Tag Archives: Show-Me Institute

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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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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Against Sarah Brodsky On School Lunch: Our Moral Obligations and a Libertarian Alternative

Our national school lunch program has a very dear place in my heart. I advocated increasing funding to the program as an affirmative case on a high school debate topic many, many moons ago. I was a novice debater and a poor advocate at the time and I am sure the only reason I won the few rounds that I did was that the arguments for these policies carry their own weight.

The argument is that hunger is perhaps the most meaningful barrier to learning in the classroom. This is because neither the mind nor the body can function at its best when it does not have enough nutrients. This prevents an immediate barrier to classroom instruction that the classroom cannot distance them from. You can provide the social, emotional, and physical distance from the problems in a child’s life in the space of a classroom, but you cannot separate a child from his or her hunger.

It seems worthwhile to me that schools should provide an adequate and nutritious breakfast or lunch option for children, particularly for children in poverty, but poverty alone is not the sole barrier to adequate nutrition. Even large numbers of children in well-off families routinely skip an adequate breakfast and having that option available at school is truly meaningful (Brown et al 2008) in whether or not your students are attentive and able to learn. There are real costs to medications and managing disruptive behavior and the entire system that enforces laws against absenteeism; I think the Brown 2008 study estimates one set of costs at $10 billion annually. Think of it this way: hunger increases misbehavior and hence the amount of non-productive, ‘guard’ labor in the form of security officers, social workers, etc that are necessary to deal with the consequences of misbehavior. Hence what appeared to be a simple problem of hungry children also represents an economy-wide misallocation of resources with many large and hidden costs.

There is a moral argument for providing sufficient diet options for schoolchildren as well. Children do not have a choice about whether or not they are educated; it is the law that they be educated (though parents have wide latitude in determining the direction of that education). In a sense mandating participation in education is a just form of involuntary servitude because children cannot opt out (and most children do want to be in school). It is our moral obligation to provide adequately for them given our constraint on their liberty. I would argue that if we cannot guarantee children the basic commitment to provide for their well being then mandating their participation in education is unjust. Consider the following: if we provide bad, inedible food to prisons, prisoners riot and lawmakers start writing bills. But there are no repercussions for us when we provide ‘spent hens‘ and bacteria-infested meat that doesn’t meet McDonald’s quality standards to children. If children misbehave we medicate them, providing employment for doctors who over-diagnose ADHD and other conditions and over-prescribe drugs like Ritalin that make billions of dollars for pharmaceutical companies that make these kinds of mind-altering drugs.

These are reasons why I find  shoddy and uninformed stances opposing investments in our children’s nutrition really disturbing. Here is Show-Me Institute intern Sarah Brodsky slamming what appears to be a notably successful effort in New Orleans (!) to improve access to nutrition:

I read further and saw that my guess was wrong. The “What We’ve Done” section of the website is all about school food. Of the 12 recommendations for change, two call for more local food in school lunches. One suggests that schools establish gardens on their premises because “Students need to grow fresh food and taste what they grow.”

Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools is lobbying for something peripheral to a great education. It doesn’t matter where school food was grown, as long as students get a nutritionally complete meal. And gardening, while it’s possibly educational and rewarding, is not a basic human need. If you think of school priorities, like creating a safe environment and teaching students to read, maintaining a garden would be pretty far down the list.

I hope Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools will reevaluate its goals and stay true to its original mission. A couple of questions to consider: Are the most pressing inequities already addressed, so that we can now devote our attention to gardens? Or do neighborhoods and parental income levels continue to keep a great education out of reach for many students, for reasons that have nothing to do with food?

The problems here are obvious! While it’s true that as adequate nutrition doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with where food came from, the status quo is so far from satisfactory that this FYI is meaningless. What is meaningful is that students now don’t have access to high-quality food. If it comes from local producers who don’t maximize yields, diluting nutrient content (as is the case with large agribusiness), the food is vastly better. If children aren’t eating meat that tests positive for salmonella four times more often than the meat McDonald’s accepts, or processed wheat products that have been stripped of their nutrient content and instead get access to food produced in less destructive ways, we are all better off!

Here’s the fundamental argument that Sarah’s blind opposition to local food ignores. Industrial food production and distribution happens on a national scale. Unfortunately, it is well documented that regulators don’t do their jobs well in regulating quality and safety. The compelling argument for local food is that being able to immediately hold specific people accountable and not depending on the bureaucracy of a federal regulatory body allows us to prevent children from eating contaminated meat and tortillas and things that would get a large fast food chain in a class-action lawsuit faster than you can say “where’s an attorney?”. Part of the basic economics of information holds that when information is specialized and decentralized it is harder to gather and interpret, meaning that consumers have less information, not more, about their choices.

There are three policy recommendations that I’d like to close with. The first is that we have more school gardens! Even if they’re not by themselves sufficient to feed an entire school the effort is still worthwhile. You get to start changing the outlook children have towards food and their environment and promote healthy living. And it’s a huge educational opportunity! A garden is a natural lab for chemistry and biology classes. It is a starting place for discussions about politics, fodder for historical and cultural education, and if you have a culinary arts program headed by someone like Brook Harlan at Rockbridge High (here is a good profile)here in Columbia, you’re really on to something.

The second is of course that this focus on local food is good. There are inefficient ways and bad thinking that can characterize the advocacy for local food and it is important to be unbiased and scientific; that being said, I think I have made a compelling argument that local food is good because you get what you pay for.

The third policy recommendation is that we encourage more school districts to end the monopoly on providing food services that they retain or contract out to large corporations. Allow multiple private vendors to provide food of certain quality and let competition drive at least part of the increase in quality. In economic language we can note more formally that expanding the market increases the amount of both consumer and producer surplus. It also protects our obligation to ensure basic services to our children. This is really the libertarian way out of the problem and it’s a good example of where interactions between public and private entities provide better services than the status quo, which is dominated by public schools granting monopolies to private lunch contractors.

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Against Sarah Brodsky: In Defense of Good Food

I’ve recently come across a series of posts on food by Sarah Brodsky at the Show-Me Institute  (a libertarian think tank here in Missouri) that I thought deserved a clearly articulated response. Sarah’s writing generally touches on the topics of local and sustainable agriculture in ways that I think don’t show much appreciation for the nuances of real-life markets and processes.

It is important to understand that I think of libertarian ideals in a different way most of the Show-Me Institute bloggers; my intellectual framework includes a rich appreciation of transaction costs and Coasian ideas along with the notion that comparative market analysis suffers if it does not account for the wide range of parameters that can characterize widely disparate markets. Other ideas I subscribe to in that vein are concepts from chaos theory that talk about self-organization and complexity and the idea that the interactions between public and private institutions are often far richer than the simple dichotomy between market and government that characterizes the public discourse.

So this series of posts will talk about food, a subject that I love. Today’s specific topic is the whole concept of local food, a concept that Brodsky seems curiously against. An excerpt:

Second, this is another instance of the government endorsing the idea that locally grown produce is superior to food from other sources. Anyone is free to hold this conviction; however, their belief has no place in policy until they come up with evidence for it. Supporters haven’t demonstrated a connection between local food and health. In fact, some dietitians even recommend frozen produce over fresh:

“[F]rozen produce actually can be healthier than the fresh variety. It is on the plant or tree longer than the fresh variety, so it’s packed with a higher nutrient value.”

If a public school near you is giving preference to food grown nearby, watch out. Your government might begin advocating local food as the correct choice for you, too.

Comments of that ilk are frequently distributed throughout Brodsky’s advocacy. While I’ll save the discussion of what role government should play in advocating policies designed to promote public health for later, today’s discussion will be about the unsupported claim that ‘supporters haven’t demonstrated a connection between local food and health’. First, let’s note that Brodsky conflates the notion of local food with the idea of non-frozen food, which doesn’t follow logically. One can grow vegetables and freeze them or prepare them for long term storage via canning or other preservation methods and this is not logically inconsistent with the idea that locally produced food is ceteris paribus better than the products of industrial agriculture.

But let’s talk about the list of reasons why locally produced food might be better than industrial agriculture. But it’s important to understand that I don’t disagree with the concept of industrial agriculture; some products are far more efficiently produced in quantities that allow us to take advantages of economies of scale in production and distribution. The reality of industrial agriculture is however far different, as markets tend to be dominated by large corporations that (horror!) use their resources to engage in rent-seeking behavior.

But some products do suffer when you increase yields without regard for other parameters. Winemakers have known for a long time, for instance, that it’s hard to make great wine without some regard for controlling grapevine yields. What’s true for grapes is also true across the board and it has a name: nutritional dilution. This topic is well addressed in the literature; here is an excerpt on the subject worth reading:

An explanation of exactly what happens in genetically engineered dilution effects may be helpful. Over many years of using yield potential as the dominant criterion in developing improved varieties, while average yields have risen, plant root systems have not been able to keep pace in drawing more needed micronutrients from the soil. When breeders selectively breed for one resource, using a selected trait like yield, fewer resources remain for other plant functions as the study explains.

“There may be trade-offs between the number of seeds and their size or between yield and growth rate and pest resistance. In tomatoes, there are trade-offs between yield which is the harvest weight and the dry weight, or between yield or fruit size and vitamin C, and between lycopene which gives tomatoes their the primary color and beta-carotene which is the precursor to vitamin A.”

This information on nutritional decline and selective breeding is nothing new to agricultural researchers and scientists. Science journals began publishing writings on nutritional decline over 20 years ago. A 1981 review in “Advances in Agronomy” discussed the widely cited “dilution effect,” in which yield-enhancing methods like fertilization and irrigation may decrease nutrient concentrations, an environmental dilution effect. Recently, evidence has emerged that genetically based increases in yield may have the same result, a genetic dilution effect. An explanation of exactly what happens in genetically engineered dilution effects may be helpful. Over many years of using yield potential as the dominant criterion in developing improved varieties, while average yields have risen, plant root systems have not been able to keep pace in drawing more needed micronutrients from the soil. When breeders selectively breed for one resource, using a selected trait like yield, fewer resources remain for other plant functions as the study explains.

Here is the link to the Davis 2004 study internally cited in the article above which was published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. What this establishes that large-scale agricultural production yields crops with far less nutrient value than crops where yields are relatively lower, a situation that typifies many small, local producers. Brodsky’s argument I think assumes that none of this is true and it is clear that her stance is articulated without reference to any of the relevant literature.

In a broader sense, there are other costs and benefits that Brodsky just assumes away throughout her advocacy. Most specifically, we can talk about the negative externalities of industrial agriculture. How, for instance, would she account for the pesticides and herbicides that make large-scale agriculture mostly possible? Without passing a moral judgment of the use of chemical manipulation in agriculture, there do exist negative externalities from the large-scale use of pesticides (for example) that are not reflected through prices. Refined sugar, for instance, is a great example: the average American eats 150 pounds of sugar a year.

The sugar industry, which receives federal subsidies, has let massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticide-polluted waters run off into the Everglades for decades. This has has horrendous environmental effects, the extent of which I won’t go into here, but a simple Google search will reveal plenty of literature on. Worse, subsidies allowed American sugar producers to undercut other sugar producers internationally. The market distortions that this policy create are large in scale and have far reaching consequences, including crushing domestic sugar production and agricultural economies in places where they are most needed (3rd World nations). Worse, the negative health effects of consuming large amounts of nutrient-deficient refined sugar have contributed in great part to America’s obesity and diabetes epidemics (Gross et al 2004, Jenkins et al 2004). Literally none of this is reflected in the market price of sugar.

And stories like these are not the exception. They are the norm. While I hazard that on the concepts underpinning libertarian thought I might have common ground with Brodsky, they form a very primitive lens for interpreting the detail-rich market and institutional structures that comprise reality. I, for one, would expect a master’s candidate in economics to present more thorough work, particularly when using a well-regarded think tank as a platform for one’s views.

My next few posts will address the school lunch/breakfast debate from this perspective and hopefully also the issue of government and its role in the public discourse (hint: it’s a lot more complex than you think!)

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