Food Goes Native: The local foods movement picks up steam

Published on Tue, 10/14/2014 - 8:35am

From supermarket to convenience store, there’s a problem with the food we buy: It’s not from around here. If it wasn’t for those pesky government-required stickers on  the fruit, vegetables, and meat we buy, we’d never know  the source of the ingredients in  Auntie Mae’s fruit salad.

Today, there is a trend to go back to a simpler time when the food you ate was grown locally.

Grocery stores in virtually every city and hamlet in the country today can count on providing Washington apples, Florida oranges, Vidalia onions and Wisconsin cheese—to say nothing of tropical bananas and oranges, lettuce, and milk every day of the year. The convenience of prepared mixes, canned goods, and microwaveable meals make them staples in today’s diet. How did this super-abundance get started, anyway? We can blame it on the railroads.
Before 1828, when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) ushered in the era of on-time, scheduled freight transport, the food people ate was either grown locally or within a few days’ wagon or canal ride—if not in their own yard.
By the 1870s, the Industrial Revolution had developed into full-blown railroad-mania. Rail lines became the lifeblood of communities and fueled American expansion. Goods could be shipped by rail, and in large quantities, too. Maine potatoes and Wisconsin cheese looked mighty attractive to Southerners, and their oranges and other warm-weather fruits and veggies were certainly appealing to Yankees in the dead of winter.
This time of year, it’s easy to see how the concept of eating locally-produced food could take root. Our own gardens often produce an abundance—if not an overabundance—of seasonable fruits and vegetables. Farmers markets are still in full swing, offering shoppers the widest possible selection of local produce and foodstuffs.

Local means fresh
All over the country, the toniest restaurants have begun touting their use of locally-sourced ingredients, especially for daily specials. The limited availability commands a higher price and helps keep restaurants profitable. It also helps the cachet of the “locally sourced” label.
The fact is, offering local foods isn’t just about differentiating a restaurant from its competitors, it’s about bringing quality and freshness back to the foods we eat. Fresh fruits and vegetables begin to lose nutrients the moment they are picked. The carrots purchased at the grocery store on Friday were most likely picked, underripe, the previous Saturday or Sunday. By eating locally, you consume items that have retained nearly all of their nutritive value.
To take advantage of seasonal abundance, locally-sourced diets rely on a large proportion of fresh fruits, vegetables, and preserved items. Local meats can be part of this equation, as well, and can be preserved “on the hoof” until needed

What is local, anyway?
No one should be surprised to learn there is actually a government ruling on this from the 2008 Farm Bill.
To be considered “locally produced,” the food must originate from within 400 miles. (Folks in large states like Texas, California, and Montana get a pass—food is considered local if it comes from within the state in which it’s sold or consumed.)
“Local” varies considerably, too, according to what meets your needs. The national fast-food restaurant chain Chipotle has hung its hat on buying local ingredients and going organic whenever possible. They use a radius of 350 miles from each restaurant, and have even pledged to serve at least 50-percent of at least one produce item from local farms when it is seasonally available, and more than 50-percent and more than one item any time they can. These ingredients include romaine lettuce, red onions, green bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, and oregano.

Miles matter
Locavores think somewhat differently about this than the general public. To them, it is a mark of distinction to tally up the distance their food covers from farm to plate, and the lower the number, the better.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, an advocacy group encouraging sustainable practices, fresh food items in America typically travel between 1500 and 2500 miles from farm to plate—25 percent farther than  in 1980.
In a famous 2001 study called “Food, Fuel, and Freeways”  by the Leopold Center For Sustainable Agriculture, three Iowa local-foods projects were analyzed. When farmers sold to institutional markets such as hospitals, restaurants, and conference centers, the report found that the food “traveled an average of 44.6 miles to reach its destination, compared with an estimated 1546 miles if these food items had arrived from conventional national sources.”
The goal of the study was to understand the impact of local versus “conventional” food distribution systems on CO2 emissions. What they found was startling:
The conventional system used 4 to 17 times more fuel than the Iowa-based regional and local systems, depending on the system and truck type. The same conventional system released from 5 to 17 times more CO2 from the burning of this fuel than the Iowa-based regional and local systems.
Environmentally-concerned foodies the world over are looking to reduce greenhouse gases, pollution, and waste by shifting a large part of their diet to locally-produced ingredients.

CSAs, schools, and farmers markets save the day
There are a number of fronts where long-food-miles battles are being fought. Chief among them is the “slow food movement,” which goes hand-in-garden-glove with the local food movement.
Slow food is characterized as an antidote to the ever-present fast food, and strives to preserve the traditional cuisine of the region. Attend a slow food dinner and you might find cheese from a nearby farm, fish from a local stream, bread made from grains harvested on the other side of the county, and chicken from the front yard, garnished with greens from the garden.
It is traditional in that almost nothing comes from a factory, and the food is prepared specifically for, and sometimes during, the meal.
Good, locally-grown foods can be seen in farmers markets and community supported agriculture organizations, or CSAs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture began publishing a national directory of farmers markets in 1994. The first year, they listed, 1774, and by 2004 had doubled to more than 3700. At last count, in 2013, the number listed was 8184.
Direct-to-user CSAs also show comparable growth, if not even greater usage. There is no “official” count of CSAs since they sometimes represent part-time efforts on the part of farmers and extreme gardeners. Nevertheless, it is clear they are part of the food landscape today. Author Steven McFadden, an expert on the subject, estimates there are probably more than 6500 CSAs in the U.S.
Restaurants have also jumped on board, with more than 87-percent of fine-dining establishments serving local items nationwide in 2006, according to Packaged Facts, a food industry market research publisher. Best of all, children are now involved. Grade schools have begun planting gardens to teach the benefits of that activity and to help defray school lunch costs. Working with slow food organizations, four states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to ensure that local foods can be served in school cafeterias.

What’s in store
There are even grocery stores and supermarkets that feature local goods, such as the national chain Whole Foods. Even if you don’t know of a CSA or farmers market in your area, it’s possible to bring locally-sourced food to your dinner table, and it’s often easier than you think.  Just ask your grocer or convenience store operator. Chances are they already carry local items, but may not feature them.