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Food to cost more, harming poorest

May 17th, 2010 · Public policy and food

money bag illustrationBesides the perhaps inevitable inching up of food prices, we can now count on spending an additional 1 percent on our food through sales taxes, thanks to a sales tax increase approved last week. Unfortunately, our spineless “conservative” legislators would rather gouge you and me than raise the income tax or eliminate some exemptions granted to businesses (such as laundry services and lottery tickets) and to nonprofits. (Here’s the official list of exempted nonprofits; I haven’t found a convenient list of the business exemptions, but you can wade through Senate Bill 476 [PDF] to identify them.)

Most states exempt food from sales taxes (see report from the Federation of Tax Administrators [PDF]). Although Kansas does provide a mechanism for poor people to get some relief from that tax on their income tax filings, the sales tax on food harms middle and low income people the most, because they spend a larger share of their income on food than wealthier people. A 2006 report at the Kansas Department of Revenue by John D. Wong of Wichita State noted:

For 2003, the effective consumer sales tax rate for the lowest income group was 16.5 percent, compared to the rate for the highest income group of 2.3 percent.

The new tax will only exacerbate that situation. Poor people also pay significantly higher proportions of their income on property taxes. When you combine all three taxes (sales, property and income), Wong found, the poorest people pay the largest share, and the richest pay the smallest share of their income in taxes:

The lowest income group (under $10,000) paid 32.7 percent of income in taxes. The effective tax rates decreased slightly for the middle-range of households, ranging from 14.6 percent to 7.6 percent. These households had income between $10,000 and $199,000. The highest income group($200,000 and over), paid 7.7 percent of income in taxes. The combined average effective tax rate for the state as a whole is 9.2 percent.

I suppose this is old news, but it’s depressing that the pols don’t just get away with it; they make it worse during hard financial times.

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West market off to positive start

May 7th, 2010 · Farmers markets, local food

[updated with photos]

Opening day for Thursday market of Lawrence Farmers Market

After years of planning and debate, the Lawrence Farmers Market on Thursday opened its first true west-side market to a warm welcome.

Vendor Carolyn Slawson (the silhouette at left, above) said, “The comment heard most from the customers was ‘Thank you for coming west,’” and she added, “As a vendor I felt appreciated and welcomed.”

Good news

My sister Lori, who lives a little more than a half-mile from the market on the southwest corner of Sixth & Wakarusa (and who shot the photos you see here—thanks, Lori!), was among the enthusiastic customers. She reported that not only was there a good crowd but also that lots of people were walking to the market and bringing their children. In a part of town where motor transport is almost necessary, this was big news. For those of us interested in our society’s long-term health and well-being, it’s very positive news indeed.

Jane Wohletz attends to customers

Lori gushed about the fragrance and flavor of Jane Wohletz’s strawberries (at right; click for larger version) which drew a crowd at the market, but Lori worried that less market-savvy neighbors might not realize that the number of vendors (there were about a dozen) will grow as the season progresses and vendors have more products to sell. She worried, in short, that the market might not succeed because customers wouldn’t patronize the market enough.

I’m not particularly worried, for several reasons. Key among them:

  • News of the high quality of the growers’ produce will spread, and people will come back for more, even if they are initially disappointed in the size of the market. There’s a contingent of more than 20 vendors signed up to sell on the west side. Just give them a little time.
  • The market addresses issues that have frustrated west-side families about the downtown markets. Specifically, it’s at a time that doesn’t compete with their children’s Saturday-morning sports activities; it’s close to where they live; and there’s easy access and plenty of parking.
  • Although it’s doubtful, at least for the time being, to attain the festive atmosphere of the Saturday market, the Thursday market is likely to attract shoppers who rarely go downtown on Saturday mornings and who, therefore, aren’t expecting the west market to be the same as the Saturday market.

A little background

I understand Lori’s concerns, though. A few years ago, the market tried a market on Wednesdays outside the Community Mercantile. That market lasted only one season.

This new market is different in several ways.

  • westSMIt’s farther away. It’s about five miles from the downtown markets compared with the one-mile distance between the Merc’s location at 9th & Iowa streets and the downtown markets. The greater distance means it really will draw from a fresh pool of potential customers.
  • It’s moving, not adding, a weekday market. The sales outside the Merc were on Wednesdays, and the Lawrence Farmers Market continued its Tuesday and Thursday sales. Three consecutive weekday markets spread the growers’ product and time thin.
  • It can capture commuters. Situated along a key route for people who commute to Topeka, the new Thursday market will be able to attract customers who can’t make it downtown on weekdays. (Click map for larger version, or go to Google map.)

You never know

Market vendors weren’t unanimous in their desire to open the Thursday market. Some worried about offending people who used to frequent the Thursday market downtown. A few, I suspect, are not keen on any change. And you never know; vendors could lose enthusiasm as the season progresses, just as they did the Wednesday market.

Still, I don’t think the risk of this market failing is a fraction of the risk farmers take every time they put a seed in the ground. If you live in the vicinity of the market, though, I do hope you will check it out. I’m on the market’s board, but I am not a vendor, so my only “dog in the fight” is the one that believes in supporting local producers, in the value of eating the fresh food that they sell and in the community benefits of a healthy local food system.

Carolyn didn’t sound worried about the market’s prospects. She said she is “looking forward to rest of the season at this site,” and market coordinator Tom Buller said, “I thought the Thursday market went well.  It was really busy from 4-5 and seemed to me to draw a really diverse crowd.” I know I’m eager to see how it works out. And one of these days, I’ll get out there to take a look for myself.

Let me know what you think. And if you have suggestions for making any of the markets better, speak up!

Girl tries out beekeeper's head gear

Is that my niece in there? No bees in her bonnet!

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Kansans to give perspective on Food Inc.

May 3rd, 2010 · Food in the news, local food

If you missed it in the theaters, on video and last week on PBS, you still can see Food Inc. this week on KTWU, Channel 11, in Topeka, and you’ll get a Kansas perspective, too. The Oscar-nominated movie is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5, on KTWU.

Even if you have seen the movie, though, you still might want to tune in, because KTWU is going to present two locally produced followup shows after the movie. First, at 8:30, according to a Kansas Rural Center press release, the station will give a half-hour presentation on Kansas food and farm history. Then, at 9 p.m., the station offers up “Taking Stock: Perspectives on Food Production in Kansas,” a panel discussion of issues raised in the movie, which questioned many aspects of the way American agriculture is producing our food.

The panel includes local food promoters Dan Nagengast of the Kansas Rural Center and Diana Endicott of Good Natured Family Farms, a marketing alliance of farms in eastern Kansas and western Missouri. The panel also includes representatives of “conventional” farming (the get big or get out model, I guess): Steve Baccus, president of the Kansas Farm Bureau, and Mark Smith, president of the Kansas Livestock Association. For the political perspective, there’s  state Secretary of Agriculture Josh Svaty and former Kansas governor John Carlin, currently a visiting professor in political science at K-State.

KTWUlogoDan reports that the discussion, which was taped in advance, went well. I’m looking forward to it. Now, if I can just get KTWU to come in on my television. I’ll be working on my rabbit ears…

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Roundup: Farmers markets lists

April 28th, 2010 · Farmers markets, Growing food

RPFA042808 Get yer farm-fresh produce here. The Kansas City Star provides a detailed list of farmers markets in the Kansas City region, both in Kansas and Missouri. (KC Star) Of course, other market lists are available that capture most markets in the United States. They include Local Harvest and the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service lists. The AMS list currently shows 81 markets in Kansas. For fellow Kansans, don’t forget the KS Farmers Markets site.

A popular view of ag. Commentator John Schlageck promotes an upcoming program, “Taking Stock: Perspectives on Food Production in Kansas,” which he says public television stations in Kansas will be running in response to the scheduled PBS broadcast of Food Inc. Alas, Schlageck’s column is largely a series of platitudes that provides no evidence to counter the reality of farmers who must work off the farm to survive economically, who are cogs in the great agriculture machine run by a handful of huge corporations that control everything from seed to silo to feedlot to slaughterhouse. We can only hope the panelists on the television program scheduled for May 5 have something of substance to say. (Pittsburg, Kansas, Morning Sun)

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Roundup: Grow, preserve, conserve, hunt

April 23rd, 2010 · Classes/education opportunities, Roundup

cucumber_sproutLearn to grow food. Two opportunities on tap; don’t wait to sign up! The K-State Extension Service in Shawnee County is  having a vegetable-growing seminar tomorrow, April 24, in Topeka. Registration is requested. Their flyer (PDF) tells more about it. And in Lawrence, Douglas County horticulture extension agent Jennifer Smith will be giving a class the evening of Thursday, May 13, at the Community Mercantile.

No freezer burn. If you’re in the KC area or don’t mind driving there, you can sign up for a food preservation class on freezing on April 30 at the Johnson County Extension office.

Planting seeds. Mary Sanchez writes in the Kansas City Star about an urban farming project in Kansas City, Kansas, that could improve diets in the urban core—and be a model for rules that Kansas City, Missouri, is pondering. (KC Star)

Green dining. Also in the Star, Jill Silva writes about KC-area restaurants’ efforts to reduce waste through means such as composting and reduced portion sizes. (KC Star)

Stalking turkey. For some Kansans, local food in spring means wild turkey. Read all about the bird and the hunt at the Topeka Capital-Journal.

ogallala Hot beans! Read a profile of Alan Townsend, head of the J. Hawkens Bean Co. in Goodland, Kansas. Growing edible dry beans makes sense in western Kansas. Maybe more growers will follow his lead and quit depleting the Ogallala Aquifer. (Profile by Ron Wilson, at Kansas State University.) Did I mention I love beans? You can read about the aquifer at Scientific American, among other places. (Map: U.S. Geological Survey)

Oxen to be gored? I’m a little late on calling attention to last week’s AP article about antitrust rules to be developed governing the meat and poultry industries. As the article notes:

Just four companies buy and slaughter 80 percent of all U.S. beef, limiting competition in the meat industry. Meanwhile, big poultry companies dictate chicken prices and can demand farmers take on debt to upgrade their chicken houses for the companies’ benefit.

Needless to say, that kind of power can be abused—and is, by some standards. Stay tuned for when the rules are issued, and be prepared to let Uncle Sam know you you feel about them. (Associated Press)

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Proposed sugar tax could be sweet deal

April 22nd, 2010 · Food in the news, Healthy eating

statecapA bill in the Kansas Legislature to levy a tax on sugary soft drinks sounds like a win-win deal to me. Not only would the proposal, Kansas Senate Bill 567, somewhat sweeten the state’s pitiful coffers up front, but the proposal also has the potential to reduce soft drink consumption a tad and thereby health-care costs over the long run.

The estimated $90 million benefit to the tax rolls isn’t enough to balance the budget, but imagine the potential savings over for Kansas residents suffering diabetes and obesity at least partly due to soft drinks. Liquid calories are notorious for their weight-adding facility (just Google “liquid calories”), and the latest news says added sugar also contributes to heart disease. (Here’s Time magazine’s report; lots of others exist.)

Opponents of the proposal, chiefly bottlers and their employees, plan an ad campaign and testified against the bill in the Ways and Means Committee (Associated Press). You can let committee members know those opponents do not represent you. The following senators are committee members:

Chairperson Jay Emler, Carolyn McGinn, John Vratil, Pat Apple, Ty Masterson, Vicki Schmidt, Jean Schodorf, Mark Taddiken, Ruth Teichman, Dwayne Umbarger, Laura Kelly, Kelly Kultala and Janis Lee. Their contact information is here. Let them know what you think!

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