My wife and I live in an old whaling town on the eastern end of Long Island, New York, where we tend a home garden and orchard. For much of the year, we don't have to buy produce. In the winter, we eat what we've canned, pickled, dried, and otherwise put up. We get eggs from a neighbor, trading him vegetables. We rake our own oysters and clams. We have a few local bakers who turn out warm, crusty loaves each day, and a cheese shop that offers dozens of American farmstead cheeses‹including a few made from the milk of cows grazing a few miles away.
Of course, there's still room on our table for exotic flavors, including coffee, chocolate, and other imported pleasures. But eating this way means that we don't get strawberries in the winter or wild salmon from Alaska or many other things that aren't in season or aren't from here. Which we don't mind much, since we always know exactly what we're putting in our mouths.
The more I've come to rely on local food, the more I see why so many Americans are hungry for alternatives to the corporate supermarket.
Walk through the sliding glass doors and you find brightly colored cereal boxes, mounds of vegetables, an entire frigid wall of dairy products and frozen dinners.
But what you don't see is information about how or where the food was raised. Our food travels farther than ever before‹at least 1,500 miles for the average item in the United States. The farther removed we are from where our food is raised, the less we know about it. None of the cryptic nutritional labels will mention that some of the seafood contains mercury and other heavy metals, that the strawberries may have been misted with chemicals banned in much of the rest of the world, that the milk you are buying for your kids may contain traces of hormones fed to the cows to make them produce more milk. No label describes the working conditions for farmers or farm workers.
The Local Cornucopia More and more Americans are fed up with this sort of anonymous food. In the last decade, a veritable cornucopia of choices has become available that now allows us to take greater control of the food supply.
In the last 10 years, interest in eating local has exploded, whether you count the growth in farmers' markets (roughly 3,800 nationwide, more than twice the number a decade ago); membership in Slow Food U.S.A. (13,000 members and 145 chapters just since 2000), the American arm of an international movement to defend our collective "right to taste" as well as the artisanal food producers who bring us distinctive flavors; or the number of schools stocking their cafeterias with fresh food raised by nearby farmers (400 school districts in 22 states, in addition to dozens of colleges and universities).
YES! has documented the inspiring grassroots movement referred to by parents, farmers, and teachers as "farm-to-school" that is sweeping the nation, as well as many other examples of communities declaring independence from the standard food chain. There's the story of Anna Marie Carter, "The Seed Lady" of Watts, a master gardener who uses organic farming to improve the lives of people suffering from illness or poverty, or the People's Grocery in West Oakland, founded to get city kids involved in growing and selling fresh fruits and veggies in a neighborhood sorely in need of such sustenance, or the many jails around the nation where inmates use gardening as therapy.
Within the food landscape, the fastest-growing category remains organic food, sales of which have been increasing at nearly 20 percent each year for the last decade, eight times faster than the relatively stagnant grocery sector as a whole. Organic food sales topped $10 billion in 2003 and are expected to hit $32.3 billion by 2009, as top supermarkets and food conglomerates roll out their own private-label organic foods. (Although such popularity means more acres farmed without polluting pesticides and chemical fertilizers, it has raised concerns about attempts to water down organic standards in the name of profit.)
Even some large and influential agribusiness companies are beginning to declare some allegiance to place. "We've been pleasantly surprised by how easy it has been for our chefs to create these menus," said Maisie Ganzler, director of communications and strategic initiatives for Palo Alto-based Bon Appetit Management Company, a food service industry pioneer in serving food from sustainable, local sources. The company's Eat Local challenge in September of 2005 galvanized 190 cafés, restaurants, and university eateries owned by the company to serve at least one meal made only from ingredients grown within a 150-mile radius. "We were motivated by flavor," said Ganzler, who noted that the company will expand their local offerings based on the challenge's success: "Once you taste the difference in the food it's very hard to go back."
Yes, eating local does taste better. It also saves huge amounts of oil, keeps money in your local economy, and combats sprawl by keeping land outside cities and towns in farmers' hands. It even pleases the Department of Homeland Security, because shipping less food makes our nation less vulnerable to disruption of the transportation system, to spikes in oil prices, or large-scale food contamination.
It also means peace of mind, because the closer you are to where your food is raised the more power you have over how it is raised.
Eating local is the easiest way to eliminate suspect food from your diet. It's also the easiest way to cut processed foods with added fat and sugar out of your diet, since you'll be buying more fresh fruits and vegetables.
In a small but significant way, Americans who choose to buy their food from nearby farmers, fishers, and food makers are making a sort of declaration of independence. The ranks of the rebels include parents, fed up with what their children are served at school, who get fresh produce into the cafeteria; farmers holding on to their livelihood by selling to nearby restaurants; and city politicians who make space for farmers' markets, community gardens, and urban farms. They include people who are buying as much organic produce, range-fed meat, sustainable seafood, and fair trade coffee as is available.
It's not always easy to eat this way. It means being less impressed by flashy packaging or volume discounts and more inclined to be curious and vigilant. But it always leaves a better taste in your mouth.
Brian Halweil is a senior researcher with the Worldwatch Institute (www.worldwatch.org). His new book is Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market.
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