e all need to eat, and whenever we do, we make choices. We make these choices all day long. Cook at home or eat out? Fresh or frozen? Raw or cooked? Sweet or savory? Cheap or expensive? Healthy or maybe not-so-healthy? Real or decaf? Cream or sugar? Tall or grande?
We base our choices on what we’re in the mood for, what’s convenient, what we like, what we can afford, where we are, how much time we have, how hungry we are, etc. Our choices are also completely dependent on what’s available. You can’t eat what isn’t there.
For most of us, hopefully, we have enough of some kind of food to eat so that we can afford to ask ourselves other, deeper questions. Where did this food come from? Who made it or raised it? Where? With what kind of farming practices was it grown? How was it processed? Is it fresh? Local? How did it get here?
Choices About Our Food Purchases
Some of us are part of the growing number of people who now consider these questions as we make choices about our food purchases. We want to know more about where our food comes from and how it’s produced. We may want to know for health reasons, or we may have environmental concerns. We may care about work conditions for food workers or the impact food production has on their local community.
In the interest of reducing our carbon footprint, we may look for foods that travel as few “food miles” as possible, and we want our food produced with as few fossil-fuel derived inputs (like non-organic fertilizers) as possible. We care if a food item is locally grown or shipped in from far away. And if the latter, from how far away? If it’s from a farm, which farm? Who was the farmer? In the last few years, such considerations have produced significant shifts in our buying habits.
A growing number of people are actively seeking out “local” in order to reduce the number of miles between the farm and the table. But what does “local” mean? For me, it’s sometimes just the 50 yards from our vegetable garden to the kitchen sink. I consider a farm “ local” if it is within 50 miles of where I live. Fortunately, with several farmers markets to choose from within a 30-mile radius, “local” can easily mean buying directly from the farmer who raised the chickens, or heirloom potatoes, or curly kale.
Meanwhile, the number of CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) is exploding. In these programs, weekly boxes or bags of goods are picked up at a designated place or delivered to members who pre-pay a local farmer at the beginning of the growing season for a share of their harvest. In the last 20 years, the number of CSAs in North Carolina has grown from 35 to about 125. (It’s probably more, as I expect I missed quite a few in my count). Just two counties south of me, a community CSA program feeds over 1,200 families.
According to USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture, the value of direct farm-to-consumer sales in the US (that’s a combination of farmers markets and CSAs) grew from $32.8 million in 1997 to $39.9 million in 2002 — and then to $67.6 million in 2007. I expect the 2012 census numbers will show a similar trend. (Source: ams.usda.gov)
Is It Local and Sustainable?
My preferred definition of “local food” includes the dimension of being “sustainably farmed.” I’d rather eat food produced using practices based not only on making a profit, but also on a commitment to the health of consumers and the planet. Among other things, sustainable farming practices replenish our rapidly deteriorating topsoil by using techniques such as seasonal rotations to enrich soils and prevent diseases and pests. They protect rivers and streams from toxic run-off and minimize the use of fossil fuels. Being sustainable just makes sense if we plan to grow food to feed ourselves not just this season, but for decades to come.
There are many reasons to want access to local, sustainably grown food. Good taste, appealing texture, a vibrant farm community, a stronger local economy, fertile soils — the list goes on. Yet the number of small- and medium-scale farms feeding our local communities was declining so rapidly, they nearly faced extinction.
According to the USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture, between 2002 and 2007 North Carolina alone lost more than 604,000 acres of farmland. Partly to blame was the loss of tobacco as a cash crop as well as the intense financial pressure to convert farmland to more lucrative development. Big retailers found it more cost effective to buy from fewer farmers, squeezing out the small farms. They demanded huge acreages that would produce perfectly standardized product (same size and appearance) — requirements that are unreasonable for small- and medium-sized farms to meet.
Distribution: From South Africa to Florida
I was recently in eastern North Carolina, where acres of sweet potatoes are grown each year. Once harvested, they are loaded onto trucks and shipped to distribution sites hundreds of miles away, and from there they get sent all over the country. Or canned. Or sliced and fried. The friend I was visiting lamented that the local supermarket only carried sweet potatoes from Florida.
I don’t blame the farmers; it’s the food system that’s broken. The route from farm to kitchen now loops around, drops off profits to a variety of corporations along the way (while the food deteriorates in quality), and finally ends up, miles later, in our mouths. Except, sadly, for the 40% that is wasted.
Standing in the Food Lion supermarket in Pittsboro, NC, staring at fresh blueberries imported from Chile during the height of our North Carolina blueberry season, the produce manager explained it to me. “I order them on the computer, and they’re the only ones on the list.”
Wow. Not only is that a senseless waste of energy, but the local ones taste so much better, and buying them supports local farmers. I once bought big, beautiful blueberries at a fruit stand in Manhattan that were grown in Rocky Mount, NC. I guess they were on the fruit stand owner’s computer list.
I was in Orlando a few months back to help a young friend get settled into a new apartment. We made a stop at a grocery store, and I headed to the produce section. I was psyched about getting some Florida oranges and grapefruits to take back with me to North Carolina. I found two kinds of oranges: one stack was from South Africa and the other from California (and the tomatoes were from Peru). But this store was in Florida! I’m guessing they shipped all the local oranges to New York.
This is madness. The entire distribution system — the entire food system — needs our attention. We may reach outside for coffee or olive oil, but protecting natural resources within 50 miles (or a few hundred) so enough food can be grown to feed a local population creates self-reliance, and self-reliance brings with it countless social benefits. So how do we support our local foodshed so it can be a more efficient and sustainable source of our food?
Getting Back on Track
One thing we need to do is get back on track — literally. When we stopped riding passenger trains a few decades ago, we pulled up the tracks in most communities all across the US. We switched to cars, expecting never to need to those trains again. When they disappeared, they took with them a valuable, regional distribution mechanism to move, market, and sell food closer to where it comes from.
We must rebuild, repair, and restart efficient local food distribution systems. Getting our food from farm to kitchen requires a myriad of businesses and lots of great job opportunities. Local economic development folks should be all over this idea!
Promoting local, sustainable food systems just makes sense. It means having fresh, good quality food easily available, independent of global markets. And it means buying high-quality food from people you know and trust, at markets where you can visit with people and enjoy the outing. But, perhaps as importantly, freshly picked food bought at a local farmers market or food co-op tastes so much better!
Package That Up for Me
In the last 50 years, we’ve become dependent on highly processed foods that comes in boxes, bottles, cans, and plastic containers, most of it covered in multi-layers of packaging. These super-packaged foods are delivered to big corporate-owned chain grocery and convenience stores, ready for us to buy, take home, heat, and eat. Marketing campaigns, jingles, slogans, coupons, and clever packaging entice us to buy, buy, buy — and remind us not to “eat just one.”
The result: an obesity epidemic; a new generation that has never seen anything being “made from scratch”; and a disconnect between what we put into our mouths and the land where it is grown and the people who grow it for us.
Food labels have long lists of “ingredients” we can barely pronounce and too often can’t identify. We see the claims on the packaging and in the ads, but can we trust them to be accurate? “All natural” “organic” “whole-grain” “local” — all these words have now been used and abused by companies to sell products that are none of those things.
We can do better than that.
There are now some 30,000 items on offer in our supermarkets. In 2000, about half of those were produced by ten multinational food and beverage companies. So what about all that choice? It’s a mirage. It’s branding and marketing trickery designed to get the most profit out of each and every item.
Today, the numbers are even worse. The vast majority of food in stores and restaurants comes from only a handful of corporations. How do they make their decisions about what we will eat? Do they base them on our health, our well-being, our soils, our kids, our future on this planet? What are their priorities?
Their priority is to sell. Their job is to manipulate us into believing that their products will make us happier and more comfortable, so we’ll spend our dollars — and then spend some more. The more the better. Consumer spending and debt are what keep them so highly profitable.
Agricultural economist Larry Swain, who helped start micro-dairies throughout the Midwest, says, “The huge margins in the food biz aren’t in growing crops, they’re in marketing.” That’s contrary to many of his colleagues who promote the “get big or get out” theory of modern farming.
But the tides have begun to change. Bringing back more locally grown food has become a movement. Local farmers markets, CSAs, urban gardens, and even many new farms are on the rise.
©2013 by Carol Peppe Hewitt. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers, Canada. http://www.newsociety.com
Financing Our Foodshed: Growing Local Food with Slow Money
by Carol Peppe Hewitt.
About the Author
Carol Peppe Hewitt is a business owner, social entrepreneur and life-long activist. She is cofounder of Slow Money NC which works to finance North Carolina's sustainable food and farming economy by connecting individuals committed to building local food systems with entrepreneurs who have compelling needs for capital. Growing up in rural Northwest Connecticut, Carol watched as working farms disappeared one by one. She now works to change that trend, guiding patient capital to small-scale farmers and businesses in North Carolina.
Watch a video with Carol Peppe Hewitt: Growing Local Food with Slow Money