Week 4/5: Local Eats
Bit of Background
If you've never been to the floodplains of the Midwest, it’s difficult to explain just how different things look. You could drive 30 miles and not see a single house or gas station — just endlessly passing lines of crops seemingly swelling to overtake the asphalt.
I grew up in a small town. Food-producing farms were everywhere, and where there weren't farms, there were livestock fields. Some people lived and worked in the same 40-mile area that their grandparents’ grandparents bought after coming overseas. Other people lived in trailers not meant for more than 20 years’ occupancy. Poverty was pervasive, as was an intense accountability to one’s neighbors. Recreation had an outdoor definition — kids received ATVs and hunting gear for birthdays, and not visiting the local wildlife refuge for some family picnic at least once a year was nearly criminal. Academics took a backseat to more practical skill sets. And there were more churches per square mile than gas stations. Everyone knew everyone, and everyone knew it.
Suffice it to say, the culture was vastly different.
Coming to “the big city” was a culture shock, and for the most part, it was predictable. Noise. Population density. The smell of the air. Curt interactions with proprietors. Some aspects of the non-rural life, though, I did not anticipate. One of those areas dealt with how the urban culture approached food.
I grew up around the earthy origins of food. Corn, soybean, rice, apple, pumpkin — I’ve watched them spring from black soil, flower in dewey spring, and hazily rise to fruition, swaying in stifling summer humidity. I’ve sat and observed staggeringly enormous machines pull these foods from the plants gently and deftly. For years I awoke to the sound of my rooster cawing furiously at the yowling cows across the creek, and I collected eggs daily from chickens grown and raised on cracked corn and the insects of my parents’ land. I’ve cursed the heat of dawn as my mother and I meandered through our garden collecting swollen and fragrant delicacies, not because our refrigerator had want of more vegetables, but because leaving them on the vine was encouraged by local wildlife.
I didn’t think much about where my food came from. On the by-and-large, unless it was some highly commercial product (like, say, breakfast cereal), the food came, at minimum, from places I could relate to — I was surrounded by the facilities that produce food. So was everyone else in our area.
There was very little discussion about ecological matters. There was no discussion of global warming or carbon footprints (unless it was to scoff at “the academics” on the other side of the fence). Supporting local farmers wasn’t a matter of health or wellness — it meant supporting your neighbor’s endeavors to provide for their families. The food was almost universally better-tasting and more fresh when it came from a farm stand, and it was so much less expensive. Co-op supporters like Monsanto and John Deere were praised and marketed simply by their branded presence in the fields. And eating organic meant asking your neighbor for a wheelbarrow of chicken waste to compost and use in following years.
I’m giving you all this hefty background to provide some context on my perspective.
This week, our prompt asked the following:
What impacts do the terms locavore and carbon footprint have on the way we organize our eating practices? Can you tell where the foods you eat were produced? Which interdependent organizations were involved in bringing your food to your table? How could you reorganize the ways you eat based on what you’ve read?
The term locavore has vastly different meanings and impacts depending on the region and culture.
In rural USA, eating local and well organizationally means sharing your excess crop in the breakroom, using livestock-safe, often very synthetic pest repellants, and buying your strawberries from a roadside stand rather than the grocery store. It’s pretty simple, it actually saves money, and it’s ingrained in the culture. It takes very little organizational effort to eat locally and healthfully in rural areas — it’s just part of how people have always lived. It requires little coordination, and while it requires a lot of communication, it’s communication that does much more than simply secure food from local growers. It’s possible it seems so much simpler and easy to me because I lived it for many years, but at minimum, I do think it’s much less of an organizational endeavor when compared to the urban effort to eat locally.
In urban USA, to eat organically has a massive organizational system attached to it. The term “organic” has no real meaning — to some, it means eating healthfully, and to others, it means no chemicals they deem unfit were used on the product. Local food has similar ambiguity. Eating local could mean buying food branded from a non-mega-farm located somewhere in your state, or it could mean eating food grown in your neighbor’s rooftop garden. There are entire stores and megacompanies built to facilitate eating organic and locally, and in order to support their services in this subculture, they tend to charge absolutely staggering prices. This means, at the organization-level, being a locavore involves a fairly major financial commitment.
Like any large-scale system, the urban community of organic/local eaters is multifaceted and hugely complicated. It has changed as the political and socioeconomic environments have changed, and it has enormous interdependency between consumers, distributors, companies, farmers, marketing groups, and on and on. Eating locally in an urban area is an undertaking worthy of the book’s weighty definition of an organizational system.
This leads into the next subtopic — can a person really tell where their foods are produced? The popularity of eating local and organic means it’s become a corporate endeavor. This has benefits and major disadvantages, and it all adds up to this: unless you make your food or buy it off a farmer at a market or grovestand, you really can’t know exactly where your food came from.
The largely-local market is, unfortunately, largely impossible. While it’s a perfectly feasible endeavor for rural America and for highly agriculturally-diverse areas like San Francisco, for places like Chicago, it’s not possible. Some foods just won’t grow in Chicago’s climate, and others shouldn’t be grown — instead, they should be grown where they readily develop, and then be shipped. Illinois is known for its corn product and soy, and that’s really all that’s grown locally — everything else is and (largely) should be brought in.
As a quick note, on page 103 in the book, this prompt restates that it takes far more Calories to move food than a human receives from that food. This is such a normal phenomenon that it’s irrelevant to bring up — the ecological pyramid has always had consumers receiving less energy than it took to produce what they consumed. This is why there are fewer creatures toward the top of the pyramid than lower in the pyramid. (Here’s a Wikipedia article on the ecological pyramid — it’s pretty decent.) The authors’ comment about it taking more energy to produce/move food than a consumer receives is confusingly irrelevant and possibly a little manipulative. Instead, what could be talked about is the cost impact of moving food inefficiently and thus wasting resources, but this is a tangential topic.
Knowing where food came from is not impossible, though it can be very difficult, as the food-wise market is so complicated. Megafarms contract to smaller farms for product, and this product is moved through any number of processing plants and companies before arriving at the supermarket. Having each person trace back through that history would take a life-consuming amount of time and effort. Buying local is a wonderful idea — support farmers, theoretically know more about what was done to food before eating it, and so on — but in urban areas especially, it’s become such a complicated organization that this backtrace is tremendously difficult. But it’s a good start!
All this talk about local food aside, I find the food industry to be amazing. The sheer amount of coordination and communication that goes on to feed nearly 300 million people in the US alone — it’s just staggering. To think that 100 years ago we as a civilization were still staggering through famine and food shortage — it’s a major accomplishment on the part of food manufacturers. The system isn’t perfect, and like any organization, it needs to continue changing and molding to the needs of the current population, but the food industry, to me, is an incredible feat.
Also, speaking of food, I’ll take this opportunity to plug something near-and-dear to me: now that spring is nearly upon us, please remember to call a beekeeper, not an exterminator, if you encounter bees in your living space. An exterminator will often kill the bees, but bees are vital to the growth of food and the continuation of our beautiful natural environment. Call a beekeeper. They’ll often relocate the bees to a helpful, safe location — and usually for free.