Blue Marble

Study Finds Kids Prefer Healthier Lunches. School Food Lobby Refuses to Believe It.

| Tue Jul. 22, 2014 3:29 PM EDT

From all of the commotion around the new federal school lunch standards, you'd think they were really Draconian. Republican legislators have railed against them. Districts have threatened to opt out. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the industry group that represents the nation's 55,000 school food employees, has officially opposed some of them—and doubled its lobbying in the months leading up to July 1, when some of the new rules took effect.

Half of those surveyed said that the students "complained about the meals at first," but 70 percent said that the students now like the new lunches.

Here's who doesn't mind the new standards: kids. For a study just published in the peer-reviewed journal Childhood Obesity, researchers asked administrators and food service staff at 537 public elementary schools how their students were liking the meals that conformed to the new standards. Half of those surveyed said that the students "complained about the meals at first," but 70 percent said that the students now like the new lunches. Rural districts were the least enthusiastic about the new meals—there, some respondents reported that purchasing was down and that students were eating less of their meals. But respondents from schools with a high percentage of poor students—those with at least two-thirds eligible for free or reduced-price meals—were especially positive about the new standards: They found that "more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year."

"Kids who really need good nutrition most at school are getting it," says Lindsey Turner, the Childhood Obesity study's lead author and a research scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "That's really good news."

SNA's response? To issue a statement declaring that "these reported perceptions about school meals do not reflect reality." The group cites USDA data that participation in school meals has declined by 1.4 million since the new rules went into effect in 2012. But Turner, the Childhood Obesity study's lead author, notes that this is only about a 3 percent drop. She also points to a Government Accountability Office study that found that most of the drop-off was among students who pay full price for lunch.

What makes SNA's stance on the new rules even stranger is that they actually are not all that strict. For example: Foods served must be whole grain rich, but as I learned from my trip to SNA's annual conference last week, that includes whole-grain Pop Tarts, Cheetos, and Rice Krispies Treats. Students are required to take a half cup of a fruit or vegetable—but Italian ice—in flavors like Hip Hoppin' Jelly Bean—are fair game.

Not all members of SNA consider the task of tempting kids with healthy foods onerous. As I reported last week, Jessica Shelly, food director of Cincinnati's diverse public schools, has shown that all it takes is a little creativity.

HT The Lunch Tray.

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California Farms Are Sucking Up Enough Groundwater to Put Rhode Island 17 Feet Under

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 12:39 PM EDT

California, the producer of nearly half of the nation's fruits, veggies, and nuts, plus export crops—four-fifths of the world's almonds, for example—is entering its third driest year on record. Nearly 80 percent of the state is experiencing "extreme" or "exceptional" drought. In addition to affecting agricultural production the drought will cost the state billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and a whole lot of groundwater, according to a new report prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture by scientists at UC-Davis. The authors used current water data, agricultural models, satellite data, and other methods to predict the economic and environmental toll of the drought through 2016.

Here are four key takeaways

  • The drought will cost the state $2.2 billion this year: Of these losses, $810 million will come from lower crop revenues, $203 million will come from livestock and dairy losses, and $454 million will come from the cost of pumping additional groundwater. Up to 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs will be lost.
  • California is experiencing the "greatest absolute reduction in water availability" ever seen: In a normal year, about one-third of California's irrigation water is drawn from wells that tap into the groundwater supply. The rest is "surface water" from streams, rivers, and reservoirs. This year, the state is losing about one-third of its surface water supply. The hardest hit area is the Central Valley, a normally fertile inland region. Because groundwater isn't as easily pumped in the Valley as it is on the coasts, and the Colorado River supplies aren't as accessible as they are in the south, the Valley has lost 410,000 acres to fallowing, an area about 10 times the size of Washington, DC.
  • Farmers are pumping enough groundwater to immerse Rhode Island in 17 feet of it: To make up for the loss of surface water, farmers are pumping 62 percent more groundwater than usual. They are projected to pump 13 million acre-feet this year, enough to put Rhode Island 17 feet under.
  • "We're acting like the super-rich:" California is technically in its third year of drought, and regardless of the effects of El Niño, 2015 is likely to be a dry year too. As the dry years accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to pump water from the ground, adding to the crop and revenue losses. California is the only western state without groundwater regulation or measurement of major groundwater use. If you can drill down to water, it's all yours. (Journalist McKenzie Funk describes this arcane system in an excerpt from his fascinating recent book, Windfall.) "A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account," said Richard Howitt, a UC-Davis water scientist and co-author of the report. "We're acting like the super-rich, who have so much money they don't need to balance their checkbook." 

The Great Barrier Reef Will Be Ravaged By El Niño

| Tue Jul. 8, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

This story originally appeared in the Guardian and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Great Barrier Reef is set to be ravaged by the expected El Niño weather phenomenon and scientists warn that similar warming events have significantly impacted upon the reef’s coral.

Research by the University of Queensland studied large Porites coral colonies, a type of coral considered more resistant than others to changes in the environment.

By analysing and dating coral samples, researchers found there was a significant correlation between mass coral mortality events and spikes in sea surface temperature over the past 150 years.

One of the Biggest Opponents of GMO Labeling Is Offering More Non-GMO Products

| Wed Jul. 2, 2014 3:15 AM EDT

Cargill, a giant privately held food manufacturer, is one of the biggest enemies of laws requiring companies to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients. But even as the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an anti GMO-labeling lobbying group Cargill belongs to, fights GMO-labeling laws in state legislatures and courthouses around the country, Cargill is introducing more GMO-free products.

Last week, Cargill announced its newest non-GMO crop, soybean oil, which will join corn and beans on Cargill's list of unmodified products offered in the United States, among others.

Gregory Page, the chairman of Cargill's board, sits on the executive board for the GMA, the big-food lobbying group that recently sued Vermont for passing a bill requiring food manufacturers to label genetically modified foods. The company warns on its website that mandatory labeling can be "misleading" to consumers who might believe genetic modification and bioengineering in food is dangerous. A GMO label does not provide any meaningful information about the food, Cargill argues, because GMO foods are "substantially equivalent" to non-GMO foods.

But despite this, Cargill seems to see the benefit in offering consumers the option of eating unmodified foods. "Despite the many merits of biotechnology, consumer interest in food and beverage products made from non-GM ingredients is growing, creating opportunities and challenges for food manufacturers and food service operators," Ethan Theis, a spokesman for the company, said in a company press release last week. Even the fiercest opponents of GMO labeling are willing to offer non-GMO products when consumers' cash is on the line.

"Make It a Quickie," "Get Paid for Doing It," and Other Advice From San Francisco's Water Agency

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

In response to California's ongoing drought, San Francisco's water agency has come out with a hilariously creepy ad campaign to make saving water sexy. In addition to the commercial above, featuring a water-efficient showerhead being stroked and a seductive male voice telling you to "screw them on," ads encourage water users to "Make it a quickie" and "Get paid for doing it" ("it" referring to your shower and the replacement of your old toilet, respectively).

Unfortunately, new data from the state's Water Resources Control Board shows that Californians need to be "doing it" a lot more. Gov. Jerry Brown requested that Californians voluntarily reduce their water usage by 20 percent in January, when he declared the drought to have reached a state of emergency. But the Control Board found that, as of April, Californians had reduced their water usage by only 5 percent, and Bay Area residents had reduced by only 2 percent. The state has yet to enforce mandatory water restrictions, though a handful of cities have. Listen to KQED's deep dive on water reduction here.

And, in the name of water reduction, here are a few more ads:

Nature Is Magical—and These 10 Stunning Photos Prove It. Happy Birthday, Yosemite!

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 2:52 PM EDT

On this day 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act to protect Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove in California. It was the first time the US had set aside wilderness, in this case roughly the size of Rhode Island, especially for preservation. These days, 4 million people enjoy the park every year to marvel at its famous soaring granite peaks and waterfalls, and enjoy a rare serenity. Here are photos of Yosemite's epic landscapes, past and present, to celebrate the its sesquicentennial year. Happy Birthday, Yosemite!

The Three Brothers rise above a mirror-like stream in Yosemite. This photo was taken in the 1860s by Carleton E. Watkins, one of California's early commercial photographers. He took some of the first photographs of the Yosemite region. ​Carleton E. Watkins/Library of Congress

President John F. Kennedy's helicopter is seen here dwarfed by the epic grandeur of Yosemite Falls in August 1962. Kennedy was in Yosemite for an overnight stay before going to Los Angeles, where he attended ground-breaking ceremonies for the San Luis Dam project. Anonymous/AP Photo

Queen Elizabeth II is shown the sites during her visit to the park in March 1983. Walt Zeboski/AP Photo

The sun sets across Yosemite in this photo from 2006. Nagaraju Hanchanahal/Flickr

In this photo of the night sky above Yosemite valley, the peaks of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks can be seen on the the left and right, respectively. Joe Parks/Flickr

This photo shows the first visitors in three weeks to visit Yosemite Valley, on January 6, 1996, after a budget crisis shut down the federal government, and thus the park. Earlier that day, President Bill Clinton signed Republican-crafted legislation to restore wages to federal government workers while budget negotiations continued, reopening the park to the public. Thor Swift/AP Photo.

A view of Half Dome Rock from Glacier Point. mlhradio/Flickr

The Rim Fire in 2013 was one of the largest wildfires in recent California history and burned parts of Yosemite National Park. The steep, remote topography of western Yosemite made it especially difficult for firefighters to get the blaze. Elias Funez/Modesto Bee/ZUMA

Yosemite Valley in Winter, taken from Tunnel View nrg_crisis/Flickr

The Three Brothers rock formation Mark Brodkin/Solent News/REX/AP Photo

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Chick-Fil-A's Twee New Food Journalism Site

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 6:42 PM EDT

Perhaps hoping to distance itself from its horrendous display of homophobia in 2012, the fast-food chicken chain Chick-Fil-A has launched a folksy new food journalism site called Let's Gather:

Image from Let's Gather

Yes really. Check out the actual site, which is now hosting the project's second issue. Push past the animated bees buzzing around scenically, and don't get so distracted by this homey idyll that you forget to click on the shabby chic nav tool in the upper right.

Once you do, you might venture over to the about page, which says this: "By exploring the winsome themes found in the everyday blend of our meals, hobbies, and relationships, each issue inspires readers to try a new recipe, think a new thought, and join a new conversation. Ultimately, these are stories that remind us of the joy we experience when we make time to do life together." (Emphasis added.)

But wait, it gets better. Nestled among the features about stair climbing and giving up groceries is a Q&A with Chick-Fil-A on-staff registered dietitian (don't even get me started) Jodie Worrell:

Image from Let's Gather

This Guy Just Summed Up America's Climate Inaction Beautifully in 15 Lines

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 4:52 PM EDT
"Is there consensus among the crew?"

Pretty much as a rule, the comments section below any post on climate change will contain all the same dreary back-and-forth about how the world hasn't actually warmed in 15 years, or some thing; how fat cat Al Gore is profiting off global warming; and all those petty attacks over intellect/punctuation/spelling. That was certainly true for my recent post about Australia's climate politics, and the ongoing craziness Downunder that has resulted in more than a little political bloodletting in recent years. And then, reading down through the comments, just when I was giving up hope...a sudden bolt, as if the clouds parted and a little (uncharacteristic) humor was allowed to shine down upon all the silliness. Thank you "ThatDudeOnABike", for neatly summarizing some of the ridiculousness with this 30-second double-hander. A micro-Tony Award for you!

"Captain, there's a large iceberg ahead that will cause us to sink." 
"No there isn't" 
"Yes, captain, it's right there."
"Ice berg schmice berg. Oh, that berg. Right. It's not our fault."
"Regardless, sir, It will still sink us."
"No it won't"
"99% chance."
"So you don't know. Is there consensus among the crew?"
"We don't really have time..."
"If we stop the ship it will cost jobs and the economy will tank."
"We don't have to stop, just change course if we do it right away, before it's too late."
"You liberal elites just want to scare us."
"I'm not liberal, I just looked off the starboard bow and there it was."
"So it just appeared? You made it up. Why do you hate America?"
CRASH!

[Aaand, scene—thanks ThatDudeOnABike!]

And a reminder, we do love your comments. In fact, we once tracked down our biggest troll... and kind of liked him. You could be next:

Is This the Beginning of the End of Junk Food at Stadiums?

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Blueberries, avocados, and kale, fresh-picked for salads and small plates. Rows of water-saving aeroponic towers that grow as many as 44 veggie plants each. Fertilizer made from coffee grounds...at a baseball field?

That's right: Below the scoreboard at San Francisco's AT&T Park, a 4,320-square-foot edible garden space, the first of its kind in a sporting arena, will grow seasonal produce year-round while hosting outdoor classes on sustainability, urban farming, and healthy eating for Bay Area children. It also features a bar, dining tables, fire pits, and a sod farm (later harvested for use on the field) for picnicking fans. "We hope it really catches on with other parks," says Eric Blasen, cofounder of Blasen Landscape Architecture, the studio that designed the garden.

Giants outfielder Hunter Pence confirms that it is—at least among Giants team members. At the garden's grand opening on Tuesday, he said that at first his teammates made fun of his kale salads from the garden—until they tried them. Now they're a team favorite. 

So does a project like this have potential anywhere outside of San Francisco? For most Americans, a visit to the ballpark means hotdogs and pretzels, not flatbreads and kumquats. And the harvests will be small, only enough for "a fraction" of the stadium's needs, says Bonnie Powell, director of communications for Bon Appétit Management, an AT&T park food provider that helped launch the garden. "The main point of the garden is to be an educational one: how food grows, and that you can grow it even in small, challenging spaces."

The garden's designers hope those themes will resonate with the fans. "We'll have so much exposure," says Silvina Blasen, the other cofounder at Blasen Landscape Architecture. "I mean, I think they can seat 44,000 people on these bleachers. It should catch on."

If You Think Climate Politics In the US Are Crazy, Wait Till You See What Just Happened in Australia

| Wed Jun. 25, 2014 3:16 PM EDT

Hold on to your hats! Australia's already-bizarre carbon price adventures veered into the utterly surreal overnight.

Picture this: an eccentric billionaire mining baron, most famous outside Australia for commissioning a replica of the Titanic, appearing alongside the world's most recognizable climate campaigner and former US vice president, Al Gore, to announce Australia's relatively new carbon tax will be scrapped, and a new emissions trading scheme proposed, effectively screwing over the sitting conservative prime minister, Tony Abbott, who is hell-bent on getting rid of carbon legislation altogether.

It's a big blow to a prime minister who said recently in Canada that he has "always been against" an emissions trading scheme, and believes fighting climate change will "clobber the economy."

For watchers of Aussie politics, it was a visual feast of weirdness. For US readers, imagine—I don't know—industrialist Charles Koch jumping on stage with writer and activist Bill McKibben and you're getting close.

Clive Palmer speaking at a press conference to unveil plans to build a an almost-exact replica of the ill-fated Titanic, in March 2013. Ben Cawthra/ZumaPRESS

Al Gore has shared a press conference podium, and political common ground, with many influential leaders in his time, but Clive Palmer must be among the most unexpected. The mining magnate's upstart political group, the populist center-right Palmer United Party (PUP), was elevated to the Australian political heavyweight class during last year's national elections, and is now on the verge of holding the balance of power in the Australian Senate, or upper house—a position that possesses outsized power to wheel and deal with a government intent on getting laws passed.

That has meant all eyes are on Clive, who owns a nickel refinery and large swathes of land laced with coal and iron ore, along with several jets and resorts: not the climate's most likely hero.

A bit of backstory: Abbott took office last year after campaigning relentlessly to "scrap the toxic tax" and do away with the other parts of the carbon price legislation introduced by former-PM Julia Gillard. The carbon tax would have finally transitioned into a fully-fledged emissions trading scheme in mid-2015. Since the election, Australia's conservative government led by Abbott has been gearing up to axe the entire package for good.

Under Tony Abbott's replacement plan, the package would be scrapped in favor of a policy called "Direct Action", which critics say will do little to address carbon emissions, and cost taxpayers a hell of a lot of money. The repeal will certainly pass the lower house, but getting Clive Palmer on side was crucial to its passage through the Senate.

Meanwhile, Clive Palmer, a fantastical maverick-type (an enormous Tyrannosaurus rex presides over one of his golf courses), appears to be enjoying his newly found political power, basically telling Abbott "not so fast." He has indeed agreed to axe the tax, but is now pushing instead to keep some form of emissions trading scheme (which his party will introduce). Palmer's emissions trading scheme would be toothless and non-competitive, at least at first, with the carbon price set to zero until Australia's major trading partners like China and South Korea effect similar schemes.

All of this is made even more baffling since Clive Palmer himself only recently rejected the scientific consensus on climate change, telling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in April that "There's been global warming for a long time. I mean, all of Ireland was covered by ice at one time... so I think that's part of the natural cycle."

But at this week's performance, he made an incredible about-face:

"Australia has got an opportunity to set a standard which can act as a catalyst for the whole world, to set a fair framework which the world can follow," Palmer said. "As President Obama in the US has shown, great leadership and encouraging all countries to act, Australia needs to do its fair share." Palmer argues that without a trading scheme, Australian businesses will get left behind. Another motivation might be more personal: there's a long-standing distrust between Palmer and Abbott, the prime minister.

Gore, appearing alongside Palmer, fully endorsed what will effectively isolate Tony Abbott, the prime minister, calling Palmer's decision "an extraordinary moment."

"All of these developments add up to the world moving to solve the climate crisis," he said.

But climate change has washed Canberra's corridors of power in political blood for years, and it seems that no matter how hard Tony Abbott tries to finally put it to rest, there's no end in site, writes Lenore Taylor at The Guardian:

It is a dramatic, if slightly confusing, eleventh hour conversion to the climate change cause for Clive Palmer, millionaire would-be coal miner who... just two months ago didn’t seem to think global warming was a thing. After contributing to the downfall of three Australian prime ministers, two opposition leaders and seven years of bitter and acrimonious debate, carbon policy is now presenting yet another prime minister with some serious dilemmas.