In defense of Jonathan Sessions, re: Sarah Brodsky

I anticipate this post will get a fair amount of attention, so a little background first.

Jonathan Sessions is a friend of mine who owns a local tech firm (Tech 2). He’s a young, intelligent person, who has a very focused and particular vision of how Columbia Public Schools should adapt for the future. I have donated both time and money to his campaign and encourage you to vote for him in the Columbia city elections April 6th.

Jon was recently interviewed by the Columbia Tribune regarding his thoughts on school lunch. Here is the relevant excerpt:

Tribune: Do you feel a responsibility as a school board member to ensure school lunches include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fewer high-fat, high-sodium and sugary foods?

Jon Sessions: It is clear to me that CPS Nutritional Services has made a priority of, and is already delivering, school lunches with whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Fullum recognizes the correlation between healthy eating habits and fighting diseases like heart disease and diabetes. Nutritional Services is working with vendors to provide food and educational opportunities from local food producers and farmers to reduce the impact CPS has on the environment and to educate students about where their food comes from. I believe these food and educational opportunities will help students creating healthy eating habits. The board needs to support Fullum and her team’s plans to continue to provide nutritious meals for our students.

This seems reasonable, does it not? Treat school nutrition as a learning opportunity; buy high-quality local foods when we can afford it; weigh the environmental impacts of different food options; support and incentivize healthy eating. These are all ideas that I strongly believe are important after years of research and advocacy on the subject and I commend Jon for having an intelligent perspective on the subject.

But there are people who disagree with me (and Jon). One of them is Show-Me Institute blogger Sarah Brodsky, who has this to say about Jon’s comment:

The assertion that local food is superior for environmental reasons comes up often in local food debates. To understand why districts should not conflate local food with environmentally friendly food, I recommend reading Caitlin Hartsell’s excellent post about why growing food closer to consumers is not always better.

In addition to in his claim that local food is better for the environment, the candidate says that purchasing food locally will teach students where their food comes from. I don’t know how he expects the food to do that. From the students’ point of view, food from Missouri looks the same as food from Illinois or food from Indiana. Of course, teachers could point out to students where the food originated from, and they could conduct lessons on where the food was cultivated and harvested — but they could do that just as well if the food came from a different state. In fact, if the place where cafeteria food is grown is to become a subject of study, it might be better to buy food from a distance. That way, students can learn about a place with which they wouldn’t otherwise become familiar, instead of focusing their local area, which they already know something about from experience.

Here, 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 shift from over-processed, nutritionally deficient foods to fresh produce and nutritionally ‘whole’ foods that are more likely to be available from local farmers and producers than anywhere else. The underlying message is that we shouldn’t be skimping on food for our most valuable assets: our children.

The second argument I’ll make is directed at Brodsky’s second paragraph, where she mocks Jon by saying “I don’t know how he expects the food to do that (teach).” Well, Ms. Brodsky, I don’t think either Jon or I literally claim that the food itself can teach…typically teaching is a task performed by human beings, not inanimate objects. More generally, Brodsky unfairly discounts the educational value of a curriculum that draws on local history and commerce to ground the abstraction of subjects like nutrition and well-being in the general (and local) context of farms, factories, and business relationships. Buying local food for school lunches is a smart way to take advantage of locally available resources to provide contextual education in everything from mathematics to history to biology. It is also critically important to provide education about health and nutrition because healthy, well-adjusted adults are part of the reason why we have schools in the first place.

Finally, I’ll note that I am really disappointed that the Show-Me Institue continues to subsidize scholarship of such poor quality. It is apparent to me that Sarah Brodsky does not do basic research on important topics before she posts atrociously reasoned and ignorant advocacy on subjects like Parents as Teachers or school lunches. It is also apparent to anyone who reads her work that Brodksy routinely misreads and misinterprets the work of honest advocates for her own use. Nor is Brodsky responsive to criticism; I’ve published several thousand words worth of work on this subject alone and have yet to receive a fair, intelligent response.

Addendum: Here might be my most important post on school lunches; it is a rough survey of the literature. Included is this must-read paper from Emily Ozer on school gardens and nutrition and education from Health Education and Behavior in 2006.

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5 thoughts on “In defense of Jonathan Sessions, re: Sarah Brodsky

  1. Caitlin Hartsell says:

    What is this grudge against Sarah Brodsky? We get it, you don’t like her posts. But within the 15 or so posts where you personally attack her, you have yet to make a compelling case against her. Show-Me Daily is a blog, not a policy study. Sarah has written policy and case studies and I encourage you to read those for the scholarship that you crave, and agree to disagree about food.

    First off, I think it is rather bold to refer to your own post as “a great defense of local food.” It matters not what the intention of local foodniks is, but the result. I am sure they intend to bring healthier food to schools, but local food is not the only way, nor the best way.

    I hadn’t thought it necessary to defend my previous post in the comments of your “great defense of local food,” since I believed my work spoke for itself. In case it wasn’t clear enough, I too cited a local Missouri farmer. From his article, which I linked to on my blog:
    Local food isn’t always fresher, either. The cooperatives that collect, process, and distribute milk schedule pickups according to the size of the dairy. Driving a truck from the plant to the farm is expensive, so large dairies’ milk is picked up daily, while smaller dairies may only see the milk truck a couple of times a week. Here in Missouri, milk reaches the store more quickly from the large dairies in the Southwestern states than it does from small local dairies. If Missouri consumers want to support local dairies, and I hope they do, their milk won’t always be as fresh as milk that has traveled farther.
    Local food may have the of being . I understand that spatial issues are not the only issue when determining locality, but it is a part of the equation. I understand you disagree with big farms, etc, but “organic” farms have many issues of their own. It’s difficult get affordable food using 19th century farming practices, and organic foods can have issues like pest problems and underdevelopment.

    Here’s what we all agree on: Schools should have nutritious food available. You think that means that the schools should only have local food, whereas we have argued that should not preclude other equally (or more) nutritious foods. That is the real issue here; Sarah and I have made it clear that we have no issue allowing local to be an option, it is when it is mandated by a higher authority that it be the only food option that it’s an issue.

  2. Caitlin Hartsell says:

    Correction to above comment: “Local food may have the of being .” should have been deleted (and the quote above it is in block quotes, if that’s not clear)

  3. Eapen Thampy says:

    I don’t have time for formalities as I have students about to arrive, so here are a set of direct responses.

    1. Blogging exists somewhere on the continuum that is scholarship. EX: It certainly is scholarship when Richard Posner blogs. The Show-Me Daily is a blog that represents itself in many important ways as scholarship, ref. your several excellent discussions of the fair tax. When you’re representing stuff as if it were scholarship, there are some norms that we try to adhere to. Specifically
    a. Represent your opponent’s work correctly, that is, don’t take sentences and lines out of context.
    b. Don’t make up stuff. Specifically, don’t make claims about “no research exists on this point” or “they have to prove this and they haven’t” when the research on that point exists going back 20-odd years. At the least, if you’re going to say that your opponents haven’t any research to back them up, it’s your burden to ensure the factual correctness of that statement. If not, you’re using a public forum to misrepresent both the state of the science as well as the work of lots of people. That’s not fair.

    I try to adhere to those two principles. If I get something wrong, I want it to be clear to other people that the mistakes and ignorance are mine alone.

    2. My posts are good. I’ve been writing, researching, and advocating for this subject for years.

    3. You did cite a local Missouri farmer. And your argument makes sense. But your issues are not the issues I’m talking about. Your argument is that the infrastructure doesn’t exist to ensure that local milk gets transported as efficiently as imported milk. Your claim is about the nature of the infrastructure of milk distribution, which is exogenous to the discussion. In any case the infrastructure is changing rather rapidly as national retailers start integrating their distribution channels with more local producers.

    4. We are not really talking about milk here. In fact, I don’t particularly care what kind of milk children get or where it comes from as long as it’s safe. I do strongly care that schools across the nation stop their reliance on large industrial producers of meat and over-processed foods. Buying local when available and integrating local food producers into the pedagogic chain is what I advocate as a solution.

    5. There are literally no mandates or proposals I am aware of or that Sarah has found that fit your “higher authority that it be the only food option”. No advocates literally support 100% of that statement and it misrepresents a lot of people’s advocacies to say so. This last post is a good case: we are talking about school board candidates who reference the internal workings of Columbia public schools. No one is talking about state boards of education enforcing statewide norms and the federal debate concerns increasing funding to schools. If anything, the action on the federal level lately has been to remove restrictions on buying local food (yes, there were restrictions on what kind of food schools could buy that heavily favored industrial processed food that no longer exist).

    It was unfair of Sarah to misrepresent what Jon Sessions said. If you parse her work you’ll notice that she misrepresents things often without doing basic fact-checking.

  4. Eapen Thampy says:

    Here’s my post where I call Sarah out for misrepresenting an article about an elementary school’s decision to shift to local food in their cafeteria.

    If you really care about honest work and outcome based evaluation of school lunch programs, I think it is worth reading

  5. […] An astute reader notes this April 2010 post where I defend the then-candidate Jon Sessions from a spurious attack from Show-Me Institute policy […]

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