Sunday, September 19, 2010

The politics of "Buying Local"

It's been a whirlwind of late summer weekends away, and sadly, each one has caused me to miss my local market. I was back with a vengeance today. Each stand filled with some of the first rounds of apples to be had this season. I didn't need a ton, because the patch is still giving us lots of zucchini, tomatoes and eggplants. I got beautiful Honeycrisp apples, green beans and red potatoes, all for about $8. My Sunday morning meditation of the market, I missed it. My heart, honestly, feels better now, or maybe that's just the cider donuts talking.

This leads me to a topic swirling around in my brain now for a couple of weeks. It's the relatively new criticism of being a "localvore". Don't get me wrong, I don't think anyone, at their core, really has an issue with supporting local farms and artisans; they have an issue with the fanfare that, as of late, has surrounded the local food movement.

Stephan Budiansky of the blog, The Liberal Curmudgeon, offered up a column for the New York Times in the past month that has gotten the attention of local eaters around the country. To be fair, he begins his whole theory with the admission that he knows and enjoys the pleasure of locally grown food and all the benefits it offers.  After this admission he offers up, "But the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas."

Here's a shocker. I think he's right in that statement.

Too often eating locally gets paired with words and phrases such as "green", "eco-friendly", "carbon-footprint", and "sustainable". Budiansky argues in his article that the energy saved by local buying is relatively small. About that, he's most likely right in the grand scheme of things. You will get no argument whatsoever from me that eating locally is, at its roots, good for the environment in some ways, energy-saving just isn't one of them. I like to know where my food comes from. However, the mere mention of the terms I mentioned above and you invite controversy and a bit of snobbish idealism.

Let me explain. Chat with someone who doesn't believe in the concept of global warming. Invite them to instead think of the term, "climate change", and you'll get a completely different conversation. Simplify it down further. Talk with that same person about simple solutions. There are very few people out there who will argue with you about the virtues of so-called "green" practices like wasting less, making use of more, and cutting down on chemicals not found in nature. Very few people out there argue that doing little things for the environment, harms the environment; and in fact, most would agree those little things can help.

It's the catch phrase of "global warming" that raises the hairs on some people's necks. It's not the scientific idea that our world is changing or even the everyday practices people have taken up to prevent further damage - it's the term and the politics that go along with it that create ire.

The local food movement has to be careful not to devolve into catch phrases. Like local food itself, simpler is better.

Since when did food have to be anything else but great-tasting? I buy local because it's fresher, and therefore, tastes better. You don't need a whole bunch of fancy spices to make it taste good. Fresh produce picked that morning or the day before retains its flavor longer. It'll last longer in your produce bin, giving you less of a chance to waste it.

Less waste equals more money in your pocket. A lot of people will argue that eating locally, well, it costs more. Time and time again in this blog I think I've proven you can buy local and not break the bank. Yes, four apples or peaches at a farmers' market might cost more than that bag in the supermarket. That bag, however, will go bad more quickly, or be more than you actually need. That, in turn, creates waste of food which equals waste of money.

A lot of people are crying over the "$4 peach argument". In a great blog in the Atlantic by James McWilliams he outlines the outcry over Michael Pollan of the Wall Street Journal singing the praises of lovely peaches that cost $3.90 each. In that blog, author Jason Sheehan of "Cooking Dirty" talks about in a recession when you can't afford to buy a can of soup, how can you stomach the higher price of certain local, maybe organically-grown foods. One of my favorite personalities and authors, Anthony Bourdain, brings up the same argument in his book, "Medium Raw".

To that, I can only say the following. Shopping locally is just like shopping anywhere else. There are deals to be had. When you eat and cook, in season, know when crops are hot, there will be more supply and the price goes down. It's research. Just like clipping coupons and reading the sales papers, knowing what crops are producing and being harvested will help you save money if you're farm-stand bound. I don't shop exclusively local (kudos to those who can). I still go to the supermarket for a lot of staples. I'm OK with that. It's about doing a little bit, doing whatever you can; even just being willing to entertain the idea and learn about it is a massive win.

Finally, and then I promise I'll step down off the soapbox, I've said it many times before: Local food is just happy. Making an effort to visit local businesses and farms has made me love my community even more. I meet fabulous people at the farmers' market, the farms I go to, the small shops I choose when I can. In a day and age where many people don't even know their neighbors, making a choice to buy local has allowed me to get to know the stories and people behind my little region. It's endearing, rewarding, heck, it just makes you feel good.

Oh and when you get home, it makes for one heck of a meal.  Pin It


Finn said...

Since when did food have to be anything else but great-tasting? I buy local because it's fresher, and therefore, tastes better. You don't need a whole bunch of fancy spices to make it taste good.

I appreciate most of the arguments here, but the above just isn't true. If anything, the sustainable food movement is about the exact opposite: food needs to be about more than just "tasting great." Bacon made from factory pigs tastes great. A McDonalds milkshake tastes great. A perfectly ripe banana grown with pesticides tastes great. The problem is that food needs to be about more than just tasting great. Food needs to be about justice, and logic, and reason. You need to care about what it is and where it comes from.

I think you'd probably agree with this comment, which is why your original argument is so bizarre. It's not just about tasting great -- which is why its so wonderful that, more of than not, sustainably-grown food does in fact taste great. If it didn't, it could never compete with the other stuff.

Kimmy Bingham said...

In theory, I agree. However, I've found when a movement becomes larger than what it is at its roots (in this case, better tasting food and supporting your local community), that movement can falter. I agree with your sentiments because I feel the same as you about mass-produced food. It's the labels that I feel are hurting. You can draw more people into an idea (in this case, buying local) with the idea of fresh and great-tasting food. It's when you start bombarding them with terms and values that some people (sadly) can get turned off. It's exactly (and also tragically) what's been happening to the "green" movement for a while now. All the terms that we've employed have created a massive backlash for an entire segment of the population (whether that's wrong or right).

Thanks for the comment, I love to create discussion when I can. It makes me think about my own stance in a different way.

Finn said...

I agree with your point about movements, but I don't think that the "roots" of this one are as simple as great-tasting food and supporting your community. I think they can more directly be traced to the notion of protecting the environment. Supporting your local community is usually a great way to do that, and great-tasting food is your most immediate and obvious reward for doing so.

We should certainly avoid tenets which more closely resemble belief structures than ideas or logical arguments. But I think the choice between "enjoying great food" and "being bombarded with terms."

We have to get people to a place where they can think and judge for themselves. That's the most important thing. Labels are what they are, and while you can certainly have too many of them, you can also have too few.

We'll never get anywhere if we tell people "listen, let's keep it simple, food only needs to satisfy these two criteria to be good." All that Nabisco needs to do, then, is to come along and put those two things on the box, and then people will think things are fine. Making everyone think is definitely hard work. But this other option -- that people should chill out and just enjoy what's fresh -- is just too easily manipulable by industry to really be revolutionary.

Joie de vivre said...

Thanks for visiting Kimmy! I'm signing up to follow you on Twitter. :)

Joie de vivre said...

Thanks for visiting Kimmy! I'm signing up to follow you on Twitter. :)