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Going local

(article, Twilight Greenaway)

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On a cold November Saturday, Anita Prammer, 22, travels across town to a small parking lot to pick up some bread. This late in the year, all of the outdoor farmers’ markets in Minneapolis have shut down; the local growing season has essentially come to a close. Prammer is one of more than 60 customers who have ordered bread from a baker who uses locally produced ingredients. 

The baker, Brett Laidlaw, has set up in the parking lot with a few other vendors selling local meat, honey, pickles, and late-season apples. He recognizes Prammer, hands over her order, and chats about the next time he’ll have bread available, right before the winter holidays.  

Prammer came to Minneapolis in September to intern at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. She started buying the bulk of her food directly from local farmers around the same time. She’d read about the 100-Mile Diet, an eating plan in which the dieters, better known as “locavores,” try to eat only, or mostly, food grown within 100 miles of their homes. Throughout the fall, she says, 80 to 90 percent of her diet was produced in Minnesota. 

“Until now, it was surprisingly easy to live local,” she says. But as winter nears, she admits, eating locally is becoming more of a challenge. That’s when it’s handy to know a farmer who will sell you a loaf of bread in a parking lot. 

Laidlaw bakes with locally sourced flours, eggs, and milk. He and his wife grow what they can; their produce includes herbs, leeks, potatoes, and pumpkins for pumpkin-apple bread. They also forage for ramps and mushrooms, some of which turn up in the Laidlaw breads. “We draw a lot of inspiration from what the French call ‘goût de terroir,’ or taste of a place,” Laidlaw says. He isn’t just peddling local wares; he’s also selling the idea of locality, of knowing the place and the people who produce the goods. 

[%image pepperred float=left caption="Local color."]

Environmentalists, farmers, and small-business advocates have been beating the local drum for decades. But in recent years, the idea of supporting local food has traveled from fringe to mainstream. Between 1994 and 2004, the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. more than doubled. Restaurants across the country pay homage to the local products behind their menus. And national companies such as grocer Whole Foods and food-supplier SYSCO have recently touted plans to source much more of their produce locally. 

Meanwhile, a quiet revolution is taking place in the kitchens and dining rooms of America, where a wide array of eaters is learning what it really means to eat locally. For most — long accustomed to having any food available, anywhere, any time — “going local” is a curious hybrid of endurance test, culinary puzzle, and frank lesson in the possibilities (and limitations) of regional agriculture.

The phrase "100-Mile Diet" is most commonly associated with Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, two writers who kept an exceptionally detailed account of their attempt to eat locally in British Columbia for an entire year. (They’ve also written a book with the same title, due out this spring.) But their project is only one example of a variety of challenges and diets to choose from. Some locavores try eating locally because they wish to support local farmers; others, because they believe in the health benefits of local food; still others, because they feel that eating locally is a powerful political, economic, and environmental statement.

A growing awareness of two separate but related issues — organic standards and fossil fuels — has made the local-food discussion more urgent. As the organic-food industry has expanded from small farmers to corporate producers, some critics have grown concerned that the organic-certification standards implemented by the USDA in 2002 won’t last. Many feel that small farmers are more likely to preserve soil and water quality than corporate growers, and many small farmers agree, refusing organic certification (an expensive, time-consuming process anyway) in favor of farming practices they believe are better environmentally. Meanwhile, petroleum products are pervasive in every step of the industrialized farming process. They’re used to make fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. They’re used to make and power the machinery that tills the soil and harvests the produce. And they’re essential for the trucks and trains that transport most of the food sold in the U.S. 

In Albany, New York, the fossil-fuel problem swayed molecular biologist Cheryl Nechamen. Like Prammer, she became a locavore in September. But while Prammer's choice to go local was tied more to organics, Nechamen's decision was due to her discovery of “peak oil,” the theory that global petroleum production will soon reach a peak and then rapidly decline. According to the Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization that studies environmental and social issues, most food in the U.S. travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles to get from farm to table, and requires as much 10 percent of the nation’s oil spending. So for Nechamen, the choice to stop buying conventionally grown food was clear. 

“We can muddle through with the other problems we’ll have when peak oil arrives — getting to work, keeping our houses warm, keeping the lights on — but we can’t tell people to wait a few months to eat while we change our whole agricultural system,” she says.

[%image reference-image float="right" caption="Shopping at the University District farmers' market in Seattle."

Before spending last May doing the Bay Area-based Eat Local Challenge, engineer Marc Rumminger says he hadn’t really connected the dots between his diet and his occupation. “My day job is working on equipment that takes things from the source to the market,” says Rumminger, who lives in Berkeley, California. Because he works with engines, Rumminger says, he has an intimate understanding of both “food miles” (the distance food travels from origin to consumption) and of the environmental effects of industrial ports (water, land, and air pollution). 

Unlike Nechamen, who says she never felt the need to shop at her local food co-op before September, Marc Rumminger is a man who has always spent time thinking about, shopping for, and crafting his meals. Eating locally, he says, didn’t necessarily demand much extra time or thought. But he’s expanded his shopping habits to include visits to local farms, closer inspection of food labels, and awareness of what does and does not grow in his home state. 

A private-label olive-oil he found at a local store, for instance, sourced its olives from both California and Tunisia. But Rumminger also learned that he could buy rice grown in the Sacramento Valley, about 100 miles away. And he noticed things he might never have thought to buy at the farmers’ market before, like a local flour that was too soft to bake with but perfect for thickening sauces. He also researched the exotic fringes of California agriculture, finding farms growing mangoes, bananas, even papayas that never ripen. The papayas go to Thai restaurants, where they’re shredded for green-papaya salad, a dish Rumminger calls “one of the best salads in the world.” 

[%image pepperbasket float=left caption="Peppers at the farmers' market in Portland, Oregon."]  
More than six months after participating in the month-long Bay Area Eat Local Challenge, Rumminger estimates that half of his diet is locally produced. “I hope to help create a new kind of mindfulness around eating,” he says. 

Critics of the eat-local movement often charge that eating locally is easy in California, but not so simple in, say, Alberta. Still, Nechamen’s Albany challenge, for example, had more than 75 participants, and similar projects have sprouted in such locations as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. And among the 700 people who signed up to participate last May via the Bay Area-based, more than half hailed from such distant locations as the Midwest and New England.  

In northern Maryland, Sarah Irani organized a version of the challenge that involved hosting farmer talks and a local-food potluck. “I’ve found that the most powerful thing has been changing my own life,” says the 29-year-old artist and teacher. “People come over for dinner, or I talk to them at church. And you don’t really feel the effect right away, but that’s kind of how culture changes. It’s gradual.”

Irani has been interested in local and organic food since college, when she consulted a naturopath for medical problems. Her diet today, she says, consists of 70 to 80 percent local foods. “Every now and again, I’ll buy some bananas, or I’ll use some Indian spices to cook with,” she admits. “I’m not going to be totally hardnosed about it, because trade has brought some really great things.” People who set themselves up to eat only local foods all the time, she worries, are much less likely to succeed over the long term. 

Like Prammer, Irani derives sustenance not just from the food she eats but from the relationships she creates. When she found a bad egg in a local dozen recently, she called the farmer — whom she knows well — and told him. He was devastated, she says, and offered a replacement. But for Irani, it was the peace of mind that really mattered. 

For Jessica Prentice, the co-founder of the Bay Area’s Eat Local Challenge, that kind of interaction is exactly what drives the local food movement. In her recent book, [/books/collections/3199/1793 "Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection"], Prentice argues for a return to a food system based on relationships. Knowing your local farmers means you can ask them direct questions: How do you treat your soil? What do you feed your cows? “It holds them to a level of accountability that’s far beyond what an organic certification does,” says Prentice.

Of course, accountability doesn’t come cheap. Eating locally also generally means spending more. Marc Rumminger says his food expenditures were higher than normal during the month-long Bay Area challenge but, he says, “this is a place where I want my money to go. So I think that was an important part of it: the idea of letting my personal market spaces do something useful.”

Brian Halweil, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and the author of [/books/collections/3199/3236 "Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket"], understands why local food is popular with what he refers to as the “culinary elite,” but says he also sees evidence that it is moving increasingly into the mainstream.
A number of multinational corporations, Halweil points out, are beginning to see local food programs as a logical next step in greening their public images. In addition to Whole Foods, Wal-Mart recently launched a pilot local-food buying program called “Salute to America’s Farmer.” When the program launched in September, the Wal-Mart website announced that “local farmers and growers in all 50 states will be spotlighted throughout the upcoming year.” A year earlier, in September 2005, restaurant-management chain Bon Appétit set up an Eat Local Challenge for its chefs. Bon Appétit — which provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities, and specialty venues like ballparks and museums — has since designated one day each October when the company’s 400 chefs must develop and serve a menu item made entirely from ingredients that come from within 150 miles.

[%image kids float=right caption="Roasting peppers at a farmers' market in Portland, Oregon."]

Halweil also points out that in many of the poorest urban neighborhoods, where liquor and convenience stores far outnumber grocery stores, farmers’ markets are filling the produce gap. In such neighborhoods — he cites Anacostia, one of the poorest areas of Washington, D.C. — “produce bought directly from local farmers is actually the best hope for fresh, healthy food.”

Alongside legitimate questions about accessibility, says Prentice, is the cultural impression that all food should be cheap, regardless of how it is made and how far it travels. “There’s been a huge campaign to convince the American people that, by and large, milk is milk, eggs are eggs, and meat is meat … it’s all the same,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how the animals were treated, what they ate.” Before industrial agriculture, she argues, “most people understood that there were all these subtleties in our food system.” 
Local food, she says, is simply food with an honest price tag, without the hidden costs of transport, environmental destruction, and the loss of small independent farms. 


h1. The local bandwagon


Eat Local Challenge is a Bay Area-based blog. The Bay Area is also home to the Locavores online resource.

The city of Portland, Oregon, has its own Eat Local Challenge, complete with scorecard.

The entire state of Maine has an Eat Local Coalition.

The 100-Mile Diet blog is based in Vancouver, B.C.

Albany, New York's version is called the 100-Mile Diet Challenge.

Marc Rumminger keeps a blog called Mental Masala.

Local Harvest allows consumers to buy directly from small farmers all over the country.


Halweil agrees. A considerable barrier, he says, that keeps people of all class backgrounds from eating local foods is the habit of relying on convenience foods over fresh foods. “Most people will happily spend several dollars on a bag of potato chips that has maybe a few potatoes in it and almost no nutritional value,” Halweil says. “But they’ll scoff at a five-pound bag of local organic potatoes for the same price.”

Of course, cooking everything from scratch takes time, another commodity demanded of those participating in local food challenges. Sarah Irani says she and her husband ate a lot of venison and rutabagas last winter, but the experience made her want to learn to prepare for the Maryland seasons the old-fashioned way.

“I’ve never learned how to can or preserve things; that’s the next step for me,” she says. Irani also plans to participate in a “goat share,” allowing her to rent a goat with four other families in order to have a regular supply of affordable local milk.  

When Irani talks about her commitment to local food, she paraphrases Sally Fallon, author of the book [/books/collections/3199/3235 "Nourishing Traditions"]. “Sallen says, yes, it takes time,” she says. “But if you’re too busy to feed your family well, maybe you need to re-examine your priorities.”

Prentice also advocates shifting priorities, on both ecological and spiritual levels. “Once you bring food back into that context of relationship, then our relationship to animals and plants and soil also matters, and all of our other relationships come alive,” she says. “It creates a circle of meaning that is about much more than just commodity and price and money.” 

Perhaps the simplest form of Prentice’s circle is the seasons. And people who subsist on food grown primarily outside their own local areas might just be missing something important.  

“Last year, when the first local lettuce appeared, it was so exciting to eat something green and cold and fresh,” says Irani. “I just about cried.”

p(bio). [ "Twilight Greenaway"] is a writer living in the Bay Area.

*Elsewhere on Culinate: A Deborah Madison column on eating local food in season and a review of two books about eating regionally.

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