By Richard Keller, AgProfessional editor
Week after week I receive news releases from the Department of Agriculture explaining the need to more closely connect consumers with the farmers who supply their food and to encourage an increase in marketing of locally grown "fresh, nutritious food."
The umbrella USDA program is "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food." The emphasis by the Obama administration is to spend every USDA dollar not appropriated to large-scale agricultural commodities on organic and small-volume producers, building "community food systems" and eliminating "food deserts" that are "areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food." Some of the programs overlap with First Lady Obama's campaign against child obesity.
I'm sick and tired of receiving these type of news releases. I quickly hit the delete button for most of these e-mail releases because they are so out of touch with the way that people buy food in the U.S. If consumers want to spend more money on their food, they already have that alternative from what I've seen around the nation. There are many farmers markets and organic grocery stores. For the average consumer, there is the produce aisle of any grocery store stocked full of quality volume-grown fruits and vegetables.
In those food deserts, with only a convenience store gas station, the government cannot invent demand for snacks of apples, carrots and other fresh produce. Matter of fact, packaged foods such as fresh carrot sticks for convenience stores and vending machine sales were developed as a line of products using DuPont packaging film/plastic about 10 years ago, but demand hasn't resulted in those type of packaged products showing up in every convenience store.
We are a private enterprise country where products will be stocked when demand increases, but we need to be really leery about using tax money to promote stocking food that will be thrown away week after week because it rots on the shelves when not sold.
Additionally, does the USDA really need to provide $4.8 million of federal tax money for local organizations in 14 states to "build community food systems," as was recently done? Descriptions of these food systems emphasized providing local food alternatives rather than feeding the poor.
I guess the concept for feeding people in the U.S. is similar to that announced by Cuba this month; the Cuban government is giving rural people small plots of land surrounding cities on which to grow fresh foods to sell for stocking grocery shelves. Other than giving small farmers land, the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program of the USDA seems too similar.
Now we come to the real question. How can local fruits and vegetables be grown in three-fourths of the U.S. with a short spring and summer growing season? Not many fruits and vegetables maintain their quality when stored for long periods without special storage facilities; therefore, selection of quality produce still needs shipped from distant farming operations most of the year.
What happened to a balanced diet with meat and dairy goods? Let's sell unpasteurized milk at those farmers markets from 10-cow dairies. I guess we also need government subsidies for small livestock producers to raise a few head of cattle and hogs at the edge of town and butchered at the local locker so that consumers Know Their Livestock Producers, too.
It is good for consumers to learn about farming and livestock production, but don't confuse large-scale gardening with real farming. Most of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is a joke!