Friday, December 15, 2023

Santa might get whole milk for Christmas, but students will not; one U.S. senator stymies the bill

The battle over whole milk in public schools
will continue. (Canva photo via Farm Journal)
U.S. dairy just got a promotion followed by a demotion. The U.S. House of Representatives "overwhelmingly voted in support of the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act," reports Taylor Leach of Farm Journal. "The bill revises the requirements for milk provided by the National School Lunch Program of the Department of Agriculture and permits schools to offer students whole, reduced-fat, low-fat, and fat-free flavored and unflavored milk." That was good news for the dairy industry, but once the bill got to the Senate floor, it stalled.

Whole milk and reduced-fat milk were banned from school menus in 2012, a decision the USDA based on "the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans available at the time," Leach writes. "The update included restricting school milk choices to unflavored low-fat, flavored fat-free and unflavored fat-free. Milk consumption in schools dropped significantly as a result."

Seeking to broaden dairy offerings, in 2017, the USDA changed its original decision and "allowed exemptions to school nutrition standards so they could serve flavored low-fat (1%) milk," Leach reports. "USDA implemented those standards, which were in place when the pandemic hit, and continued allowing flexibility in the program to ensure schools could offer nutritious meals amid pandemic-related supply chain issues."

After the bill's House victory, U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall tried to get "unanimous consent on the Senate floor. . . He began his speech drinking a glass of whole milk," reports Chris Clayton of Progressive Farmer. "The senator pointed out that water and milk are the only drinks allowed on the U.S. Senate floor. . . . But his effort was quickly thwarted by the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman, Sen. Debbie Stabenow."

"Stabenow said she supports the dairy industry and called the debate on whole milk 'a really important conversation,'" Clayton writes. "Still, Stabenow indicated government policy over school meals shouldn't come down to which commodity garners support among lawmakers. . . . Stabenow added USDA is in the process of updating school-meal standards." Stabenow told the floor: "Intervening in that process, I think, creates a very unfortunate precedent and will lead to other ideas and options that may be coming forward about individual products."

Since the 2012 ban, the dairy industry has used research to debunk whole milk's "unhealthy" reputation, but the ban has remained. This year, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are being updated for 2025 release, and milkfat research is under scrutiny. Alice Callahan of the New York Times recently discussed milkfat research outcomes with Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Tufts University. She reported: "Most studies on the health effects of dairy fat have failed to find any benefits of prioritizing low-fat versions over whole, Mozaffarian said, noting that what seems to be more important than the level of fat is which dairy product you choose in the first place."

At last, the first electric vehicle charging station built with federal infrastructure funds opens in Ohio

The charging equipment at the Pilot Travel Center in Ohio.
(Photo by Dan Gearino, Inside Climate News)
The promise of federal funding for electric vehicle charging stations has finally come to fruition. "On the western outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, two doors down from a Waffle House, is a truck stop that, as of last Friday, has the first electric vehicle charging station in the country to be financed in part by the 2021 federal infrastructure law," reports Dan Gearino of Inside Climate News. "The Pilot Travel Center at I-70 and U.S. 42 has four charging ports. They are part of a partnership between General Motors and Pilot that the companies say will lead to chargers being installed at 500 Pilot and Flying J locations."

It's a first step with many more installations to go. "Ohio was one of the leaders in securing a share of this money and stands to receive $140 million over five years to construct charging stations along major travel routes," Gearino writes. The federal government is "showing progress in turning $5 billion worth of charger funding into completed projects." Charger expansion is critical to moving U.S. transportation away from gasoline dependence.

Building EV charging stations at a national truck stop chain offers travelers off-road conveniences for travelers and helps dispel "concerns from some EV drivers that the nation's charging network isn't nearly robust enough," Gearino reports. 

Pilot has other chargers at 18 locations in nine states, with ongoing expansions throughout the country. "The Ohio location is the first of those to benefit from the federal program," Gearino adds. "The country had 141,714 public charging ports as of the end of June, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. . . . Many more federally funded chargers will follow the one in Ohio." The National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program lists projects in Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine and Pennsylvania.

California wants to use electric school buses statewide; leaders of rural schools don't think that's realistic

Students board a diesel school bus at Lassen High
School. (Photo by Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times)

Electric school buses might be an environmentally friendly transportation solution for more urban California, but its rural education leaders don't think the technology is safe or reasonable. "In California's vast northern rural school districts, with their mountain passes and long, snowy winters, the typical electric bus' range is not nearly enough," reports Hailey Branson-Potts of the Los Angeles Times. "Yet California is pushing schools to get rid of their air-polluting diesel buses. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation requiring all newly purchased or leased school buses in California to be zero-emission starting in 2035. Rural school districts can have up to 10 additional years to fulfill the requirement if they can prove the vehicles are impractical for their routes and terrain."

Wikipedia map
Rural educators do not think EV technology will match their needs even with the added 10 years. Lassen Union High School is located in Susanville, a remote town in corner of northeast California. District Superintendent Morgan Nugent told Branson-Potts: "The last thing we want to do is have kids stuck on the side of the road in a dead electric bus. Especially in the snow. We want to do our best for our environment. We live up here in the mountains. We want to see our resources protected. But we have to be realistic."

"In a state facing wildfires, droughts, extreme heat and other deadly consequences of the climate crisis, California lawmakers and air regulators have implemented some of the world's most aggressive electric-vehicle mandates, to be phased in over the next two decades," Branson-Potts reports. "But here in California's conservative northern reaches, residents say that urban Democrats like Newsom are failing to acknowledge the limitations of electric vehicles in rural areas. . . . Going electric will be tough for all rural residents, considering the long distances they drive on lonely roads. For the humble yellow school bus, the hurdles are even greater, as are the consequences of running out of juice in the middle of nowhere."

While rural California educators often support clean energy, they also accept that it may not be possible. Gabi Newman, a coach at Lassen High, told Branson-Potts, "I like that we're looking at ways to use renewable energy. I just don't know how practical it will be for us." Branson-Potts reports, "At the Lassen Union High School District, officials say their four battery-powered buses can go at most 93 miles on a full charge in peak weather conditions. The buses mostly stay parked."

Rural people aren't more Christian than urban folks, a new survey shows what influences church attendance

The idea that rural Americans are more devout Christians than their urban counterparts might be popularly accepted, "but the numbers just don't support that stereotype," reports Sarah Melotte of The Daily Yonder. "Factors like income, race, partisanship, age, and education influence religious attendance more than geography does."

That doesn't mean religious people don't live in rural areas, but the picture of pious, rural residents vs. secular urbanites isn't accurate. Melotte reports: "Only 54% of rural Americans identify as Christian, according to the Cooperative Election Study , a 50,000-respondent national annual survey. That's about the same share of the metropolitan population that identifies as such. About 51% of respondents who live in metro counties said they were Christian, while 36% of both rural and metro people said they were atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular."

Even when residents identify with a faith, it "does not directly equate to religious-service attendance," Melotte writes. "Fifty-seven percent of rural respondents said they either never or seldom attend church or another type of religious service, while only a quarter attend at least once a week. Attendance among metropolitan respondents isn't much different."

"Despite stereotypes, geography doesn't do a good job of telling us who participates in organized worship each week," Melotte explains. "Religious attendance instead falls along other demographic lines." Click on graphics to enlarge.

Partisanship: "The biggest differences in attendance are between Democrats and Republicans, not rural and urban," Melotte writes. "Forty-one percent of rural Democrats and 40% of urban Democrats say they never go, while never-attenders among Republicans only comprise about 21% of both rural and urban respondents.

Income also plays a substantial role. "Unemployed and lower income people go to religious services less often," Melotte reports. "Only about 15% of both rural and urban unemployed respondents said they go at least once a week, compared to the quarter of total rural and urban respondents who said they go that often."

Race is also a factor. "White respondents go to religious services less often than people of color," Melotte adds. "Only 24% of white rural respondents and 21% of white urban respondents attend at least once a week, while almost 30% rural people of color and 26% urban people of color go that often. In rural and urban areas, 28% of non-white respondents never attend, compared to the 35% of rural white and 37% of urban white people who never attend.

Church attender age is mixed. Melotte reports, "People who attend religious services at least once a week are slightly older than other respondents, especially in rural areas. The median age of people who attend at least once a week is 57 years old in rural areas, and 55 years old in urban areas. . . . People who attend once or twice a month, on the other hand, are younger than the other groups. In rural areas, the median age of people who attend once or twice a month is 49 years old. In urban areas, the median age is 46 years old." 

Educational level and attendance is a bit of an outlier. "In the previous examples, we saw that the gap between urban and rural attendance was insignificant compared to the gap between other demographic groups," Melotte reports. "But when it comes to education, we see a bigger divergence between rural and urban people and their rates of attendance.

"For rural respondents, the higher level of education, the more they attend religious services. But educational attainment among urban respondents doesn't have as big of an impact on attendance as it does on rural ones."

 All graphs by Sarah Melotte, The Daily Yonder, from CES national survey data collected by the Harvard Dataverse. 

Government officials often try to keep public records secret, and then taxpayers have to pay for the misdeeds

Nate Jones, FOIA Director
Nate Jones of The Washington Post explains what he and other journalists do when government officials refuse to turn over records and tallies what that resistance can cost taxpayers. Below is an excerpt from the latest installment of his "Revealing Records" series.

"If government officials refuse to release public records, they can be sued in court to force disclosure — and even ordered to pay the legal fees of the requester.

"That recently happened after a Post reporter requested the disciplinary records of a prominent D.C. police officer" who had been charged with two counts of sexual activity with a minor. "District officials denied the requests. But The Post sued in D.C. Superior Court, and a judge determined city officials had violated the D.C. Freedom of Information Act. He ordered the city to disclose the records and pay The Post's reasonable attorneys' fees and costs, as required by the D.C. FOIA statute. That reimbursement eventually totaled $70,347.48, as disclosed in a public court filing.

 Photo by Marissa Vonesh,
The Washington Post
"Nationwide, local and state police records are some of the most difficult for members of the public to obtain. Although each state has its own public records law — most of which were modeled after the federal Freedom of Information Act — state legislatures have carved out strong exemptions that block public access to many law enforcement records. Departments often refuse to release records based on exemptions for 'investigatory records' or 'personnel files.'

"Even when states have changed laws to make specific types of police records available, as in CaliforniaNew YorkMaryland, and Virginia, officials have resisted. . . . Last year, D.C.’s elected leaders took their own steps to ensure public access to police disciplinary records. The D.C. Council passed the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Amendment Act last December, and it became law in May after President Biden vetoed congressional efforts to block it.

Jones wrote that "the primary reason that the Post seeks fees in this and other cases is to make government officials understand that there are consequences for improperly withholding important records from the public."

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Data on chicken production might save companies and consumers money; critics say it helps corporate collusion

Chicken data is at the heart of the anti-trust suit.
(Graphic by Emil Lendof, The Wall Street Journal)
Versatile, affordable and packed with lean protein, chicken is a popular American meal. And while "winner, winner, chicken dinner" may delight families, a battle is being fought over the meat's data

"When Brian Snyder looks at a bag of chicken nuggets, he doesn't see dinosaurs. He sees numbers — data detailing the nutrition and quantity of the feed the birds ate, and how much it cost for workers to slice each pound, reports Patrick Thomas of The Wall Street Journal. "Snyder runs a company that has become a critical player in the meat industry. . ..The company, Agri Stats, gathers and synthesizes reams of data to help meatpackers make decisions based on spreadsheets versus managers' gut instincts.

"The firm's data has been described as the 'Moneyball' of the meat industry, referencing the Michael Lewis bestseller and Oscar-nominated film about data analysis revolutionizing baseball," Thomas explains. "Agri Stats and poultry industry executives say its numbers-crunching service boosts efficiency and helps keep prices low for consumers."

Not everyone believes that Agri Stats exists to benefit consumers. "Others say Agri Stats does the opposite, serving as a vehicle that has allowed meat and poultry companies to coordinate operations and push up prices," Thomas reports. "The Justice Department alleged in a federal antitrust suit filed this fall that meat-industry executives use Agri Stats to glean details about rivals' supplies illicitly and scale back production to keep profits high."

Agri Stats is fighting the suit. "Its executives say its reports don't show clients how much chicken their competitors produce, or prices a company plans to charge," Thomas writes. "Plaintiffs argue that Agri Stats data, such as the number of egg-laying hens a company is placing on its farms, enables savvy readers to gauge rivals' future production, and that companies don't use Agri Stats reports to lower prices."

"The government investigated Agri Stats a decade ago but filed no charges, and Agri Stats executives say its reports haven't changed since then," Thomas reports. "In a separate lawsuit filed by food distributors, supermarkets and consumers accusing chicken companies of conspiring to fix prices, a judge this past summer removed Agri Stats as a defendant. . . . Agri Stats client list has at times included 97% of the roughly $60 billion U.S. chicken industry and 80% of pork processors."

Transforming wastewater directly into drinking water might sound 'yucky,' but experts say it could work well

A wastewater purification system.
(Photo by Matt Vasilogambros, Stateline)
Toilet water repurposed as drinking water has one major challenge -- the 'yuck' factor. "After an Orange County resident flushes her toilet, the water flows through the Southern California community's sewer system, meanders its way to the sanitation plant, has its solids removed, is piped to a wastewater recycling facility next door and undergoes three different purification processes until it is clean enough to drink," report Matt Vasilogambros and Kevin Hardy of Stateline. After some sips from the sampling station, Mehul Patel, executive director of operations for the Orange County Water District's project, told Stateline, "It tastes like water. . . . It's just like any other water, but it's gone through a lot. People shouldn't judge where it came from, but where it is now."

Patel's sanitized water is not being sent as drinking water to any customers. "No large community in the U.S. is taking water from toilets and transforming it directly into clean drinking water right now," Vasilogambros and Hardy explain. "But the demonstration might offer a glimpse of the future, as states and communities across the country design new plants that will do just that, giving communities more control over their water supply as the climate gets drier. . . . And officials face some pushback from skeptics concerned about the high costs of advanced purification systems and from a public not used to the idea of drinking what was once their own waste."

The town of Castle Rock, Colorado, which lies east of the Rocky Mountains, has been using the technology and is on a path to sending it to consumers. "Directly recycling wastewater into drinking water will eventually allow residents to hold onto more of their precious water supply. . . . The town will be able to recycle its municipal water over and over at a water treatment plant that was upgraded in 2021," Stateline reports. "While the plant already has the capability, it's not sending treated wastewater directly to customers yet; it will likely take three to five years to meet new regulations on potable reuse announced by the state in January. The rules include a full year of water quality monitoring and a community awareness campaign before implementation."

In parched Kansas, the idea may take a while to gain traction. Jason Solomon, a technical assistant at the Kansas Rural Water Association, thinks "direct wastewater recycling is likely a ways off in Kansas given its stigma and costs," Stateline reports. "But [he thinks] it's an idea worth considering with recent droughts threatening drinking water supplies even in the traditionally wettest part of the state." He said, "Why don't we just take it directly from the wastewater plant? Why would we put it back in the river? It's going to get dirtier in the river."

Rural county in Idaho highlights the 'tug-of-war between education professionals and extremist culture warriors'

Priest River, where the West Bonner County School District is headquartered, spans Lake
Pend Orielle in the North Idaho panhandle. (Photo by Joan Morse, The Hechinger Report)

As extremists aimed to gain school board leadership positions in an Idaho community, moms with diverse backgrounds in West Bonner County tried to keep public schools in the hands of community members versus outsiders with political agendas, reports Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report, which covers education. "The national infection facing public schooling — the tug-of-war between education professionals and extremist culture warriors — has brought chaos and damage to West Bonner County. After this past school year ended, the superintendent acknowledged that 31 percent of teachers, counselors, and education leaders left the district, and scores of parents pulled their children, opting for homeschooling, online learning, or enrolling in another district."

Community dramas over Covid-19 vaccines and masks, English curricular choices, and LGBTQ+ issues have played out in West Bonner. "Some people overlook school board skirmishes, seeing them as trivial. For (Candy) Turner, (Dana) Douglas, and many in the West Bonner County School District, they are anything but. It’s not about Democrats versus Republicans (Turner is a registered Democrat; Douglas is 'a proud conservative Republican). It’s about the viability of public education in their community," Pappano writes. "What has happened in West Bonner County offers a warning to public school supporters elsewhere. Douglas, Turner, and others are fighting to restore normalcy to an institution that should not be up for grabs — but is."

Extremist Facebook rage and heated personal debates undid a community that once thrived with care, Pappono reports. "People filled in the gaps when it came to local needs, from sending groceries home with some children over weekends to teachers helping students brush their teeth or spending extra hours with struggling readers," Pappano explains. "But that spirit is now being tested by extremists who see a soft target in a stressed school district."

While the county's school dramas have unfolded over the last couple of years, some normalcy has been restored -- but only through a determined group of community members willing to fight. Margaret Hall, the current school board chair who faced a far-right challenger, told Pappano: “We’ve been the canary in the coal mine. What has to happen is people have to wake up and decide, ‘We don’t want someone to come in and tell us what we want. We want to decide ourselves.'"

Writer finds that gratitude is a feeling and an 'ethical choice'; but she says there's also a darker side

Gratefulness can be a 'spiritual practice.'
One writer didn't like the social implications of "gratefulness," but as she worked to embrace the practice, a different picture of what the experience is emerged. "For the author of a book on gratitude, Diana Butler Bass has what might be a surprising admission: Gratitude didn't come naturally to her," reports Erik Gunn of the Wisconsin Examiner. Bass published Grateful, her 12th book, five years ago. But before writing it, 'I would not have considered myself a naturally grateful person,' she says. 'I always struggled with cultivating gratitude, or even trying to understand why I should.'"

Exploring different angles of what she described as a "spiritual practice," Bass "came out of the experience 'realizing that gratitude is both a feeling — one that arises naturally as a response to beauty or wonder or an unexpected gift — and it's also an ethical choice'. . . . Nevertheless, writing the book pointed her to evidence that historically, gratitude has had a darker side. It has often been part of a system of hierarchy, she writes, that reinforces social divisions and solidifies power in the hands of a few at the expense of many. "

Bass has been a "leading liberal Protestant chronicler of contemporary American Christian thought as it intersects with culture, politics and generational change," Gunn reports. "Her research for Grateful began in 2015 and kicked into higher gear when she saw a survey reporting that 78% of Americans told pollsters they felt 'strongly thankful' in the previous week. That astonished her. She'd read research about the beneficial impact of gratitude. Yet in political surveys leading into the 2016 presidential election year, she saw little evidence of that sort of outcome."

The darker side of gratefulness exists from the transactional experience many Americans have of giving. "In American culture especially, . . . .'(w)e think about it as a transaction — somebody gives me something, and I have to do something in return. There's a real quid pro quo mentality that we've attached to gratitude. . .. . Besides being transactional, this sort of gratitude system also has a hierarchy. 'Benefactors are richer, better, more moral,' she says, acting out of a sense of obligation, with the implicit superiority that carries."

As the holiday season speeds past, how can gratefulness become an experience that isn't linked to hierarchy? Gunn writes, "Bass says, as a form of personal spiritual discipline, gratitude can be a call to social justice on behalf of everyone, everywhere, at a time when social ties are fraying and severed."

Quick bits: Christmas trees are big business; revival of the Cherokee language; growing tomatoes with less water

Holiday boughs cash in around $3 billion
a year.(Photo by Mourad Saadi, Unsplash)
Oh, Christmas tree, Oh, Christmas tree, How lovely is your profit margin! Chopped, bought or pre-decorated, Christmas trees are big business. "The markup on Christmas trees is around 400% to 500%. That's about the same as a pair of designer jeans or a drink from a hotel minibar," write Jay L. Zagorsky and Patrick Abouchalache for The Conversation. "Multiplying the $80 to $100 price by the 15 million natural trees and 20 million artificial trees sold in 2022 means Christmas trees are roughly a $3 billion business annually — without including any extra money spent on the decorations."

Kansas is so parched that drought covers nearly three-fourths of the state. This past summer was brutally hot and arid, but there are a few drops of good news. "The Kansas Geological Survey reported groundwater levels in the High Plains Aquifer could be sustained for at least one decade in moisture-imperiled areas of western Kansas through pumping reductions of 18% to 32%," reports Tim Carpenter of Successful Farming. "The aquifer, the state's most economically important groundwater resource, published a report summarizing regional conditions and options for prolonging the life of the aquifer."

A documentary still. (Photo by ᎤᎶᎩᎳ /
Schon Duncan via The Daily Yonder)

The Cherokee language faced extinction until younger generations decided that saving it was vital to preserving their cultural identity, reports Kim Kobersmith of The Daily Yonder. Kobersmith interviewed ᎤᎶᎩᎳ / Schon Duncan, a proud member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, a Cherokee language activist, and co-director of the feature-length film ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak) to discuss the film's history. Duncan said the film showcases Cherokee activists, artists and educators efforts to revive and teach the Cherokee language. To learn what this "new wave" of Cherokee speakers is doing, click here. To watch for new film screenings coming in January/February 2024, click here.

Peace and political opinions don't always go together, but the shared pull of the harvest and a reunion celebration help this rural couple in Chickasaw County, Iowa, come together, offers Jose A. Del Real in his Washington Post immersive read. "Rage wasn’t Verna’s style. She believed in decency. She believed in nurturing community, not sowing division. Her life was animated by gentler questions than the ones at the heart of national politics in 2023: What do people owe one another? When can the past teach us something about ourselves, and when does it blind us to the present?"

There aren't enough tomatoes to go around.
(Photo by Fernando Andrade, Unsplash)
What would french fries be without ketchup? What about hot dogs? Researchers in California don't want Americans to find out. "In the heart of one of the world's top vegetable-growing regions in California, scientists are on a mission to save ketchup," reports Patrick Thomas of The Wall Street Journal. "Plant breeders at the Woodland, Calif., facility of German pharmaceutical and agriculture giant Bayer are testing whether tomatoes meant for processing into pizza sauces and ketchup can survive on a fraction of their traditional water needs, without sacrificing taste or juiciness. . . . Bayer’s tomatoes are one example of how the agriculture industry is now trying to stay ahead of a changing climate that could disrupt the food supply chain and drive up prices for consumers.


Wednesday, December 13, 2023

States work to prepare for 'substantial' federal broadband funding; some are further along than others

Values are in millions of dollars. (Map by The Conversation US, CC-BY-ND, from NTIA data)
It has been two years in the making, but the federal government is about to funnel $42.5 billion for broadband to states as part of the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program signed in 2021. "The program aims to ensure that broadband access is available throughout the country," writes Brian Whitacre for The Conversation, a journalism platform for academics. 

The awards are big, with 19 states receiving more than $1 billion, and the "average award across the 50 states is $817 million," Whitacre explains. Once federal money is sent to states, they can begin their internal contracting processes, which, from start to finish, will take several years. "States are also in something of a race with one another: The first ones to the funding can get money to the private sector, which can begin hiring from the limited pool of technicians capable of installing fiber optic cables."

The BEAD program aims to connect an estimated 11.8 million locations, which includes "households and businesses, both rural and urban that are considered either unserved or underserved," Whitacre adds. "Each state's plans for how to get broadband service to those locations must be approved by the overseeing organization, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. States' initial proposals can be viewed online." Proposals must outline contingency and affordability planning.

(Map by The Conversation US, CC-BY-ND, from NTIA data)
To track each state's progress, the federal government recently released a dashboard, Whitacre writes. "The dashboard includes eight steps each state or territory must complete before getting the first 20% of its promised allocation. As of Nov. 15, 2023, most states had completed four of the process’s eight steps. Only three states – Louisiana, Nevada and Virginia – had finished six or more steps. Notably, Louisiana and Virginia had broadband offices up and running for at least three years prior to the passage of the infrastructure legislation in 2021."

States that share water from the Colorado River are working to balance the needs of farmers and cities

Upper Division: Colo., N.M., Utah and Wyo.
Lower Div.: Nev., Ariz. and Calif. (Wikipedia map)
Contention over how to share water from the Colorado River has rankled seven Western states and the federal government for more than 100 years. The stakes have only increased in recent years. "The future of the American West is quietly being hashed out in the conference rooms of a Las Vegas casino this week," reports Annie Snider of Politico. "Just across the strip from the Bellagio's fountains, in the shadow of an enormous Eiffel Tower-knock-off, negotiators from the seven states that share the Colorado River are racing to reach a deal on how to share the West's most important — and shrinking — waterway."

Over the past 20 years, climate change and drought have shrunk the river's flow by more than 20 percent, and "the only question now is how much worse things will get," Snider writes. "The negotiations over how to share the pain of bringing water use in line with the shrunken waterway will have huge implications for the 40 million people who rely on it at their taps in metro areas. . . as well as for the powerhouse farming operations that use roughly three-quarters of the river's water to irrigate some of the country's most productive agricultural land. Also on the line are the interests of 30 federally-recognized tribes along the river and the 11 national parks and monuments it courses through, including the Grand Canyon."

Colorado River Basin (Wikipedia map)
Politically, the conflict is a "landmine for the Biden administration, which has taken a much more aggressive approach with the affected states than its predecessors," Snider reports. "The sharpest pain will be centered on the three lower river states: Arizona and Nevada — two crucial political swing states – and California, home of the Democratic Party's most deep-pocketed donors and whose governor is widely believed to harbor presidential ambitions."

The roil doesn't stop there. "Especially contentious is the fault line between farmers, who typically hold the most protected rights to the river," Snider explains, "and the urban areas that are states' economic engines and are home to their voting bases, but are first in line for water delivery cuts under the century-old legal regime that governs the river."

This past year's record snowpack melt, paired with a three-state agreement to "conserve water over the next three years in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal funding, have headed off the disaster for now," Snider reports. "But crafting new rules to govern the river through a much drier future beginning in 2026 will be exponentially harder." 

Rural housing report highlights the lack of affordable housing for many; renting is the most expensive

More than half of rural residents under age 35 rent.
(HAC graph, from Census Bureau data)
While rural residents are more likely to be homeowners, many don't own homes and struggle to find affordable housing to buy or rent. To gauge how the market is going, the Housing Assistance Council, better known as HAC, just released its "Taking Stock" report, which "uses data gathered over the last decade to paint a picture of the lives of the 60 million folks who call rural America home," reports Lia Kvatum of The Daily Yonder. "The report also includes historical data covering the last half century and beyond that shows how things have changed over the years — for better and worse."

The report shows the lack of affordable housing is a growing national problem, but it also looks at "trends and issues important to rural people, places, and housing." Kvatum adds, "The report lays bare some rather sobering statistics for small towns and rural areas in particular."

  • One-quarter of all rural households spend more than 30% of their monthly income on housing. More than 40% of those are renters.
  • Rural renters of color are the hardest hit.
  • Housing costs have increased dramatically over the last few decades, and the Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated the problem.
  • The number of banks across rural America has decreased by half since 1995.

HAC's Director of Research and Information Lance George told Kvatum, "More than half of all FDIC-insured banks are actually located in rural areas. But . . . most lending activity is concentrated within a few, typically larger banks. Fewer banks just means less access or longer commutes to access these services."

The report examined the current rural housing rental market, which is already expensive, and predicted costs would continue to increase. "About a quarter of occupied rural homes are rentals. And the rental market can be tight because of a lack of affordable properties," Kvatum explains. 

Still, the news was not all bad. "Most rural Americans live in safe and affordable houses, as has been the case for many decades; most own their own homes," Kvatum reports. "There's been a steep drop in the number of households that don't have plumbing—in 1970, 14% did not have plumbing. By 2021, that number was less than 1%."

Full-fat milk may not pose health risks; new studies show the type of dairy is more important than fat content

A rainbow of cap-colors indicating varied milk-fat content is
available at U.S. grocery stores. (Photo by Bobbi Lin, NYT)
Experts have touted the health benefits of low-fat dairy products for decades -- they had all the nutrition without the saturated fats most people should avoid. However, new studies suggest this advice may need to be revised. "That guidance goes back to 1980, when the first edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was published, according to Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Tufts University," reports Alice Callahan of The New York Times. "And since then, most studies on the health effects of dairy fat have failed to find any benefits of prioritizing low-fat versions over whole, Mozaffarian said, noting that what seems to be more important than the level of fat is which dairy product you choose in the first place."

Longitudinal studies show that dairy consumption has health benefits, and choosing higher-fat dairy products is not harmful. "In one study published in 2018, researchers followed 136,000 adults from 21 countries for nine years," Callahan reports. "They found that, during the study period, those who consumed two or more servings of dairy per day were 22 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease and 17 percent less likely to die than those who consumed no dairy at all. Notably, those who consumed higher levels of saturated fat from dairy were not more likely to develop heart disease or die."

Harder cheese may be healthier to eat than softer
offerings. (Harvard Health blog photo)
While these studies are not clinical trials, "shorter-term trials have shown that consuming dairy products, including full-fat dairy, lowered the blood pressure of participants and did not increase weight or raise levels of LDL, or 'bad cholesterol' — again suggesting that dairy fat is not harmful to heart health," Callahan explains. Marie-Caroline Michalski, a research director at the French National Research Institute, noted that yogurt and cheese "appear to be most associated with health benefits. . . . harder cheeses like Cheddar and Parmesan also seem to result in a more gradual absorption of fats into the blood than softer cheeses and butter, which can help you feel fuller longer."

The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans will be out in 2025. In September, Roberta Wagner, senior vice president for regulatory and scientific affairs with the International Dairy Foods Association, "provided oral testimony to the 2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee — a panel of 20 nutrition and public health experts tasked with providing a scientific report to inform the federal government's next update to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans," the IDFA's website says. Wagner's testimony "stressed that 90 percent of Americans do not consume enough dairy to meet dietary recommendations, according to the 2020-2025 DGA report. Wagner urged the committee to maintain nutrient-rich dairy foods as a central part of a healthy diet, and she stressed that new science shows that limiting dairy based on fat level — as current guidelines recommend—does not lead to better health outcomes."

Opinion: The number of U.S. suicides is unacceptable, so we need a new approach to address the problem

Suicide rates are at an 80-year high.
(MedPage Today photo)
In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared this grim data: "In the past two decades, suicide rates have been consistently higher in rural America than in urban America." National suicide statistics are even more dire: Last week, the CDC reported that U.S. suicide deaths reached an 80-year high. While there was a "modest" improvement in youth data, the report pointed to a national suicide crisis. With that backdrop, Russell Copelan, a retired emergency department psychiatrist, suggests a new approach in his opinion for MedPage Today.

"Consider the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's aspirational goal launched in 2016, to reduce the annual U.S. suicide toll by 20% by 2025. Since the initiative began, there has instead been a 10% increase in suicide deaths. We should be nothing short of appalled and dismayed by these numbers.

"Perhaps it is now best to consider the advice of Davy Crockett to young hunters: 'Whenever a fellow gets bad lost, the way home is just the way he don't think it is.' The field of suicidology is indeed 'bad lost.' We are in urgent need of a new 'way home.' So let's get out our compasses and make directions based on where we are standing, our present state.

"Here is a starting point. Saving life is difficult. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Well, in suicide prevention and research, everyone is trying to do it. And yet, the escalating press of self-directed death marches on. For foundations, alliances, and associations, the definitional issues, fragmentary data, ubiquitous risk training. . . and entrenched leadership make it difficult to determine a true North Star. . . . It is currently equivalent to the blind leading the blind -- and falling in a ditch.

"Ideation-centric assessments have continued to be promoted as 'best practices.' Under mounting evidence of insensitivity to risk, statistical inefficiencies, unreliable patient recruitment. . . confirmatory bias, should these assessments continue to serve as surrogates or the 'gold standard' in suicide risk evaluation? None of these instruments have been sufficiently accurate.

"Where is the proactive management to identify the root causes of our current and miserable predicament? Where is the preparatory understanding of the basic elements of the 'map' that could have empowered the field of suicidology to stay found?

"Let me ask again: Is conventional suicide prevention practice good enough? No. Unequivocally, no! What medical specialty would tolerate such a recurring -- indeed '80-year high' -- disaster?

"The topic of suicide is complex, complicated, and dark, and attempting to systemize and communicate improved risk probability stratification is considered by many either too difficult or a lost proposition.

"But you must fight with implacable doggedness, challenge old laws, and test new hypotheses. Demonstrate the miracles of good sense, connected observations, and strong convictions. Maximize your cause and seize your direction."

To read the theory and practice of Copelan's "new way home," click here.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

U.S. rail gets an infusion of cash from Maine to Alaska; projects will include new or improved tracks in rural areas

Department of Transportation map via Route Fifty

Almost every state will receive federal money to build or improve its passenger rail, reports Daniel C. Vock of Route Fifty. "President Joe Biden, known for decades as the Senate's most loyal Amtrak passenger, unveiled his administration's vision for a more robust passenger rail network throughout the country, with more than $8 billion in funding for big-ticket projects and grants for better service in nearly every state." The administration has ignored criticism that many Americans don't use rail enough to warrant that amount of funding.

While many allotments will go to bigger cities, more rural areas will also glean new or improved tracks. "The administration will spend nearly $94 million to add capacity to Chicago's Union Station. . . $27 million to upgrade tracks used by Maine's Downeaster Amtrak route and $15 million to eliminate bottlenecks in Montana," Vock writes. "The so-called Corridor ID program’s planning grants include proposals to upgrade 15 existing rail routes, add or extend service on 47 new routes and develop seven new high-speed rail projects, according to the administration."

The administration is also pushing to "lay the groundwork for future passenger rail upgrades," Vock adds. "The Federal Railroad Administration is giving half a million dollars each to 69 projects in 44 states to help with planning for service expansions. . . . Some of the ideas — like restoring service through the southern tier of Montana — have been talked about for decades. Colorado is getting money to plan service along the Front Range, linking many of its major cities."

States can refuse the federal money, but those that accept it are more likely to have a history of passenger rail support, Mike Christensen, the executive director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association, told Vock. "The vast majority of proposals receiving funding have been preceded by years of grassroots organizing that ultimately culminated in the proposal."

Opinion: Sell this national treasure to the National Park Service, not the highest private bidder

Pronghorn migrate through the Kelly Parcel, Wyoming.
(Photo by Savannah Rose, Writers on the Range)
A potential public auction of a coveted piece of land within Grand Teton National Park has outraged some Wyoming residents who feel the pristine 640 acres should remain a public holding. "Simply put, this small inholding, known as the 'Kelly Parcel,' should never be privatized — never. It is one of the most awe-inspiring and important pieces of open space remaining in America," writes Savannah Rose in her opinion for Writers on the Range. "Its borders include the National Elk Refuge and Bridger-Teton National Forest. Its value was appraised in 2022 at $62.4 million. However, the director of the Office of State Lands and Investment just recommended a starting bid of $80 million."

The money aside, Rose insists that privatizing the Kelly Parcel threatens wildlife that has thrived there for centuries. '"The land is a vital migration corridor for elk, moose, big horn sheep antelope, pronghorn, and mule deer traveling into and out of the national park. It also hosts 87 other 'Species of Greatest Conservation Need'. . . . And the annual, 200-mile-long migration corridor known as the Path of the Pronghorn — from Grand Teton National Park to the upper Green River Basin — passes right through the Kelly Parcel at the crux of what’s recognized as the longest mammalian migration in the contiguous United States."

"Wyomingites have been resolute in their opposition to selling the state-owned parcel. The publicity generated by the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance collected more than 2,600 comments from people opposed to an auction, and hundreds of opponents turned out at each of four public hearings in November. Many others contacted the state directly for a total of more than 10,000 people opposed to a state auction," Rose writes. 

Auctioning off the Kelly Parcel would provide $4 million a year for Wyoming public schools. But at what cost? Rose writes, "There is a better approach. Selling the parcel to the National Park Service — as Wyoming did with its other three parcels within the park — is projected to generate up to $120 million over 30 years."

State officials recently tabled the Kelly Parcel auction until 2024. "But the State Board of Land Commissioners didn't take the idea of an auction off the table," reports Billy Arnold of Jackson Hole News & Guide. "In the meantime, they will explore swapping the Kelly parcel for other federal lands in Wyoming specifically for oil and gas development."

Better known as Roundup, glyphosate is found in pregnant women who live near farms, study finds

Herbicide drift is one possible explanation for the
study's findings. (Photo by Eric Brehm, Unsplash)
Considered the world's most commonly sprayed weedkiller, glyphosate, sometimes sold under the name brand "Roundup," is a suspected cause of  serious health concerns. New research found pregnant women "living near farm fields show 'significantly' increased concentrations of glyphosate weedkiller in their urine during periods when farmers spray their fields with the herbicide," reports Carey Gillam of The Guardian. "The research team said the findings were concerning, given recent studies that have found gestational exposure to glyphosate is associated with reduced fetal growth and other fetal problems."

The study yielded some surprising results, Gilliam writes, "because none of the women studied worked with glyphosate or other herbicides or had a household member who worked with weedkillers, said Cynthia Curl, associate professor at Boise State and lead author on the paper. Curl couldn't account for how the women were exposed and questioned whether herbicide drift, soil particle adhesion, house dust or drinking water were to blame. She told Gilliam: "Until we figure that out, we can't suggest the right interventions."

For the study, researchers from the University of California, the University of Washington, Boise State University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention included 40 pregnant women in southern Idaho and took into account their proximity to farms using glyphosate. "In those living near the fields, glyphosate was detected both more frequently and at much higher concentrations during the months when farmers were spraying glyphosate than during the periods when they were not spraying," Gilliam reports. "Those participants living farther away still showed glyphosate in their urine, but the frequency and concentrations stayed relatively unchanged throughout the year."

Philip Landrigan, director of the Program for Global Public Health at Boston College, told Gilliam, “Sadly, I am not surprised that pregnant women who live near fields sprayed with glyphosate have elevated levels of glyphosate in their bodies during the spraying season. This situation is analogous to the elevated exposures to benzene, 1,3-butadiene and other toxic plastics chemicals that have been documented in women who live in ‘fenceline’ communities.”

Gilliam adds, "Though glyphosate has been on the market for more than 50 years, it is only within the last few years that researchers have started to document the extent of human exposure."

New antibiotic rules paired with rural vet shortage leave livestock producers struggling with care

Cattleman Rollin Head finds the new antibiotic guidance
and vet shortage a challenge. (Photo by B. Haynes, FP)
To stem antimicrobial resistance in livestock, the Food and Drug Administration moved to transition most livestock antibiotics from over-the-counter to prescription only, leaving some food animal farmers in a lurch because there are not enough rural veterinarians, reports Betty Haynes of Farm Progress.

The FDA's Guidance for Industry 263 (GFI 263) began about six months ago. "Part of that guidance says livestock producers have to establish a veterinarian-client-patient relationship or VCPR. Nikki Johnson, veterinarian and Illinois State Veterinary Medicine Association president, says livestock producers should be proactive about establishing a VCPR because it's now required by law. A VCPR is valid for 12 months, allowing the veterinarian and livestock producer to work together on a herd health and emergency plan for farm visits or telemedicine consults."

In theory, that sounds like good medicine, but some farmers have found it difficult to manage. "For Rollin Head, Blue Mound, Ill., GFI 263 plus the rural vet shortage has pressured him to change how he handles and administers antibiotics," Haynes writes. "Although Head has a relationship with his veterinarian, he's resorted to performing most of his own vet work because the nearest vet clinic is often constrained by time and staffing limitations. Head says recently he's also been fighting vaccine backorders — adding another layer of frustration and forcing him to frequently change his vaccine protocols."

Head told Haynes, "I know these restrictions were put in place to eliminate antibiotic misuse, but it's a hindrance for cattlemen. If there isn't a vet in your area, that creates a pretty big problem since time is of the essence when treating cattle."

There is some proactive work that Head has found helpful "for livestock producers navigating the realities of vet oversight," Haynes reports. Head's best practices include:

  • Establish a VCPR so both parties understand the farm's location, needs and animals.
  • Communicate quickly when emergencies occur so vets can schedule accordingly.
  • Maintain a proactive vaccination protocol to reduce unnecessary illness.
  • Invest in good facilities so vets can safely and efficiently perform farm visits.