A Follow-up to the School Lunch/’Local Food’ Debate

Caitlin Hartsell in the comments:

It’s all well and good to link to articles that show that nutritional foods benefit children… I don’t think Sarah or anyone else would really disagree with you there. But I don’t see any studies in your list that say that local food is more nutritious or better for students than food from a distance, which is the point that Sarah made. Your entire argument and objection to Sarah’s posts is useless without that. (I explain it better in a blog post where I made the argument in the other direction: local foods are less likely to be grown in optimal climates with good soil and their freshness and potential nutritional content is not improved and potentially worsened as a result of the “local” emphasis: http://www.showmedaily.org/2010/02/buying-local-not-always.html)

While you make nice arguments for nutritional food, they do not address anything Sarah says at all. Her objection is not to local foods in and of themselves, but to districts forcing it upon their students as the only option. The real issue here is giving children access to healthy foods, whether they come from Missouri or California or South Africa. An undue top-down emphasis on locality is (as Sarah put it) protectionist and subverts the real issue of nutrition.

I noted earlier that part of the problem when we talk about ‘local food’ is that not everyone means the same thing at the same time. Functionally, the term is used in a way that doesn’t exclusively include spatial distance. What is typically meant is to distinguish food that is part of one system (processed, national distribution, industrial production) from other systems that reject one or all of those parts. When I say ‘local food’ I generally am talking about food that isn’t produced using industrial methods on large factory farms. I certainly don’t mean foods that are entirely processed, like refined sugar, or spam, or the mystery meat patties served on so many ‘hamburgers’ in schools. Those foods are typically distributed on a national scale to capture efficiencies of scale in branding and transportation. So in a sense you’re right. The spatial distance between where a food is produced and consumed isn’t always a strict indicator of quality. But the people who use the phrase ‘local food’ mean more than strict spatial distance when they’re using the term meaningfully.

So there are three more issues that are relevant in answer your comment. The first is that your comment that ‘local food’ is less likely to be grown in optimal climates which means we  don’t get to maximize freshness and nutritional content is specious at best. It’s specious because it doesn’t happen. Farmers who expect to sell to local populations try to forecast precisely so that doesn’t happen because that is where their paycheck comes from. And the other argument is that the drive towards processed foods based on industrial agriculture means that our food networks are optimized for production of those foods (corn, sugar, wheat, etc) which has a crushing effect on the production of other indigenous edible food. Local farmers have a variety of things they can and could produce that are optimized for their region and climate. This book has a good list of those indigenous foodstuffs. If you’re in Missouri, you might visit some local or regional producers, like Patchwork Farms, or Chert Hollow Farms, and actually talk to farmers who make these decisions. I have actually done this through work at local restaurants and in later work in vineyards around the state. I claim that my assessment of these systems is empirically superior to Sarah Brodsky’s armchair hypothesizing.

The second issue you don’t seem to get is that I’m making a distinction between industrial agriculture and agriculture regimes that aren’t predicated solely on maximizing yield. Earlier I referred readers to literature on the nutrition and genetic dilution hypotheses, which state generally:

  • Maximizing yields means maximizing water weight at the expense of nutritive content
  • Selection for strains focuses on plant systems that maximize yield while crowding out selection for the systems that provide and generate nutrient content.

Both hypotheses have extensive empirical grounding going back at least 25 years. Whether or not you agree with those hypotheses they are fundamental issues at the heart of this debate that Brodsky never addresses (I don’t think she is even aware of their existence). I’ll address your specific claim here as well. Your claim that distance and nutritional content are not strictly related might be true but the argument I am making is that it is the producer and manner of production that is the true indicator of quality foodstuffs. So yes, tomatoes from California might be cheaper than tomatoes produced in Columbia in mid-winter but that’s a misleading comparison; local Columbia farmers are not selling tomatoes right now. The choice the market should be making available to me is a selection of Californian tomatoes where I can discriminate by production method because that’ll give me accurate nutrition information. Unfortunately the market rarely makes that information available. Earlier I noted that locally produced foods have one huge advantage over foods distributed nationally: consumers are far better placed to evaluate quality and safety of local foods as opposed to nationally distributed foods, the safety and quality of which are regulated by ineffective and incompetent federal regulators. Brodsky doesn’t address this argument at all.

Brodsky is a linear thinker, not a non-linear thinker. She tends to make arguments that justify the status quo without realizing the path-dependent nature of the interactions between agriculture policy and market conditions.  For years our government has restricted the ability of smaller producers to sell their products locally and impeded their access to national distribution. For years our government has doled out huge amounts of production subsidies to large agribusiness. My argument is that Brodsky’s emphasis on ‘provide our children cheap food’ misses the point that all the cheap food we feed our children in schools has large implicit costs in terms of agricultural production and academic achievement and health outcomes that we are only just waking up to. There are numerous instances where Brodsky completely misreads articles where the people making these decisions (school nutrition counselors, district supervisors, etc) say things like ‘it’s expensive and difficult to change the quality of the meals we provide but it’s worth it’. Most notably there’s that post where she mocks an organization of kids in New Orleans who are trying to make their schools serve them good food, which I find unbelievably arrogant and offensive.

Finally, Brodsky fundamentally misses how these changes are happening. They are systemic and grass-root. Go through the articles she’s posted on the subject and count the number of low-level local functionaries who are referenced. Widespread changes in consumer preferences are being filtered through school boards, state and local agricultural boards, and slowly through the USDA. Laws that serve to close the market to small local producers are being overturned. It is a slow process but it appears that consumer preferences are evolving. This is not a process being driven in a top-down fashion. It is a systemic change in consumer preferences that is expressing itself through nonlinear interactions on many levels between a variety of public and private institutions.

Finally, you make the claim that you object to districts forcing ‘local food’ as the only option. My claim is that the status quo is defined primarily by school districts forcing children to eat heavily processed foods, low in nutritional value. This is currently their only option. I will defend that forcing children to eat ‘local food’ is far superior to the status quo, where millions of children are served crappy lunches that tend to look like this.

I also make another policy recommendation earlier that one possible solution is to increase competition in the lunchroom by allowing cafeterias to face competition from private vendors. This is a simple solution, because school boards can set some kind of mandate that meals provided by private vendors have to have some minimum nutritional content and so you can experiment with what is possible.

And hey, Walmart is getting into the game. I claim that’s evidence that my argument that consumer preferences are changing is true.

A final thought: I don’t make the food miles argument or any argument about carbon production but the distribution chain is one example where nonlinear thinking yields insights that linear thought does not (essentially the idea that the costs of inputs here are best thought of in non-linear not linear terms).

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3 thoughts on “A Follow-up to the School Lunch/’Local Food’ Debate

  1. “mocks”

    You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

  2. S/A says:

    Would you be in favor of getting rid of school lunch programs in wealthy districts since the food stuffed refrigerators at home are presumably better food sources for the kids than the school cafeteria?

    Now the real bit.

    In what appears to be to the first entry regarding this (http://ducksandeconomics.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/against-sarah-brodsky-ii-the-libertarian-choice-for-school-lunch/) you link to one Show-Me Daily post by Sarah Brodsky. This post really had nothing to do with what was served for lunch. The point of the post, which you seem to have missed entirely, is that Sarah was disappointed to see that lunch was what was being changed in New Orleans since lunch is not the most important element in education. It does not matter what you feed the kids, if the rest of the educational experience is subpar. You then from one sentence in her blog post extrapolate a whole world of viewpoints for Sarah that you aren’t even providing evidence she has.

    School lunch is pretty standard throughout public schools. Schools in wealthier districts will have more options (in different lines) for the kids that have money to spend on it but there is still the basic lunch. My freshman year of high school I got the chance to go to Clayton High School. (Clayton is an affluent suburb of St. Louis, MO.) My father was attending Concordia Seminary, which is located within the Clayton school district, and we lived on campus. My family had no income during this time. We had food bank food at home, and at school I received free lunch. (Which would occasionally get me odd looks from bussed in desegregation kids who had reduced price lunch.) It was the same weird rectangle pizza, apple, and why are they always giving us fluorescent corn, lunch that we’d had in every other district I’ve lived in and I moved a lot growing up. (Although, being high school, there was now a sandwich instead of hot item choice and I usually took it.) My food all around left a lot to be desired, but Clayton was a GREAT school. Two years after that I was at an alternative school in Michigan. That school was too small to have a cafeteria and so for the lunches you could order a deli sandwich in the morning and it would arrive at lunch hour looking like a corporate boxed lunch. Fresh fruit, real leaf lettuce, turkey that had obviously been cut up from a bird not sliced and stored in whatever the hell prepacked store lunch meats are stored in. Even the milk was better, and it came from a dairy that was literally outside of the city. My home food situation had improved as both myself, and my father, now had incomes. The alternative school was not a good school, and that’s being incredibly generous. Sure most parents and kids would like the better lunch option, regardless of how that is defined, but when it comes down to it school lunch doesn’t matter. When your English teacher cannot correctly use “lose” and “loose”, when your History teacher spends 3 days each week of class time talking to a student about cars and throws on movies the other two, and your Literature class can’t get copies of books for all the students, having what looks like corporate boxed lunches is irrelevant. There are so many things that trump lunch on a list of priorities for good education that seeing lunch being highlighted and being disappointed as Sarah was, is a natural reaction. This is not to discourage that program, but to suggest that focusing on getting quality educational choices available to poor students is more important than getting them quality food, because in the future they’re going to be eating low quality fast food while working dead end low-paying jobs, while their counterparts with better educational opportunities are eating low quality ramen noodles in college.

  3. [...] first off, is my response to Caitlin Hartsell’s post. It contains a great defense of local food; I point out that what school lunch advocates want is a [...]

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