Does Buying Local Hurt the Poor?

Posted: Mar 23, 2013 8:00 AM

It can when Uncle Sam gets involved, writes Daniel Sumner in the April issue of Townhall Magazine.


It turns out I deserve a food subsidy. Who knew?

I savor the fruits and vegetables selected from my backyard and relish the luxury of visiting the local farmers’ market on Saturday morning and Wednesday evening. It is a great treat to stop at produce stands that dot the rural roads near our home. Now, because it seems to be fashionable in Washington, my food buying behavior entitles me and those farms and markets that serve me to government favors and special treatment.

As far as I can tell, I do not qualify for food stamps (renamed SNAP), a lowpriced School Lunch, or Women Infants and Children (WIC) food benefits. I do not even receive direct subsidies from the elderly food programs or the myriad other food and nutrition programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So that $100 billion per year is not for me. But, with the new food policy agenda, I get indirect subsidy. And, this web of programs to subsidize and mandate what we all should eat is spreading.

New food policy proposals urge an array of policies, programs and regulations about foods their advocates believe Americans should eat more or less of. Of course, new food policy advocates do not limit their support to simple pleas for better diets. They also champion:

-food with less processing or packaging, and for which processing is done by small firms,

-foods that are grown using organic techniques or “traditional” varieties and therefore incorporate relatively few recent innovations in biological sciences, engineering or food science,

-foods with fewer marketing steps from farmers to consumers,

-foods grown or processed near where they are consumed,

-foods from small farms,

-food grown on farms that use practices that seem more “friendly” to the environment,

-food from farms that pay higher wages, offer more employee benefits and have less severe working conditions for hired farm workers, and

-food from farms and processors that use systems that provide “better” living conditions (and slaughter conditions) for farm animals.

As declarations about the food they eat or encourage others to eat, these preferences are no more objectionable than my food preferences listed above. However, new food policy proposals go well beyond recommendations.

Mark Bittman, who writes about food policy in the New York Times, responds to a question about sugar with the following remarkable claim: “But this is precisely what government is for: to protect us from the things from which we cannot protect ourselves. Sugar is not exactly an invading army, but it can be thought of as a hostile force, and the processed food industry has succeeded in getting us to eat way more of it than is good for us. Will power alone isn’t enough to stop that—we need national defense.” For new food policy advocates, the case for governmental activism is palpable and immediate.

Yet, with some exceptions on each coast, the agenda of new food policy advocates have not captured the votes, palates or wallets of the general population. As Michael Pollan, writing in The Nation, sees it, “To date, however, the food movement can claim more success in changing popular consciousness than in shifting, in any fundamental way, the political and economic forces shaping the food system or, for that matter, in changing the ‘standard American diet”— which has only gotten worse since the 1970s.”

Excerpted from Townhall Magazine's April feature, "Does Buying Local Hurt the Poor?," by Daniel A. Sumner. To read more Sumner's piece, subscribe to Townhall Magazine today.