FPOP takes on the SNAP Challenge

By Oishee Sen
Copy of SNAP Flyer (1)

I’m going into this SNAP challenge very much afraid that I’ll pull a Gwenyth Paltrow and buy seven limes and a bundle of kale, or something equally inexplicable. I’ve never had to budget my meals on $4.16 a day– the average allowance received by someone on SNAP benefits. Like Paltrow, I want to participate in this challenge for a host of good reasons, but I do so from a position of privilege. My mother always taught me to scrutinize every price tag, buy in bulk, spot expiration dates and open egg cartons, gently brushing each egg to one side or another to make sure none stick to the bottom like they tend to do if they’ve cracked. But we never shopped with a budget. My parents worked hard to reach a point in their lives where they could afford to buy food without worrying about how much it costs. They also each remember standing in line for rationed rice on the streets of Kolkata, India, and how the bags they hauled home, which were expected to sustain their families for weeks at a time, were always weighted down with pebbles.

Why should anyone, ever, go hungry? How, in America, where my parents came to escape hunger, does one in every seven households experience food insecurity? Part of the answer, of course, lies in the fact that plenty of people in America experience food insecurity (which is characterized by limited or uncertain ability to acquire nutritionally adequate foods) without experiencing hunger. Out of the 14.3% of Americans who experience food insecurity, 8.7% experience low food security, which implies that the variety and quality of their diets leave much to be desired, but they still eat more or less regularly. It’s hard to conceptualize how people can be food insecure when they clearly have food in their hands. But that still leaves 5.6% who routinely experience hunger. I’ll ask it again– why should anyone in this country ever go a day without eating?

Some people would answer that this simply isn’t the case– that food stamps are “the latest middle-class entitlement,” as a Wall Street journal recently claimed, and that they are especially wasted in the 27 states that allow families with incomes over 130% of the federal poverty line to enroll in their programs. Just for reference, the federal poverty line for 2015 was $24,300 for a household of four, so I’ll leave you to wonder if four people can get enough to eat on $31,590 a year. That’s not enough income to afford my one bedroom in an apartment I share with two other people. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that 85% of people on food stamps earn below the federal poverty line, and only 72% of those who are eligible for food stamps are actually enrolled.

This completely blows my mind. But as a person who has never had to consider where my next meal will come from, it also literally does not compute. I can’t understand what it feels like to worry about my next meal, and I don’t ever want to make the mistake of trivializing that struggle. In this issue, as with so many others in public health, I don’t want to use my position of privilege to obscure or ignore problems that seem difficult to change. And I want to understand what food insecurity feels like to the best of my ability so that I can feel guilty about it even if I can’t immediately change anything. People talk a lot about “entitlement” in snide tones, but I still think Americans, like my parents, are entitled to eating healthy food without worrying about the price. Like my parents, who could never put a face to the person who siphoned rice from their rations and made up the weight with stones, Americans who are struggling with food insecurity are right to suspect that somewhere, somehow, someone is stealing from them.


School Food: Japan and the United States

By Kalen Hermanson

ATTN posted a video last week comparing the school food system of Japan and the United States. The video shows the stark comparison between the school food environments in Japan and the United States. Japan’s program is rich in food education, teaching the kids to prepare healthy food and serving fresh food that they themselves have helped to make from scratch. Japan serves balanced lunch meals that could be made at home, and often parents call for recipes when kids ask to recreate the lunches out of school. Schools have no vending machines, and outside food is restricted except for special dietary needs. As a result, school-provided lunch is the kids’ only option. Most schools employ nutritionists to guide the lunch program, develop recipes, and work with picky eaters.

In contrast, I remember growing up with corn dogs and tater tots, frozen pizza and the dreaded “mystery meat.” I can’t remember ever having quality produce. School lunch fruits and vegetables were either canned mixed veggies, peaches in syrup, or severely anemic looking lettuce with ranch. Vending machines were a common pick-me-up in high school, with students often turning to candy or chips to get through the afternoon. Throughout my schooling I definitely did not get any instruction on food preparation, and besides brief lessons on the food pyramid, I don’t remember learning anything about the importance of balanced meals.

Contrasts like these make me look at our food environments and see opportunity for change. In the United States, 1 in 3 children and teens is overweight or obese. Japan’s childhood obesity rate is among the world’s lowest, and has declined every year for the past six years since the dietary program in schools has expanded. Japan views school lunchtime as an additional and integral part of education, rather than simply a mid-day break from schooling. By teaching kids about cooking and healthy food habits, Japan has instilled knowledge about healthy behaviors in their students at a young age.

While I know that school food in the United States has evolved since I was in elementary school and high school, our system still has a lot of room for improvement. By looking at lunch as an opportunity for beneficial education as Japan does, we can begin to transform the school environment to instill healthy habits in our children. Hopefully as the childhood obesity prevention field grows, we can begin to see changes in our school food programs, with progress and success similar to Japan.

Because Nothing Says I Love You Like Fair Trade

By Kate LaForge


It’s estimated that consumers spend nearly 2 billion dollars on chocolate every year for Valentine’s Day. Anyone who spends any time in the candy aisle of grocery stores (ahem) would be hard pressed to not notice an explosion of gourmet chocolate options in the past couple of years. These brands are plastered with labels proclaiming fair trade and environmental responsibility — charging anywhere from $3 a bar and upwards from there. Do these often exorbitant prices reflect actual fair labor practices? And if so, is the state of labor rights in cacao production really so bad as to necessitate this entire cottage industry of gourmet, ethically conscious producers?

The answer is an overwhelming yes, cacao farms in some regions of the world commit not only unfair labor practices but regularly engage in human trafficking and forced labor. Roughly three-quarters of the world’s cacao comes from farms in West Africa where slavery, forced labor, and hazardous child labor still exists on cacao farms. According to Anti-Slavery International 284,000 children work in hazardous conditions on cacao farms, and as many as 15,000 of them have been enslaved through human trafficking.

In 2001 US Congress took action by passing the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a voluntary public-private agreement between the government and cacao producers. Originally, the Protocol forced companies to pass a certification process to obtain a “Child Labor Free” certification but unfortunately intensive lobbying from Big Chocolate successfully vetoed this requirement. Ten years after the passage of the protocol the largest chocolate producers (Hershey’s, Nestle, and Mars are considered among the worst offenders) have failed miserably to improve labor standards —  according to a report published in 2015, child labor on cacao farms has increased by 18 percent since 2001.

So what do these labels actually mean? Labels like Fair Trade, Equal Exchange, and Rainforest Alliance (which puts more emphasis on conservation) are awarded to companies for proving ethical practices in labor and pricing. However, the standards for certification vary widely and there exists widespread criticism of the expensive certification process required to obtain them. Some opponents argue that the payment required in exchange for the certification ultimately excludes those who need the business and certification the most – poor farmers operating on a small scale.

Thankfully, there are organizations monitoring the production of cacao and working towards improved conditions. The Food Empowerment Project has released a well-researched list of companies that source their cacao from places where slavery and child labor is not practiced.

Consumers should not have to choose between ethics and affordability, but until the chocolate industry is willing to prioritize ethical production fair trade chocolate will remain at a price point out of reach for many consumers.  As consumers become more conscious over time and support companies that produce ethical chocolate this practice may slowly change. This was recently exhibited by McDonald’s announcement of a shift to antibiotic-free chicken, a response to lagging sales and the desire of consumers to “feel good about” what they’re eating at McDonalds. One can only hope the chocolate industry will follow suit and shift towards ethical production, so one day everyone can enjoy delicious, delectable, ethically-produced chocolate purchased from conscious companies worth supporting.


Sugar: The New Tobacco

Written by:

Carol Liang, MPH candidate 2017

You’ve heard it. You know it. But you probably don’t want to admit it. The loved substance, sugar, is the new trans fat in society; it is the poison to our meals. We’re all in denial from facing our beloved sweet tooth. In fact, most of America needs to go to sugar rehab for an addiction more dangerous than understood.

When we eat sugar, our body releases dopamine, which is associated to reward-motivated behavior. This is similar to the way drugs work; according to a number of studies on the brain, sugar is as addictive as cocaine. It involves constantly craving more to satisfy the body’s reward system. Excessive dependency on sugar is especially true in America: the American Heart Association recommends no more that 9.5 teaspoons for adults per day, yet the average person consumes 22 teaspoons.

More needs to be done to prevent the children of today from fueling the adult obesity epidemic in the United States, where one-third of adults are now diagnosed as obese. Communal weight gain in children can be attributed to refined sugars in food and drinks, which are all too common in their diets. Today, 25% of children aged 2 to 5 are overweight or obese. Recently, the CDC warned mothers to start reading toddler food labels, as they found that 35% of child food products are above the Institute of Medicine’s sugar guidelines. In 2009, children aged 1 to 3 had an average sugar intake of 12 teaspoons per day, 3 to 4 times higher than the suggested limit for children their age.

Sugar is known to be the classic “bad” treat; however, the magnitude of the risks involved need to be stressed. You probably know what the risks are: obesity, type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer.  But did you know women with the highest blood sugar levels have a 26% higher chance of getting cancer than those with the lowest levels? Or people whose daily diets comprise of 25% sugar are twice as likely to die from heart disease than those whose diets contain less than 10% sugar?

The main source of sugar, sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) — soda, juice, sport beverages etc.— are of most concern. A can of coca cola alone contains 39 grams of sugar — 14 grams above the WHO’s recommended daily sugar intake. Every day, half of the American population drinks at least one sugary drink.  SSBs, alone, are responsible for 25,000 deaths per year in America.

So, what can we do to decrease sugar intake and eradicate the obesity epidemic? Education about the risks of sugar is essential, but not sufficient. In February 2015, Michael Bloomberg’s 2012 failed plan to tax sugary drinks in New York was reintroduced by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory committee, who followed in his footsteps and proposed for federal taxes on sodas. This could essentially save the lives of millions.

While some might argue it is an individual’s right to choose what to eat and drink, it is the government’s moral responsibility to protect fellow citizens from the now known health risks. There is also an ongoing debate about the economic downfalls of enforcing taxes on SSBs, especially for large soda corporations. Though, actions such as placing warning labels on products, banning large soda sizes, and implementing taxes would decrease rates of obesity, heart disease, strokes etc., and hence, prevent future economic burdens in healthcare.

Given both high sugar intake and smoking are contributors to cancer and heart disease — the 2 leading causes of deaths in the United States — it is questionable why high sugar products have no state or federal regulations and taxes, unlike cigarettes. Berkeley recently passed a law taxing all sugary drinks; cities should follow to highlight the degree of risks linked to sugar consumption. It is time we stop categorizing sugar as a guilty pleasure, and instead, start treating it as the new tobacco.

While a cold soda on a hot summer day, a slice of pumpkin pie over Thanksgiving, or a sugar cookie at Christmas is always a treat; always remember the potential long-term risks involved are certainly not sweet.


From Chop’t to School Lunchrooms

By Julia Yao

With the love that salad chains like Chop’t and Sweet Greens are receiving in major cities like New York City and Washington D.C., salads are enjoying their status as not just a forgettable side dish, but an enjoyable main course. Check out a location during the weekday lunch hour, and you’ll find a line that spills onto the street. What is making these chains so successful that people are willing to wait up to, kid you not, thirty minutes for a customized bowl of raw vegetables?

Messages telling us to eat a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, proteins, and whole grains are pervasive throughout our communities. For those of you who can afford it, a meal at Chop’t is a low-stakes way to take part in the world of “healthy eating.” If you don’t like it, don’t go back. More importantly, it gives you the opportunity to choose, among an array of healthy options, the things that you know you actually like. You can choose every component – the grains, the vegetables, the protein, and the dressing – and if you decide that you want to throw in potato chips as a treat, go ahead. Because it is low-stakes, it also offers you the opportunity to try new things. Maybe one day, you decide to try kale to see what all the hype is about. Or that new super grain, quinoa. Or maybe you decide to give broccoli another try, because your taste buds have change.

In a country obsessed with choices, choices, and more choices, salad bars are making people question why they ever bothered with pre-packaged ones that often contained items they didn’t want.

Why do we assume adults know what types of vegetables they like and give them the benefit of choice, but we often assume that if children don’t eat a vegetable, it means that they don’t like to eat any vegetables? Here’s a thought. What if we present school children with the same Chop’t salad bar? Do you think they will walk away saying, “No, thank you” to all the options available to them?

The answer is simple. Children are no different from adults in this regard – they have their likes and dislikes. If they are given a prepackaged meal with things that they dislike, they are most likely not going to enjoy it; but if they are given the vegetables they do like, they are much more likely to like it in its entirety.

When it comes to school lunches, many barriers – among which are budget constraints, lack of human resources, lack of political will – force schools into a lunch menu that lacks variety and choice of healthy, tasty options. The problem with this model is that it assumes that if children don’t like the only vegetables presented to them, then they don’t like vegetables at all.

At the same time school children are lacking choices of healthy options, they are also inundated with unhealthy ones. Private companies, usually large food conglomerates and fast food chains, sign contracts with school to sell “competitive items” on school’s “A La Carte” menu. From this menu, students can purchase cheap fast meals, like pizza and hotdogs, and processed snacks, like chips and candy. Students, therefore, do have options. The problem is that the choice is not between healthy ones, but between healthy and unhealthy items. This has huge implications for students’ health and development of lifetime eating patterns.

This is why Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools (LMSBS) is taking the Chop’t model of choice to the school lunchroom. In support of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign, the program was founded in 2010 through the collaboration of Chef Ann Foundation, National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, United Fresh Produce Association Foundation, and Whole Foods. It was founded on the idea that children have their preferences as well as the ability to develop preferences in the lunchroom, so if they have the room to decide for themselves, they will be more likely to take and consume the vegetables of their choosing. The program’s mission is to implement salad bars in every school that wants one.

The main barriers to implementing salad bars in every American school are lack of human and financial resources. Many don’t have the ability to store, prep, and serve fresh food. LMSBS, thereby, engages the whole community in fundraising, advertising, and implementation efforts. Through the organization’s website, both educators and parents can take the first step by applying for a salad bar to be donated to their school. The community can take action by donating to a general fund that goes towards supporting salad bars across the nation or a specific fund directed towards supporting their own school district. Blog posts also engage the community in a larger conversation about healthy eating and how to provide children with food they actually want to eat.

The program has shown to be hugely beneficial through both research studies and from on-the-ground anecdotes. An evidence-based program, studies have shown that that giving students the option to choose from a variety of fresh produce significantly increases their overall consumption of fruits and vegetables; it increases the variety they try; it helps students develop longer lasting habits of eating fruits and vegetables; it reduces school food waste because students can take as much as they would actually like to eat; and it supports local agriculture, since schools can directly partner with local farms and producers to fill their salad bars with fresh produce.

Anecdotally, it has strong support from nearly all stakeholders: students, teachers, parents, farmers, school district officials, and the White House. The program helps jumpstart the conversation about what it means to really provide healthy school meals that are both tasty and nutritious for students; it provides the space and opportunity to encourage students to try new fruits and vegetables; teachers love that they can chat with students about the types of fruits and vegetables they like and then continue the conversation in the lunchroom by encouraging students to choose the foods they like from the salad bar.

School meal programs are sometimes so focused on the nutritional content of food that they forgo children’s diverse taste preferences. Like adults, children are obsessed with choices, choices, and more choices. They like having the opportunity to choose what they prefer and the room to try, or not try, new foods.

In the end, LMSBS is much more than simply feeding children salad. It infuses a culture of loving good food in the school setting, which has the potential to encourage healthy eating habits beyond the lunchroom. It’s a way to help students develop their taste preferences and the room to try new things. It’s a way to help shape lifetime eating habits that will positively impact wellbeing.

Food Security: The start of my advocacy journey

By: Jacqui Cotton

Growing up, I remember feeling particularly sensitive about hunger. I was unsettled and saddened to think about other people going hungry at night, potentially right within my community. I was fortunate to grow up in a comfortable suburb in Monmouth County, New Jersey where most of my friends and neighbors enjoyed middle or upper-middle class lifestyles and where poverty and hunger were relatively invisible to the unknowing eye. Still, I was always sickened by the thought of other people’s hungry stomachs. I felt a duty to donate to each community food drive, and I would volunteer with school clubs that supported the local food bank.

As I progressed through my education, I found the field of public health which combined my dual interests in health and social issues. I started thinking more about the penetrating social issues that were at the core of human experiences such as health and hunger—how could I do more to tackle these social ills that would have more impact than simply donating a can of corn?

When I arrived at Mailman, I was still unsure about my direction in public health. During the Core we touched upon a milieu of public health issues and needs, each tugging at my heart-strings and making my question my personal mission and career path. I found myself living in a new environment, where hunger and homelessness is tragically rampant on our streets and subways, and where the inequities of our society are glaringly obvious. While our coursework did not touch upon hunger, food access, and its impact on health as much as I would have welcomed, I found myself motivated by the environment around me and by my FPOP colleagues with similar interests in the far reaching effects of food on population health. I had solidified my passion and field of interest—the intersection between health and food (in)security.

During the spring semester, determined to learn more about anti-hunger advocacy and the way health issues are navigated through our leaders and policymakers, I worked at the Food Bank for New York City as the Government Relations intern. The Food Bank for New York City is the largest Feeding America organization in the country, working with 1,000 charities and schools across the five boroughs. One in five New Yorkers depends on the Food Bank for food and other resources such as benefits access, tax assistance, nutrition education, and financial empowerment. In addition to serving 1.4 million New Yorkers each year, the organization does extensive advocacy work in the anti-hunger and anti-poverty sector—this is where I wanted to get my feet wet.

Through my day-to-day work and interactions with other members of the Research and External Affairs team, I learned about the intersection of legislation, advocacy, and the anti-hunger agenda. I researched relevant policies on nutrition and food assistance programs, such Child Nutrition Reauthorization and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). I prepared relevant and timely policy-related documents such as legislative testimony, policy briefs, research backgrounds, and letters to elected officials. I had several opportunities to attend events such as press conferences, city council hearings, and lobbying days, where I saw firsthand how pressure can be applied strategically to advance agendas through policy and legislation. I attended Albany Advocacy Day at the state capital, and advocated alongside community members and other stakeholders in small meetings with state senators and assembly members. These experiences also helped me become more familiar with emergency food program funding and operations at the city, state, and federal level.

After a successful and interesting semester, I was excited to be offered an extension and a position change for the summer. I began serving as the “Hunger Cliff Fellow,” working between several departments including Research & External Relations and Communication & Marketing. My major project has been working on the re-launch of an online advocacy and information platform to be shared with other anti-hunger partners and policymakers across the country. The goal of the site is to raise awareness and stimulate conversation around SNAP in order to strengthen and protect the program from future cuts. As I dove deeper into research and advocacy around SNAP, I learned about the intricacies and challenges of navigating politically fraught topics like food stamps, or hunger and poverty relief and reform more generally.

During my summer work, I also became more involved in another citywide coalition led by the Community Food Advocates—the Lunch 4 Learning campaign, which focuses on universalizing free school meals in NYC schools. It was exciting and rewarding to work with other leaders from different policy circles including the anti-hunger community, school food, and children’s health and education. I learned a lot about their grassroots advocacy work, campaign strategies, and communications and outreach, particularly at the city level, by attending these meetings.

While I don’t consider myself an advocacy expert by any means, I have learned a great deal while working at the Food Bank and among fellow anti-hunger advocates. I’ve had to think critically about how to best package certain health and social messages to push forward our policy priorities. I was able to work with a lot of big data that had been collected by the Food Bank and partners such as the USDA and Food Research and Action Center, as well as experiment with storytelling in order to create more compelling messages for our advocacy campaigns. I was introduced to many national and local social policies and learned a lot through independent research and discussions with my senior team members. I saw the intersection of food policies and food programs and also witnessed many of the Food Bank’s innovation programs to combat hunger and poverty at a more systemic level (e.g. financial empowerment and tax services). This work involves a lot of systems thinking, not just related to the food distribution cycle, but also to the deeper social issues and policies from which hunger stems.

The part that drives me the most within this field is the fact that hunger is a solvable problem. It is large and daunting, yes—but ultimately it is a condition that can be eliminated through sweeping social reform and innovation. My passion is not merely hunger relief through emergency food programs—I dream of a sustainable, long-term solution for a well-nourished society that doesn’t have to worry where their next meal is coming from, but this cannot be achieved without persistent advocacy. I view food security as preventative healthcare, and with poverty being a leading social determinant of health, I think anti-hunger work is inextricably tied to public health. As I continue to advance the Hunger Cliff project, I look forward to learning more about health advocacy this semester to enhance and inform my work at the intersection of health and hunger.

OCTOBER Foodie Inspired Events Happening in NYC!

10/1/15-10/18/15 – Food Truck Rally

10/5/15 – Let Us Eat Local

10/6/15 – Book Talk — “Soda Politics” by Dr. Marion Nestle

10/12/15 – Book & Film: “After Winter, Spring” – New York Special Screening

10/16/15- FOODi: Food, Business & Technology

10/17/15 – Eating Through Time Festival

10/19/15 -10/20/15 – James Beard Foundation Conference: Rethinking the Future of Food

10/24/15 – Rodale’s Organic Life Farm2Fork Festival: Slow Down Dinner

10/26/15 – The Manhattan Slur – Dig Inn

Every Saturday of October – Hester Street Fair