Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

The simple and faith-filled notion of local food is even more endearing, and potentially more enduring, than the myth of the Great Pumpkin.

We love our local foods, so much so that we insist that hard-to-find “local” growers gear up to grow ever-expanding supplies of food for our schools.

In the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Nov. 14 news release trumpeting the first farm-to-school grants of $4.5 million for 68 projects, the agency enumerated the benefits of farm to school with nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.

“When schools buy food from nearby producers, their purchasing power helps create local jobs and economic benefits, particularly in rural agricultural communities,” Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan said in the release.

And Linus also believes the Great Pumpkin will fly through the air and bring toys to all the children of the world.

“He’ll come here because I have the most sincere pumpkin patch and he respects sincerity,” Linus said in the iconic 1966 animated Peanuts feature “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.”

If you recall the vintage Baby Boomer touchstone, you will remember Sally Brown spent the night with Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin’s appearance and missed out on trick or treating. She was not pleased.

Before U.S. taxpayers invest millions more in the farm to school grants, it would be great to have a little more proof about the return on investment for those dollars.

If we invest those scarce dollars in the farm to school program, what other funding opportunity will the industry miss?

More objective analysis is needed to determine if the assumptions in the farm to school paradigm are sustainable.

Will it really work to recruit growers to produce local food for schools? And how will funds be used to encourage private job growth rather than government bureaucracy?

For example, the news release said some farm to school grants went to fund 25 programs that will create jobs by hiring farm to school coordinators, with 43 projects supporting and maintaining existing staff.

Using federal dollars to fund staff positions at school districts concerns me.

Let private business decide if the cost of procuring “local produce” is viable.

Don’t create government staff positions and assign those hired responsibility for local food procurement with no sure bet of benefit for the school or to the kids. In this cash-strapped era, that kind of inertia toward more bureaucracy is a luxury the U.S. can’t afford.

I also question funding of projects to invest in kitchen equipment to serve local products year-round through processing and freezing techniques.

Really? For the sake of argument, do New Jersey kids really want frozen “local” zucchini in mid-winter rather than fresh baby carrots from California?

“I got rocks,” Charlie Brown will say as he goes through the lunch line.

I do think there are some solid ideas in the farm-to-school grants, particularly relating to funds supporting nutrition education efforts, school gardens, field trips to local farms and cooking classes.

Other smart investments were used for grants to programs that use food hubs, or partner with mainline distributors.

The USDA, like Linus, is trying too hard to convince us about the value of the farm to school program.

“There are three things you must never discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin,” Linus concluded in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

Though we shouldn’t add the “farm to school program” to that list just yet, the blind faith of the USDA leadership in farm-to-school program is troubling.

Do kids really care about farm to school produce? Are kids in Iowa going to be more thrilled with a California grape cluster or a turnip from the next county? Let the market lead, not ideology.

If there are great opportunities in fresh produce growers finding opportunities to service school districts with local food, a government-funded farm to school program won’t be the key to success.

Profit potential is all the sincerity fresh produce growers and distributors need.

tkarst@thepacker.com

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