Happy Friday and welcome to Food Fix. It was a busy week in food policy! It seemed like everyone I talked to was scrambling to keep up.
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Alright, let’s get to it –
Today, in Food Fix:
– The public broadly supports universal free school meals – a new analysis looks at the national conversation
– FDA green lights cell-cultured chicken, but there’s still a long road ahead
– USDA updates the WIC food package with more fruits and veggies, less juice
People really like universal free school meals
We’ve all heard the old adage ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ – which is true, by the way – but what about free lunch for school kids?
A few years ago, the idea of free lunch for all public schoolchildren in the U.S. was a leftist dream, but the pandemic changed everything. All of a sudden, we essentially had universal free school meals nationwide – implemented during the Trump administration, no less. What had previously seemed impossible suddenly became, well, easy.
But the issue of universal free school meals isn’t actually easy in Washington. It’s still politically controversial. Last spring, the Biden administration, anti-hunger groups and folks on Capitol Hill were taken by surprise when Republican leadership in the Senate dug in hard against another extension of free meals. Congress was ultimately unable to come up with a deal to extend through this school year, so the expanded program ended in September.
So, what does the public think? A new analysis released today by Food Fix and Impact Social, a company that specializes in interpreting social media, finds that public sentiment in favor of universal free school meals is overwhelmingly positive. The report found 43 percent of posts expressing support for free school meals for all students versus only 3 percent opposing. (54 percent of posts were neutral on the issue.)
The how: The analysis was conducted by Impact Social, in collaboration with Food Fix, to better understand the national conversation around food policy in the election.
Impact Social uses algorithms to pull in social media data and then analysts read statistically representative samples to interpret the conversation, in part by rating posts as either anti, pro or neutral on the issue. The analysis drew from a sample of more than 2,000 public social media posts in Colorado and nearly 200,000 public social media posts nationally since Jan. 1, 2022.
GOP push against LGBTQ guidance fell flat: Impact Social also found that there was very, very little social media support for a handful of Senate Republicans who over the summer threatened to block a short-term extension of free meals over a USDA guidance banning discrimination against LGBTQ students. The move “angered many and appeared to draw very little support,” Impact Social found, with only a tiny slice of social media posts backing this approach.
An expensive free program: Of course, free school meals are not free: They are paid for by taxpayers – and Congress is in control of how much goes on the taxpayers’ tab. I’ve never seen a Congressional Budget Office score for universal free meals, but I’ve heard the price tag is quite large – large enough that finding an offset to pay for it is prohibitive.
The Colorado example: Spending more money on government programs can be a tough sell. But Colorado voters just approved – by more than a 13-point margin – a ballot measure that raises $100 million to fund universal meals statewide. (More on Colorado’s Prop FF here.) Impact Social found that national sentiment was similar to viewpoints expressed in Colorado, where 47 percent of posts in the state were in favor versus only 5 percent opposed (and 48 percent neutral).
Rural support in CO: Backers of Prop FF were particularly encouraged by strong support in a handful of rural counties that traditionally lean Republican. The measure got majority support in a few rural counties that voted against Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), such as Mineral County. The sparsely populated area in Southwestern Colorado voted 52-44 for challenger Joe O’Dea (R) over Bennet, but also voted 52-48 in favor of Prop FF.
Zooming out: If you spend time in political campaign-land, you’re probably used to issues that are quite a bit more divisive. Free school meals just isn’t one of them.
“These findings and the successful vote in Colorado reach the same conclusion: Free school meals is a popular issue among voters and can be used strategically in an election,” said Phil Snape, co-founder and director of Impact Social.
Why did I co-release this? As a regular reader of this newsletter, you probably know that I think social media can be a useful tool in reporting. Social media platforms have been particularly helpful during the infant formula crisis, for example. Much of the national conversation about formula has happened on platforms like Instagram, where many caregivers and particularly young moms get a lot of their information (it’s easier than tuning into the news).
I was introduced to Impact Social back in March, after I wrote a piece for Politico Nightly about the hobbled infant formula investigation and whether social media could one day be leveraged in foodborne illness investigations, or at least public health detection. The social media analysis company reached out to talk about what they do and I found it fascinating. We later figured out a way to collaborate.
You tell me: What other food-related topics should we consider looking at? Reply to this email or drop me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.
FDA green lights cell-cultured chicken, but there’s still a long road ahead
In case you missed it, the FDA made huge news this week by giving the go ahead to Upside Foods’ cell-cultured chicken – a major step toward getting these futuristic meat products on the market, though there are still significant technological hurdles to scalability.
It’s a safe bet that this cell-cultivated chicken will be quite limited in the near term, because scaling up isn’t just hard to figure out, it’s also expensive – and you need serious scale to get into the meat section at a grocery store. As WIRED reported: “It’s likely that tastings will be limited to a very small number of exclusive restaurants. Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn has already announced that she will serve Upside Foods’ cultivated chicken at her restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.”
Upside Foods CEO Uma Valeti told WIRED that restaurants are a key part of the company’s soft rollout plans. “We would want to bring this to people through chefs in the initial stage,” Valeti said. “Getting chefs excited about this is a really big deal for us. We want to work with the best partners who know how to cook well, and also give us feedback on what we could do better.”
Wonky note: I go out of my way to not use the term “approve” here. FDA didn’t technically approve this product. Rather, the agency confirmed it doesn’t have any more questions about this particular technology, based on what the company has shared with the agency during a lengthy pre-market consultation process.
FDA also went out of its way to make this clear: “The voluntary pre-market consultation is not an approval process,” FDA noted. “Instead, it means that after our careful evaluation of the data and information shared by the firm, we have no further questions at this time about the firm’s safety conclusion.”
(Confused? Don’t feel bad, it is confusing.)
Cheers from alt-meat: Lots of groups cheered the week’s news. AMPS Innovation, the fledgling trade group for the cultivated protein sector, issued a statement saying the group “looks forward to continued progress by these and other companies to help expand safe and delicious food options for consumers and help support a more sustainable food supply.”
Early oppo: We don’t yet know where all the consumer groups will fall on this technology, or how many of them will really engage much, but I did see a pretty critical statement from the Center for Food Safety, which has long opposed GMOs and other food tech. The group called FDA’s recent decision “a start, but grossly inadequate.” It took issue with the lack of some testing data and limited disclosure of the genetic engineering used to “keep the cells growing.”
“This is vital information that consumers and policymakers need to know to make informed decisions in the best interests of public health,” the group said, adding: “We have many more questions. In the name of protecting public health, consumers and policymakers deserve better.”
Name game, cont’d: Take a spin through the press coverage, and you’ll still notice all sorts of terms being used to describe these products. Time, WIRED and others went with “lab grown” (as did the Center for Food Safety) – a term the industry hates. The preferred term for most players in this space is “cultivated meat.” Brush up on the nomenclature debate with Food Fix.
USDA updates the WIC food package with more fruits and veggies, less juice
The Agriculture Department on Thursday proposed a major update to the foods allowed in WIC – a nutrition program that serves roughly half of all infants in the U.S. – that would greatly increase fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while significantly cutting back on fruit juice. The plan also adds canned fish to the food package for the first time.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides staple foods and infant formula to expecting parents and children up to age five – the program also supports breastfeeding. Because it’s aimed at improving nutrition during a key developmental window, WIC is pretty prescriptive. In the grocery store, you’ll notice that products are labeled as WIC foods, often right on the shelf price tag. The benefits can only be used for approved foods, unlike the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which can be used to buy almost all foods.
More produce, higher benefits: Under the proposal, the overall benefit level for WIC would go up, largely due to bumping up fruits and vegetables. It would be the first real program expansion since the 1970s, per the National WIC Association. The proposal aims to essentially lock in a big increase in produce benefits from the pandemic. Adding canned fish would also add costs. USDA estimated the changes overall would cost an additional $4 billion over five years. Note: Congress would need to approve funding for this to happen.
Public health and produce groups thrilled: Health groups (along with the produce industry) broadly praised the changes and praised USDA for largely sticking to what experts at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine had recommended for the update back in 2017.
Dairy displeased: The dairy industry expressed disappointment that the proposal would slightly decrease benefits for dairy products. The International Dairy Foods Association and National Milk Producers Federation said they would “advocate against reducing the amount of nutritious dairy foods provided through WIC in USDA’s final rule.”
Kellogg’s unhappy: Cereal-maker Kellogg’s has been forcefully pushing back against the recommendation that all cereals in WIC should be whole-grain rich (this would rule out Corn Flakes), but USDA stuck with its proposal for a stricter whole grains requirement.
“We have concerns that a whole grain-only cereal policy could have the unintended consequence of reducing redemption of nutrient-rich ready-to-eat cereals by significantly limiting options,” Kris Bahner, Kellogg’s senior vice president and chief global corporate affairs officer, said in an emailed statement.
Check the table: If you’re looking for more details on USDA’s proposed changes, there’s a good overview table on pages 11-12 of the rule. Other changes include more plant-based milk options and a new allowance for canned beans.
What I’m reading
Vilsack calls Pelosi ‘incredible force’ upon retirement from leadership (The Hagstrom Report). Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday praised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for her role in food and agriculture policy after she announced she will not seek another term in Democratic leadership. Vilsack noted that Pelosi was crucial in passing farm bills and the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which still governs child nutrition programs, including school meals and WIC.
FDA’s traceability rule is a game changer for food safety (Food Safety News). This op-ed by Frank Yiannas, FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, touts the agency’s long-awaited traceability rule, which was finalized this week after a decade of delays. The rule requires companies that make, process, pack or hold foods that are deemed “high-risk” to maintain what are known as key data elements (KDEs) – such as lot numbers and harvest locations – and to share those KDEs along the supply chain. “This regulation will help fill critical gaps in a traceability system that has been largely paper-based and lacking standardization,” Yiannas said.
Outline of FDA’s strategy to help prevent Cronobacter sakazakii illnesses associated with infant formula (FDA). The FDA this week released an outline of how the agency is thinking about preventing contamination in infant formula. One key point: The agency said it would work with federal and local health officials on improving surveillance for Cronobacter illnesses and “supporting elevation of Cronobacter sakazakii infection among infants as a nationally notifiable disease.”
Reana Kovalcik has been named policy director for DC Greens. Kovalcik was previously director of public affairs at the Organic Trade Association.
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