The admonition to “know your farmer, know your food” may be mission impossible to a generation of clueless consumers.

'Know your food' will find it impossible to please all

Tom Karst
National Editor

Unless we are a devotee of community supported agriculture or a seasonal customer of a farm stand, we don’t know who grows our food. Our fondest association with farmer may be our now distant ancestor who homesteaded some Iowa farmland back in the 1880s.

Do we know the dairy farmer who gives us that gallon of milk in our hometown retailer’s refrigerated case? Do we know where a box of Life cereal comes from? We might think the oranges come from California, but upon closer examination they could be Sunkist oranges from South Africa.

Consumer ignorance of food and food preparation itself may even be more profound. Pop Tarts are a fairly instinctive food, but what do we do with parsnips, broccoli and squash, provided we ever purchase them?

Surely the sterile merchandising tactics of some of our largest retailers might be partially to blame. All we might see at a discount supermarket is a bin of fruit and a lonely price sign.

No point-of-sale information that gets the consumer excited about a new variety, the grower’s story or recipe idea — just the same-old same-old display bin.

Into this setting the U.S. Department of Agriculture is introducing the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign.
In the oft-used mantra of a “rising tide lifts all boats,” produce industry leaders have largely praised the initiative, stating that the more consumers connect with food — particularly with fruits and vegetables — the better it is for all producers.

After all, come February in Chicago, consumers will buy produce, and it won’t be local.

The USDA initiative is described as a “conversation starter” concerning how to develop local and regional food systems to spur economic activity.

Agency officials have also alluded to using existing USDA programs to break down “structural barriers” that have kept local food systems from thriving.

As part of the program, the USDA said it will make $50 million available for schools to buy local produce.

In a news release, the agency said the 2008 farm bill gave the department new ways to procure local fresh fruits and vegetables for the school lunch program.

Using that flexibility, USDA has proposed that schools now be able to arrange to buy fresh produce grown locally through their state agencies. From a USDA news release:

“USDA will also write commonsense guidelines for schools to procure food. To date, the department has allowed only minimal processing of regional fruits and vegetables purchased for our school meals programs. USDA will now allow additional processing like cutting or slicing, and will work to fashion policies that will allow year-round produce in areas with short growing seasons.”

I anticipate that commercial growers may be confused about how they fit into the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” message.

The industry should indeed pay attention to new guidelines related to the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Farmer” program as they are issued.

One lobbyist told me the program carries with it some important questions:

For example, will the emphasis on local production require the repeal of federal acquisition regulations that require USDA to accept the lowest cost bids?

What does know your farmer really mean? Is it an implicit endorsement of local?

Is there any food that doesn’t fit in to the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program?

Will the same food safety requirements be asked of smaller local producers in supplying food to schools?

What kind of message does the program send about imports? Is the “buy local” message allowed by our trade agreements?

Will the regulations generally favor smaller growers compared with larger producers?

What’s the benefit to consumers in buying local?

Despite those possible red flags about the mechanics of the program and what that means to commercial shippers of fresh produce, it may be wise not to find fault with the USDA’s program just yet.

The USDA’s new initiative — though it is a departing from the agency’s comfort zone when it all but advocates the local food movement — is centered on rural economic development.

The locavore movement is different in the sense that it attaches a fundamentalist-like belief in local food. In that world, if local food is good, food from 2,000 miles away is evil.

For this reason, I will be surprised if the USDA’s program goes as far as the “true believers” would like in issuing dictates about the primacy of local food.

Unless I’m badly mistaken, I don’t think the USDA can say that locally sourced food is more “sustainable” or better for the environment than fresh produce from California.

In the end, the task to grab consumers’ attention about the benefits and uses of fresh produce doesn’t rest with a marginally funded USDA program, but with the efforts and imagination of the industry itself.

A well-conceived mandatory generic advertising campaign would do more to connect consumers with fruits and vegetables than any government-run alternative.

E-mail Follow Tom on Twitter @tckarst.

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