07/10/2012 11:56 am ET Updated Sep 09, 2012

California's Food Literacy Resolution Sparks Fight Between Grocers And Advocates


This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By Christina Jewett

In California, legislative resolutions tend to reflect universal sentiments: We embrace literacy. We disavow dating violence. But when Sacramento Assemblyman Roger Dickinson introduced a resolution to dub September Food Literacy Awareness Month, the details of the motion set off a virtual food fight.

Several lobbyists for growers and grocers stepped up to oppose the language in the resolution during a hearing last week, confirming that in a state where half of the nation's fruit, nuts and vegetables are grown, seemingly uncontroversial statements about food draw intense scrutiny.

Amber Stott, director of the California Food Literacy Center, said her organization sponsored the resolution and sees eating fresh, local produce as a key to stemming the nation's obesity crisis. To foster that goal, Stott said the group goes to schools and introduces kids to fresh produce to "inspire children to eat more fruits and vegetables."

During the hearing, Dickinson said the resolution supports the state economy by encouraging the purchasing of California-grown produce.

Lobbyists, though, lined up to speak against the finer points of the resolution and sent an opposition letter with 20 signatures from egg, tomato, grain and warehouse supporters. They questioned the resolution's claims about the nutritional value of organic food and the merits of local eating.

Louis Brown, a lobbyist representing an array of agriculture groups and the California Grocers Association, noted the irony of his opposition to the resolution during the hearing.

"This is really a measure that we in agriculture should be supporting and embracing, because this is exactly what we promote ... California-grown food," he said.

But he said he opposes it because it makes factually inaccurate claims about the nutritional value of organic versus conventionally grown produce.

Noelle Cremers of the California Farm Bureau Federation also opposed the bill. She said the research on the health value of organic produce has not been conclusive.

"There have been a lot of small studies on the issue, and most of them come out that there's no nutritional difference between the two," she said in an interview.

A recent research review by a nutritional neuroscientist for Scientific American backs that statement, finding that research has shown that organic produce is slightly more nutrient-rich, but on balance does not paint a clear picture.

Cremers also questioned the resolution's emphasis on eating local food. The 660-word resolution uses the word "local" 10 times and says "expansion of local and regional food systems can reduce the environmental cost of United States agriculture."

Cremers, though, said merits of the "locavore" movement are still being examined. "I know there's a general belief that if you eat locally, you're reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the research hasn't borne that out."

In Cremers' testimony, she referenced a controversial study about the environmental impact of eating locally that focused on Santa Barbara.

David Cleveland, a UC Santa Barbara environmental sciences professor, led the study, which examined the effect on greenhouse gas emissions if Santa Barbara County relied on its homegrown produce instead of shipping food in from afar.

The study compared what would happen to greenhouse gas emissions if food was trucked from local farms to local stores to what would happen if it was shipped long distances. They took into account the whole life cycle of the food industry, from production to distribution.

The conclusion: If Santa Barbara only ate county-grown produce, the total reduction in greenhouse gasses across the whole food system would be less than 1 percent.

Cleveland said the impact was small because much of the greenhouse gas production related to food is released when food is produced, not when it is transported. A 2008 study on the climate impacts of food choices showed similar results.

That study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, found that shifting from red meat and dairy to fish, chicken or vegetables one day a week "achieves more (greenhouse gas) reduction than buying all locally sourced food."

Cleveland said his study angered a lot of people in the "locavore" movement but is only meant to focus conversation on lifestyle changes that are most effective.

"Reducing food miles is potentially really valuable, but we have to focus on how that really happens and not be lulled into 'if we just have local food, it will solve our nutrition problems,' " he said.

Another part of the Assembly resolution, which saw little controversy at the recent hearing, has also been questioned by researchers. The resolution decries the problem of "food deserts," or "low-income and underserved neighborhoods without access to fresh, healthy foods."

Helen Lee, of the Public Policy Institute of California, is one researcher who recently found evidence that brings that concept into question. She examined census data on income, a federal study of 8,000 children and data on the location of food establishments in California. She did not find that people in lower-income areas had less access to grocery stores.

"They had equal or not differential access," she said. "For some measures, they had better access."

Lee said her study points to the need to broaden the conversation about why poverty and obesity tend to plague the same census tracts.

"Maybe we have to look at the relationship between food pricing, taste ... and other dynamics like comfort and cultural aspects of social class," she said. "It sounds taboo to say, but social class matters in our relationship to food. We're afraid to go there but need to get inside the black box more."

For now, though, Lee is not among the bean shippers, citrus growers or poultry boosters opposing Dickinson's bill.

Dickinson said he's willing to work with all comers to make sure the resolution takes a strong stand for healthy food and California's bounty.

"I don't think it's going to be that difficult to work something out," he said.

Christina Jewett is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.