The War on Food
Revisiting Baylen Linnekin’s *Biting the Hand that Feeds Us*
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, there are few things more terrifying than a government bureaucrat who is trying to help us. In California, we are confronted with the stuff of nightmares on an almost daily basis. Baylen Linnekin of : Reason Magazine reports on the latest do-gooder legislation that makes the problem it is trying to solve much worse
Sounds great, right? Not so fast…
The problem of food waste is a perfect encapsulation of the broader issue of food freedom, and indeed of all “solutions” to perceived market failures. The government gets involved to right a wrong, without considering the myriad ways that the invisible hand is being thwarted in the process.
Linnekin returned to the show to revisit his now classic book Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable (Island Press, 2016), and how California’s law fits the broader pattern we see over and over again. For a summary of Baylen’s book, subscribe to my Substack — Essential Liberty.
Listen or read the interview summary below:
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[Baylen’s words are in quote blocks]
Government has invited itself to our dining room table in an insidious and pervasive way, affecting the taste, quality and cost of our food through unnecessary restrictions on what we eat.
Baylen Linnekin is my go-to guest for all things food freedom. This time, the limits on food freedom are being imposed on my own backyard — California is at it again.
Food Waste in California
The California Senate has decided that we are not giving enough free food to the homeless and that increasing taxes to feed them directly is too politically painful. However, it has found a way to feed the homeless and have other people pick up the tab.
SB 1383 is the poster child for government’s abusive relationship to food, wherein it tries to accomplish multiple goals simultaneously, which backfires spectacularly. So what is SB 1383, and why did it catch Baylen’s attention?
There are a lot of homeless people in California, and also a lot of food waste – food that ends up in the landfill rather than in someone’s mouth. We waste 40% of our food from field to fork, and of course there are hungry people who could use that food.
California thought it could wave a magic wand and force business to work together with local governments to divert food waste to the homeless. It’s a well-intentioned law. It sounds nice.
Let’s translate “work together”: California wants local business and government to spend their money solving the problem of hunger among the homeless.
The problem, Baylen says, is that the bill doesn’t establish a framework, or funding.
It’s never a good idea just to foist a problem onto the little guy and then tell them to figure out how to solve it.
Specifically, the law compel supermarkets to divert as much as a quarter of food now destined for the dump to food banks — toward a statewide goal of recovering 20% of edible food by 2025. If they don’t comply, they will be fined.
California, it's time for some trash talk on food waste
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter . It's Friday,Dec. 10. My name is Deborah Netburn and…
One of the unintended consequences of the law is that food banks are getting fewer donations — the exact opposite of the intent of the law.
Baylen speculates that the state will likely never actually assess what grocers are doing, but they have hinted at hiring private researchers from universities to evaluate the program.
The problem with this approach to ending food waste is that rather than letting the burden fall to the people that care, it mandates an ineffective substitute — call it “compelled generosity,” which really isn’t generosity at all.
Food Waste in General
Taking a step back, I’ve always been confused by the term “food waste.” What does it mean to waste food?
In my home, I pay for water as I use it. Once I purchase it, I’m free to do what I want with it. If I enjoy the sound of running water — a babbling brook — I can let the water run and my life will be by my standards enhanced.
Have I wasted water in this case?
Baylen took issue with my analogy, since unlike water, food is produced explicitly for human consumption.
At first, I disagree — the food producer makes food to sell, and doesn’t care whether it’s consumed. Again, Baylen pushed back based on his extensive field research, interviewing food producers, who he says care deeply that their output is not only consumed but enjoyed the fullest extent possible.
KFC might not care if you eat every peiece of chicken in their bucket, but most food producers don’t just care about the bottom line. They want the Yelp! review. They want you to become a repeat customer.
In some sense, it still mostly boils down to economics, but Baylen’s point is well-received.
Casualties in the Government’s War on Food
While California tries to compel generosity among local businesses, it neglects a much larger problem of the myriad ways that government contributes to the 40 million tons of food wasted every year in this country (valued at almost $200 billion).
How does government encourage us to waste food? Let’s start with the school lunch program. Remember Michelle Obama’s famous healthy foods initiative? As always, it morphed into a muddled policy that aimed at two goals while achieving neither. Obama’s school lunch reforms, which turned into the Hunger-Free Kids Act, mandated that schools serve healthier food — while simultaneously purchasing the agricultural surpluses that result from government subsidies to farmers.
The result of the program was that kids threw away more “healthy” (read: inedible) food:
Schools only get credit for meals they serve, so kids are encouraged to take the food, even if they’re not going to eat it. That food just goes to the landfills. Trump amended the Obama-era approach, but the food sucked either way. It sucked under Obama and after Trump, it still sucks.
If we wanted to reduce food waste, we could start by giving kids from needy families the ability to “opt out” of school lunches, and work to connect them directly with the grocery stores and restaurants that are currently throwing away their extra food. Baylen thinks this would reduce food waste far more than California’s new law, but has yet to hear of a school that has tried implementing it.
“The food sucked either way. It sucked under Obama and after Trump, it still sucks.”
Another example of government intrusion leading to food waste is the USDA’s food grading system. The lower grades of meat are something like “Choice,” instead of “barely edible,” while other perfectly good food is not able to find its way to the market because it doesn’t meet certain aesthetic standards.
These grades are arbitrary and they were established as a result of work between big business and USDA’s agricultural marketing service.
Certain fruits like the Macintosh apple has to have 40% brightness in it’s red coverage. Carrots have to be at least an inch in circumference. Why the hell would anyone care whether a carrot has an inch of circumference or an inch and a half or three quarters? Well it’s because businesses want to grow uniform food, and it just facilitates their grip on your grocer’s shelf.
People who pick food in the fields are told by growers, “Listen, leave the skinny carrots in the fields. We can’t sell them because Walmart, won’t buy them.”
This collusion between government and big business results in worse quality food at higher prices, while the good stuff rots in the fields.
And frankly, in most cases, food that’s bred for how it looks tastes worse than food that’s bred for flavor.
Non-Governmental Solutions: Fruita Feia
It seems that Baylen and I have stumbled upon a novel solution for food waste and ending hunger: why not reward farmers for harvesting these ugly foods by buying them and then giving them to the homeless? If government feels an obligation to feed the homeless, this would be a cheaper and more effective way to do it.
Linnekin confirms that this could work, and it has already been implemented in Portugal with funding from a private foundation: Fruita Feia pays farmers below market value for food that would otherwise be wasted and then mark it up (still discounted) for the consumer.
This doesn’t require any government intervention whatsoever.
We have to give up on the idea of a magic wand. Mandates cannot solve complex problems like food waste. For that, we still need market prices and reward-type incentives — not more fines and penalties for businesses.
Food Labelling Controversies & Raw Milk SWAT Raids
A final example of government’s counterproductive interference in our food freedom comes from draconian food labelling restrictions, such as those that say you can’t label almond milk as “milk.” Government-approved “standards of identity” mostly just serve to confuse customers, who are capable of figuring out what is and isn’t milk, while benefitting a handful of protected industries.
Once again, it’s collusion between business and government — or “regulatory capture,” whereby entrenced industry writes the regulations to exclude newcomers like “Neufchatel” — the lower fat cream cheese alternative.
“Frankly, people around the world are smart enough to understand that almond milk is not from a cow.”
While we’re on the topic of government saving people from themselves, we’ve also seen disturbing news stories about SWAT raids targeting producers of raw milk and other allegedly dangerous products. Baylen relays a story about an FDA raid on an Amish raw milk farmer in Pennsylvania 10 years ago, and another one more recently on a raw food co-op in Santa Monica.
Raw milk is legal in California, but it wasn’t certified. Government gets itself in a tizzy over raw milk, which is just unpasteurized milk and is sold in virtually every other country on earth. You can buy it in a vending machine along the highway in Germany, but due to a court ruling in the ‘80s pushed by Ralph Nader’s group, the Public Citizen, the FDA was forced to ban raw milk. Perhaps the guns are holstered during the raids, but the raw milk battles are not over.
Neither the battle over raw milk nor the broader War on Food will end until people stand up for their Food Freedoms — their right to buy and consume what they want.
But there are rays of hope on the horizon. Baylen’s latest project is a study for the Reason Foundation about cottage food laws, regulating the sale of home-produced food. These micro-enterprise home kitchens are sprouting up around the country, and many states are supporting their flourishing.
They’re really a game changer because they’re desensitizing people to the notion that the government needs to be between me and every food transaction.
Food freedom laws are giving de-regulation a good name, taking the most direct path to citizens’ hearts: their stomach.