Category Archives: Diet & Nutrition

The Food Stamp Challenge

Imagine eating for $3/day.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that this is the average food stamp for recipients of this federal program.  There is no way that a person can eat fresh fruit or vegetables or whole grains (you know, the things that are supposed to be at the base of the new food pyramid?) on that sort of budget.  A man my age is supposed to eat three cups of vegetables each day according to the USDA. Forget about coffee or tea. One could imagine eating decently if one had the time to spend on food preparation (legume soups come to mind).  However, if you're a member of the working poor, time is not something you typically have a lot of. The American News Project has a video that discusses the problem of hunger in the United States today.  They interview Jim McGovern, Congressman from the Massachusetts 3rd District and a long-time advocate for domestic food security.  I am left wondering, how well would I do eating on $3/day? 


Salmonella Outbreak: Is It Really Tomatoes?

An outbreak of Salmonella serotype Saintpaul has sickened 943 people since April.  Nearly 14% of these cases required hospitalization. It has been hypothesized that tomatoes have been the vehicle for this food-borne infection.  Here in Palo Alto, certain types of tomatoes (e.g., Roma and beefsteak) were taken off store shelves for a while.  The latest report from CDC suggests that tomatoes may not, in fact, be the culprit.  CDC epidemiologists are expanding their investigations to include food items that are "commonly consumed with tomatoes."

Epidemiological evidence indicates that while people of just about any age can contract the infection (age range of cases is <1-99 years), the most likely age group to contract the infection are 20-29 year-olds.  The least likely age classes are 10-19 year-olds and people over 80.  What food do young adults commonly eat with raw tomatoes that is less commonly eaten by the young or very old?  I'd say salad greens but if that were the case, I'd expect a sex bias in infections.  50% of the infections are women and my informed guess (based on my experience with largely middle-class college students) is that 20-29 year-old women eat more salad than 20-29 year-old men.  

So what is it if it's not tomatoes?  Something having to do with consumption of alcohol? Some salsa ingredient like jalapeños or scallions? (note: another thing consumed in bars)

Biofuels Place Price Pressure on Food

A recent story in The Guardian reports on an unpublished World Bank study that suggests the conversion of food crops to biofuels, and the resulting economic pressures entailed in this process, is responsible for most of the steep price increases in food this year.  The World Bank report has not been published, though it was completed in April, and speculation is that the delay is meant to avoid embarrassing the Bush administration, who maintains that biofuels have had only a minor impact on food prices. For example, the report contradicts statements by US Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman made in a letter sent to the Senate Energy Committee last month.  The World Bank report attributes fully 75% of the increase in food prices to biofuels in contrast to the official US estimates of just 3%.

Biofuel development distorts food markets in three ways, one of them obvious, the other two less so: (1) it diverts grain production for food to the production of biofuels, (2) it creates incentives for farmers to set aside more land for biofuel crop development, and (3) it induces speculation on the commodities market, driving up grain prices.

The results of this report (at least as reported in The Guardian) resonate well with my own intuitions about biofuels. It seems like a very bad idea to me to make fuel for SUVs out of food.  It's all too easy for people in the developing world, where the leading dietary problem is obesity, to forget that a substantial portion of the world (somewhere in the vicinity of 800 million) is still regularly hungry. I remain open to the idea of generating biofuels from organic waste, but the consequences of growing grain and other basic foodstuffs for biofuels on commodity prices, and therefore the price that people pay for food, should be obvious to anyone who has taken an introductory economics class. Price increases with demand and decreases with supply, remember? Given that world population is still growing and that some formerly poor parts of the world are rapidly developing (and therefore increasing their demand for grain both directly and indirectly through increased demand for meat), there is no way that demand for grain as food is going to decrease.  This can only mean that increasing crop production for biofuel is bound to decrease supply for food in the absence of large expansions of crop land.  Generating demand for biofuels through legislation requiring a certain proportion of biofuel use (as is the case in the EU) or marketing ethanol-burning SUVs as somehow environmentally friendly is similarly going to increase demand for biofuels.  This means that prices for grains (and substitutable commodities) are bound to increase. Or am I missing something here?

High Rice Prices Affect Nearly Three Billion

Nearly half the world's population relies on rice as its primary food staple.  In the last three months, the trading price of rice on international markets has nearly doubled.  This is bad news for poor people in Asia and, especially, parts of urban West Africa. One contributor to this dramatic increase in price is the reduced growth in production in places like Vietnam because of viral infections such as grassy stunt virus and tungro and other crop infestations such as brown planthopper.  So far, the infestations have not spilled over into China, the worlds largest rice producer, but one worries about the proximity and borders that are notoriously permeable to the smuggling of agricultural products

The Requirements for an Ecological Anthropology Curriculum

A question was posted today on the ecological anthropology listserv: What are the basic requirements for an ecological anthropology graduate program? I don't claim to be qualified to say what these are for the field as a whole, but I am qualified to say what we have decided on in setting up our new ecological and environmental anthropology Ph.D. program at Stanford. Here I include an edited version of the reply I sent to the thread.

At the risk of essentializing, there are, broadly speaking, two general classes of ecological anthropologists: (1) those who use human relationships with the environment as a lens through which to study problems in cultural anthropology (e.g., agency, social structure, the construction of meaning, etc.), and (2) ecologists who study humans as their primary organism. The majority of practitioners currently falling under the latter category are probably human behavioral ecologists, though I can think of some notable exceptions to this. This is the approach our program emphasizes.

In addition to departmental requirements, EE students are required to take the following:

  • Evolutionary Theory
  • Research Methods in Ecological Anthropology
  • Data Analysis in the Anthropological Sciences

All students need to know how to integrate theory, method, and application, but the specific nature of the courses in which they learn that doesn't matter that much. Therefore, we require three courses from a list of theory-driven graduate classes, including (but not limited to):

  • Advanced Ecological Anthropology
  • Human Behavioral Ecology
  • Conservation and Evolutionary Ecology
  • Demography and Life History Theory
  • Environmental Change and Emerging Infectious Disease

Required classes deal with what you know, but equally important is how you know. We expect our students to engage in research from the outset of their graduate studies. Students attend weekly lab meetings. These can be within the Anthropology department (e.g., Rebecca Bird and I run a joint meeting or we have a joint spatial interest meeting this quarter) or in other departments (e.g., Biology, Woods Institute).  Students also attend a colloquium (comprised of visiting speakers) one quarter out of the year.

We're big on methods, but we don't legislate what methods students learn (other than research design and statistics).  Most students are interested in remote sensing and GIS, but we also have students working on social network analysis, demographic methods,  and advanced statistical methodology.

So, that's our idea for a graduate program.  We will have  a proper web page describing the program in detail some time in the future.

Why We Pack Our Kids' Lunches

The New York Times reported the largest recall of ground beef ever (143 million pounds) this week.  The recall happened because a California slaughterhouse was caught using downer cows. According to the article:

Of the 143 million pounds that were recalled, 37 million went to make hamburgers, chili and tacos for school lunches and other federal nutrition programs, officials said.

Makes you feel good about these public programs, no?