Sarah Brodsky on School Lunch: Consumer Preferences = Protectionism

I’ll write a longer, more exhaustive post, but Sarah Brodsky’s latest post at the Show-Me Institute has me boggled with how inane and wrong-spirited it is. In it, she responds to an article in the Christian Science Monitor noting the following:

As Farm to School expands to include products like meat or cheese, it gets harder for supporters to justify the program as anything but protectionism. The appeal of local fruits and vegetables is easier to relate to. Anyone’s who’s eaten delicious fruit right off the tree can sympathize with activists’ support for local produce. (At least, we can sympathize in the early fall and late spring. Activists still have to explain how local produce is superior during the rest of the school year, when very few fruits or vegetables are harvested. Many will say to preserve the local food in the fall — but is locally preserved food really better than food that was preserved somewhere else, or shipped in fresh?)

Protectionism refers to the top-down trade policies of nations looking to protect domestic industries through tariffs or import quotas. Neither of these are the case. What is the case is that schools are working hard to transition from unsafe food low in nutrients to safe foods high in nutrients; often these are locally produced produce and meats. There is no restriction on the availability or price of market alternatives.

Further, Brodsky’s armchair theorizing is inane and worse than useless. Of course it’s true that there are seasonal variations in what is available. But it’s wrong-spirited to criticize the people who are making those decisions for making the rational calculations that say that it is worth it to them to begin transitioning their consumption in ways that take advantage of what is available locally when they can. Perhaps Brodsky should call the fourth-graders cited in the article and tell them that they should be eating industrially produced meat that may have high levels of bacterial contamination that they can’t easily monitor but is available for a lower price than local meat.

And Brodsky ignores what the article in the CSM actually says. Here are some excerpts:

The students are learning to eat healthier, and the focus on agriculture, local food and nutrition is paying off in the classroom, says principal Barrett Williams.

Kids are interested, and teachers are given more diversity in the curriculum — they can work the food angle in science, reading and health classes, he says.

“That really changes kids’ perspectives on the traditional reading, writing, math, science, social studies,” Mr. Williams says. “If they can see that they are meeting writing standards through doing a response to their cooking activity that day, you know, that means something to them.”

But activities like the farm field trips are what Williams really likes.

“A student who may struggle with a textbook — sitting down and reading text and responding to text — may excel going into a place-based activity,” Williams says. “Whether it’s visiting a farm or going on some type of field trip and having a hands-on experience, and then being able to respond to that through writing.”

Working with local farmers helps build community, he says, although that food may be more expensive than the commodity food that some schools use.

The grant helped to buy at least 200 pounds of ground beef from Back Beyond Farm in Chelsea, which cost about a dollar more per pound than hamburger from an area distributor, Perry says. But Vermont apples are cheaper than apples from other states, she says.

The school has raised money for the program by hosting a winter farmers’ market.

I am honestly stunned that the Show-Me Institute pays for this quality of scholarship. Brodsky’s argumentation is not even coherent, nor is it based on any educated or thoroughly researched framework. Brodsky simply does not like the idea that school districts are re-evaluating their school lunches and consider the investment in better meat and produce to be worth it; indeed, she characterizes this expression of consumer preferences as protectionism! Nor does she compute the implicit benefits of better academic achievement or the economies of scale that are generated when the school invests in multi-use programs like these.  And one would think Brodsky should know better: she is either a student or a graduate of a Masters program in economics at Loyola, which means at some point she’s been taught how to parse information and research at a graduate level.

I want to specifically note that I don’t deny the infrastructural problems or the issues that face school districts looking at their cafeteria as a place where improvement is drastically needed. Sensible debate can be had over food policy, from agricultural subsidies to nutrition to the constraints that schools operate under. Indeed, I had a great discussion about subsidy policy yesterday with an engineer friend, Eric Lefevre. But Brodsky’s analysis and argumentation are poor and patronizing. Indeed, most of her posts cite articles that are selectively interpreted for her purposes because they draw the opposite conclusion.

I don’t mean to discourage readers from the rest of the Show-Me Institute’s writers. Dr. Haslag, a former professor of mine, has some very useful and worthwhile advocacy in support of switching from a state income tax to a state sales tax here. The coverage of the Northside trial by Audrey Spaulding  is absolutely worth reading if you are interested in eminent domain and land use politics in this state. David Stokes covers the politics of contractor work in St. Louis (a fascinating and worthwhile read). But Brodsky’s advocacy is embarrassingly useless and I hope it doesn’t discourage people from thinking seriously about the benefits of feeding our children well.

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6 thoughts on “Sarah Brodsky on School Lunch: Consumer Preferences = Protectionism

  1. “the investment in better meat and produce”

    Your attacks on Sarah all suffer from this very basic mistake. A focus on local food has nothing to do with quality food. Local food may or may not be “better.” If better food is wanted, focusing on locality is a mistake. Your conflation of quality and locality is also a mistake, and your imputation of nonexistent motives to Sarah is embarrassingly useless.

  2. Eapen Thampy says:

    I’ll concede that there are a variety of things that people mean when they talk about local food. However, generally speaking, locally produced food is quality food. Functionally the debate is whether we should continue using nationally distributed foods (mainly processed) versus food produced by smaller producers who don’t attain the high yields of industrial agriculture. You do not address the fundamental arguments: local food is better because consumers have easier access to the information needed to assess quality and regulation is a market-based process, whereas industrial agriculture’s quality is regulated by ineffective national regulatory agencies; that industrial agriculture is poor food regardless, because high yields result in nutrition dilution and are often processed in ways that strip nutrients from products; because the shadow costs of the misallocation of resources caused by a nation that can’t feed schoolchildren well are massive. You may reference my last two posts on the issue for cited authorities on all of those points.

    Finally, every advocate for local food consumption that I am aware of makes the argument that local food is quality food, so an empiric assessment of your first claim that local food has nothing to do with quality food is belied by the fact that everyone who advocates local food talks at length about quality.

  3. Agricultural subsidies and the externalities that arise from industrial pollutants are terrible, no doubt. I’d favor nearly any plan that would reduce or eliminate outright such subsidies. Correcting for externalities is much more complicated, but it’s still a worthy goal.

    This tells us nothing, however, about what food procurement policies should be for schools. School districts, especially in poor areas, aren’t in a position to expend extra resources to serve as social activists in an attempt to correct political or industrial errors that have been made elsewhere. If districts have a responsibility to feed their students, their job entails finding the best quality food at the lowest price, so that they can devote more of their limited resources to educating their students effectively. If the market has already been distorted so that food from one location is higher-quality/less expensive than might have been the case in a counterfactual world without such distortions, a school with limited resources should choose the higher-quality/less expensive option from that distorted market rather than trying to singlehandedly reinvent the non-distorted counterfactual market.

    A preference for buying local (for whatever ideological reasons) is a luxury consumption good. People can choose to buy local, if they want, in an attempt to reshape the agricultural market through marginal action, whether as individuals or through a group that has been persuaded to act in concert. But that choice is costly. I don’t object to this form of luxury consumption, although I suspect it’s an ineffective long-term or large-scale strategy. I do object, however, when partisans of that type of higher-cost consumption cement it as policy for others.

    The ideal solution would be to end agricultural subsidies and streamline legal procedures that would help correct externalities more efficiently, whether through Coasean transfer payments or court action, and then see who really has a comparative advantage at producing quality food. In the meantime, though, schools have to feed their kids good food at an affordable price. If they can get that affordable quality food from nearby producers, great. If it comes from the other side of the nation or another continent, that’s fine too. Quality and price should be the key considerations, and neither of those factors have a consistent correlation with locality.

  4. Also:

    “Finally, every advocate for local food consumption that I am aware of makes the argument that local food is quality food”

    This says nothing about whether the argument is correct.

  5. Eapen Thampy says:

    Eric, I’ll respond to these comments later, but these are vastly more intelligent arguments than the ones Brodsky makes. I will note that I have yet to see a single empiric on your claim that quality and price have a consistent correlation with quality and the claim is non-responsive to a number of arguments I make on that front.

  6. […] Sarah Brodsky on School Lunch: Consumer Preferences … […]

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