Local Food In The News: Part 2

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There are several points that should be covered, or at least mentioned in any article about local food.  The first of these is that many foods are truly seasonal. Consumers in the U.S., at least, have become accustomed to being able to buy grapes, peppers, apples, pears, and many other foods year round. Now it great to encourage people to go back to eating more seasonally, but we need to also be realistic. U.S. food buyers now expect to be able to buy most foods year round and this expectation is never going to disappear completely.

Ease of purchase is a critical issue. Many people make one stop for their food shopping needs. Local food needs to be integrated into stores large and small. People will not take the time on the way home from work to make three stops if they can get what they need at one large grocery store instead.

We also need to be realistic about food buying needs and habits. I believe any good size community should have a food co-op or other business for those of us that want to buy our food from such a source. But it should be realized that a store like a co-op will cater to only a part of the community. Many people will continue to shop at big box grocery stores if the prices are lower, even if the quality and sometimes selection is better at the co-op. Small businesses like co-ops can be supported by only a portion of the local community but they can not be viewed as main-stream alternatives to the one stop super center grocery store.

Transportation: Because of the expectation noted above, transportation will be an issue, but it is not as clear cut as many think. Almost any article on local food today states that the fewer miles your food travels before it gets to your table, the better. Unfortunately it is not that simple. The carbon footprint of food delivery can be tricky to analyze. A semi-truck load of corn delivered from Colorado to Los Angeles may actually have a lower carbon footprint than the same amount of corn delivered to market by 30 different local growers each in their own smaller delivery truck. That does not mean that the corn from several states away is the better choice.  Local food, even with a bigger carbon footprint is still usually the best choice.  As another example, is a plane or boat load of apples transported from South America to New York City really that bad transportation wise if the plane or ship was going anyway and there was room on-board for the apples? In that case the apples from South America may have a much smaller carbon footprint than apples delivered from Washington State to Manhattan by truck.

Local foods contribute to the local economy. This is true to a great extent, but maybe a better way to put it is that by buying local you keep your food dollars in the local economy. However, wherever your food comes from, that origin is someone’s local economy. Now with huge agri-businesses that local economy might not see the same benefits as buying from a smaller, local farmer in your community, but you get the idea.

The issues, like on so many good intentioned ideas, are more complicated that a first look may seem to show. Local food is an important advocacy to support. We need to be sure to do so with honest discussion of all the issues involved so we don’t allow the contrarians to claim we are ignoring any facts that are less than 100% supportive of our passion for local food.  Unless our western economies totally collapse, seasonal food transported in from far away will continue to be an expectation of U.S. consumers. Given the choice, many people will purchase more of their food from local sources. But they may not be willing to forego items they are accustomed to buying if those items can be transported to their local grocery stores.

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Will Sig
1 Swubird

Will:

You covered this complicated subject brilliantly. I do believe, however, that buying local food and services is subject to supply and demand just like anything else. The greater the delivery cost of food, the more consumers will demand locally grown products. Simple Economics 101. I see examples of it every day all around me, and I think we can thank the good old petroleum industry, and the governmental restrictions placed upon the exploitation of locally available oil reserves, for this positive change to our enlightened consumer behavior. And, of course, none of this would be possible if it were not for the increase in local suppliers. So far, so good. But although this market/consumer strategy seems to work fine for small communities, I wonder if it can work over the long haul for the country at large?

Happy trails.

Swubirds last blog post..THE MAN IN THE PARK

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2 Charlie Strout

Hi Will,

Thanks for your article. I really like the tone of both your piece and the comment left by Swubird.

I founded a site call Local Fork that is dedicated to these issues. We are just getting started, but we are already offering a suite of tools to CSAs and co-ops to help them organize members and volunteers.

I believe strongly in Swubirds point about the economics, and we are working to develop tools to bring the price of locally-grown foods down to make them as competitive with conventionally-produced foods as possible–both in price and convenience.

I believe that this can work over the long haul or the country at large. The current conventional food system is not going anywhere soon, and is in fact very efficient in some regard. It is important to keep in mind that much of what supermarkets are selling is not food (household cleaners etc.), and it is not clear that there is a benefit to buying those items for a local source.

That said, I am a passionate believer in local eating and strongly am committed to promoting it based sound science and economics.

Thanks again for you article.

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3 Nigel

Hey Will, another great post. I do think you missed a couple of points though.
The first is what it takes to break the habit of just buying whatever is in the grocery store with no regard to season. I did this for the first time this past winter, and I even cheated because I spent 6 weeks in New Zealand (where I at locally grown food, but it was their summer). Round about February, things get pretty depressing. Beets and potatoes lose their zing, and the first greens are still a month away.
One way to deal with this is to get a bunch of great recipes for what is in season. An organization up here in Vancouver, Canada called Farm Folk/City Folk makes a calendar with whats in season and a monthly recipe. Another way to deal with it is what I have done this summer. I got tons of what is in season now, and preserved it. I made some raspberry jam, and canned peaches and cherries. Again though, it takes some extra work.

The other point that I think is really important to touch on is how great the payoff is for eating locally and in season. There is nothing that tastes worse thank cardboard strawberries shipped from California in March, or Peruvian asparagus in December. Sometimes it can even be enough to put someone off that food all together. Whereas when you eat fresh, local fruit and veg in season, it is so much more nutritious and tasty. It really adds to ones appreciation of food.

It is not for everyone because of the extra work required, but I think stressing how great the payoff is can really seal the deal for some people.

Keep up the good work Will.

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4 Will

Hi Nigel – Good points. On the first, that is sort of what I was saying, but noting that most people will not go to the trouble to do that. We can get annoyed that they won’t but that won’t accomplish anything, or we can work with the reality which is this: Most people like eating grapes in January, or apples year round. They like eating certain foods that can’t be grown anywhere near where they live at any time of the year. (Pineapples, bananas,kiwi,etc.) Even those people that do go out of their way to buy local corn or tomatoes in season, still buy most of their food in one stop at a large grocery store. There are some people like us that will make the effort, but the majority do not feel strongly enough about these issues to go out of their way at all. They are trying to stretch their food dollars as far as possible and they buy what they like and can afford, healthy or not, local or not. And they want the selection year round that they have gotten used to.

If some sort of crisis forces the halt of fresh food imports, then shopping habits might change, but people will not be happy about it. What we really need is to make local and healthy food more available at a reasonable price. Price is not really an issue with local food as what is in season is usually priced well. Organic foods in grocery stores is another question entirely though. It is seen as specialty item to mark up the margins on. Some people talk about looking for sales on organic food and stocking up. Others look for coupons for organic food. These approaches may work well in urban or upscale communities, but out here in the rest of the U.S. at least it does not work like that. The selection of healthy, organic, or ethical food is limited at best and rarely goes on sale. Sometimes the local Fred Meyer will run a sale on organic dairy or peanut butter, but the biggest seller or organic food here is Costco of all places.

If you are fortunate enough to live in a community with a large food co-op or other large health food store, then your options are better. Most of us, unfortunately do not live in that sort of location. I sort of do, but even here a trip to a store like that from my home is about 25 miles round trip so I don’t get to do it that often.

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5 Andrew Flusche

What a thorough analysis of local food! I haven’t even thought about many of these issues, but I am trying to focus on buying local (for food and other things).

Seasonality is quite interesting. I’m not sure that I can really adjust to not having certain foods during the off-season. Sadly, I’ve become a “want it now” American.

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6 Gowan Rosemc

To be honest, I have never paid a lot of attention to food. I bought them no matter where they were from. While, I should do something (although my effort will be so tiny) useful for our local economy indeed! Thanks for your post actually.

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