Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why Eat Local?

A recent much-emailed New York Times op-ed, "Math Lessons for Locavores," calls into question the virtues of eating local, particularly as pertains to energy costs (more data):
But the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent -- and self-defeating -- do-gooder dogmas. Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.

The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

A lengthier Guardian article from a couple years ago takes on a similar theme: the complexities of calculating food miles and carbon costs. "It is better for the environment," the author figures, "if UK shoppers buy apples from New Zealand in July and August rather than those of British origin."

To be fair, the author of the NYT piece acknowledges that there are many reasons to eat local, not all of them mathematically unsound.

But why do we?

Enterprise Farm, which supplies our CSA, has a somewhat atypical approach to "eating local." In order to offer a year-round farmshare, the farm partners with farms from all over what they call the "East Coast foodshed" to fill our box. So our "local food" in February can include Florida grapefruit and North Carolina green beans -- which are, by my calculations, about 2.2 times more local than California produce. (According to this site, more than half of the United States' fruit and a quarter of our vegetables are grown in California. Seventy-six percent of tomatoes!)

Enterprise Farm talks about its mission in detail on its website. Other reasons they favor eating local: to support small farms and farmers, to protect local farmland and the environment, to change our food distribution system, and to decrease the time and distance your food travels.

And why do I eat local?

(Well, I don't in any absolute sense. Much in the way Mark Bittman suggests that there are substantial benefits to being a "lessmeatarian" or "vegan till six," I eat local and write about eating local ... except all the times that I don't. I buy Georgia peaches when they look better than Massachusetts ones. That said ...)

I eat local because it's an easy way to pay more attention to where our food comes from, and I think not knowing that is one of the biggest disconnects in our world. (Check out this clip, in which Jamie Oliver discovers that first graders can identify chicken nuggets but not tomatoes or potatoes.) Eating local lets us connect the same sunny weather we're experiencing with the bounty of eggplants in our CSA box (or our lack of rain with the disappointingly tiny onions).

And I eat local for the same reason I grow my own tomatoes in the backyard. Not out of any expectation that my $10 investment in seedlings and stakes and potting soil (much less my time spent watering and weeding and worrying over my charmingly scraggly plants) will produce a $10 harvest of heirloom tomatoes. But just to be a little bit closer to the miracle that turns sunlight into a tomato sandwich; to be able to say, "I grew that," while offering it to someone I love; and because it turns out that making things and geeking out with people who know how to make things is inherently satisfying.

I also eat local as a purely selfish aesthetic choice -- because I love the culture of farmers markets that have sprung up everywhere in this city (Brian Halweil says people have ten times more conversations at farmers markets than at grocery stores). Because often restaurants that serve local food are also restaurants that draw their menus on chalkboards and decorate with crates of obscure craft beers and preserve old-school candlepin bowling alleys. Because supporting quirky small farms rather than corporate giants and Big Organic is in itself appealing to me. Because I love participating in a giant -- and growing -- community of foodies and locavores and food bloggers and Twitterers and traditional journalists who are genuinely excited about -- of all things -- vegetables.

Why do you eat local?

(This post is part of a Massachusetts Farmers Market Week blogathon organized by In Our Grandmothers' Kitchens. Read some of the other excellent food blogs linked at Loving Local for more reasons to eat local than we have beets in our crisper. And perhaps consider a donation to Mass Farmers Markets if you'd like to keep the local food coming?)

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