The red wave that wasn’t – and what it means

A rundown of what the election results, so far, mean for food policy. Why the passing of a school meals initiative in Colorado matters for the rest of the country. And GAO recommends FDA improve oversight of food packaging.

A photograph of Senate candidate John Fetterman standing in front of an American flag wearing a black hoodie.s

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Today, in Food Fix:

– The red wave that wasn’t – and what it means

– How universal free school meals won big in a purple state

– GAO recommends FDA improve oversight of food packaging


The red wave that wasn’t

It could be awhile before we know how control in the House and Senate will shake out after Tuesday’s midterm election, but we do know one thing: The projections and political prognostications were wrong, again.

Tuesday’s subscribers-only edition of Food Fix outlined some of the final predictions from the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, two polling/prediction outlets probably better known inside the beltway. Sabato, for example, projected that Republicans would pick up 24 seats in the House and gain at least one seat in the Senate. The conventional wisdom going into the election was that political conditions favored Republicans so much that in most toss-up election scenarios, things would break in favor of the GOP. 

But that’s not what happened.  

House Ag Dems hang in there: Most of the vulnerable Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee, for example, pulled through in their toss-up races. Two of the key exceptions: Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) got swept out as the last Democrat in the Iowa delegation (her race had been designated to lean Republican) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), whose loss was a major win for Republicans. (In both Iowa and New York, it should be noted, Republicans did very well this week.)

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) chair of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry, defeated her challenger more easily than expected. Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), who chairs the panel’s subcommittee on nutrition, was declared the winner in her squeaker of a race. Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.) seemed like she might lose in the runup to Tuesday, but the pediatrician, who also serves on the House Ag Committee, just won her race. Rep. Josh Harder (D-Calif.) is also leading in his very competitive race, though only 47 percent of votes have been counted there.

Power in numbers: It’s still likely – though not guaranteed – that Republicans will take control of the House, but if so the margin of control could be so narrow it will be nearly ungovernable. If Republicans get just a slim majority, it will only take a few hard right lawmakers saying ‘no’ to grind the entire legislative process to a halt. Regardless of the margin, the Biden administration will still face significant oversight if Republicans control Congress, on everything from the infant formula crisis to how USDA is spending money on climate change.

Senate, TBD: Control of the Senate is also still up in the air. We’re still waiting for results in Nevada, Arizona and Georgia, which is expected to head to a runoff. (While we’re here, David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, projected Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) would prevail last night, but major news outlets haven’t called the race yet.) Brush up on the big picture over at Politico

John Fetterman’s win against Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania was a very big deal for Democrats. Interestingly, Fetterman in part cited his commitment to showing up in rural counties as important – something rural Democrats have been screaming at the party about for years. Daily Yonder has an interesting piece about how Fetterman slightly improved Democrats’ margins in rural places (where they generally get blown out of the water), yet this same improvement didn’t happen in Ohio, where J.D. Vance beat Rep. Tim Ryan by a healthy margin. 

Rough waters for the farm bill: A slim Republican majority in the House could spell trouble for getting a farm bill passed in 2023. Conservatives have increasingly soured against farm subsidies along with a long-held desire to cut or limit food stamp benefits – two ideas that are basically poison pills for the legislation. Senate control matters, too, of course, but the requisite 60 votes to move forward on anything makes the entire exercise a whole lot more bipartisan over there.

P.S. Is polling dead? If, like me, you’re wondering how on earth the political media and talking heads were so wrong going into this week … well, there are plenty of theories floating about, from unexpectedly high Gen Z turnout to voters just souring more than we thought on Trump-backed candidates – but there’s one wonky theory that struck me as particularly interesting: Republican-leaning polls may have warped polling averages.

What does that mean? Well, political polling has long been flawed, and is getting more flawed for a number of reasons – one biggie being the death of  landlines, and who takes phone calls from unknown numbers anymore? One way we try to compensate for these inherent flaws is to look at polling averages. My favorite site for this is RealClearPolitics. You can pick just about any race and it will give you a good sense of how the polls average out. Here’s the Pennsylvania Senate race, as an example. Polling averages seem like a good check on the system, as long as the polls going in are fairly solid. If the basis for the average skews one way or another, though, that spells trouble. 

Polling biases: “The polling average was masking a disagreement between the institutional pollsters and the Republican-leaning pollsters, the institutional pollsters showing better numbers for Democrats and a lot of these partisan pollsters showing, you know, Fetterman losing …” said Galen Druke of FiveThirtyEight as results came in Tuesday night. 

I don’t know if this explains what happened at the ballot box – and it’s probably too early to know much because we’re still in the thick of vote counting – but I’m eager to follow along as the pollsters unpack it. Otherwise, I’m reluctant to trust any of them anymore. 


How universal free school meals won big in a purple state

A ballot initiative to fund universal free school meals passed easily in Colorado – a major win for the push to serve free meals to all public school children nationwide. Proposition FF was up 55.7 percent to 44.3 percent against, with 92 percent reporting, as of this morning.

Universal, then not: In case you haven’t been following this, we basically had universal free school meals in the U.S. for the first two years of the pandemic, and schools were able to operate with maximum flexibility under a slew of pandemic waivers. The benefits ended in September, however, when Congress didn’t extend the waivers. thanks to Republican objections in the Senate. Check out my earlier reporting if you’re interested in the backstory. 

What this means: The win is a major proof point that universal free school meals is a popular policy – and not just with Democrats. New taxes have to be approved by voters in Colorado, and it’s generally not easy to pass something that adds $100 million in new revenue, but this initiative had a couple things going for it. For one, most voters weren’t raising taxes on themselves because the initiative raises the revenue from households making more than $300,000. Secondly, the campaign really pushed the nutrition angle, with an emphasis on boosting local foods in schools – successfully painting the measure as an economic win for local farmers, too

More states pushing for universal: After watching the results in Colorado, more states are now looking at ballot initiatives as a potential option, said Marc Jacobson, CEO of Hunger Free Colorado, which played a leading role in the Prop FF campaign. 

“What we’re really excited about is to show that there’s an additional tool in our collective toolbox to get healthy school meals for all passed – it’s ballot initiatives,” Jacobson told Food Fix. “It might not work for every state, but I think it’s an option that creates more opportunity in states that may not have thought it was possible to go through the legislature.”

Jacobson noted that the ballot initiative saw pretty strong support even in more traditionally conservative counties and in rural areas, likely in part because of the dual messaging around helping local farmers and ranchers, in addition to feeding kids healthier meals. 

Campaign finance check: Prop FF was a fairly inexpensive ballot initiative. The campaign raised a bit over $1.6 million with the opposition contributions coming in at a whopping nine thousand dollars. Major financial supporters included Save the Children, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and The American Heart Association. (You can view the contribution reports from the state of Colorado.)

Social media powerhouse Chrissy Teigen (who is married to singer-songwriter John Legend) tweeted about the school meals win in Colorado: “full believer in taxing the rich. this is WONDERFUL news,” she said. She also retweeted Pulin Modi of ParentsTogether Action, who noted that he’d paid $8 for Twitter Blue, a new feature rolled out by Twitter owner Elon Musk that allows users to boost their posts: “I paid the richest guy in the world $8 for a verified account so more people can see how taxing the rich can help children,” Modi wrote. (P.S. Teigen has 13 million followers on Twitter, so Modi’s $8 went quite far.)


GAO recommends FDA improve oversight of food packaging

A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) this week recommended that FDA seek new authority from Congress to better oversee the thousands of chemicals currently being used in food manufacturing and packaging, otherwise known as food contact chemicals.

FDA does review “information on the safety of such substances” before they enter the market, GAO notes, but if later research or information raises safety concerns after products are on the market, the agency doesn’t have the tools it needs for effective oversight.

“FDA will occasionally reevaluate [food contact chemicals] based on the new information,” GAO noted. “But, FDA doesn’t have specific authority to require companies to provide the information that the agency may need for such reviews—so re-evaluation may not be possible.”

Why does this matter? Well, we’re all eating foods packaged in these products, whether from grocery store shelves or your favorite local restaurant, so if there are health concerns, it’s FDA’s job to stay on top of that.  

What GAO thinks needs to be done: The government watchdog made two recommendations: First, FDA should ask Congress for “specific legal authority to compel companies to provide the information needed to reassess the safety of substances.” Second, the agency should “track the dates of the last reviews for all food contact substances to allow FDA to readily identify substances that may warrant postmarket review.” Seems pretty straightforward – and like many things with FDA, begs the question: How are they not already doing this?

FDA’s take: The agency “neither agreed nor disagreed with the first recommendation and agreed with the second recommendation,” per GAO.

The view from Congress: Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who had requested the study from GAO, said they wanted FDA to exert more oversight over the products, particularly in light of the growing concerns over PFAS, or “forever chemicals”, that are commonly used in non-stick and other applications and are now being found in the environment.

“Let me be clear – these are forever chemicals that do not break down and may have a detrimental impact on the health of Americans,” said DeLauro. “And over time, according to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Total Diet Study (TDS), these chemicals can be found in a variety of food products.”

DeLauro and Pingree said they looked forward to working together to implement the report’s recommendations. 


What I’m reading

Agencies directed to examine national security threats to food, ag (Agri-Pulse). The Biden administration wants federal agencies to identify and prepare for major threats to U.S. food security. Per the report: “An updated National Security Memorandum signed by President Joe Biden Thursday says the federal government “will prioritize resources to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk” to the food and ag sector.”

Deli meats and cheeses have been linked to a listeria outbreak in 6 states (NPR). Federal health officials are investigating a six-state Listeria outbreak tied to deli meats and cheeses. At least 16 people have become ill and one person has died, the CDC said Wednesday.

Is industry-funded research a problem? (Climavores). This podcast by journalists Tamar Haspel and Mike Grunwald unpacks the controversy surrounding a recent front-page New York Times feature about industry-funding supporting the work of Frank Mitloehner, the head of an agricultural research institute at the University of California, Davis. Haspel and Grunwald don’t agree with Mitloehner on many issues, but they also criticize the NYT piece for focusing on funding that was previously disclosed – and widely known about in food and ag circles. 


Who’s who

The American Bakers Association, which represents the baking industry, on Thursday announced Eric Dell as the trade group’s new president and CEO. Dell was previously executive vice president at the National Automatic Merchandising Association, which represents the vending machine industry.

Adam Zimmerman has launched his own public relations consultancy. Zimmerman was previously vice president at Burness, a public relations firm that has worked extensively in the food world. 

This newsletter was produced with help from Courtney Fahlin.


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