There were many comments here and over at Kevin Drums’ blog in response to my previous post on school gardens and progressive values. I think much of the criticism reflects a misreading of (and in some cases clearly not reading whatsoever) what I wrote, which in turn probably reflects a lack of clarity on my part. So let me try and respond to some criticisms and clear up some confusion.

Much of the criticism stemmed from a belief that I was arguing something like the following:

Low income people don’t like gardening, don’t garden, and/or shouldn’t garden

This is not what I said. Gardening is obviously a hobby that is enjoyed by people of all income levels. My point here is that as a strategy for increasing vegetable consumption for low-income families or, for that matter, anyone who works a lot, home gardening has very little potential. Obviously, some blue collar workers do grow gardens in window boxes, and some live in single-family homes with yards where they can have larger gardens. But given the amount by which Americans are falling short of their daily recommended vegetable intake, window boxes and backyard gardens for families who have the free time, energy, and desire to maintain them are not going to get us very far.

The problem here isn’t just with gardening as a solution, as Alice Waters’ and her organization clearly sees them as just part of the solution, but that gardens represents a broader slow food philosophy that underlies the entire movement. This focus on slow food is where progressive values get in the way of practical solutions.

For instance, I’ve argued that it’s important to focus on ways of making vegetables cheap, easy, and delicious.  In contrast, supporters of the slow food movement, and some commenters,  seem to believe that low-income and working people have a lot of extra free time to spend on gardening, food preparation, and frequent trips to the store for fresh vegetables. Quite frankly I never expected to see so many people claim that low-income  people have a lot of free time on their hands; judging by the responses I got it would seem Americans are suffering from a glut of free time. I believe this presumption is unpractical and problematic.

Slow food is a luxury which many low-income and working people simply won’t be willing or able to make time for. While it’s okay for schools to teach kids to the ideas of slow food as a small part of a broader healthy schools program, a practical solution must also focus on fact, cheap, easy, and delicious vegetables.  The mission of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation goes completely against this idea:

Our mass consumer culture has created an unprecedented crisis of diet-related disease among our nation’s youth… Not only are children eating unhealthy food, they are absorbing the values that go with it: the notions that food should be fast, cheap, and easy; that abundance is permanent; that it’s ok to waste.

For those that would defend the local/fresh/organic focus by arguing this it’s really just as cheap, fast, and easy as other vegetables, keep in mind that this organization thinks those qualities are negative, and to be avoided.

The other thing to note from that part of the mission statement is that it doesn’t represent universally shared values, but the progressive values of the slow food movement. Tying a healthy foods movement to progressive values like this will limit its success in parts of the country outside liberal urban areas. While it’s reasonable to show kids that food can be more enjoyable if you embrace slow food, pushing slow food as a more prerogative is not.

For instance, the idea that local and organic foods are great is not a fact or universal value, but a progressive value. Many parents disagree, and it’s completely reasonable to believe that eating local foods for the sake of local foods is wasteful and foolish, and that specialization and economies of scale mean that farms should be industrial and located wherever they can be grown most efficiently. Many parents won’t want to spend their tax dollars buying local, organically grown food at a premium. The majority of consumers have certainly expressed this preference.

I’m not arguing that schools shouldn’t necessarily serve any local, organic, or fresh vegetables. But rather that these things are useful only to the extent that they are an effective means to a desirable end. Do they make kids healthier, or cost less, or help them form lifelong preferences for vegetables?  To the extent they do, then they should be used.

For local and organic foods, I’m skeptical that they are useful means to desirable ends, and therefore skeptical that much if any money should be spent on it. To the extent that the goal of using organic is that it’s healthier, then I would argue that schools shouldn’t spend money on it, since it’s not any healthier. To the extent that the goal of using local is to support local farmers, then I would also argue that schools shouldn’t spend any money on it, since charity for farmers isn’t a desirable objective for schools.

The problem is that the mission of these organizations is to make local, fresh, and organic an ends in-and-of themselves. It doesn’t matter if buying 10% more organic foods won’t make the kids eat healthier; children must be taught that organic is good. It doesn’t matter if only serving students fresh vegetables means they won’t eat frozen vegetables; they must learn that only fresh, local vegetables are good.

If you don’t believe that pushing local, fresh, and organic are objectives of the organization then you should read their websites and statements. In their food procurement criteria list, Waters’ organization includes these requirement:

  • Local. The average meal travels 1,500 miles before it gets to our plates. Find local farmers, ranchers, and dairies from which to buy directly
  • Organic or sustainably produced. Buy from farms that take care of the land.

In a statement before Congress, the executive director of Chez Panisse foundation made the argument for local foods explicit:

Buying and eating locally is a very simple concept that could have a huge impact on the environment if big public systems like schools districts, cities, parks and hospitals and private businesses all began to do it.  Imagine the way that we could stimulate local economies and reduce food miles by simply choosing to eat what is in season and buying locally from sustainable farms?

It’s impossible to make the case that getting the schools to buy foods from local farmers or those that “take care of the land” is simply in students best interest and not mainly about promoting a particular set of values. Asking schools to spend their money to benefit local farmers is egregious, and certainly not a universally shared value.

It is also telling that one of their strategies to deal with the higher expensive of organic foods is not to purchase organic to the maximum extent useful, but the “maximum extent possible”.

It is clear that progressive values are the focus of these programs, and this is at the expense of practical lessons, like how to make frozen vegetables taste good. This is extremely unfortunate, because frozen, out of season vegetables from far away are as important and deserving a part of a nutritious diet as local, fresh vegetables. Yet Waters’ organization actively works to completely remove frozen vegetables from school lunches.

If you think healthy school lunches and school gardens are good, you should agree that these organizations pushing for them need to remove the emphasis on progressive values and focus more on practical solutions. Slow food may be useful part of a healthy schools program as a means to an end, but pushing those values for their own sake should not be the objective, and certainly should not come at the expense of more practical lessons.