Locavore U. S. A. : How a local-food economy is changing one community, a chapter from the book Change Comes to Dinner
In 1950, at least 70 percent of Montana's food was grown in Montana. Many states used to have robust local-food economies, but that has changed drastically around the country in recent decades. National-scale food businesses beat out community-oriented small and medium-sized operations, laying waste to the infrastructure that once supported thriving local-food economies.
There is rising interest in again making food a local affair. But jump-starting a locavore economy is a tricky business. To cut down the massive distances that the vast majority of food eaten in the United States travels before it reaches dinner plates, communities must work to nurture "a cascading effect" by which each piece of a local-food economy enables and then reinforces the others to create a robust, cost-effective network.
Locavore U.S.A. introduces readers to some brave, hard-working souls in western Montana who are building their own such network piece by piece. In the process they are uncovering a key way to transform our industrially dominated food system.
The following ebook is taken from the book Change Comes to Dinner.
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St. Martin's Griffin
April 23, 2012
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Excerpt from Locavore U. S. A. by Katherine Gustafson
LOCAVORE U.S.A. (Chapter 1)
Locavore U.S.A.: How a local food economy is changing one community
As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I had little idea where much of my food came from, and no one ever told me I should. I was amazed to discover that nuts sprout from trees, melons grow along the ground, raisins are dried grapes, and anybody can make pie crust in his or her own kitchen. As an adult, learning how to make bread by hand was an accomplishment that felt like breaking some kind of time-space continuum. For centuries, all over the world, people have been baking bread from scratch with little fanfare, as if the mysterious and complex process of kneading and rising and baking were not a potent and miraculous form of magic. It seemed hard to believe.
I was, apparently, more or less an ignoramus about food, and with that background to rely on, it was no wonder that I was surprised to eventually learn of the smorgasbord of woes served up by the industrial production system that supplies the vast majority of food in the United States. The already-terrible, ever-worsening litany of concerns about that system includes myriad alarming items, each a rolling disaster in itself. We have fewer and fewer farms and farmers. Monocultures propped up by chemical pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers are wrecking the environment. The food we make is killing us, both from contamination and diet-related diseases. The complaints go on.
The dispiriting reality of the industrial food system has been well documented in scores of recent books, such as The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, as well as in movies like Food, Inc., Super Size Me, and King Corn. The majority of these will make you want to chuck it all and open a bag of Cheetos on the principle that we're all doomed anyway, so you might as well enjoy your last few years with the taste of cheesy-atomic-orange delight on your tongue. (Secret, shameful fact about the author: irredeemable love for the Cheeto. Oh, the nuclear orange vibrancy; the solid, unnatural crunch; the cheesetastic, salt-lick taste! I maintain that I am an innocent victim of their insidious charms: researchers have now proven that such processed foods are addictive, just like cocaine and songs by Beyonce.)
As the grim reality of the industrial food system comes into focus, desperation and then depression set in among concerned denizens of our fair country. As a friend told me during a conversation about the topic, a frustrated pinch in her voice, "I'm so tired of doomsday accounts of how the world is coming to an end."
And as I started a gig as a writer on sustainable food for an activism website called Change.org, I could see what she meant. My first winter as a sustainable-food blogger had me writing about childhood obesity and E. coli-laced beef and the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone the size of Rhode Island caused by petrochemical fertilizers running off our giant, monstrous farms. My notes were riddled with soul-crushing words like "desertification," "contaminated groundwater," and "type-2 diabetes." With every new piece I wrote on GMOs taking over the world or pesticides infesting our strawberries or family farms falling prey to the gobbling maw of industrial-scale operations, I felt my soul curl tighter and tighter into a fetal ball. My mind had started to turn the same bleak gray as the dull winter sky hovering outside the window.
But as I wrote, I kept a searching eye out for the people who dared to strike out on their own to build a new vision of an alternative food universe. And all winter, one by one, the stories of these stalwart individuals working to create options other than industrial food had popped up in my writing like crocuses in a desiccated field. The more I looked, the more of them I found. As it turns out, they are everywhere, doing all manner of quirky and remarkable things. All around us, this country is in the midst of a transformation characterized by a swelling wave of inspiring, hopeful action to address how we grow, process, distribute, and eat our food.
Theirs are the hopeful tales that those sensitive souls like my long-suffering friend crave. Their existence--indeed, their prevalence--was a breathtaking relief to me. If my readers wanted hope--if I needed hope--then hope is what I would supply. The clouds of winter cleared as I made a decision: I would go visit these brave, inspiring people and see for myself what we have to be glad about. I would choose a representative handful of these efforts and bring their stories to the people of this great country who are thirsting for good news. I had long known I wasn't cut out to be a muckraking journalist. Instead, I decided, I would go hoperaking.
And with that, a springtime chorus of birds burst into song.
An investigation of local food was, I felt, the logical place to start my journey; the commitment to eating locally is the sacred cow of the sustainable food movement. There seems to be a general--though sometimes only vaguely justified--consensus that sourcing as much of our food as possible from within a short driving distance of our houses is one of the most important things we can do to right the sinking ship of the U.S. food system.
I wondered if this was true. Is relocalizing our food economy the answer to our woes? It seemed improbable to me that small farmers selling at urban markets--the image almost universally associated with the idea of "eating local"--could be the much sought-after solution to all the complicated problems of our industrially dominated food system. Aren't these local farms just too small and too few and too apt to be growing things like garlic scapes and ramps, which--let's be honest--sound more like pieces of equipment found in a skateboard park than food?
The most familiar argument for locavorism arises from an objection to the massive distances that the vast majority of food eaten in the United States travels before it reaches dinner plates. The figure fifteen hundred miles is thrown around a lot, and while that number--calculated by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture--is only kind of true and then only if you live in Chicago, the exact number doesn't really matter; the sticking point is that we eat many things that have flown on airplanes from other hemispheres or been trucked across continents (or back and forth between states in a pointless bureaucratic shuffle) to get to us.
The ghastly carbon footprint of all that global food shipping is the more commonly reiterated reason to eat more locally. The environmental impact of getting an apple from five miles away, the logic goes, must surely be vastly less than that of shipping your fruit in from New Zealand. Unfortunately for the locavores, the ecological argument for eating locally doesn't always stand up well to scrutiny. An apple in a load of millions shipped cross-country in an efficient eighteen-wheeler might well account for fewer carbon emissions than an apple in a single bushel driven thirty miles to a farmers' market in an old diesel farm truck. And that comparison doesn't account for the carbon dioxide expended by the shoppers getting to and home from the place of purchase--a figure that might be lower for those who shop at grocery stores where only one trip is necessary than for those who take separate trips to farmers' markets, specialty shops, and other stores to put the week's menu together.
But other reasons for eating locally turn out to be far more compelling. What people want by and large, it seems to me, is to live in communities that are thriving, where they can find the means to be happy and healthy. What better way to make sure our communities thrive than by locating a chunk of the most important businesses of our lives--the work of feeding ourselves--close to our cities and in our own neighborhoods? Bolstering local food economies means creating and keeping local jobs, maintaining food producers' interest in and responsiveness to the needs and wants of the community (including the need for safe and healthy food), ensuring greater freshness, and providing local consumers with more instead of fewer options regarding where, when, and how to buy their food.
I still had my doubts about whether all those little guys farming their hearts out on their one-, five-, and twenty-acre parcels and dragging their wares to the farmers' market every week could feed our country effectively, but logic had it that they were doing vital work to keep our country from inexorably being taken over part and parcel by corporate food concerns. Local-food entrepreneurs were on the front lines, bringing us all hope. And hope is what I was after. In trying to find some small answer to the question, "What would a better food system look like?" I clearly needed to see "local food" in action. If what I found didn't appear to be the final, glorious solution to our food dilemmas, perhaps I could gain some hints about what such a solution might be.
I found the energetic--if fledgling--local-food economy I was looking for in Montana, a state with sky so wide it feels like the edge of the world....