecy.  Results are typically kept confidential until publication, even for work that will be eventually be published on an open-access basis.  Study designs for human subjects research is disclosed through registries like, and ongoing work may be described at conferences from which brief abstracts are published in outlets like the FASEB supplements, but detailed methods and results are not generally shared until publication day.
     The difference between fields is nicely illustrated by a twitter thread reproduced in this post, in which I experimented with sharing a photo album from an agricultural economics conference so as to see connections between different presentations.  That led to quick reply from a leading nutrition researcher, Purnima Menon, who noted that posting photos of slides could jeopardize publication in top health journals.
     A specific example of how nutrition research is kept hidden until publication comes from a recent conference that I organized at Tufts, called GlobalFood+.  This event was designed around 7-minute speed talks designed for sharing on the internet — but one of the best talks had to be kept off our website.
     Confidentiality of work in progress can be important to prevent theft of ideas, to ensure that scientists receive credit for what they do.  Limiting prior publication might also be important for subscription-based journals, to ensure that institutional libraries want that journal in their collection.  But neither rationale applies when working papers can be cited, and when publication fees are paid for open-access articles.
     In general, the primary reason to discourage prior sharing is to pursue media coverage.  Journal publishers make this clear, as in the statements against ‘pre-publicity’ at the top general outlets, Nature and Science.  Previous posting is especially discouraged in the top medical journals, as explained by JAMA and NEJM.  They encourage publication of teaser abstracts, like a movie trailer, but detailed results are subject to a media embargo until publication day.  Universities and research labs are keen to cooperate, in the hope that science journalists will treat the paper’s arrival as a newsworthy event.
     Embargoes may be needed in some case, but for most studies the scientific community is turning against pre-publication secrecy.  Treating publication as a news event is itself a problem, contributing to ‘study-a-day’ media coverage that exaggerates the importance of new studies relative to previous knowledge.  And limiting prior scrutiny to a handful of referees and editors raises the risk of error.  Policies favoring prior circulation of working papers were adopted long ago in PNAS, and have recently been adopted in the health sciences at BMJ and The Lancet.  In nutrition, the AJCN and Journal of Nutrition still put some limits on prior circulation, discouraging their use.
     Why would different kinds of journals have different policies?  One factor could be audience demand for different kinds of news.  Many people want to know about the latest findings in nutrition and medicine, so media outlets often assign reporters to meet that need.  Universities are happy to supply a curated flow of individual studies in the specific fields that reporters most want to write about, like dietary advice and lifestyle choices.  Managing the flow of news is also important for high-stakes pharmaceutical trials and other controversial studies.  But in many cases, secrecy before publication is sought mainly to protect the economic interests of the publisher.  With JAMA, NEJM and some others, subscriptions are still important so they must restrict prior publication to enforce a paywall.  And some journals like Science and Nature run scientific articles alongside weekly news about science, with significant revenue from ads for lab equipment and materials. These journals need publicity to attract traffic for their journal as a news source, to sell both subscriptions and advertising.
      Scientific work is changing fast and it’s hard to keep up.  For example, my previous foodecon post was about how to limit the plague of academic spam.  Much is being written about the business of scientific publication, including great nonprofit work by Scholarly Kitchen and the EmbargoWatch blog by Ivan Oransky (who also blogs at RetractionWatch), as well as superb reporting on academic life by and  Personally, I hope that the tradition of pre-publication secrecy is soon replaced by wider circulation of working papers, even in nutrition and the health sciences.  Sharing work in progress would raise overall quality, and help break reporters’ study-a-day habit and encourage them to cover the overall flow of knowledge.  Wouldn’t that be nice?