Was I Too Complacent about Locavore Coercion?
In response to my WSJ column, Jim Prevor, the founder and editor-in-chief of Produce Business magazine, the online Jim Prevor's Perishable Pundit, and all-round perishable-food-business guru, emails:
[Y]our off-hand comment at the end that the local-food movement would be dangerous if it were somehow enacted into law is not such a distant hypothetical as that remark implied.
For example, at public universities all across the country there are increasing restrictions on food procurement. Although these policies are not "laws" they allow ideologues to impose real costs on the students, on their parents and on the public--without anyone voting for these policies. Recently we've run a series on food procurement at UC Davis:
The national school lunch program and related programs use the power of the purse — potential loss of federal funds — to get schools to adopt an anti-trade procurement policy. Some of this is explicit, the law contains a "buy-American" provision. There are exemptions, so a school can buy Chilean grapes when no US grapes are available, but competition is forbidden. The buy-local issue is more complex. The law is actually contradictory with some provisions requiring schools to seek out the low-bidder and other provisions urging them to buy local. The Obama administration has leaned toward the second provision in its discussions with state officials and school districts. We ran a related piece here: 'Buy American' and 'Buy Local' Requirements Confusing School Foodservice Buyers...Chilean Fresh Fruit Association Speaks Out
There are also special nutritional funds that are available only if you buy in politically approved places, such as a Farmer's Market. Here is a link to a government description ofa special program that adds on WIC funds — but only for purchases from Farmer's Markets with the explicit goal of encouraging the purchase of local produce: WIC Farmers' Market Nutrition Program
Beyond these public policy issues, we run a series of focus groups and mall intercepts and other studies that interact with consumers from the UK to North America and on to Australia/New Zealand. You would be shocked at what people expect. A seemingly intelligent woman walked out of a farm stand in Massachusetts. The stand stood on a small farm but probably 90% of the sales of the farm stand were purchased off the local wholesale market. Yet when we asked shoppers why they liked shopping there, more than one pulled out their pineapple and pointed to the advantages of a good Massachusetts grown pineapple!
Economist Luke Froeb comments further on the costs of localism, with video from Stewart Brand at TED. I will note, however, that consumer preferences need not be "rational." It's well and good to argue about the environmental impact of locally grown food with people who buy it because they think it's good for the planet. But we should avoid the technocratic temptation to subject individual subjective tastes to centralized cost-benefit analysis.