In late January, assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) introduced bill AB 199 (or the "Choose California Act") into the California state legislature. The bill, if passed, would force state-run institutions (schools, prisons, hospitals, etc.) to purchase their agricultural products from California farmers before buying from out-of-state farms. Of course there are a few catches that come with this bill -- for example, for a farm in the state to be eligible for the program, their sticker price must not exceed the cost of identical out-of-state items by more than 5% -- but the main thrust of the act is simple: Californians helping Californians.
Or, is that all a bit too short-sighted? What's the catch? To help me find out, I sent the bill to a handful of local farmers and market managers to gauge their opinions on it.
Diana Rodgers, Manager of Mar Vista Farmers Market:
I'm all for supporting farmers -- particularly small farmers. Ideally, the program would focus on local economy and educate and include community in its practical reality. However, it's very likely -- unless a practical methodology is put into place to link local, small, family farmers to their nearest institutions -- that Big California Agriculture will get the opportunity.
Cliff Kane, Kane's Family Farm:
It sounds like a good bill. We grow avocados and mushrooms and, as you know in California, local growers are competing in the market with avocados from Mexico and other places, and mushrooms from China, even though California has some very big mushroom farms and avocado farms. We happen to be a very small family farm, so we can't really compete against any of the large producers. But I think people eating and buying locally-produced food is a good thing. I hope the state gets on board with that.
Lefty Ayers, ReRide Ranch:
I think California needs all of the help they can get. I absolutely hate new laws, whether they benefit me or not. But I do think they can make policies to get people to "Buy California." They might have to go from organization to organization, but I do think buying local can only help all of us involved. Here's the thing, though. I was just reading the local paper, and they say that L.A. school districts have misappropriated $158 million on low-income programs for feeding kids. So let's say even if the law was implemented, it doesn't mean that money's going to be spent right. And also does the program have to hire people to oversee it? Does it add to the California budget? Is it supplemented by California tax base program? Is there any difference on prices? Is it going to cost the state more money to regulate than it's worth? But I think the concept is good.
Noel Stehly, Stehly Farms:
Anytime we can promote local farms in California, I'm for it. But a lot of times, laws like this tie people's hands and make things worse. I don't know if there's a downside -- I'm not an attorney that looks at laws all day -- but I'm sure there are some. Let's think, for instance, of the school food system where they have to have a certain serving of fruit or vegetables each day. Then you watch the kids, high school especially, and there's this stigma that you don't eat that good food in front of your peers. So it all just goes in the trash can. Whole apples. That's my concern. So many laws are written to cover everyone, but one shoe does not fit all feet. I just worry that this is just because our legislator thought it was a good idea to promote California without thinking about the downsides. There has to be more analysis done of some sort.
Noel's quote pretty much sums up the feelings of the farmers I spoke to: As a local farmer, of course they're not going to be against anything that attempts to help California keep the money in-state. But at the same time, looking at how the state's been spending its money -- Lefty Ayers's example of the recent scandal in L.A.'s lunch program, for instance -- and there is certainly cause for skepticism.
In other words, there's got to be another shoe dropping on this. And until it does, farmers are saving their excitement.