The summer of eating locally

Is going local a luxury?

By
November 14, 2007

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.

How far will you go to find ‘local’ food?

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.

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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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1. by lindsey on Nov 14, 2007 at 7:41 PM PST

Not to mention, I suppose, the point that eating “locally” in some places in our country is NOT sustainable and not doing anyone any favors in the long term. Shall I be okay with eating a peach trucked in from Georgia, or heaven forbid Chile, or shall I demand it be grown within 250 miles of where I live(d) in Tucson, Arizona, and thus drain rivers and aquifers to grow crops that have no business being grown in the desert? I think I’ll take the peach from Georgia, thanks all the same. I am horrified by Pima cotton for the same reasons.

2. by Ellen on Nov 14, 2007 at 9:53 PM PST

While being a locavore is currently cost or time prohibitive for many, it need not (or rather, should not) mean doing everything, or even most things, yourself, nor ought it imply returning to the potential deprivation of past times. For one thing, we could do a lot to investigate true regional foods, reducing dependency on staples our culture has brought over from Europe. We could encourage the growth of local businesses to make things like bread, juices, yogurt, condiments, etc from local products. There’s a long way we could go before deciding whether a globalized and industrial food system has that many, if truly any, benefits.

3. by valereee on Nov 15, 2007 at 4:28 AM PST

I don’t think it has to be an either-or thing. We can eat locally within reason and still work to improve the overall food production system.

I’ll never give up coffee, and sometimes those Chilean grapes and Israeli tangerines just look too good to pass up. But trying to eat more locally has made me mindful of the choice, and since local apples are readily available and incredibly delicious right now, most of the time I’ll choose SW Ohio apples in October and November.

4. by Charlotte on Nov 15, 2007 at 8:50 AM PST

I think the all-or-nothing approach does a disservice to the locavore “movement.” While fanaticism is appealing to a small demographic, why not just make local another concept on the spectrum of food-buying decisions? We’ve got a local guy who started a truck farm here in town and who has been really active in engaging with the community. But if Mark doesn’t have any carrots, and I’ve gone through my stash from my own garden, then I’m not going to spend the whole winter without carrots -- I’ll buy the commercial organic ones in the bag. Seems to me that the real success of the locavore movement over the last year or so has been in educating people that local might be preferable to commercial organic, and that commercial organic is probably preferable to conventional, and that if you can avoid buying stuff that came in on planes or trucks, that’s a good thing too.

5. by lisab on Nov 18, 2007 at 9:51 AM PST

I like what Marion Nestle said in that book What to Eat--she has a hierarchy that governs her purchasing. Her first choice would be local and organic; the second choice, local; the third, organic; and so on. I am also trying to eat more seasonally, which makes it less likely that I’ll be eating food trucked a zillion miles. For me, though, the killer is olive oil. I’m not going to cook without alive oil, or spices either.

6. by Kim on Nov 19, 2007 at 5:06 PM PST

I have to agree with Charlotte. Like any kind of diet, an all or nothing approach rarely works. After all, if you feel you’ve failed because bannanas and chocolate are imperative parts of your daily diet, you might give up on the idea of making the effort to eat more locally altogether. If, on the other hand, you choose to buy honey that came from a local beekeeper rather than honey off a grocery store shelf from 500 miles away, you’ve made a difference, haven’t you? Similarly, if I can buy a few extra servings of broccoli while it’s growing locally and preserve it for later, I’ve been able to support my local farmer, and avoid carbon-heavy broccoli in February. I like to think of the locavore movement as something that will open people’s eyes to what IS available in their area, and help them make choices based upon availability and the values they share with the people who produce their food. It is unrealistic to imagine that everyone will give up all foods that aren’t able to be produced within 100 miles of their home. However it is realistic to imagine that the awareness will help small farmers everywhere, as well as shed light on some of the dubious business practices of the agriculture-industrial complex.

7. by Laura on Nov 20, 2007 at 4:15 PM PST

I’ll throw my lot in with Ellen, Valeree, Charlotte and Kim. It not only doesn’t have to be, but shouldn’t be an either or. Making it so just makes it easier to dismiss those of us that are exposing and exploring valid issues with our national eating habits and reliance on foods from far away. It is also our responsibility to encourage new local bakeries, producers, farmers and restaurants. And to express our opinions to our legislators and local/state/national governments. And if we don’t get answers to the questions we ask (or roundabout ones if my representatives are any indication) we must consider to ask more pointed questions more loudly. Those of us that have the priviledge of affording, with our time and money, to eat locally and seasonally also bear the responsibility to make our voices heard.

8. by Farmer de Ville on Nov 24, 2007 at 9:19 AM PST

I think it is really about several things.

As people spend more money supporting local agriculturalists and local agricultural products, the prices for these items will naturally decrease, which is a positive thing...

Also, perhaps the primary value in things like the locavore movement is their ability to get people thinking in the right direction.

Finally, whatever we think of the benefits of massive industrial agriculture and its deliverance of “peaches in the desert,” it is an absolutely unsustainable system. It will collapse, it is inevitable, and when it does, we’d better hope we’ve nurtured our local agricultural web.

- Farmer

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