A popular school fundraiser is just ‘junk-food marketing to kids,’ experts say

These programs, most of which are wildly popular at U.S. schools, may have major downsides for students. Critics say they are designed to sell junk food to children too young to make good health decisions.

For 43 years, schoolkids and their parents have clipped the labels from cookie bags and cracker boxes as part of a popular rewards program called Labels for Education.

Through this and similar programs — think Tyson’s Project A+ or General Mills’ Box Tops for Education — schools get cash and supplies in exchange for clipped labels from participating food items.

But these programs, most of which are wildly popular at U.S. schools, may have major downsides for students. Critics say they are designed to sell junk food to children too young to make good health decisions.

Just this month, as Labels for Education wound down — a result of declining participation, said its parent company, Campbell’s — public health advocates cheered the end of a program widely beloved by teachers, schools and parents. It included snack foods, such as cookies and crackers, that many health advocates say should be discouraged.

“It’s just another form of junk-food marketing to kids,” said Colin Schwartz, a senior nutrition policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of several groups that has celebrated the demise of Labels for Education. “We’re glad to see Campbell’s ending its program, and we’re calling on other companies to take the same step.”

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The surprising argument for extending food stamps to pets

[Supporters] say that allowing food stamps to be used for pet food could potentially keep tens of thousands of animals out of shelters and prevent low-income people from giving their own food to their pets.

Edward B. Johnston Jr. would rather give his dinner to his dog than watch the dog go hungry. That is why the 59-year-old Mississippi man is petitioning the Department of Agriculture to let him use food stamps on kibble and pet treats.

Pets are part of the family, Johnston argued, and families should not have to break up when they hit what he calls a “financial rough patch.” He is asking that the federal government modify food-stamp rules to make it easier for low-income people like him to buy food for their pets.

The petition has little chance of succeeding, experts say, given the political and logistical challenges of changing food stamps, otherwise known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But it has attracted the attention of nearly 80,000 signers on the popular petition site Care2, as well as a number of animal welfare organizations.

These groups say that allowing food stamps to be used for pet food could potentially keep tens of thousands of animals out of shelters and prevent low-income people from giving their own food to their pets.

“It’s potentially game-changing,” said Matt Bershadker, the president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “I think we should get behind this in a big way.”

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The dark side of your $5 Footlong: Business owners say it could bite them

As fast-food chains across the country have slashed menu prices to revive flagging sales, a growing rift has emerged between some name-brand corporations and the local operators who run their outlets.

A Subway sandwich is far more than the sum of its fillings, franchisee Keith Miller says.

Those ingredients cost roughly $2. Then he pays labor. Electricity. Gas. Royalties. Credit card transaction fees. Rent.

All told, Miller, who owns three Subway franchises in Northern California, says it costs him well over $4 to produce one of Subway’s foot-long subs. And that is why, when the chain announced plans to drop the price of the sandwich to $4.99 starting in January, he and hundreds of Subway’s other 10,000 U.S. franchisees sent a strongly worded letter warning that the promotion could force some stores to close.

“The numbers don’t work for us,” said Miller, who also chairs an industry group, the Coalition of Franchisee Associations. “Ten years ago, they might have worked. But now they don’t, in my opinion.”

As fast-food chains across the country have slashed menu prices to revive flagging sales, a growing rift has emerged between some name-brand corporations and the local operators who run their outlets.

For years now, the retail industry has been shaken by giant companies that have been able to keep prices low, wooing consumers but squeezing suppliers and smaller competitors. But in the restaurant business, the push to keep prices low has pitted corporate headquarters against individual outlet owners — all operating under the same brand.

Corporations need to grow systemwide revenue to please board members and shareholders. But small-scale franchisees, who face rising costs and increased local competition, are far more concerned with store-level profits.

In addition to Subway’s plans to relaunch the $5 Footlong, McDonald’s will revive a version of its Dollar Menu next month. Taco Bell has promised to expand its selection of discount items, as have Wendy’s and Jack in the Box.

“This is an inherent financial conflict between franchisees and franchisers,” said J. Michael Dady, a lawyer at the Minneapolis firm Dady & Gardner who represents franchisees in conflicts with their corporate parents. “And some have handled it much better than others have.”

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Cattle have gotten so big that restaurants need new ways to cut steaks

As U.S. beef cattle have ballooned in size, experts say, restaurants, grocery stores and meat processors have had to get creative in how they slice and dice them up.

If you’ve dined at a steakhouse recently or grilled rib-eye for dinner, you may have noticed a curious trend: Steaks are getting thinner.

As U.S. beef cattle have ballooned in size, experts say, restaurants, grocery stores and meat processors have had to get creative in how they slice and dice them up. Increasingly, that means thinner steaks — as well as more scrap meat and “alternative” cuts designed to make the most of a bigger animal.

The cattle industry argues that it provides cheaper and more plentiful beef from fewer cattle. But there’s emerging evidence that Americans dislike the changes to their steaks. And that could hurt the beef sector in the long-run.

“If you buy a steak, you have a picture in your mind of what it should look like,” said Josh Maples, an agricultural economist at Mississippi State who has studied the new cuts. “If you make that thinner, or you cut it in half — for many people, that ruins the eating experience.”

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A growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to farm

For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing.

Liz Whitehurst dabbled in several careers before she ended up here, crating fistfuls of fresh-cut arugula in the early-November chill.

The hours were better at her nonprofit jobs. So were the benefits. But two years ago, the 32-year-old Whitehurst — who graduated from a liberal arts college and grew up in the Chicago suburbs — abandoned Washington for this three-acre farm in Upper Marlboro, Md.

She joined a growing movement of highly educated, ex-urban, first-time farmers who are capitalizing on booming consumer demand for local and sustainable foods and who, experts say, could have a broad impact on the food system. 

For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.

This new generation can’t hope to replace the numbers that farming is losing to age. But it is already contributing to the growth of the local-food movement and could help preserve the place of midsize farms in the rural landscape.

“We’re going to see a sea change in American agriculture as the next generation gets on the land,” said Kathleen Merrigan, the head of the Food Institute at George Washington University and a deputy secretary at the Department of Agriculture under President Barack Obama. “The only question is whether they’ll get on the land, given the challenges.”

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The race to save coffee

Coffee is not ready to adapt to climate change without help.

Centroamericano, a new variety of coffee plant, hasn’t sparked the buzz of, say, Starbucks’s latest novelty latte. But it may be the coolest thing in brewing: a tree that can withstand the effects of climate change.

Climate change could spell disaster for coffee, a crop that requires specific temperatures to flourish and that is highly sensitive to a range of pests. So scientists are racing to develop more tenacious strains of one of the world’s most beloved beverages.

In addition to Centroamericano, seven other new hybrid varieties are gradually trickling onto the market. And this summer, World Coffee Research ­— an industry-funded nonprofit group — kicked off field tests of 46 new varieties that it says will change coffee-growing as the world knows it.

“Coffee is not ready to adapt to climate change without help,” said Doug Welsh, the vice president and roastmaster of Peet’s Coffee, which has invested in WCR’s research.

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How a group of Florida tomato growers could help derail NAFTA

There’s a lot of political power resting with a small group of individuals who have a lot to gain.

Tony DiMare, a third-generation Florida tomato grower, has spent two decades contending with cheap Mexican imports, watching his neighbors abandon crops in their fields and sell off their farms when they couldn’t match the price of incoming produce.

But emboldened by the Trump administration’s hostility toward foreign trade, DiMare and a group of Southeast growers are pushing for tough new protectionist measures against their Mexican rivals — so tough, in fact, that their demands threaten to wreck the negotiations.

“I’m all about free trade, but it has to be fair,” DiMare said.

As the United States, Canada and Mexico prepare to wrap up a fourth round of talks Tuesday about revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement, there is growing fear that the talks could collapse around one of several “poison pill” provisions.

Those include the demands of the Florida tomato growers, who say Mexico is selling tomatoes in the United States at artificially low prices. With the support of some berry, melon and pepper producers, the Florida producers are pushing for stronger anti-dumping measures — an idea that has been soundly rejected by the Mexicans.

The Florida growers’ high-stakes campaign for special anti-dumping measures for seasonal produce has also exposed sharp divisions with the rest of America’s farmers, who are generally strongly pro-NAFTA and whose livelihoods are on the line if the negotiations falter.

“There’s a lot of political power resting with a small group of individuals who have a lot to gain,” said Joseph Glauber, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and the former chief economist at the Agriculture Department. “Unfortunately, the special provision you carve out for one interest group can really backfire for others.”

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This miracle weed killer was supposed to save farms. Instead, it’s devastating them.

Farmers are locked in an arms race between ever-stronger weeds and ever-stronger weed killers.

BLYTHEVILLE, ARK. — Clay Mayes slams on the brakes of his Chevy Silverado and jumps out with the engine running, yelling at a dogwood by the side of the dirt road as if it had said something insulting.

Its leaves curl downward and in on themselves like tiny, broken umbrellas. It’s the telltale mark of inadvertent exposure to a controversial herbicide called dicamba.

“This is crazy. Crazy!” shouts Mayes, a farm manager, gesticulating toward the shriveled canopy off Highway 61. “I just think if this keeps going on . . .”

“Everything’ll be dead,” says Brian Smith, his passenger.

The damage here in northeast Arkansas and across the Midwest — sickly soybeans, trees and other crops — has become emblematic of adeepening crisis in American agriculture.

Farmers are locked in an arms race between ever-stronger weeds and ever-stronger weed killers.

The dicamba system, approved for use for the first time this spring, was supposed to break the cycle and guarantee weed control in soybeans and cotton. The herbicide — used in combination with a genetically modified dicamba-resistant soybean — promises better control of unwanted plants such as pigweed, which has become resistant to common weed killers.

The problem, farmers and weed scientists say, is that dicamba has drifted from the fields where it was sprayed, damaging millions of acres of unprotected soybeans and other crops in what some are calling a man-made disaster. Critics say that the herbicide was approved by federal officials without enough data, particularly on the critical question of whether it could drift off target.

Government officials and manufacturers Monsanto and BASF deny the charge, saying the system worked as Congress designed it.

The backlash against dicamba has spurred lawsuits, state and federal investigations, and one argument that ended in a farmer’s shooting death and related murder charges.

“This should be a wake-up call,” said David Mortensen, a weed scientist at Pennsylvania State University.

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