The 21st century offers us many conveniences and one of them is being able to buy nearly any kind of food, any day of the year. The price of this extraordinary convenience is most certainly not reflected in retail cost. The true cost of labor and resource use, packaging, storage, fossil fuel used in shipping, any resultant environmental degradation and global climate change – are most certainly not tallied into the 1.69 lb tomato from Israel, or the 3.00 lb bag of apples from China. The assignment of October as local food month is meant to help bring the true value of our food into better perspective. It’s a perfect time – the time of harvest, of gathering for the winter ahead – of celebrating all the colors of the rainbow in apples, squashes, peppers, eggplants etc. Eating food that was grown in the backyard, by a neighboring farm or within the county used to be the norm, in now takes vigilance and commitment to eat what is grown within a hundred mile radius. Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful book Animal Vegetable Miracle puts it all into perspective when she talks about tons of local tomatoes rotting away because their cousins from California are offered at the supermarket for a lower price (though not at a lower cost in terms of fuel). I highly recommend this entertaining and illuminating book.
Eating locally produced food items not only supports local economies, but on the biochemical level, it makes the most sense for adaptation to life where you live. Plants are constantly responding to environmental cues, so as they adapt to weather and pathogens, this adaptation is stored in their cells and that chemistry is passed onto you as you eat it. Your immune system responds to the juicy news quickly and viola, you are more able to respond to what is happening in your patch of the planet. Anyone who has traveled knows that a natural way to connect with the soul of the soil is to eat what it produces. If you live in a place and eat from it’s earth, you become a connoisseur of the earth and I’m sure I am not the only one out there who has been able to name the local of a food product by taste alone. What our noses and taste buds know instinctively, our minds need convincing of: organic produce can have up to triple the about of nutrition compared to non-organic produce. Produce grown with care and freshly picked, carries loads of life-force energy!
Perhaps one of the best revolutions in labeling is that most products reveal their country of origin. This means every shopper has a choice about where they buy food from and who they are supporting when they do – what a freedom and what a burden at times. While visiting in Portland this summer, I went to a natural foods market to get some ‘food for the road’. I like to eat apples when I travel since they are easy to eat compared to say, a drippy nectarine. I stood in the organic apple section, looking longing, but alas, there were Fuji’s and pippins from New Zealand, and red delicious and Jonathan’s from Chile. I stood there in limbo – I wanted local organic fruit. Alas, that meant no apples (this was August, but northwest apples were still preparing for their debut), so off I wandered until I got to the cherries and there were local Bing cherries grown just outside the city – and manageable munchies for driving. This is just to warn you, that if you want to make a practice out of eating locally produced foods, you have to be flexible.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, we hardly had salad in the winter because the stores only had iceberg lettuce and anemic tomatoes. My folks always had a garden, so we all held out for the beefsteaks that came thick in July. I remember it was a special occasion when we got an avocado labeled ‘California’ and tangerines at Christmas labeled ‘Florida’. If you are planning to be a locovore all year round, then forgoing certain foods off-season is obvious – hum . . . That makes it a harder choice, but kind of exciting too – wow to those first asparagus, artichokes, strawberries and tomatoes! And currently – wow to this year’s delicious apples! Gee, but what about things like coconut flakes and pineapple rings? I know, I know – see, it’s challenging.
Still, if you try the ‘first local, then consciously moving outward’ approach, it is an act of environmental change. Try eating products produced within a hundred mile radius of your home, then move into the next counties, then the state, then region and finally the USA. You will discover all kinds of interesting produce and cottage industries, and yes, you will probably still be purchasing organic and fair-trade products from overseas. What counts is awareness, choice, support for small farms and reducing our dependency on petroleum. In the end, it is the customer that creates economic change, so use your power of choice with care.