For me, the summer of 2007 was the season of eating locally. Barbara Kingsolver had published Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, her family’s story about a year of eating within their local foodshed. J. B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith had come out with Plenty, their record of the year behind their 100-Mile Diet. And for the past few years, “eat local” challenges have been promoted all over the country.
In my own hometown, Salt Lake City, a group of locavores spent the last month of summer cinching up their belts and emptying their cupboards to meet the demands of the challenge. They ate only foods produced “locally,” which for some participants meant 100 miles; for others, 250 miles. They tried to forget about coffee and sugar and most types of alcohol. They made their own vinegar. Some participated for a day or a week; others devoted themselves to an entire month of the challenge.
I spent my summer reading every book and website I could find on eating locally. I learned how to use my stand-up mixer to churn butter from local cream. I purchased 60 pounds of local meat and spent the majority of my weekends canning. But I did not join my local locavores.
Locavores go local for many reasons. Most cite political and environmental motivators; by choosing to eat locally, they say, they are promoting sustainability and responding to the failures of the industrial food system. Eventually, they hope, personal choices will trickle up to the systems that dictate the majority of Americans’ food choices, encouraging the production and distribution of food that is pesticide-, petroleum-, and guilt-free.
Buying local, the argument goes, reduces our carbon footprint, provides healthier food, and promotes more arable land. Add to that the fresher food in varieties that are often unattainable at the grocery store, and the argument becomes a pretty strong one.
Local eating is compelling when you realize that we’re a bit upside-down in how we approach food. We shouldn’t be able to get any foodstuff at any time, and cheaply at that. Our industrialized food system may be convenient, but it has also given us spinach laced with E. coli, toxic fish, and soaring rates of obesity. Locavores protest this industrial system by opting out. But I wonder whether this approach is really a good way of improving our damaged food system.
Whether we care to admit it or not, there are benefits to a globalized and industrial food system. When eating local was a necessity, not a luxury, there was more likelihood of deprivation and famine; food procurement and preservation was a full-time job. These days, it’s easy to embrace eating locally; if my pickles fail or storms destroy local crops, I have backups. I doubt any of us are really willing to return to a truly local food system.
There is a certain DIY appeal to eating locally; part of me wants to take on the 100-mile diet just to see what clever ideas I can come up with, what limits of culinary artistry I can push, and what historical secrets of food preservation I can uncover. But I know that eating locally is a luxury for me. As a community-college professor, I don’t earn a big salary, but with only me and my fiancé in the house, I can devote a higher proportion of my income to food. Because my time is flexible, I can also spend hours in the kitchen if I choose, grinding flour, baking bread, and canning jam.
Making food procurement and preparation a full-time endeavor is not a reality for most Americans, who may be working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. My opting out of the industrial food system doesn’t do anything for people who have no other choice but to purchase and consume the most calorie-dense foodstuffs in the grocery store: the corn-laden junk foods that are ultimately subsidized by the Farm Bill.
I mean no disrespect to those taking on the local-food challenge. I admire their tenacity and creativity. I understand the appeal of eating locally, and I will continue to do so as much as possible. But rather than spending hours researching local sources of wheat or driving 100 miles to buy local wine, perhaps we could ask serious questions about how our food system is failing to be sustainable, how it is failing to treat workers fairly, and how it is failing to reflect the true economic and cultural value of food.
Eating locally is a beginning, but efforts to confine eating to an arbitrary limit of miles may ignore the questions that move beyond our own kitchens: What compels Americans’ food choices? How can we get large-scale producers to reconsider their unsustainable practices? Could we put our energies towards starting a local co-op so that we are able to support local growers but also benefit from economies of scale?
Considering these efforts is intimidating; I’m not even sure where to begin looking for answers. But I know that they don’t lie in my ability to transform local apples into vinegar.
Melissa Helquist teaches writing and children’s literature and is currently working on a cookbook for kids.
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