14 July, 2008

Eating Local: Any Reason is Every Reason

Many of us have recently expressed interest in eating more local, organic, sustainably raised, or home-grown foods. After spending last summer working on an organic farm (and spending this summer missing it), I have become much more confident about how doable this can be.

Obviously we will never again be a society that eats only local foods while they are in season, nor should we be. We also won't return to a time in which the majority of people raised (any of) their own food. Still, I don't think the current division of labor justifies the cultural disconnect we experience between ourselves as consumers and the producers and localities of our food. Further, it is relatively easy to find out where food products come from, unlike most manufactured products, which combine raw materials and labor from many locations.

It is also fairly easy to see how both we as consumers and the farmers are cheated by systems that deliver apples from New Zealand to grocery stores in the midwest during apple season. For the consumer, the immediate cost is the freshness of the food (both in taste and in nutrients, if the products have been frozen or harvested early). For the farmer, the cost hits directly in the wallet: a farmer gets on average only 21 cents of every dollar you spend in the conventional grocery system (USDA, 1997).

Therefore it behooves us as intelligent, healthy, and environmentally-conscious eaters to reach out to re-form a connection with local agriculture. Step One: shopping at places where they post where food comes from (co-ops), places where you know it's local (farmer's markets), or directly from farmers (CSAs).

I thought I would share a few resources I have been using lately, supplemented with some I have found now while surfing the eco-nets. Check out some resources on eating in season (NRDC), my favorite national peak-season map, a national CSA-finder (there's something special here for fans of the Bodega, wink wink), and the EatWell Guide which searches co-ops and farmer's markets nation-wide, plus a potential treat for our MA friends.


higgy said...

Clearly, certain parts of the country have it easier than others when it comes to buying regionally grown or raised food. Unfortunately, the Philadelphia metro region, given its size, has little to offer in this department. The Eat Well Guide only points to three co-ops in the area, all of which are a 30-40 minute drive during prime shopping hours. While the cost in fuel, carbon, time, and frustration might be outweighed by the benefit of giving them my business as a consumer (rather than the big supermarket chains down the street) - there must be more that residents of regions like mine can do to promote such ethical shopping practices.

The hope is, I suppose, that the big grocery chains that dominate our local market take large enough losses (from mark-ups passed on to consumers from the skyrocketing fuel prices) that they make buying from local distributers a priority.

As much as I miss the La Crosse and Madison Co-ops, I don't expect a dozen of them to pop up over night around here. Rather I expect the waivering economy to push already established chains to make smarter, greener, and ethically sound decisions when it becomes clear that not doing so would be bad for business.

Eremita said...

It does seem that there is a sad deficiency out here on the East Coast in terms of farmer's markets, co-ops, and in general, any close connection between city-dwellers and the farmers that in fact are quite near and quite prevalent. Because of this disconnect, I agree with your analysis that market factors might make more of a difference than consumer choices, since consumer choices haven't looked very promising so far.

That said, I think we city-dwellers can do more than hope, and even more than just endure the frustration of going across town to a co-op. The great thing about co-ops is not just their ethical practices, but also that we can do more than just suggest to the market that we would shop there AFTER it was brought into business. With co-ops, you as a consumer can HELP bring it into business by buying your membership when the co-op is starting up.

So pay attention to when a co-op might be trying to start in your area, and in the meantime, work on convincing yourself that if you lost your $25 fee because the store never got off the ground, well... that money was worth the risk.