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By Janie Har June 24, 2011

Will Multnomah County’s food plan make it harder for people to eat and pay for their food of choice?

A tweet came to our attention recently, courtesy of the lively left-leaning and right-leaning twitterati who use the #orpol hashtag. ORLibertyGal tweeted: "Multnomah County plans to interfere with your food delivery. Oh goodie"

Minutes later, BlueOregon contributor T.A. Barnhart responded: "onus on fearmongers to provide FACTS. | RT @ORlibertygal: MultCo plans to interfere w/food delivery. #orpol #orleg"

Facts? We love facts. Multnomah County wants to mess with food delivery? We better look into this. (Thanks Barnhart!)

It turns out that the tweet stemmed from an online post at Red County, a website for conservative politicos. Gresham resident and Tea Party activist Roxanne Ross accused Multnomah County of using its 2009 food action plan "to artificially inflate the market" for organic local produce while dampening the availability of cheaper mass produced foods.

The county,writes Ross, "clearly plans to disrupt the free market system in terms of food choices making it harder and more expensive for many residents to eat their food of choice." Some specifics cited by Ross (in our own words):  

  • Multnomah County wants to turn available space into farm plots, in order to feed more people within county lines.
  • Multnomah County plans to disrupt restaurant food delivery service, by having retailers buy from local farmers.
  • Multnomah County wants "communal kitchens" to encourage more use of local foods.

Naturally, we had to study the plan for ourselves. We wondered if the county had visions of turning itself into a self-sustaining village with high taxes on out-of-county products. We turned to the Multnomah Food Action Plan 2025 and found that it’s not quite what Ross claims. The plan is aspirational and fuzzy, with backers saying it should lead to more collaboration and focus. From the document itself:

"The 15-year action plan offers four action areas containing 16 goals and 65 communitywide collaborative actions for local government, businesses, nonprofit organizations, faith communities, and learning institutions. This Plan also offers 40 actions for individual community members whose daily choices or lack of choices in what to eat, where to shop, and how to become an advocate for change greatly influence our community."

That’s a lot of partnerships and a lot of emphasis on individual choice. And frankly, it all sounds very pie-in-the-sky to PolitiFact Oregon. But we digress. Simply put, we bet that by 2025, shoppers will still be able to buy low-priced meats and potato chips from Fred Meyer.

David Austin, spokesman for the county, agrees. He described the food plan as a promotional tool, a way to encourage residents and businesses to think of healthy food choices. (For example, sustainability staff just held its second "food summit" in June.) In 15 years, he said, as a result of the plan there might be healthier food choices in food-deprived neighborhoods currently served by convenience stores. Or, he said, there might be more community gardens with neighbors donating produce to the Oregon Food Bank.

"Multnomah County is not going to put a sign on every corner and demand that no chips are sold here. At the same time, we want to make sure all of our residents have equal access to healthy food," he said.

In an email, Ross said she’s not saying the county will halt importation of food. But she insists that the "market manipulations" cited in the plan, such as zoning for urban farms, will protect local foods, meaning that "for those people who prefer meat and food from outside the county, it will mean increased cost for food."

Since we’re not economists, we decided to ask Portland State University environmental economics professor David Ervin how a fuzzy food plan could result in higher prices for meat and other foods from outside the county. He was puzzled.

"Unless there’s regulations restricting the entry of food, of those foods she’s talking about, or there’s some additional costs imposed on those foods, then there’s not good economic logic on why their costs would go up," he said. "Those prices are set in national markets."  

Ervin explains that if more people choose to eat local food, that "will reduce the demand for those other imported foods, but I doubt that would have much of a price effect because we’re such a small part of the market."

Just to make absolutely sure, we called the Cascade Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank that loves all things free market and hates government meddling. We got an earful from John Charles, the institute’s president and CEO, on both the meaninglessness of the plan, as well as its inconsistencies, and its poor writing. But the bottom line, he said, is that government already has the tools to encourage food choice: get rid of restrictive codes and high business taxes.

"Assuming that eating locally grown food is desirable -- I don’t care whether people eat imported food, it is not a function of government to even care... ," he said. "... Assuming there’s some reason why local is good, we can accomplish that by relaxing some regulations, and giving producers and consumers the maximum choices."

We asked Charles specifically whether the county’s plan would result in higher prices of meat and non-local foods. He said no.

In the end, we don’t see how encouraging urban gardening and healthy eating and supporting a communal kitchen and small farmers will lead to higher prices for meat and bulk foods. There’s no disruption to the free flow of goods in and out of the market. In fact, those points -- price and disruption -- are ridiculous.

We rate the claim Pants on Fire.

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Our Sources

Interview with David Austin, May 31, June 15, June 16, 2011

Emails from Roxanne Ross, June 2, June 6, 2011

Interview with David Ervin, June 14, 2011

Interview with John Charles, June 15, 2011

Multnomah County, Multnomah Food Action Plan

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