A plague of Wal-Marts

Until real middle-class wages start rising, we can't end agricultural subsidies

Watching this gripping animation (h/t Ezra Klein) that charts the spread of Wal-Marts across the country got me thinking. I felt like I was really watching the spread of wage stagnation across the country. I'm not suggesting there's any clarity as to which came first -- Wal-Mart or the grinding halt in middle-class wage growth. But Wal-Mart's accelerated growth in the 1980s matches this chart on wage inequality nicely (note the bottom two lines). It's a pointless chicken-and-egg debate at a certain level. You can't blame Sam Walton (much less Sebastian Kresge or James Sinegal) for the fact that discounters that thrive on downward price pressure represent the only means most Americans have of maintaining the illusion of a rising standard of living.

Dime bag

Ten reader food quandaries solved!

In Checkout Line, Lou Bendrick cooks up answers to reader questions about how to green their food choices and other diet-related quandaries. Lettuce know what food worries keep you up at night.   Dear Checkout …

Farm subsidies, bitter and sweet

Tufts study: Corn subsidies are a sop to HFCS industry, but don't alone make bad food cheap

I have a complex and much criticized view of farm subsidies.  On the one hand, I acknowledge that the "commodity program" embedded in the Farm Bill is a back-door sop to agribusiness giants like meat titan Tyson and grain-processor Archer Daniels Midland. By encouraging farmers to produce as much corn and soy as possible even when prices are low, subsidies push down the price of commodity crops -- and fatten the profits of the firms that buy them. On the other hand, I disagree with sustainable-food activists who claim that subsidies are the root of our food-system problems. Take them away, I've argued more than once, and you'd still have a food system that mainly produces junk churned out by a few big companies. Plus, rather than campaigning to end subsidies, I think we should be pushing to redirect them to more useful purposes: like rebuilding local and regional food infrastructure. A study just released by the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts illustrates my point. The authors -- veteran Tufts researcher Tim Wise, plus Alicia Harvie -- look at the effect corn subsidies have had on consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, the U.S. food industry's favorite sweetener. They essentially pose two questions: 1) Do HFCS producers benefit from the subsidy program?; and 2) Can the rise in obesity/overweight and diabetes rates be tied to corn subsidies through HFCS?  Their conclusions might surprise you.

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Prepping the soil

Vilsack continues to lay the groundwork for reform

There was some curiosity as to what stance U.S. Department of Agriculture chief Tom Vilsack would take in his speech this week before the National Association of Wheat Growers. Surprisingly, he came as the bearer of bad tidings. According to this report: Vilsack called on farmers to accept the political reality that U.S. farm program direct payments are under fire both at home and abroad and therefore farmers should develop other sources of income. In his remarks to the groups he said he intends to promote a far more diversified income base for the farm sector, saying that windmills and biofuels should definitely be part of the income mix and that organic agriculture will also play an increasing role. Um, what? Leave aside the "prepare for a pay cut" thing for a moment. Did Vilsack just use the O-word in front of a bunch of large-scale industrial farmers? Once they stopped laughing, I wonder if they starting thinking about the implications of what he was saying. Maybe this guy is for real. Vilsack's comments certainly jibe with his plans for the new USDA Office for Ecosystem Services and Markets -- an entity that is charged with cataloging the climate impacts of forestry and farming practices. The Christian Science Monitor characterized it thusly:

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Waste not, want less

Why is it so hard for farmers to donate their crops?

Because there aren't enough roadblocks to getting hungry people healthy food, here's another one. And it's something that could be fixed with a small dollop of legalese (ideally right on top of the stimulus package). Someone at Bread for the City, which runs the biggest D.C. food pantry, pointed me to a post on their blog that sets up the problem thusly: [L]iterally tons of fresh fruits and vegetables will be grown this year that will never make it to market for one reason or another. (For instance, major supermarkets turn away curvy cucumbers since they don't stack well ...) In a country where about half of all food grown is wasted, the gap between the field and the market is where a shockingly large amount of the loss occurs. Their goal is to get this "wasted" food to the people who need it. Naturally, it's not easy (although nothing about helping the poor ever is). But it's not finding the produce that's the problem -- many farmers are more than happy to participate. It's getting it: the food pantries have to organize teams of volunteers to harvest, pack, and transport the produce themselves. Why not just have the farmers do it for them? Sometimes they do, of course. But for many farmers already on the edge financially, throwing in labor and fuel as part of the deal just isn't possible. The tax-savvy among you will no doubt object -- what about the write-off?

Vilsack sets the table

It's official: Nutrition will play a big role in reform at the USDA

After reading Tom Philpott's post on Tom Vilsack's recent comments to the WaPo, I think it's worth digging in a bit more. To this point, we've all had to be content with reading tea leaves and parsing statements. But now we are finally getting a taste of the tea. Philpott highlighted Vilsack's line about his desire to represent the interests of those "who consume food" -- a long-awaited distinction to be sure. Of course, claiming to represent eaters is no panacea. The USDA can easily describe its efforts to support a system that provides vast amounts of cheap calories as "helpful" to consumers -- and that kind of disingenuous wordplay would be par for the course at the old USDA. But it appears that Vilsack takes a broader, more progressive view as he pointed out the following: His first official act was the reinstatement of $3.2 million in grant funding for fruit and vegetable farmers that had been rescinded in the final days of the Bush administration. Though the dollar amount was small, Vilsack said it sent a message of his emphasis on nutritious food.

More to Vilsack than meets the eye?

WaPo on the new USDA chief

As Tom Laskawy pointed out here a few days ago, controversy rages around new USDA chief Tom Vilsack's choice of deputy secretary -- traditionally a powerful figure within the agency, tasked with implementing policy in a sprawling bureaucracy. The sustainable-ag world is rallying around Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, who's thought to be under serious consideration for the post. Evidently, the choice is being held up because Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is threatening to fight it in the ag committee. It's pretty unsavory stuff -- Conrad is evidently furious that Hassebrook supports stricter limits on subsidies paid to a single farm (a policy also supported by Vilsack and President Barack Obama). Astonishingly, this back-room brawl in what used to be a back-water agency has gotten high-profile attention. NYT pundit Nicholas Kristof weighed in on his blog recently. As I've written before, the USDA suddenly operates under the glare of media attention. Can anyone remember a similar situation at USDA during Bush II's reign? I tried to make a fuss when Bush chose a deputy secretary who had served as president of the Corn Refiners Association. No one seemed to see what the big deal was. Those days are over. Now the USDA chief's got reporters bird-dogging him about his attitude toward reform. And he's been making an effort -- unprecedented, as far as I know -- to soothe his critics in the sustainable-food world. Here he is waxing downright Pollanesque to a Washington Post reporter:

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