With the holiday season behind us, many Americans are vowing to eat better and get in shape. And the federal government is, as it is in so many other ways, only too happy to help. The White House has unveiled Debra Eschmeyer, co-founder of the group FoodCorps, as executive director of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” program. The title of senior policy adviser for nutrition policy has also been bestowed upon Eschmeyer.
Eschmeyer replaces Sam Kass, a chef and close friend of the Obamas, who left last month to move to New York.
In her new role, Eschmeyer “will lead the First Lady’s work to help America raise a healthier generation of kids and ensure that all kids have the opportunity for the long, healthy lives they deserve,” the White House said in a news release.
How might she go about that? Well, Eschmeyer may begin with the humble school lunch.
“Not many people know that the school meal is the most highly regulated, researched, rallied for and railed against meal in the country. It’s a very complicated meal because it’s looked at from so many different facets from health to nutrition to the environment to agricultural to education,” she explained to Erin McCarthy of the Ecocentric blog in 2012.
Eschmeyer’s solution: make things even more complex through greater government intervention.
“This is how we’re going to invest in truly changing and reforming the food system: through school meals because we have a responsibility to educate our youth in school and to me that needs to include food,” she told McCarthy. “I see Farm to School programs as being that perfect snapshot of how we can initiate real systemic change.”
One goal of FoodCorps, Eschmeyer explained, is to get more “local food into public schools.” That sounds innocent enough, but it would actually be a big step in the wrong direction for farm policy. Big farms are paying big dividends for American society.
Consider: as a paper from Washington University of St. Louis noted, “In 1776, over 90 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas where farming was the primary economic resource.” Most Americans farmed, and for far too many, disaster was just a bad harvest away.
The American Farm Bureau Federation reported that today, “farm and ranch families comprise just 2 percent of the U.S. population.” And yet, “farmers produce 262 percent more food with 2 percent fewer inputs (labor, seeds, feed, fertilizer, etc.), compared with 1950.”
Economist Steve Sexton has debunked the idea that small, local farms are better than big, centralized ones. “The argument that local farming is better for the environment than industrial agriculture is an assumption that a ‘relocalized’ food system can be just as efficient as today’s modern farming. That assumption is simply wrong,” he wrote at the Freakonomics blog. “Today’s high crop yields and low costs reflect gains from specialization and trade, as well as scale and scope economies that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.”
Eschmeyer’s FoodCorps also tried to get students involved in “hands on learning with school gardens providing for the most vulnerable populations through our educational system,” as she told the Ecocentric blog.
That sounds good in theory. But in practice, maintaining even a small garden is difficult.
Recall that during the federal government shutdown of 2013, Michelle Obama’s White House garden swiftly went to seed. “It’s never, ever looked like this — it’s just going rampant, there’s stuff rotting on the ground that’s been lying there for two weeks,” the hostess of the Foodorama blog told Britain’s Telegraph. Without the staffing of the federal government, a simple garden was overwhelmed by squirrels and foxes within days.
One problem at that time is that Kass had been furloughed as a “non-essential” federal employee. As Eschmeyer starts her new duties, she can only hope for a better fate.