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Pundit's Mailbag — Buying Locally Grown And The Freedom To Choose Otherwise

We have had many discussions in the context of our writing about the local phenomenon, and our piece, Reality Check For Locally Grown Advocates: Economics Don’t Measure Up, brought many thoughtful letters some of which we featured in our piece titled Is Locally Grown Produce “Worth It”. Now we thought we would focus on a powerful letter from the director of a New Jersey non-profit:

I hope that you will consider printing my letter in response to your continued argument against local produce so that a voice other than those who oppose local purchasing can be heard. As the founder of a community farmers market in central New Jersey that is open six months a year and supports 13 farms selling the produce and goods that they raise in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as being the director of the New Jersey Farm to School Network, I take great pride in supporting the economic vitality of the farmers I promote.

Your articles to date have been nothing short of “local” bashing to an industry that is basically overpowered by the economics-of-scale world you support. For those of us who would like to eat an apple or a tomato in season that has not traveled thousands of miles, I suggest that you travel to a farmers market and see that buying local does not necessarily cost more than a grocery store version nor does it “make us poorer” to do so.

Nobody doubts the reality of economics on the food supply and the forces that power food from where it is grown to who ends up eating it in the end. But in your world view, large agribusiness systems are the only way that food should be grown, shipped and consumed. Your article questions the “point” behind the demand for locally grown food: Why? Because it contradicts the established control of larger systems on the food supply chain, upsetting an apple cart that is run by big businesses, not small family farms or distributors of those farms.

Would it not be more charitable for one in your position who represents the produce industry to take note of this demand instead of feeling threatened by it, and to lobby to have your readership move slightly aside to realize there is room for both the big and small in the food chain? We’re not asking for pineapples to be grown in North Dakota (a very catchy title, I might add). What we are supporting is that the United States have food systems where we have access to food within a day’s drive to enhance the experience of sustaining our farmland and the economies that support these communities, and that we give credit to farming as an important part of our nation’s character and security. 

Please look beyond the fear mongering of those who think that the demand for local is nothing short of a communist plague. It is a much deeper issue than any of the articles you have brought to light. Give it credit and I hope you’ll be willing in the future to hear more from those of us who support all produce growers but love to eat food that is grown locally.

Beth Feehan
New Jersey Farm to School Network
425 Greenwood Ave
Trenton, New Jersey

We appreciate Ms. Feehan’s note as it gives us an excellent opportunity to distinguish between two very different issues. Issues that in our extensive coverage of local often get conflated.

One issue is an opinion about a particular item or class of item. Contrary to what Ms. Feehan writes, this Pundit is not at all “against locally grown.” In fact, we enjoy going to farmer’s markets as a form of recreation and like seeing, buying and eating  unusual varieties of fruits and vegetables. We love chatting with farmers, learning about different types of honey and other locally grown foods. 

We also know that gardening can be therapeutic and have known the pleasure of harvesting mangos from our own trees and eating the lusciously sweet fruit at its moment of ripe perfection. We remember going to a summer camp in upstate New York and recall the joy as the freshly harvested sweet corn was brought into the dining room.

We believe strongly that consumers have a right to free choice. That is why we even defended, in this piece, the right of consumers to join a raw foods club and buy products of questionable safety.

If the government proposes to prevent consumers from buying or eating locally grown foods, we stand prepared to man the barricades in defense of consumer freedom.

A second and quite distinct issue is whether public policy ought to attempt to bias customer choice in one way or another. Should particular selections be subsidized? Should purchases of one type or another be compelled?

We like the idea of electric cars, but find the notion of a $7,500 taxpayer subsidy for each Chevy Volt to not be justified. We love the idea of growing domestic fuel rather than buying oil from unstable enemies of the US — but find ethanol subsidies to be market-distorting. All these types of policies, by subsidizing behaviors that would not be economically optimal, do make us poorer.

We were writing about local in the context of the procurement policies of a public university — UC Davis. The question is not whether the University should buy local. If the locally available product that meets the specifications for UC Davis procurement in terms of flavor, safety, etc., happens to be the least expensive, of course, UC Davis should purchase local. The existence of a policy favoring local procurement is, however, saying something else. It is saying that even if New Jersey blueberries are the most flavorful, the safest and the least expensive, U.C. Davis ought to pay more money to get an inferior product that happens to grow locally… and leave the New Jersey farmer without a customer. That we are opposed to doing.

We do note that Ms. Feehan, though she writes us about local, seamlessly shifts to words like “family farm” and “small” and an opposition to “big business.” Whatever the merits of these things, it is worth noting that an admonition to buy local will not necessarily result in procuring from small family farms.

As we have noted before, Wal-Mart defines local as “in state” — so without changing its procurement by one iota, if it opens more California stores, its “locally grown” statistic gets higher.

In the end, Ms. Feehan makes an impassioned plea on behalf of consumers who “love to eat food that is grown locally” — and we do care about these consumers, but they require no special protections.

If UC Davis said it was buying local because if it puts a bowl of “local” mixed greens and a bowl of “Salinas” mixed greens on the salad bar, and it finds that the students all prefer the local greens, well that doesn’t require a special locally grown procurement preference — that is just buying what the customer wants. The point of the elaborate multi-tier UC Davis procurement system with its preference for suppliers less than 50 miles away, as opposed to 50-100 miles away is, in fact, the opposite. It is specifically to override the preferences of consumers and buy something local even when, because of price, quality, flavor, etc., the consumer would have preferred something from a more distant farm.

We support Ms. Feehan’s efforts to educate schoolchildren about produce, and we think school gardens and trips to local farms are fantastic ways to get children engaged. We know of no “big business” in the produce industry that opposes these educational tools, and we are big supporters. We also would like to see our children eat more fresh fruits and vegetables at home and in school so as to make obesity less likely. We applaud Ms. Feehan and the good work of the New Jersey Farm to School Network.

We support local food — when it is of a quality and price that consumers wish to purchase it. We also support consumer freedom to buy what they choose.

Many thanks to Ms. Feehan for weighing in on this important issue.

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