Farm to School and Nutrition Education
Today was the second USDA live Facebook chat. (Here are my comments on the first chat; the video is here.) Today’s session focused on the Farm to School component of the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” Initiative, and its goal of supplying public schools with local produce. Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan also discussed teaching students about nutrition.
The talk was marked by a conspicuous non sequitur: In response to a question about the high cost of local produce — asked by someone other than me, no kidding — Merrigan insisted that we don’t know that local produce is more expensive for districts than food from other sources. But she went on to list what she called “barriers” to buying local: the difficulties of contracting with lots of individual farmers, fluctuations in local farm outputs caused by weather, seasons when crops don’t grow. I think of those “barriers” as “costs” or “expenses.” If a district has to go to extra trouble or deal with additional uncertainty when it purchases local food, it would be better off buying healthy food from somewhere else.
I agree with Merrigan that some districts are in a better position than others. I imagine that buying local is not all that hard for many districts in California. Those districts would choose local food if there were no federal program, because it would be the most advantageous choice for them. The USDA is encouraging them to do what they would have done anyway. At best, Farm to School is superfluous; at worst, it pushes districts to spend more than necessary on food, taking resources away from other uses, such as paying teachers or repairing buildings.
On the subject of teaching nutrition, the suggestions had more to do with promoting a locavore ideology than with conveying information about food. Merrigan proudly displayed trading cards featuring local farmers, and another viewer commented that a school had produced a fruit-and-vegetable memory game with USDA funds. The thing is, there’s no connection between knowing your farmer and choosing healthy foods. If students get the impression that healthy choices are all about personalities and who you know, they’ll be at a loss when they walk into a grocery store and find that the names of farmers aren’t displayed.
Nutrition is not a popularity contest, and students ought to learn about what kinds of foods are healthy without bringing farmers into the picture. And I don’t like the implication that farmers are more worthy of our acquaintance than the people who serve fast food at a chain restaurant. The fact that one food product is healthier than another doesn’t have anything to do with the producers’ intrinsic value as human beings.
Although nutrition facts are more relevant than farmers when it comes to making good choices, I still question the propriety of the federal’s government’s involvement in people’s diets. “Helping people eat healthier food” is not one of the enumerated powers granted in the Constitution. Furthermore, this is not something that the government does effectively. The Deputy Secretary noted that the food pyramid website has had 9 billion hits — yet obesity continues to rise! She concluded that the government hasn’t done enough. I’d say it’s done too much.