Eat Your Vegetables!

Most of us remember a time when our parents encouraged us to eat healthy things like fresh vegetables, and discouraged us from eating too much processed and otherwise “fast” food. Now, with obesity constantly in the news and culinary celebrities like Jamie Oliver publicizing the ills of unhealthy eating, government officials are beginning to pressure public schools to get with the program and start feeding kids fresh, unprocessed, and preferably locally produced food.

H. 4200, a bill currently in the House Agriculture Committee, is an attempt to achieve that end.

On its face, it sounds like a pretty tall order. How, after all, are we going to persuade school officials to buy expensive locally produced food when they can get processed, mass-produced, and easily prepared food for half the price? Then there are the administrative hassles. The larger food suppliers make it very easy for school administrators to order large quantities of food, delivered right to the loading dock on the appointed day. Finding local tomatoes and peaches and chicken breasts in the right quantity – and then preparing it all without the easy three-step instructions of mass-produced food – won’t happen without revamping administrative guidelines and a team of new FTEs.

So how does the bill propose to “encourage schools to serve locally grown, minimally processed farm foods”? By creating a program, of course. The South Carolina Fresh on the Campus program is intended to accomplish the following seven goals (we’re quoting from the bill itself):

(1) strengthen local economies by keeping money within the area; (2) create jobs; (3) open a substantial new market for farmers; (4) provide beginning farmers with a consistent and secure customer base; (5) help school children develop lifelong healthy eating habits, combat poor nutrition, and reduce obesity-related diseases so prevalent in South Carolina; (6) provide students with hands-on learning opportunities, such as farm visits, cooking demonstrations, and the planting and cultivating of school gardens; and (7) integrate nutritional and agricultural education into school curricula.

We’re skeptical about goals (1) through (4). There is no reason to think that politicians and bureaucrats in Columbia know how to “strengthen economies” and “create jobs” and “open new markets” any better than anybody else – and much evidence to suggest they don’t. But put all that to the side: these are the sorts of nebulous aims politicians are always claiming their initiatives will accomplish. (When was the last time a bill’s proponent in the legislature didn’t claim the bill would “create jobs”?)

Goal (5), by contrast, has a little more plausibility about it. It’s not totally irrational to believe that a government program could help school children develop better eating habits. Public school children, after all, are going to eat something while in school, and given that reality, it seems reasonable to think the state should bear some responsibility to feed them food that isn’t outright unhealthy.

Goals (6) and (7) are more of a stretch. We’ve suddenly gone from feeding kids decent food to inserting nutritional material into school curriculums. South Carolina’s ailing public school system doesn’t need yet another band of Columbia bureaucrats trying to butt into teachers’ already micromanaged classrooms. Nor is it obvious that such programs would have any meaningful effect on the actual eating habits of school kids.

So let’s stick with goal (5). If this bill could somehow get healthier food into our kids’ tummies without hoisting onto school officials millions of dollars in added costs, it might be worth a shot.

But South Carolina Fresh on the Campus program simply will not accomplish its stated end. The legislation mandates that the program would “encourage school districts to develop and implement school nutrition plans which purchase and use locally grown farm fresh products.” The program would “conduct workshops, training sessions, and provide technical assistance [school officials, farmers, and distributors] regarding the availability of South Carolina farm products.”

So: the way we’re proposing to get fresher, unprocessed food into our public school cafeterias is by “encouraging” districts to do it, and by “conducting workshops” on the availability of produce with farmers and school administrators?

It strikes one as naïve to think the reason school districts purchase unhealthy food is because they haven’t been sufficiently “encouraged” to do so, or because officials haven’t been exposed to enough helpful “workshops” on healthy eating and the virtues of locally grown produce. Schools buy processed food because it’s cheaper than unprocessed food. It’s as simple as that. And as long as it stays that way, no government program is going to make them change their minds.

We’d be better off simply allocating the money, not to another government program, but directly to school districts with instructions to buy better food. That at least would cut out the bureaucratic middlemen. But that would put government officials in the business of picking winners and losers – buy from this farm and not that one, serve these kinds of potato and not that kind: exactly the sort of “good ol’ boy” favoritism that’s held South Carolina state government back for generations.

What’s the solution? If policymakers are serious about making locally grown food affordable to South Carolina schools, they’ll go beyond the usual response of creating yet more nice-sounding programs and address the nature of the problem. And the nature of the problem is (to repeat) that processed food is cheaper than healthier alternatives.

But how, realistically, can we solve a problem that complex? It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight, or even in a year, but there are ways state and federal lawmakers can begin to make locally grown food more affordable.

Getting rid of checkoff programs would be a start. Agricultural commodities are taxed by the federal government, the revenues used for advertising those products. Soybeans, pork, dairy products, blueberries, watermelons, and potatoes are all subject to these taxes. The checkoff for beef, for instance, is $1 per head. And while the marketing value of these programs remains unproven, they take millions out the industry and consequently drive prices up. Abolishing them, and letting farmers themselves decide whether and how to advertise their products, would bring the price of those products closer to their market value.

We also have to lower schools’ administrative overhead. Schools are much more likely to cut corners on food purchases when other administrative costs are high. As we’ve pointed out in Unleashing Capitalism, South Carolina’s school funding formula is grossly inefficient, and our per-pupil funding is higher than other states with better-ranking school systems. Not until we tackle this problem can we begin to think about asking schools to purchase nutritionally better but more expensive food.

We’ve also got to think about cutting federal dependence. South Carolina school and district officials spend the bulk of their energy meeting federal guidelines – guidelines imposed on them by the state’s acceptance of federal money. No Child Left Behind is one major source of federal hegemony, but there are others. Federal guidelines for school lunches, for example, come to 65 pages. It’s simply not feasible to ask schools to undertake expensive new lunch regimes when their time and money are so tied up with federal regulations.

These are small steps, and they’re politically unexciting. But they would at least address the actual problem. Creating yet another unaccountable, expensive program won’t.

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