Why Should We Know Our Farmers?
I participated in the USDA‘s live Facebook chat today with Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. I appreciated the gracious tone of the talk, as well as the willingness to answer a variety of questions, including questions (i.e., mine) that challenged the value of local food. However, I remain at odds with the federal government’s subsidies in the name of local food, and with the use of tax dollars to promote a locavore lifestyle.
Merrigan’s comments about locavores in the winter were very reasonable. She said that she wanted to make local food available more often, not necessarily for 12 months out of the year. She also declined to define “local,” and stated that it would be unwise to impose a definition on everyone. I’m glad that the USDA isn’t harboring dreams of a 100-mile food distance standard (yet). Then she talked about using some kind of greenhouse to extend the growing season — “greenhouse” wasn’t the word, but I didn’t catch the exact agricultural term — and about preserving produce.
As I said, the comments were reasonable — for individuals who voluntarily buy local food. For taxpayer-funded entities like public schools, the ideas are more problematic. Any effort to obtain or preserve local food past the regular harvest time entails a cost. If public schools spend extra money for local fruit in November when they could have flown in produce from a different climate instead, that’s money that could have been spent on teachers or textbooks, or never taken from taxpayers in the first place.
I asked Merrigan why she thinks it’s important for people to know their farmers, and she listed several reasons in response. She talked about the health value of fresh produce, and about the environmental impact. She also suggested that knowing their farmers inspires schoolchildren to do well in science class.
I’m unconvinced that knowing the person who grew your food makes a difference in the pursuit of those goals. For example, you can choose a salad over a hamburger without knowing who planted the vegetables. If you want to make healthy choices, you should learn more about the nutritional content of what you eat, not about the people who brought it to market.
Some people may want to know their farmers because they feel it enriches their lives or inspires them. I say, go for it — but the federal government doesn’t need to get involved.