Do You “Eat Local”? Part 1

This is the first post in a series on eating local — what it is and what it isn’t.

We went to a restaurant the other night that advertized itself as a place to go to “eat local.” It had a huge waiting line outside (luckily we had made reservations), and a very “upscale” priced menu, if you know what I mean. The place had a very high noise level because of the hard surfaces on walls, ceiling, floors, that did not absorb any of the chatting, glass clinking, appliance motors, etc. So we just listened to all the conversations around us. And many of the patrons had very decided opinions about “eating local” and its implications. So I thought I’d put in my two cents here in this blog.

Time magazine eat local
Time Magazine Eat Local

Let me start by saying that we are very lucky if we live in the United States. We have much less hunger and malnutrition than many other nations because of the results of our mass production methods applied to agriculture. In the 1930’s we spent almost one quarter of our incomes on food. Today that has dropped to under 10 percent, even as our food budget spent on food not prepared at home has grown from 13 to 40 percent (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture). We Americans have access to cheap convenient food. An unintended consequence of this is the growth of obesity in our population, (but that is another discussion).

So we have the means to buy into various food movements such as “organic,” “diverse,” “green,” “sustainable,” and “local.”

What Growing Local Is

One of these terms — “local” — about which there’s been a good deal of press is supposed to help to “take back control of our food supply.” The rallying cry is to “Eat Local” (“Locovore” or “Locavore”) and “Grow Local.” It’s a funny notion, really – that somehow eating foods gown within a 100 mile radius of our home is taking back control of our food supply.

And this gets muddled with other ideas, processes, and practices that may or may not be part of the locavore movement; that’s what frustrated me listening to the restaurant conversations about eating local.

First the good news: The local food movement has probably helped the growth of  farmers markets, growing from a registration list kept by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) of 1750 in 1994, to nearly 8000 as of August of 2012, (although I suspect a much higher number exists, as registration with the USDA is voluntary).

farmer's market stand
Farmer’s Market Stand

In addition, growing from only two Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSA’s) known to exist in 1986, there are now about 12,500  CSA’s in the US. CSA’s require an investment by consumers in their food supply, since they are membership programs where the members share in crop failures as well as successes. See:

How many more road-side stands, backyard gardens, home canners, and school gardens (becoming quite popular since Mrs. Obama started one at the White House) (see her book just out here) there are is not known, but we know that there has been substantial growth in all these areas, (and in the case of home gardening and canning, the poor economy might be contributing somewhat to this growth.)

Yes, “growing local” and “eating local” stimulates the local economy. Yes, they could keep agricultural land in production that might otherwise go to suburban sprawl (notice, I said “could”). And decentralizing our sources for food could be a good way to prepare for a possible severe weather event, long term weather trends, or other disaster hitting one part of the country, although geography and climate by their very nature mandate some centralization of certain types of fresh food (to the Southwest, California, and Florida in the winter time at least).

Growing Local May Reduce Our Carbon Footprint

“Growing local” may reduce food miles (shorthand for reducing our carbon footprint, which in turn is shorthand term for  “green” – now that’s as short as we can get!) since it is reported that our fresh food comes from an average of 1500 miles away from us (doubtful for those of us living in our most populous state, California).  But there are many more inputs to the carbon footprint of our food, including the use of resources to fertilize, irrigate, propagate, reduce weeds, harvest, and process (yes, even fresh produce is processed – washed, graded, sorted, boxed, shelved) that can be efficient and reduce our carbon footprint, or inefficient, and therefore carbon costly. And how much are the efficiencies of mass-produced produce off set by their transportation costs?

Tomorrow, we will post the rest of our thoughts about growing and eating local. Before then, do you have thoughts about this effort, especially school gardens?

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