Throughout the United States, the Local Food Movement has exploded in both popularity and prominence over the course of the last decade or so in response to the considerable contributions of the agro-industry to global greenhouse gas emissions. “Eat local” campaigns, which advocate for the consumption of “locally grown foods” (defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be those produced within a 100-mile radius of their consumption point), are now widespread. “Eat local” Challenges, which force participants to localize all aspects of their food consumption for a specific period of time, are sprouting up across the country. The Oxford American Dictionary even named “localvore,” a newly coined term for an individual who consciously eats as much as possible from local farms and food producers, its 2007 Word of the Year.
As a resident of Montpelier, VT, a community in which the local food market has long since been established, although not always securely, I have had the distinct pleasure of witnessing this outbreak of local food-itis first-hand. Back in the early 2000’s, the City’s weekly Farmer’s Market, held every Saturday morning during the Spring, Summer, and Fall, had, at best, an embarrassingly small, albeit loyal, collection of about fifty or so patrons, with my family being counted among the diminutive ranks. At the time, there was neither the desire nor impetus to pass up the considerably cheaper, significantly more accessible, and incomparably more diverse array of food products available at the local grocery store, in favor of local produce. Consequently, in 2003 a petition was brought before the City Council proposing the disbandment of the weekly Farmer’s Market, given the small amount of revenue it garnered and the increased levels of traffic that it created, due to the need to partition off a section of the street for vendor booths. Fortunately, the petition did not receive the majority vote it needed, and so the Farmer’s Market endured, but only barely.
For the next three years, the Farmer’s Markets and the local food economy in Montpelier managed to persist, limping along with marginal, but sustainable consumer support and revenue. However, with the expansion of the local grocery store, the introduction of a Wal-Mart Superstore just beyond the city’s border, and the steady phasing out of local businesses and shops in favor of retail chains the likes of Subway and Quiznos, it looked as though what little vitality the local food market had left would soon be reft away by the mechanisms of a globalized and industrialized food market.
It Didn’t Always Used to be This Way…
As much of a shock as it might be to those who have grown up in the digital age of iPhones, Facebook, Twitter, and Google, the complexion of World was not always as interconnected and as all-encompassingly networked as it is today. Rather, for the vast majority of our history, the human condition was intrinsically local: we consumed local foods, we were guided by the wisdom of local customs, and we were defined by the ethos of the local culture. Simply put ours were lifestyles built upon the nature of the communities in which we lived; upon place-based identities. However, with the onset of modernity, the rise of industrialism, the advent of technological innovation, and the birth of perpetually improving and continually expanding networks of communication, we as a civilization suddenly found ourselves capable of bridging the geographic boundaries that had for so long kept us separated. As a result of our collective ingenuity, we as a people became fully integrated, interconnected, and globalized; acquiring the tools necessary to engage, interact, and, most pertinently, to exchange, with one another across previously unbridgeable boundaries.
Fueled by our innate human desire to maximize satisfaction and convenience while simultaneously minimizing cost, this globalized infrastructure resulted, among other things, in the establishment of a global food market, which served to place within the grasp of our fingertips the entirety of the world’s food supply, thus eliminating any and all restrictions that we as consumers had previously experienced due to the limitations of local selection and seasonal availability. Through themiracles of importation, one thus became able to buy a banana on even the most bitterly cold of Vermont December days, even though bananas are anything but native to the region. Truly, via the mechanisms of globalization, the entire world became our grocery store.
A Paradigm Shift…
With the local food economy of Montpelier only just barely managing to stave off the pressures from the agro-industrial complex of multinational corporations, cheap food, and on demand availability, a complex born out of the insatiable human desire for convenience and savings, the 2006 premier of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the resultant launch of a global movement to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and stem the effects of climate change served as a major turning point with regard to the way in which we as a society looked upon the production, transportation, and consumption of the food that we procured.
In the wake of the worldwide awareness raised by Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, people began to recognize the existence of the now almost universally acknowledged and imperative need to reduce the global carbon footprint (i.e. the amount of carbon dioxide emitted due to the consumption of fossil fuels). Galvanized by this recognition of the stark reality of the current climate crisis, people thus began taking stock of the various ways in which both they and the society in which they lived consumed fossil fuels. Foremost among them, the now oft cited figure that the average item of food in the U.S. travels approximately 1,500 miles from plough to plate, and yet “food miles” (a measurement of how far food travels from farm to fork) accounts for only four percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions generated by the U.S. food system, whereas close to 85 percent were the direct result of agricultural production techniques (i.e. pesticides, animal feed, vehicle fuel, etc.) (April 2008 edition of Environmental Science and Technology).
Unsurprisingly, with these figures in hand, citizens across the country underwent a mass alteration in consumer preference, from a cultural mentality in favor of importation to one that now places a premium on local foods and domestically produced merchandise. Figures cited as recently as 2007 from the U.S. Census of Agriculture show that a growth of over 15,000 local farms across the United States has occurred since 2002, and a 349% increase in the number of local farmer’s markets has taken place between 1991 and 2007. A little bit closer to home, the Montpelier Farmer’s Market, which had only just barely been maintaining solvency, saw such a dramatic increase in the number of weekly patrons as to not only justify the continued existence of the Summer Market, but to the warrant the creation of a Winter Market, held inside the local gym, as well.
More than Just Carbon…
Undoubtedly, the conscious movement on the part of numerous communities away from the globalized food market and toward the reestablishment and re-cultivation of the local food system was precipitated, at least to a fair degree, by the imperative necessity to curtail carbon emissions, thereby ensuring the continued viability and sustainability of our climate and resource-threatened globe. For additional reading on the matter, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivores Dilemma (2006) and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007) paint particularly compelling pictures regarding the myriad of broader implications of our industrial food system. However, this marked paradigm shift in the food community toward the consumption of local foods, although galvanized by desires to mitigate the effects of climate change, was/is by no means without additional benefits.
In response to the mechanisms of the free market economy, the globally homogenized food system of multinational food corporations has unfailingly placed at the forefront of its objectives the need to provide to its consumers the lowest and thus most competitive food prices. However, as has been far too regularly broadcast across the headlines of major newspapers and news networks, this impetus to provide cheap and readily available food has often come at the expense of the food’s quality. The machinations of the food-industrial complex have, to an increasing extent, turned a blind eye to the need for regulatory oversight and quality control in the hopes of bolstering their bottom lines. In so doing they have churned out products, like salmonella-laced peanut butter, melamine-poisoned milk, diseased beef, and infected jalapeño peppers, that are not only inferior in taste and quality, but that may very well be of great detriment to your health.
In stark contrast, the local food movement has positioned itself as a highly attractive and desirable alternative to the remote impersonality of the industrialized food market, posturing itself as a readily accessibleand fully transparent means of sustenance, which may charge a bit more for their product, but which places quality, and not quantity or reduced cost as its overarching objective. In short, the local food movement is just that, a local enterprise. Consequently, as a result of its personal and intimate nature, the primacy that is placed upon the producer to maintain high levels of accountability, and the ease with which that accountability is enforced by the consumer, are both considerable within local food markets, given that it is to one’s neighbors and friends, and not to distant and faceless customers, to whom the food producers within a local economy must answer. As an anecdotal corroboration, only once has my family had to return a food product to the Farmer’s Market due to inferior quality. My classmate’s father apologized to us profusely, gave us a fresh bushel of carrots, and promised that he would never again bring his dog to the Market, because she had a habit of eating produce when she wasn’t being watched.
In addition to providing markedly superior food quality as compared to that produced by agro-industrial corporations, the benefits of the local food economy extend far beyond those that result from the heightened levels of product accountability. From a purely economic standpoint, local food markets have been shown to significantly enhance the quality and vivacity of the communities within which they are established. Simply put, a local dollar paid to a local farmer or establishment is one that stays within and thus benefits the local economy. As recent studies conducted by the 3/50 Project indicate, three-times as much money is retained with the local economy when spent at a local business than it is when spent at a major chain store or corporation. In other words, the establishment of local food production and consumption frameworks results in alterations to the social fabric of the communities within which they have taken root, strengthening local economies and revitalizing local businesses through increased patronage and heightened financial support. Lastly, there are the many intangible benefits that lend great merit and stock to the local food movement, like creating vibrant downtown street scenes, shopping in stores with a colorful, distinct atmospheres, and giving business to store owners who greet people by name and who truly appreciate the patronage you are giving them. If you have even the slightest bit of doubt, take a drive through Montpelier on an odd Summer Saturday. Rest assured, you won’t be disappointed!
A Grim but Easily Solvable Picture…
Today, most of us no longer know who grows our food, bakes our bread, sews our clothes, or builds our houses. We have, in essence, all but dispensed with the mutualistic framework of the local economy in which once existed a reciprocal dependence between consumer and producer, whereby consumer depended on producer to provide, producer depended on consumer to support, and as a result the economy of the community experienced self-sustaining growth and prosperity. In this age of commercialism and globalization, many towns have lost their iconic identities and quaint environments, as streets have become lined the world over with the same sets of chain restaurants and box stores, while local businesses have, in turn, been abandoned in favor of the superstore merchandise distributed by multinational corporations and produced by untraceable laborers, often working insweatshop conditions. Fortunately, over the course of the past few years, many of us have finally woken up to the stark reality that implicit in our economic transactions are locally, regionally, and globally reverberated ramifications that impact not only other people, but entire communities, countries, ecosystems, and climate patterns, as well. However, despite this progress, the battleis far from won…
Bottom Line, what we eat and where it comes from matters. So, when next you find yourself in need of groceries, keep the following tips in mind:
- Learn what foods are in season in your area and attempt to construct your diet around them. For information,visit the Peak Season map at Epicurious.com.
- Shop at farmer’s markets and CSA’s (community supported agriculture) whenever possible.
- Encourage your local grocers and restaurants to purchase locally grown food.
- Plant a garden and grow as much of your own food as is possible.
- Support local businesses and Farmer’s Markets whenever you can do so. The benefits to the vivacity of the community, the local economy, the environment, and the mutualistic relationship between consumer and producer and profound.
By Chris Kenseth