Monday, October 26, 2009

Local yokels

My friend Sheffy brings up a good point, and it's something I've been trying to work out for myself for some time: what does it mean to eat locally? Here are some of the explanations I've encountered....


When I went through Ithaca, NY, a few months back, the local farmers' market had a requirement that farmers could only sell things they grew themselves, and there was a 50 mile radius from the market within which the farms needed to exist. At the Seward Co-op in Minneapolis, MN, some items in the produce section with 'local' tags listed not only the farm and town but also the number of miles the food had traveled. In my quick survey, most of these were under 50 miles. (In case you're wondering, the items from California, Hawaii, and Chile did not have mileage listings.) In a chapter of "Deep Economy," Bill McKibben attempts to 'eat locally' for one year as an experiment. The criteria were largely geographical in nature: he tried to purchase and consume seasonal foods from Vermont for an entire year. Barbara Kingsolver, in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," attempts a similar feat in her year of growing (or buying within a short drive -- 10 miles, was it?) food for her family. Distance that the food travels from its origin (generally under 150 miles) seems to be the focus of 'locavore challenges' around the country.


A number of farmers I spoke with explained that 'local' is a term that is used as shorthand for a set of values, much like 'organic' as a category used to have certain associations back in the day. Like 'organic,' what defines something as 'local' varies depending on the values held by the person you ask. (What 'organic' actually means technically, since the USDA has established a checklist, is a far cry from the Back to the Land organic farming philosophy of the 60s. Some of the early principles have fallen to the wayside with the rise of what Michael Pollan calls 'industrial organic' -- operations that don't use lab-manufactured chemicals or seeds in their fields but who do not espouse the focus on land stewardship, natural resource conservation, or seasonal polycultures that the early organic food movement advocated.) 'Local' actually seems to be more about knowing how your food is grown -- having a relationship with the producer -- and eating seasonally (which implies that the food is seasonal where, or near where, you are living, so it's also still somewhat linked to geography).


There is a commonly held understanding that the food money spent within a local community largely stays within that community, changing hands multiple times to support a number of small businesses. (Whether 'community' means the village, the township, the region, the state, the country... it depends on who you ask.) I am not against a global economy, mind you -- some of my favorite wines are from South Africa, France, and Australia; I buy Italian olive oil and balsamic vinegar -- but I want the majority of my food dollars to go into the pockets of the hardworking farmers in my area. Not giant food processing conglomerates. Not Walmart.

Thus, in my mind, what it means to be 'local' is partly geographical, partly philosophical, partly economic in nature. These are fluid categories, interconnected and complementary like a functional ecosystem. But I don't claim anything close to the final word on this. And so, as the blog readership now appears to extend beyond my parents and former students, I'll stop here and pose the question: what do *you* think it means to buy and eat locally?

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. Great question - although local should be geographic at its core, I think "local" has become a generic word for a thoughtfulness about food source. I mean, there was a french fry factory a couple miles from my college, but would their product be considered "local"? Maybe technically, but the spirit of it isn't there.

  2. Very thoughtful post Ibti
    Someone I know suggested a working definition for geographically local food: your personal foodshed is defined as food grown within the distance you could reasonably drive (and return home) in one day.
    The problem is, I'd never get to eat my beloved avocados if I only ate locally.
    So, I've been working on my own personal compromise (with, er, myself) to eat "local" food:
    If the food item can be grown within my foodshed, I will strive to buy locally. If it doesn't grow in my climate, I'm off the hook.


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