The People and The Food: A Policy Fairy Tale
Once upon a time, there was a state that faced an obesity epidemic. In particular, many economically disadvantaged people who lived there were struggling with their weight and as a result they suffered disproportionately from Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. At the same time, the population of the state was growing, and prices for healthy foods – such as fruits and vegetables – were increasing, making them less affordable to poor people.
The State decided to start a subsidized healthy lunch program in schools to make sure that economically disadvantaged children were developing healthy eating habits. At the same time, they granted more land to fruit and vegetable farmers to help them grow more food and meet demand.
When the legislators met to decide this, one of them asked: “But won’t the farmers make more profit if we grant them more land?”
“Yes, potentially,” replied another. “We had better tax the fruit and vegetable production from that new land to make sure that the farmers don’t make too much money.”
“I know,” chimed in a third, “let’s use the money we get from taxing fruit and vegetable production to pay for the healthy lunch program!”
As you might imagine, the farmers were somewhat surprised by this policy decision but for a while they went along with it.
Some years later, the healthy school lunch program was struggling to meet growing demand from a steadily increasing population. The legislators went back to the farmers to announce that they were tripling the level of the tax on additional farmland grants. “But wait,” said the farmers, “if you keep raising the taxes on this additional land, you are working directly against fruits and vegetables being affordable. In the limit, you may make it unprofitable for us to farm this land, and that is not good for our state’s fruit and vegetable supplies.”
So the legislators hired a consultant (who was on the board of the school lunch program) to ask them how much money the program needed, and how much the farmers should provide in extra taxes. The consultant had the very difficult assignment of telling the legislators how much profit farmers should be allowed to make.
One farmer came to see the legislators and said: “Don’t you see, taxing us is not making healthy foods any more affordable to the population as a whole. Growing affordable fruits and vegetables needs to be part of your health policy. You can’t do it all by just giving more money to the school lunch program!”
Another farmer suggested that health is really a systemic challenge. It depends on widespread access to affordable healthy food, a great school lunch program, access to preventive care, and land use planning that makes walkable neighborhoods and healthy lifestyles possible. “We need all these things,” she said. “You need to look at these things all together, and not get less of one, and more of another.”
One of the legislators was not convinced: “Let’s set up a task force of people from the lunch program, and ask them what they need, and how they see the problem.”
“No,” replied the farmers. “The point is, you need to set up a task force that looks at all of these things together, and challenge your task force to come up with a plan and policy that optimizes around health outcomes, not around only the metric of how many students are served by the lunch program.”
Here are some other thoughts the farmers had:
- The task force should have lots of different kinds of people on it: macro-economists, health policy experts, preventive care specialists, grocers, land use planners, farmers, and people from the school lunch program.
- One of the questions the task force should consider is asking farmers what it would take for them to grow more food on the land they have: are there any regulatory barriers that prevent them from maximizing their yield?
- To the extent that revenue streams are needed to fund the recommendations of the task force, it should look at multiple sources of revenue in addition to taxes on fruit and vegetable production. These might include taxes on soda-pop as well as other sugary and fatty foods, or taxes on people who keep their land fallow and unproductive for many years thereby restricting land supply for growing food.
The legislators thought this over. Now this systemic kind of change was not very sexy stuff. It was definitely harder to model and quantify. It was going to take a long time. It was going to be really hard to get front page coverage in the Seattle Times.
But it also made sense. So they did it. And their State was able to grow, and deal with the complexities of that growth without making myopic mistakes. And the State thrived, and its people ate healthier, and they were healthier.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Above image of Politics, Law, and Farming in Missouri by Thomas Hart Benson taken from the cover of Wendell Berry’s What Are People For?