Digging Deeper


Should the USDA support the local food market?

The reviews are in on the USDA’s new “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program and they are mixed.

Launched in 2009, the government’s effort is aimed directly at the booming local food market, one of the fastest growing in the ag industry.  It accounted for roughly $5 billion in 2008 and was expected to bring in $7 billion by 2011.

Added to that effort this week was an online component – a virtual compass that points to interactive maps, videos, photos and enough data to make even the toughest food geek go green with envy. The Food + Tech blog gave it a thumbs up, calling it “significantly evolved for a government agency.”

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack promoted the program at this week’s National Farmers Union, saying it opens up new markets for farmers while educating consumers about where food comes from.

But not everyone thinks the program is so cool. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, put out a press release on Feb. 29 saying it wasn’t “steeped in reality” since most food Americans eat isn’t locally grown.

The press release’s headline -- Senator Roberts: USDA Report Shows Misuse of Taxpayer Dollars – was a lot stronger than the content. Essentially, Roberts is questioning spending the money on a small segment of the ag industry

“Kansans enjoy bananas and coconuts, but they can’t walk into church every Sunday and shake the banana and coconut producer’s hand,” Roberts quipped.

The subject came up Wednesday during a hearing before the Senate’s Ag Committee. Roberts asked Vilsack if 27 programs for local food are needed during tough budget times.

“Are 27 different programs necessary for a (segment) of ag that represents less than 2 percent of our ag economy but seems to be going like gangbusters on their own?” he said. “I just don’t think we need 27.”

Add this opinion piece by The Packer, a produce trade publication, to the Roberts side. National Editor Tom Karst predicted that the local food movement can only gain steam if supported by big grocers and that the “Know Your Farmer” program “will be looked back on as a short-lived exercise in food system engineering by progressive-minded political appointees” at USDA.

The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative is window dressing to the local food movement. The most influential players are not farmers markets or school foodservice directors, either. The real movers and shakers are folks like Walmart, Kroger and Wegmans. And they don’t need government help to make it work.

That kind of criticism seems to astonish Karen Stillerman, a blogger at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She said the data found at the “Know Your Farmer” compass is “a bulked-up defense against critics of USDA support for anything that doesn’t fit the ‘Big Ag’ mold.”

At UCS, we often think the USDA’s vision of agriculture is wrong. But even on a shoestring, support for local food systems is one thing the department is getting right.

What do you think? Should the USDA help local farmers? Is this a rural vs. urban issue? Or is simply political rhetoric in an election year?

Talk to the Harvest Network and share your experience and insight.

And for even more perspective on the local food movement, check out our five-part series "Home Fields -- Digging into the local foods 'advantage.'" It also has a cool documentary that is airing on PBS stations.