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.