With the recent passage of the Let's Move Initiative championed by Michelle Obama, the comment was made by Michelle that the government needs to help parents make the right food choices for their children. Sarah Palin followed those comments up with a Facebook post saying if we want to fight obesity maybe government should get out of the way. Palin has been blasted by many for her views, but she is the one who is correct. Having the government try to get more involved in healthy food is a little like appointing a serial arsonist as the fire chief.
For decades the government policy to fight hunger was to make food available as cheaply as possible. These policies have heavily subsidized the corn and soybean markets making it much cheaper to feed animals with grain instead of grass, and promoting the scientific creation of all sorts of corn based substances, all with little understanding of what it does to our health. Government policy, however, has had far greater and more subtle impacts than one might think when it comes to the food system. There have been local efforts for a number of years to get local produce and meat into the school system. It has been the goal of many to promote a healthier diet in the school lunch program, one of the main tenants of the Let's Move bill that was recently passed. Despite years of efforts, very little progress has been made locally on school lunch programs. Nooksack High School has a program where local food is used in their cooking classes, but very little in the cafeteria. One of the Bellingham high schools has started a salad bar at lunch made up of some local produce. WWU has started to offer more local fare, but only with significant hurdles involved for local farmers. So why have these concerted efforts had only marginal benefits? Government policy.
The biggest concern that local schools have about local food is that the food they currently purchase is heavily subsidized by the Department of Defense (try to find the logic in that one.) Schools buy DoD sanctioned food and create a school lunch for about $0.70. If a local school wants to buy local food, not only do they pay the slightly higher cost of local food, but they also lose the DoD subsidy, making the local school lunch prohibitively expensive. The next big obstacle is that most school districts (and WWU) have signed contracts with other companies to buy food. The companies contracted for food purchases do not care about local food as they are multinational corporations and their interests are better served by purchasing cheap food from corporate farmers. There have been some attempts to change this, but again, government policy (which tends to reward large companies with contracts) tends to get in the way of buying local food. As a local farmer, if I wanted to sell food to WWU, I would have to sell to someone else, who would sell to someone else, etc. Getting a check is even worse, as the invoice would have to go through about six different companies before I got paid. Frankly, it is not worth the bureaurcatic quagmire to sell to WWU, as much as I would love to.
There has been a lot of talk about the higher cost of local food, but again, it is important to understand why local food is more expensive. I can speak more specifically to meat then I can produce, but my number one cost of providing local meat is processing. I have local lamb available, but just the cost of butchering and processing amounts to almost $3.00 per pound. My pork costs as much for me to process as it does to buy it from Costco. The easiest way to drive this cost down is to go through large processing facilities that are processing thousands of animals every day, instead of a local processor like Keizer or IGFC that does 10-20 animals per day. Large processors will win the economic economies-of-scale battle every day. Of course, with the large processors, they are also a breeding ground for e-coli and other bacteria, and provide nightmarish working conditions for employees who are making the same repetitive motion for eight hours every day. In the end you get what you pay for, and in an attempt to bring down costs, meat processed in a factory-type environment results in lower quality food and is more prone to disease. No doubt we will continue to substidize the factory model while forcing local farmers to compete without subsidies. It's an economic battle that will be tough to win.
Government policy is forcing these trade-offs with farmers. Government policy is for cheap food, but that comes with unintended consequences. We should not be surprised that in an attempt to get food as cheaply as possible, it has an impact on our health. Cheap food is an admirable goal, but only if we fully understand the implications. I do mildly applaud Congress for passing the Let's Move Initiative, I think their hearts are in the right place and the goals admirable. I doubt it will have any impact on the results, as the policies they are trying to enact are swimming against a very strong current of every other government food policy created in the last 50 years. I also greatly appreciate the many local citizens who are trying to do the right thing and bring local food into schools. Again, it is an uphill battle for a variety of reasons, but it is a battle that needs to be fought and over time small inroads will be made in providing healthier lunches to kids.