Some bills are reactions to tragic incidents, revealing research or successful legislation in other states. This one was inspired by cheese.
Sen. Tim Keller, D-Bernalillo, sponsor of Senate Bill 63, was in an interim committee meeting in Las Cruces when he had the idea for the bill, which changes the state procurement code to require state agencies to buy some of their food locally.
“I was mad about how ludicrous and bad for our economy it is that, for example, our schools don’t buy the cheese for their pizza from the plant in Roswell that makes all the cheese for Domino’s Pizza,” Keller says. “We have enough; it’s good cheese, and yet we buy it out of state. It’s crazy.”
If Gov. Susana Martinez signs the bill, it would be the first such law nationwide, according to food policy experts contacted by SFR.
“It’s a slightly higher order of magnitude in terms of taking this whole trend around supporting local growers and local food processors, local food economies…” Community Food Security Coalition Program Director Mark Winne says.
Beverly Idsinga, executive director of the New Mexico Dairy Association, tells SFR her organization is neutral on the bill, because it believes the legislation would only affect two dairy operations in the state: Creamland Dairies and Tucumcari Mountain Cheese Factory. Those are the only two producer-processors of dairy in New Mexico; the others export their products to processing plants out of state. However, the bill defines locally produced as products from any company with a plant or field in New Mexico. Keller says NMDA hasn’t followed the bill closely and may not understand it.
Leprino Foods, the Roswell cheese manufacturer that supplies Domino’s Pizza and is North America’s largest mozzarella producer, is likewise neutral on the bill, spokesman Ted Wietecha tells SFR, citing lack of research and uncertainty about its effects.
The truth is, the state doesn’t know how many New Mexico-produced products it currently uses. SB 63 would fill in the gaps, by providing for a biennial review of state agencies to determine whether they are meeting the required targets. By July 2012, each agency is to procure 2 percent of its food locally, 5 percent by 2014 and 10 percent by 2016.
Eleven New Mexico school districts already participate in a federal Farm to School program that allows them to buy a certain amount of food from local farmers instead of having to buy from the lowest bidder, which is often a large national chain. Keller’s proposal, however, would work differently: Each vendor bidding to sell to the state would have to show that a percentage of its product was locally produced.
Potential cost increases were among the biggest concerns state agencies raised in their analyses of the bill. Corrections Department spokeswoman Rosie Sais tells SFR that the department doesn’t have a stance on the bill because of questions about how it would affect costs. The bill’s fiscal impact report estimates the biennial report would cost $250,000; Keller estimates it would cost $10,000.
Vicki Pozzebon, executive director of the Santa Fe Alliance, which oversees the local Farm to Restaurant program, acknowledges that local sourcing can drive up prices.
“The cost of local food is much higher and, in some instances, it’s cost-prohibitive…but things like this can help because if you’re starting to get more demand, then of course prices go down,” Pozzebon says.
Not all local products are more expensive than their out-of-state counterparts. Santa Fe Public Schools Farm to School Coordinator Betsy Torres notes that New Mexico apples are actually cheaper and fresher. The program also provides schools with access to types of produce that might not otherwise be available, such as the local tomatoes the district served when national tomato wholesalers recalled their goods over salmonella concerns, SFPS Food Services Director Judi Jacquez says.
Ultimately, Winne says, SB 63 can help New Mexico be less vulnerable to food insecurity by developing the local food economy.
“The more we can become self-reliant and resilient with respect to food, the better off we’re going to be,” he says.
It remains unclear if Gov. Martinez will sign the bill; a spokesman for the governor’s office did not return a call for comment by press time.