On May 23, USDA implemented a final rule designed to encourage the consumption of local farm products in school meals. The rule - called the Geographic Preference Option for the Procurement of Unprocessed Agricultural Products in Child Nutrition Programs - will let schools and other providers give preference to locally grown and locally raised agricultural products when purchasing food for federal meal programs.
"This rule is an important milestone that will help ensure that our children have access to fresh produce and other agricultural products," said Kevin Concannon, a USDA undersecretary. "It will also give a much-needed boost to local farmers and agricultural producers."
As an example of the impact the new rule might have, foodservice officials in New York state can now openly prefer products labeled "New York-grown" or "Eastern Grown" or "Northeast" when purchasing food. They also can offer a premium on local products like apples, according to the New York Apple Association (NYAA).
Before the 2008 Farm Bill, schools could not, by law, include geographic criteria in a bid specification for fresh food orders. And until recently, there were no clear guidelines on how to actually implement the geographic preference provision contained in the Farm Bill, according to NYAA.
"Kids now have the opportunity to have fresh, crunchy, local New York apples in their school lunches instead of apples that are 3,000-miles old," said Jim Allen, president of NYAA. "We encourage school foodservice managers to take advantage of this change in the law and buy our fresh, local apples for the enjoyment and good health of their students."
Is local better?
The new rule supports USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative and builds on the 2008 Farm Bill, both of which seek to revitalize rural economies by supporting local and regional food systems and reconnecting producers with consumers. Through these and other efforts, USDA expects local food profits to rise from an estimated $4 billion in 2002 to as much as $7 billion in 2012.
Despite such estimates, Alan Schreiber calls the idea of feeding the entire population through local and regional food systems a "culinarily romantic notion."
"And that's coming from someone who's trying to do it," he said.
Schreiber has a farm near Pasco, Wash., where he grows a diverse array of fruit and vegetable crops, everything from apples to zucchini. He's also the head of the Washington Asparagus Commission and Washington Blueberry Commission.
As a grower, he sells most of his produce within a 75-mile radius of his farm - through farmers' markets and a CSA program. The two commissions he directs sell produce all over the country. With a foot in both worlds, he can see the limitations of the buy-local movement - even though he supports it, to an extent.
"If we could increase local consumption by maybe five percent, that would be doable," he said. "It's unrealistic to think that ‘going local' is going to feed the population."
He gave an example: If everybody started eating locally (he defined "local" as produced and consumed in the same state), Washington's asparagus industry would collapse and people in New York City would eat a lot less asparagus. Metropolitan New York is the biggest market for Washington asparagus. Less than 10 percent of the state's asparagus is consumed by people who actually live in Washington, Schreiber said.
There are definite benefits to buying local, such as keeping money within a community, but the benefits are not as great as some tout. And if the local movement gets too popular, some agricultural communities will suffer greatly - and people will eat a lot less produce, he said.
USDA's rule encouraging schools to buy local is one of a few rules the department has rolled out lately that seem inconsistent to the potato industry, said Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission.
Muir applauded USDA's new MyPlate Dietary Guidance icon, which just replaced the Food Pyramid. MyPlate encourages consumers to eat fruits and vegetables as half of each meal - good for potatoes, he said.
At the same time, USDA has decided to exclude potatoes from the Women, Infants and Children program. On top of that, the department has moved to limit the use of potatoes and other starchy vegetables in school meals, Muir said.
And the new buy-local rule won't be good for Idaho potatoes. The state produces about 12 billion pounds of potatoes per year (about one-third of all U.S. potatoes), and there are 1.5 million people in the state. Clearly, Idaho consumers can't eat every Idaho potato, he said.
There are no definitive studies that prove the buy-local system is more healthful or affordable than the current food system. Moving thousands of pounds of Idaho potatoes by railcar across the country is much more efficient than hauling a handful of potatoes in the back of a local farmer's pickup truck, Muir said.
Certain fruits and vegetables grow better in certain regions than others. There's no justification for trying to relocate those crops just for the sake of "buying local" - except that it's a great political buzzword, he said.
Muir also said all these new rules would tie the hands of school-lunch administrators, who always have to balance getting nutritious food on their menus while keeping costs down. The new rules will force them to do things that won't necessarily improve student nutrition or decrease costs, all at a time when school budgets are shrinking.
- By Matt Milkovich, Contributing Editor