Going local

“Locavores” redefine where food should come from

January 29, 2007

On a cold November Saturday, Anita Prammer, 22, travels across town to a small parking lot to pick up some bread. This late in the year, all of the outdoor farmers’ markets in Minneapolis have shut down; the local growing season has essentially come to a close. Prammer is one of more than 60 customers who have ordered bread from a baker who uses locally produced ingredients.

The baker, Brett Laidlaw, has set up in the parking lot with a few other vendors selling local meat, honey, pickles, and late-season apples. He recognizes Prammer, hands over her order, and chats about the next time he’ll have bread available, right before the winter holidays.

Prammer came to Minneapolis in September to intern at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. She started buying the bulk of her food directly from local farmers around the same time. She’d read about the 100-Mile Diet, an eating plan in which the dieters, better known as “locavores,” try to eat only, or mostly, food grown within 100 miles of their homes. Throughout the fall, she says, 80 to 90 percent of her diet was produced in Minnesota.

“Until now, it was surprisingly easy to live local,” she says. But as winter nears, she admits, eating locally is becoming more of a challenge. That’s when it’s handy to know a farmer who will sell you a loaf of bread in a parking lot.

Laidlaw bakes with locally sourced flours, eggs, and milk. He and his wife grow what they can; their produce includes herbs, leeks, potatoes, and pumpkins for pumpkin-apple bread. They also forage for ramps and mushrooms, some of which turn up in the Laidlaw breads. “We draw a lot of inspiration from what the French call ‘goût de terroir,’ or taste of a place,” Laidlaw says. He isn’t just peddling local wares; he’s also selling the idea of locality, of knowing the place and the people who produce the goods.

Local color.

Environmentalists, farmers, and small-business advocates have been beating the local drum for decades. But in recent years, the idea of supporting local food has traveled from fringe to mainstream. Between 1994 and 2004, the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. more than doubled. Restaurants across the country pay homage to the local products behind their menus. And national companies such as grocer Whole Foods and food-supplier SYSCO have recently touted plans to source much more of their produce locally.

Meanwhile, a quiet revolution is taking place in the kitchens and dining rooms of America, where a wide array of eaters is learning what it really means to eat locally. For most — long accustomed to having any food available, anywhere, any time — “going local” is a curious hybrid of endurance test, culinary puzzle, and frank lesson in the possibilities (and limitations) of regional agriculture.

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The phrase “100-Mile Diet” is most commonly associated with Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, two writers who kept an exceptionally detailed account of their attempt to eat locally in British Columbia for an entire year. (They’ve also written a book with the same title, due out this spring.) But their project is only one example of a variety of challenges and diets to choose from. Some locavores try eating locally because they wish to support local farmers; others, because they believe in the health benefits of local food; still others, because they feel that eating locally is a powerful political, economic, and environmental statement.

A growing awareness of two separate but related issues — organic standards and fossil fuels — has made the local-food discussion more urgent. As the organic-food industry has expanded from small farmers to corporate producers, some critics have grown concerned that the organic-certification standards implemented by the USDA in 2002 won’t last. Many feel that small farmers are more likely to preserve soil and water quality than corporate growers, and many small farmers agree, refusing organic certification (an expensive, time-consuming process anyway) in favor of farming practices they believe are better environmentally. Meanwhile, petroleum products are pervasive in every step of the industrialized farming process. They’re used to make fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. They’re used to make and power the machinery that tills the soil and harvests the produce. And they’re essential for the trucks and trains that transport most of the food sold in the U.S.

In Albany, New York, the fossil-fuel problem swayed molecular biologist Cheryl Nechamen. Like Prammer, she became a locavore in September. But while Prammer’s choice to go local was tied more to organics, Nechamen’s decision was due to her discovery of “peak oil,” the theory that global petroleum production will soon reach a peak and then rapidly decline. According to the Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization that studies environmental and social issues, most food in the U.S. travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles to get from farm to table, and requires as much 10 percent of the nation’s oil spending. So for Nechamen, the choice to stop buying conventionally grown food was clear.

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