The Locavore's Dilemma

Pineapple by giniger via Flickr.

Two economics professors in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University have written an interesting piece about local food, titled The Locavore’s Dilemma: Why Pineapples Shouldn’t Be Grown in North Dakota. Jayson L. Lusk is Professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair of Agribusiness and F. Bailey Norwood is Associate Professor.

In short, the economists argue “there is a tradeoff between providing a larger quantity of more-nutritious non-local foods and a smaller quantity of more-nutritious local foods”, particularly when it comes to school lunches. Individual consumers are free to make whatever shopping choices they wish, but, according to the authors, mandates for public spending on local food aren’t economically sounds and don’t actually provide benefits that promoters of local food say it has.

This is the most comprehensive article on the subject that I have read. Every time I thought “but what about this” the next section covered it. I’m particularly glad they mentioned taste, which in my opinion is the most sound out of all the arguments for eating local.

Of course it would be lovely if everyone, no matter their income, had access to the most delicious foods. But is that really within the reach of the US government? I think the school lunch program has bigger issues to address.

To me, if the goal is to get schools to provide healthier food to children, there are far better ways to do it. Instead of spending more money to source local foods, spend that money on whole foods where ever they can be sourced from at the lowest costs. Instead of prepackaged peanut butter and jelly and a fruit cup, how about pb&j on reasonably fresh bread and some fresh fruit? Even if not local, the cost will be higher than the prepackaged stuff, though. Let’s not boost the price even further by demanding that the fruit be from less than 100 miles away. School lunch programs don’t need the additional constraints.

Side note: Amusingly, I just had a discussion this morning about the word dilemma. It’s commonly used to mean that you have two choices, but the actual meaning is more like “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. A dilemma is a situation where a third choice is called for because neither of the options before you will result in something good. In this case, I don’t think dilemma really fits because fresh fruits and vegetables are good no matter where you get them from, but I suppose that’s just semantics. While on the topic of word choices, I also have to complain about using pineapples in North Dakota as an example. I don’t think even the silliest locavores would argue that growing foods in areas wildly out of their range is a good idea. That’s what happens when you try to write a catchy title, I suppose.

Thanks to Amanda Sollman for retweeting Chris Raines‘s tweet about this article and letting me know about it!