Local Foods are Subsidized

Given some of the things I've written about local foods, people often get the impression I'm against the movement.  But, as I like to remind people: I'm not against local foods - I'm against bad arguments for buying local foods.  And I am in no way convinced we should subsidize local foods.  When I say that people often retort that local foods aren't subsidized.  That's baloney.  Aside from the various calls for additional subsidies, this news release reminds us that local foods are indeed subsidized.  

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Tuesday announced more than $5 million in grants for 82 projects spanning 42 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands that support the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) efforts to connect school cafeterias with local farmers and ranchers through its Farm to School Program. The program helps schools purchase more food from local farmers and ranchers in their communities, expanding access to healthy local food for school children and supporting local economies.

If the goal is to help schools expand access to healthy food, why not give them money to do that?  Why add the extra restriction that it needs to be local?  You can get more healthy food for a lower cost without the constraint that it must be local.  If the goal is to enrich certain farmers, why not simply give the money to them? Why add the further restriction that it needs to go to schools?  If the goal is rural development, why not let rural communities decide what is the highest value use of additional grant dollars rather than tying it to a particular cause?  The idea that local foods are "good for the economy" is one that has been thoroughly debunked in chapters in my Food Police book and in Norwood's soon-to-be released Agricultural and Food Controversies book.  For more general critiques see The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet by Pierre Desrochers  and Hiroko Shimizu or Just Food:  Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly by James McWilliams.

In praising the latest announcement, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Committee on Agriculture said, somehow without the slightest hint of irony:

As I visit schools with local farm to table programs, I continue to be impressed to see students enjoying broccoli and pineapple from salad bars

Unless you happen to live in Hawaii, I doubt the program is supporting local pineapple.  And, unless you live in California or Arizona, there isn't a sufficient amount of broccoli grown to support local schools either.  All of which goes to show, if you really want kids to eat a diverse, nutritious diet, it pays to look a little further away from home.  

In the grand scheme of things, this isn't all that big a deal.  An extra $5 million on local food grants isn't going to be the thing that breaks the bank.  And, there are likely much more distortion policies that could be picked on.  But, I think what bothers me the most about this one is that so many people buy into really poor economic arguments for promoting local foods.  It makes me think we haven't done a very good job as economists educating our students and the public.