Locavores have a friend in the General Assembly – Democratic Del. Kaye Kory, who has introduced a bill that would require Virginia’s schools to buy and serve Virginia-grown products “to the maximum extent possible.” For those who are particularly keen on the local food fad, this mandate makes excellent sense. But it’s terrible economics. And for taxpayers, it’s a raw deal.

 A new paper from Oklahoma State University agricultural economists Jayson Lusk and Bailey Norwood shows that to accept the many, and multiplying, claims of locavores, one first has to willfully ignore some economic fundamentals:

A major flaw in the case for buying local is that it is at odds with the principle of comparative advantage. This principle, which economists have understood for almost 200 years, is one of the main reasons that the vast majority of economists believe in free trade. Free trade, whether across city, state, or national boundaries, causes people to produce the goods or services for which they have a comparative advantage and, thus, makes virtually everyone wealthier.

Lusk and Norwood address a number of claims that buying local is best, and conclude that if we follow the local logic to its conclusion, we’d all be better off if we made our own shoes and iPods. Or at least bought them from the cobbler and part-time tinkerer down the street.

But what about the children?  The argument, according to Lusk and Norwood, goes something like this: buying local creates local jobs, provides kids with healthier food and thus, they will perform better in school.

But the authors counter with this: “If children in North Dakota are to eat pineapple, they must look south. And we don't mean South Dakota.”

Let’s apply this to Virginia. What locally-grown produce would be available for schools to purchase and serve kids during January? How about March? If the goal is to create a generation of thin kids, Del. Kory may be on to something, because there won’t be a lot of anything freshly-grown and local for them to eat during the school day.

Unless the hidden agenda is to kick-start a new program to teach kids the benefits of canning and preserving food. There could be some benefit to that (my grandmother’s canned pickles were out of this world delicious).

But there may be an answer to this nonsense contained in another proposed piece of legislation: Del. Bobby Orrock’s bill to implement economics education in the schools. While this bill is pretty thin gruel (how to deal with salesmen? Balance a checkbook? Good grief…), it could be amended to require all students to get a real grounding in economic fundamentals – supply, demand, free trade, comparative advantage and so on.

It would put them light years ahead of the economically illiterate adults in the General Assembly.