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Keeping tabs on 'local'

(article, Marissa Lippert)

Local food has cachet. But now that the concept has been around for a while, has the meaning of "local" changed? 

I recently attended a panel that featured five of the country’s most respected chefs and food figures discussing the status of local food. Dan Barber of Blue Hill Restaurant and Blue Hill at Stone Barns; Tom Colicchio of Craft restaurants and "Top Chef"; Alex Guarnaschelli of Butter and the newly opened Darby; Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park; and Patrick Martins of Heritage Foods USA (a nonprofit dedicated to celebrating regional cuisines and products) all shared thoughts on what’s really important when we’re considering where our food comes from and who grows it.  

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Even beans can be a local commodity."]

By no means is any of this new to most of us; you’ll find plenty of articles and recipes here on Culinate related to the topic of local food. But it's a topic that warrants a revisit from time to time.

The local-food movement is defined, by Wikipedia at least, as a "collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies — one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental, and social health of a particular place." In 2008, Congress passed a bill that cited "local" as a product (food) that has traveled less than 400 miles. Typically, the less distance a food travels, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, the more nutrients and health benefits it retains — and the more its sale benefits the local economy.

Now that "local" is the hottest buzzword in food, you might wonder whether the inherent definition of the word is undergoing a shift. News about Walmart intending to purchase and sell more local produce (up to 9 percent of its total produce by 2015) made headlines just a few weeks ago. Local food may well follow in the tractor ruts of organic food, which arguably has been diluted or altered by larger-scale agricultural businesses and food companies.

Colicchio pointed out that we have a significant agribusiness and agricultural policy in the U.S., but virtually no real food policy. 

Each panelist agreed that local food has the ability to remain true to itself when members of local communities vote with their forks, by supporting smaller family farms and sustainable agriculture. "Local" can mean different things to different people — it may even extend beyond a 400-mile radius — but this brings up questions: When something is produced sustainably in New Zealand or Wisconsin and sold elsewhere, can there be a sense of local? Often, yes, because there's support of a local community, although the carbon footprint adds complexity to the question. 

A corporation as massive as Walmart has the ability to raise considerable awareness of the word local, and restaurant chains such as Applebees can state that they support "local" by using a single locally sourced ingredient such as tomatoes. But the real work happens on a lower level, with greater impact. If we as individuals continue to support smaller farms, they’ll have the ability to grow and produce a food system sufficient to support a full region and create local diversity — and farmers will be able to plant different crops with additional funding.  

This, according to the panel and progressive-but-basic thinking, is how our food system stands a chance of shifting away from big agribusiness, farm subsidies, fast food, and obesity and rising health-care costs, while keeping the essence of the word "local" pure. 

I’ll leave you to think and create your own definition of local food — as well as a few of my favorite quotes from the panel discussion.

Alex Guarnaschelli: “You have to wage war with the supermarket.” 

Dan Barber: “Foodies can rule the world.” 

And, finally, one of the panelists (alas, I didn't catch who) offered a quote that everyone could agree on: “Good flavor equals good health equals good ecology.”

reference-image, l