The farm-to-table/local food movement is very popular right now. It has expanded beyond high-end restaurants to more casual cafes, bars and coffee shops. Even in restaurants that don’t have a specific farm-to-table mission, you can still often find a local coffee brand on the menu or cheese from a local dairy included in your sandwich. The local food movement is growing and expanding, along with the healthy food movements and the organic food movement. Budget grocery stores now carry organic produce. McDonald’s offers “healthy” options. My own chain grocery store proudly marks all the local produce they sell…
Incorporating a higher percentage of locally-produced food from small-scale farms into our lives is important in the way that shopping at local businesses is important: because it keeps money in the community and it diversifies our economy. Local farms not only benefit the people who own them, but also tend to pay higher wages than huge agribusinesses, and they often treat land and crops in a more sustainable manner.
On a purely pleasure-based level, I also believe in the value of good local food. Family traditions and celebrations so often happen around the table. I want everyone to be able to enjoy local strawberries in a pie and realize how much better they taste than the commercially-plumped up ones we get in cartons at the store. I want everyone to understand where eggs and butter come from, and that those foods might even be produced a few dozen miles from your home. But how feasible is this vision?
Is an all-local diet even possible?
On the Strong Towns Strength Test we ask, "If you wanted to eat only locally-produced food for a month, could you?" I have a hunch that almost every town would answer "no" to this.
A little while back, one of my friends quit college to become a farmer. When I reconnected with her after her first year on the farm, she said her biggest realization was that this is incredibly hard work, even for someone who loves it. Anyone who dreams of a world where we all eat local is in for a nasty surprise, she said, when they realize how many of us would need to give up our current jobs to spend hours on farms everyday, just to produce enough food to support a small town.
We’d also have to give up so many of the global foods we’ve become accustomed to because they wouldn’t grow where we live. Maybe if you’re in Florida, you’d still be able to eat a large variety of things, but for me in Wisconsin, I’d have to say goodbye to citrus, spices, chocolate, bananas, avocados and worst of all, coffee. I doubt very much that most Americans would be willing to revert back to a time before we had access to all those things.
What’s more, small farms are getting less and less financially feasible, especially as the demands on them — like being certified-organic and GMO-free — increase. For young people, farming is a particularly challenging pursuit because the start-up capital required (on top of the student loans that so many young people owe) is simply out of reach. Today, the average age of a US farmer is 58. Another challenge for small-scale farmers is that they often have to spend precious time driving to and from nearby cities to sell their produce at farmers markets. That might make those of us who consume the food feel good and create a fun Saturday morning activity, but it takes away time from the farmers that could actually been spent growing and harvesting product (or even resting from their labors).
Meanwhile Big Ag is heavily subsidized in the US by our own tax dollars, making it even more difficult for a small local farm to compete. For many families who struggle to pay their bills (and even those who don’t), it is often easiest to reach for the cheapest produce, meat, and dairy — distributed by a large national company — in the grocery store anyway. In summary, the goal of a local food diet may be admirable and may benefit our communities, but the cards are stacked against it.
Is the local food movement elitist?
I’ve been watching a show on Netflix called Chef’s Table. Each episode tells the story of a different chef from around the world. These are Michelin-starred, Top 50 Best Restaurants in the World kind of chefs. Their dishes look more like exquisite sculptures than food and their tasting menus cost hundreds of dollars per person. Each 60-minute TV episode gives the chef a chance to tell the story of how he or she got into cooking and started a restaurant, plus the challenges and successes along the way.
Many (but not all) of the restaurants featured in the show are urban, in places like Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Bangkok. But nearly every episode follows the chefs to farms, vineyards, ranches and markets to track down the food they source for their restaurants. Some of these chefs even own their own farms outside the city. The connection to the source is vital for them, especially given the fact that farm-to-table is such a popular concept right now. These chefs are not grabbing a bag of 20-cent-a-pound bananas or processed flour at the supermarket. Most of their ingredients are locally-produced, with precision and dedication. Is this only something that famous chefs have the time and money for?
The truth is that unless you live on or near a farm, or you’re willing to eat the same 5-10 ingredients each day, you’re probably not going to be able to afford a locally produced menu for every meal. For one thing, you’d have to spend a lot of time seeking out that food from the source, and most people simply don’t have the capability or resources to do that. For another, the cost of sourcing everything locally would be prohibitive for many of us—at least it is right now. But that doesn’t mean we can’t commit to a more locally-based diet.
How can we incorporate local food into our lives? Start by making good use of land.
I don’t think that an all-local food diet is necessary to have a Strong Town; that’s a very unattainable goal for most American communities. But we can do everything in our power to decrease our towns’ reliance on imported goods and, most importantly, decrease the flow of capital out of our communities and into wealthy agribusiness’s pockets.
It’s hard to imagine any town being prosperous without a certain amount of local food. Here are some ways to help encourage that:
1. Use any space you have to cultivate your own food. We devote so much of our land to parking lots and stroads, and more to empty lawns where, perhaps the kids occasionally play or we maybe sit outside to barbecue, but most of the space is just grass or bushes, and usually unused at that. How much more prosperous would our cities and towns be if strong citizens chose to use some of that land for growing food? I’d wager quite a bit. Not only is home-grown food the ultimate definition of local, it’s also an extremely rewarding process and sometimes a way to save a few bucks.
My tiny balcony garden. Currently growing: rosemary, chives, cilantro, flowers, plus basil and tomatoes (not pictured).
2. If you can afford it, buy it. Maybe you can’t afford to purchase local, cage-free eggs or locally-grown fruit for every meal, but can you find a few local items that are affordable and add those to your weekly shopping list? I know I can’t afford local, ethical meat every night for dinner, so I’ve chosen to decrease my consumption of meat altogether and only buy it sparingly. But when I do, I buy the local stuff. I challenge everyone who reads this to seriously consider how much you spend on groceries and other items in your daily life. Certainly there are plenty of people who need to choose the cheapest possible items in the grocery store, but there are plenty more who could spend a few extra bucks every week (and maybe decrease their spending elsewhere) to support local farm businesses. Turns out the food usually tastes better too.
3. Make SNAP benefits an acceptable currency at your local farmers market. Many farmers markets now accept SNAP benefits (food stamps) as currency, which is an important step in improving equal access to healthy local food. Check if your neighborhood farmers market participates and if not, here are some resources to get them signed up.
4. Get to know local food leaders. Visit a nearby farm; many are open for tours or even berry/apple/pumpkin picking. Even closer to home, explore a community garden. Both activities are great for kids. You could also get to know local restaurant owners and learn their role in the local food economy. The more you know, the more you’re invested.
5. ink outside the grocery store. Visit a local butcher, coffee shop or bakery for some of your shopping. I know many of you are thinking “But I don’t have the time or money for that.” Please just give it a shot once. I bet it will take less time and money than you think — and the pay-off will be worth it. You could also consider signing up for a community supported agriculture (CSA) weekly food delivery. It might be too late for this summer but start planning for next summer. And I know I bad-mouthed farmers markets a bit earlier in this essay, but they are an ideal place to access local food and support local businesses.
I’m not a doomsday cynic but James Howard Kunstler’s musings about a future without cheap oil, where we’ll have to be more independent and grow our own food, come back to me sometimes. I think the more local food we can incorporate into our diets, the stronger our towns will be—now and in future generations. For most of us, it’s not feasible to be completely local, but we should strive to have a certain percentage of our food come locally. Maybe it’s 20, maybe it’s 40, maybe one day it’s 80. But I see the local food movement as an important—and delicious—way to build stronger towns.