Friday, May 28, 2010

Just what does local food mean?

A few notes written after reading the article Just What Does Local Mean? by Michael S. Hand and Stephen Martinez ... I try to figure out what they are talking about, and well ... I guess I just start talking for myself.

Many individuals and groups are using the term ‘local’ in regards to food, but they don’t use the same meaning of the word. ‘Local’ doesn’t just refer to a set distance between food grown and eaten; nor does it mean a set political boundary, as for example: ‘this food comes from the province of Ontario’.

There are practical reasons to define the term ‘local’. If a city spends $500,000 on an advertising campaign to urge people to buy local food there needs to be a definition of the word ‘local’ so that those who run the project can tell if it was successful ... meaning they’ll know if taxpayers’ money was spent effectively. A practical definition for such a project might have ‘local’ food defined as food (i) both grown and processed (ii) within the county surrounding the city or the city itself.

Hand and Martinez point out that most food buyers are not thinking just about geography when they describe what ‘local’ food means to them. We make both personal and public demands on the food system. The authors use an interesting term, social distance, to refer to factors that have to do with the personal relationship between the food producer and grower and the ethical practices of the grower in relation to the buyer’s values. Some of my own suggestions for such social interaction factors are:
- making one’s food purchase directly from a grower at a market, receiving weekly delivery by CSA, or buying from a food cooperative
- knowing something about the way animals are raised/treated – whether this is outdoor grazing time, number of animals per pen or use of antibiotics as preventative procedure
- if buying an item from a major chain, e.g. Loblaw’s – does the package name the town the apples come from

My guess is that the food system makes all of us a little bit nuts. Even without reading/listening to any media item discussing escalating prices, pesticide contamination, displaced rural workers, starving people in countries that grow luxury food for export, fossil fuel shortages’ effects on farm equipment, soil depletion, decreased nutrition in produce, shipping distances, carbon footprints, methyl bromide fungicide that kills every living thing in the California soil where the tasteless oversize strawberries grow for Christmas in Ontario ....

... just going to the grocery store can make a person crazy ...

The canned fruit? Well, there are no fruit canneries in Ontario. Depending on whether one is buying Dole, Del Monte or President’s Choice ... one is buying from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, or the U.S. What is local when this is the choice? Two years ago when I bought tinned peaches, I chose the U.S. point of origin, laughing a bit hysterically that at least they were from the same continent. This year I’m buying fresh and putting them in the freezer. Fresh will be from whatever market I can get to by bicycle, on foot or by bus; I will make sure the peaches didn’t go to the Toronto food terminal first before coming to London.

Another thing about food buying that makes us all crazy is that we have to change our definition of ‘local’ with every food item we select.

There’s probably not enough ‘local’ wheat grown in Ontario to supply all the bread that’s used in the province. In the summer, I’m not doing my own baking. Since I cannot afford the $4.00 and $5.00 a loaf wonderful market breads – we eat a lot of bread at my place – whatever is on sale at ValuMart wins.

In November and December, it is unlikely that one will find Canadian grown brussels sprouts in ValuMart (despite Canada being a great place for brassicas); so I get Canadian grown green cabbages through March. You do notice I’m saying Canadian, not Ontario?
An acquaintance who is trying hard to eat a ‘100 mile diet’ rejoiced that she found a supplier of peanut butter, one of her favorite foods. My peanut butter of choice - President’s Choice because it doesn’t have added stuff – is ‘processed in Canada’; there’s no information on the label concerning where the peanuts were grown. No extra stuff wins on this one. Local cannot be my choice on this item because I don’t have the time or vehicle it takes to get to the place to buy it. The neat thing is that the acquaintance is probably documenting her 100 mile journey and others will be able to benefit from things she figures out.

There are probably at a dozen factors to consider on every food item we buy. The importance of the factors changes with the food item. Tally up the decisions and compromises needed on a twenty item grocery list and is it any wonder that we have days when we stop reading labels, buy what’s on sale, and give up?

But not all the time. Not on every item.

And for every item we think about and measure with that social distance yardstick, there has to be a win for ourselves – healthy body, mind and spirit, and for the grower.

More and more people realize that we long for ‘something’ that we are not getting from the food we eat, and from the process by which we buy it. This is changing. This is going to change more.

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