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Defining the Field of Food Policy

While a terrain of buzzwords exists related to food policy – food security, food sovereignty, food deserts, fast food, slow food and locavore just to name a few – the field itself is mostly a murky swampland. It is undefined, and currently lacks a solid foundation upon which to safely build.

The National Institutes of Health views food policy as a tool for responding to unstable food prices, yet the World Health Organization merges it with food insecurity without offering an explanation for food policy. Perhaps Tim Lang, David Barling, and Martin Caraher said it best in their book, Food Policy: Integrating health, environment and society, that “food policy is the pursuit of improved knowledge of how policy-making determines and responds to the food system”, but I’ll refer you to their entire chapter two to decipher what exactly that means.[1]If the officials and leading organizations cannot come to a common consensus, how should the general public understand this arena?

The problem is that the field of food policy has not yet been defined. Is the field aimed to address concerns over obesity? Diabetes? Nutrition? Lack of access to healthy food? Environmental issues in food production? Corporate conglomerates? Urbanization? Poverty? Justice? Inequality? Sure, food policy may touch upon all of these matters but in its current state it can only do so in a superficial way because food policy is too immense and vague. The field needs a common foundation, or rather, a mission that officials and global citizens alike can grasp and follow. By establishing this, we will have the proper jumping point needed to tackle the issues within the field.

Join the conversation and let IPS know what you think the mission is of food policy. Feel free to comment on this blog post, or email Agnes Balla at

Agnes Balla is a first year Master’s in Public Policy student at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Health and Social Policy.  She is a candidate for Masters in Public Policy. 

[1]Lang, T., Barling, D., and Caraher, M. Food Policy: Integrating health, environment and society. New York, NY: Oxford University Press 2009, Pg. 21. 

Thoughts on the Health Insurance Exchange

State health insurance exchanges opened across the country on October 1st, but how much do you know about what’s going on? Dr. PG Forest, newly appointed Director of IPS, and MPP alum Ernest Le, Outreach Consultant for Healthy Howard, were asked to share their perspectives about the exchange. They each listed three elements of the health insurance exchange that every health policy student should know. 

Dr. Pierre-Gerlier Forest, director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Health and Social Policy:

1. Read about what’s going on. First and importantly, I think everyone should read the New England Journal of Medicine article entitled “Only the Beginning – What’s Next at the Health Insurance Exchanges?” (13: 369; Sept 26, 2013). I have found this to be one of the most helpful papers published on the creation of health insurance exchanges. It is co-authored by Henry Aaron, who I consider among the very best social policy experts and writers in the U.S. I am truly amazed by how clearly and insightfully he writes.  This paper is important because Aaron and Lucia give you everything you need to know about what’s going on in just three pages. 

2. This is a perfect opportunity to learn. I’m intellectually excited about health insurance exchanges because I see it as a fantastic occasion to learn. Insurance exchanges are among the most sophisticated social technology of our time. To be at Johns Hopkins at this time means that we get to witness implementation at its best and see important social and health transformations. In paying attention to implementation, we can see where the needs are, how people behave, and where problems truly hide.  For example, are the problems we currently see political or technological?

Some of the implementation occurring, however, is not always intuitive. Kentucky, for example, decided to implement health insurance exchanges independently by using pieces of bureaucracy already existing within their state. This is like piecing together a car from used parts: clever, but we won’t know if it works until several years down the road. Vermont also implemented health insurance in a different way. In the long term, the state would like to build a made-in-USA system as close as possible to single payer, and decisions that are made now could either facilitate or delay the achievement of this overarching goal. Decision makers are making very interesting choices and it’s all happening under our very eyes. What an incredible time to learn! 

3. State level policymaking is just as important as federal decision-making. In America, experts tend to pay attention to national and city level policymaking while neglecting state level actions. We have a lot to learn from paying more attention to state governments because their choices will impact an incredible number of people. States are taking interesting steps in implementing health insurance exchanges and we need to heed their decisions. (This may be my Canadian bias where we focus on what goes on in each province, not just national policies.)

Ernest Le, Outreach Consultant for Healthy Howard:

1. Policy is not just about passing the right laws. In fact, the passage of a law is only the beginning because implementation matters just as much. Different states have taken different approaches to implementing the ACA ranging from outright hostility to full-throated support, and I believe in the months and years to come, we will clearly see a difference among the states in health outcomes and cost savings.

2. Most people are not paying attention to policy even though it can profoundly affect their lives. You can see this clearly in the work that I do. My job title is "Outreach Consultant" which means I do all the things that are involved in informing people about the ACA and how they can enroll in its benefits. Even in places where most people support the ACA politically, I've seen a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance about the law. Public policy students should understand that even if they manage to do some good in the world, most of the people whose lives they touch will never know it. Maryland will consider it a huge success if they enroll even a third of all the uninsured people in the state, and nobody thinks we will get 100% of the people who are eligible for benefits under the ACA.

3. Policy is imperfect and must always be improved. I'm not referring to the hiccups associated with the launch of the ACA. There is a laundry list of things even the biggest supporters of the law would like to change. You could argue for example that the tax penalty for not having insurance is not big enough. A lot of people would like offer coverage under the ACA to undocumented immigrants since they also place a burden on the American medical system when they get sick. Assuming the ACA doesn't get repealed wholesale, the challenge in the coming years will be to identify the ways it needs to be changed.

Food Deserts and Improving Nutrition in Baltimore

 In a recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Baltimore City was ranked as the least healthy municipality in the state of Maryland (you can find the report here). Much of this is attributable to high rates of premature death and obesity and these problems are specifically concentrated in food desert communities. While there are several definitions and variations around food deserts, it effectively means there is a lack of access to health food in the community. Food desert neighborhoods also have higher rates of poverty, higher rates of mortality from diet-related disease (like Diabetes, Heart Disease, Stroke, and Kidney Disease), and lower life expectancy. These problems are especially prevalent in the senior community, because of an additional lack of mobility. Most importantly, these diseases are frequently preventable. For more about what the food desert in Baltimore look like check out the Center for A Livable Future’s information here.


Summer project in the Pueblos Jovenes of Lima, Peru

 Each year, the Program in Latin America Studies at Hopkins provides a competitive travel grant to students interested in researching topics related to Latin America. With this grant, I traveled to Lima, Peru this past summer, where I conducted an exploratory, survey-based project looking at the development in Lima over the last 5 years. Peru has had the second highest GDP in Latin America in the last 10 years and I was curious to know more about the pueblos jóvenes (as the slums are called in Lima) and how they are experiencing the growing economy. 

Since the 1950s, Lima’s population has been growing dramatically. Between 1981 and 2007, Lima has doubled in size and now contains almost 9 million people--or 30 percent of the country’s population--within the metropolitan area. Although Latin America has been leading the pace in urbanization, the entire world is now more urban than rural as of 2007.

The trajectory of urban development in Lima is both interesting and worrisome.  Due to high demand for living near Peru’s economic hub, a lack of housing has left families resorting to invading empty public territory, sometimes on precarious land, in the periphery of the capitol city.  The lack of housing has been caused by bad public policy as a result of push back from traditional residents of Lima who did not want rural residents living in the capitol. The government also made attempts for the public sector to build homes for the poor, but building enough homes for over 2 million people is extremely difficult and costly. In the 1970s, another approach was actually pre-planning the invasions into small plazas; the result of which can be seen on Google Maps in the district of Villa El Salvador.  These strategies are no longer used.


With Common Core Assessments, It's Time to Prepare for Doomsday

As we get closer to Common Core State Standards implementation in most states, the buzz around education policy blogs and newsletters is becoming edgier. The ESEA waivers and Race to the Top have given states an opportunity to proclaim their grand aspirations. “All students will be proficient in reading and math by 2020!” “We will close all achievement gaps!” These and more like it are indeed noble goals. But we have planned ourselves into la-la land – patting ourselves on the back before the rubber meets the road. That’s about to change.

Next academic year, New York will become the next of the first series of states to administer a statewide standardized test based on the Common Core standards. With the new assessment and higher expectations, scores will drop. Let’s not allow ourselves to think that teachers and students will somehow be able to adopt new standards and master them (teaching them and learning them) in one year. It’s not going to happen. And as long as we know this, expect it, and are prepare to recover, that’s perfectly okay.

Let’s take a look at what happened in Texas and Kentucky when they implemented more rigorous state standards. Texans had a heart attack when the new STAAR assessment results (not aligned to Common Core) were released this year. It looked for a while like the state legislature was going to repeal the new standards. The government had a panic on their hands, which distracted from the end goal of teaching and learning.

In Kentucky, education leaders anticipated, to an extent, that they would see scores drop. They warned people. The public still recoiled when the result came out, but educators and politicians had braced for it. They had their gut check, they rallied, and the focus remained where it should be: on the kids. 

Besides, scores would drop in New York even if the new tests were less rigorous. For the five years, teachers have been learning from and teaching to the test, and students have been getting used to the questions, the structure, and what is required of them. A new test takes all of that away, and teachers and students will need to become accustomed to the changes regardless of the level of difficulty. With adjustment will come improvement.

We hope – and assume – that scores will increase because students are learning more as well, but it’s useful to remember that we need to allow our educators and students to find their groove with a new system. The best New York and everyone else can do is anticipate the initial struggle, help our educators and students take it in stride, and let more rigorous standards lead to more learning for students.
Duncan Robb is a second year graduate student at the Johns Hopkins Instiute for Policy Studies.  He is a candidate for a Masters in Public Policy. 

Check Cashing Facilities and Illegal Immigrant Labor

Instances of policy failure are often due to lack of consideration of unexpected outcomes, such as negative spillover effects, improper implementation, or corruption.  Sometimes, these outcomes can do more harm than the policy’s intended good. However, a policy’s unexpected outcomes can also benefit the society. For example, the policy of allowing businesses to operate check cashing facilities has helped satisfy the demand for unskilled labor in the construction industry to a large extent.  


Social Policy Seminar with Stephen Parente: Audio and Presentation

On Thursday October 18th, the Social Policy Seminar Series continued with a talk from Stephen Parente, MPH, MS, Ph.D. entitled "The Evolution of Health Care reform: Are We There Yet?" Dr. Parente is Minnesota Insurance Industry Chair of Health Finance in Carlson School of Management and the Director of the Medical Industry Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota. If you could not make it to Dr.Parente's talk, you can enjoy it virtually with his slides and an audio recording of his talk. Unfortunately due to a recording error, only the first 48 minutes of his talk were recorded.

The Social Policy Seminar Series is presented by IPS, the Department of Economics, and the Department of Health Policy and Management. Go
here for a schedule of upcoming seminars.

The Real Lobbyists of Baltimore City

 Are lobbyists a cancer on the political system or valuable advocates for their clients? Are they a source of corruption or are they necessary professionals making the system work? Probably my favorite session of the Policy Process course last year was when Professor Lee Drutman told us about his experience working for a US Senator and meeting with lobbyists who wanted input into the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. In his opinion, lobbyists don't have nearly as much influence as the public thinks. 

So I was very interested when I found out that the Bloomberg School of Public Health was hosting a panel of practicing lobbyists who could tell us what the profession is really like and how they view their role in the system. This panel consisted of Barbara Brocato, Robin Shaivitz, Lisa Harris Jones, Frank Boston, and Pegeen Townsend — all lobbyists working in the Maryland state government.  The moderator was Dan Morhaim, M.D., a delegate to the Maryland General Assembly who also serves on the faculty at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. 


Social Policy Seminar with Ingrid Gould Ellen: Audio and Presentation

On Thursday September 20th, we kicked off the 2012-13 Social Policy Seminar Series with a talk from Ingrid Gould Ellen, Ph.D. entitled "What Explains Population Growth in Cities and Neighborhoods?" Dr. Ellen is a Professor of Public Policy and Urban Planning at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service, and co-director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Public Policy. If you could not make it to Dr. Ellen's talk, don't worry. You can experience the seminar virtually via audio recording here and Dr. Ellen's slides here.

The Social Policy Seminar Series is presented by IPS, the Department of Economics, and the Department of Health Policy and Management. Go here for a schedule of upcoming seminars. The next event on the horizon is an exciting Press and Public Policy Seminar from Adam Davidson, who writes "It's the Economy" for the New York Times Magazine and co-hosts/co-founded Planet Money on NPR. Davidson's seminar is entitled, "The Massive Gulf Between What Economists Know And Politicians Say About the Economy." Join us Thursday, October 11th, 2012 from 4:30-6:00pm in the Shriver Hall Board Room on the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus. RSVP to 


My Summer Internship: Research for the Forest Collaborative

This summer, I had a wonderful three months working at RESOLVE as a policy research intern and completed my first-ever independent research – exciting, rewarding, and unforgettable!

My paper is a case study on the amount of public participation training in accredited forestry degree programs in New Brunswick, Canada. The working group within the Sustainable Forest Community-University Research Alliance (a.k.a. “Forest Collaborative”) asked me to research and answer the following question: Are there enough courses provided in New Brunswick to engage forestry students in public participation and to prepare them with necessary skills to work in the forest planning industry? The answer to this question will help the working group propose solutions for enhancing the region’s forest planning.

When I was first assigned to a group of Canadian stakeholders discussing forest planning and public participation, I literally had no idea what they were talking about. It took me almost two weeks to get familiar with terms like “collaborative efforts” and “public engagement.” It took me another two weeks to absorb all the other information I needed, including the state of forestry education, forestry planning practices, and the geography of  Canada (I did hang a huge map in my office and it’s still there). Meanwhile, I started designing the survey and began conducting phone interviews. I ended up spending more than a month talking to about 20 Canadian scholars, educators, foresters, and government officials over the phone – the first-hand notes I took in the one-on-one interviews really helped me develop the structure of my research! Thanks to their diverse perspectives, I was able to have a broader view of the issue.

Two months after I first stepped into the office, I had read and heard enough about what the issue was – enough to get me started writing.  The information I had collected, however, was just so overwhelming that I didn’t even know where to begin. My supervisor, Juliana Birkhoff, spent a lot of time helping me get on the right track. To provide a model for my paper, I looked up the work of others who have done similar analyses; some scholars from the Forest Collaborative team generously provided me with their previous working papers as references. The actual writing time was not as long as I thought it would be – it helps to have a concrete idea of what you would like to say! My lovely RESOLVE co-workers helped me review the draft paper, as did the group members of the Forest Collaborative. You can view the final version here.

Cathy Xuege Lu is a second year student at Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.


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