“In the past year, the mainstream media featured more than a few stories critiquing America’s local and organic foods movement. The New York Times and others swallowed the findings of a Stanford study debating the value of organic foods hook, line and sinker; Time and Dr. Oz declared, “Organic food is great, it’s just not very democratic”; and NPR recently reported that growing local food doesn’t pay.
Vigorous debate is good, but these stories seemed more about selling clicks and papers than getting the facts straight. And that’s bad news for a nation that’s in need of a new generation of young people to provide it with healthy food.
Among these stories, I find the NPR piece questioning the economic viability of local food most troubling. The story’s summary concludes: “Many economists say despite the charm of local food, there are relatively few benefits in terms of energy efficiency, quality or cost. They say that we shouldn’t knock our system of region specialization and distribution, and that farmers markets, fun though they are, are not good economic mfpaodels.”
NPR’s story steamrolls over a wealth of data and anecdotal evidence that demonstrates that local food is indeed fresher, less expensive than grocery store alternatives and is at the very least carbon neutral—if not a means of carbon sequestration. But perhaps worse, rather than speaking with farmers, the reporter makes the case that local food “doesn’t pay” by interviewing an economist who says that a farmer growing 25 acres of vegetables can only earn $35,000 in total labor income—or enough to pay 1.34 workers. These numbers came from a “classroom configuration.”
In New York, where my husband and I run a diversified 25-acre vegetable farm, these academic numbers are totally off the mark. Each year, our farm employs a seven-member crew on a seasonal basis, and has three managers on the payroll year-round. These workers start at $9/hour and are offered health insurance. We couldn’t possibly grow, harvest, process and distribute our food to the 900 families who subscribe to our CSA with 1.34 people.
Publishing numbers that don’t reflect the reality of farm businesses, and reducing the local foods movement to “charming” and “fun”—when even in 2007 it produced $1.2 billion in sales in the U.S. (doubling the figure from ten years ago)—is irresponsible….”