Karen Holmes interviewed eighteen people to get their take on eating local.
The smell of freshly-cut herbs simmering in a vegetable broth. The crispness of newly picked Swiss chard. The summer smells and flavours of home-preserved tomatoes or crab-apple jelly as the jar’s seal is broken on a January day. The peace of mind of knowing exactly where your food comes from, in what conditions it has been grown or produced, and that its nutritional value is genuine. The satisfaction of knowing that you are contributing to the health and wholeness of a sustainable local food-system and the life of the planet.
These are all benefits of eating locally, as identified by people who make local sourcing a priority in most of their food choices. The benefits – and other intangibles which we might call soul – are what motivate them, in spite of the challenges involved.
Some challenges to eating locally take the form of assumptions; while based in partial fact, these are not the absolute and limiting truths that they may be mistaken for. We need to examine these assumptions to move definitively in the direction of eating local food.
Before we begin, however, let’s briefly outline what the words ‘local food’ mean in this article. Simply put, local food is any food that is grown within a 100-mile/160-km radius of the eater.
Determination of local-food status is not based on farming-methodology (e.g. industrial, organic, biodynamic), although many who are drawn to the local-food movement for issues of sustainability or health are also attracted to organic and other ecological methods of agriculture.
Food’s “localness” is based on where its ingredients are from, rather than on where it is prepared or sold. So one can buy fresh pasta from a local shop, or cilantro from the Kingston market, but if the wheat and eggs in the pasta, or the cilantro plant, are not from within a 100-mile/160-km radius, then these foods cannot be termed local.
Canada’s Food Guide states that people should eat a variety of foods from the four food groups each day. The evaluation of any local food diet needs to be based on its ability to meet this requirement, in addition to considerations of the nutritional value of the food that is being produced and eaten.
Challenge #1: Cost
Assumption: “Local food costs considerably more than the same food at a grocery-store.”
Many people cited this concern, but did not know how much they would save by buying non-local food. Whether local food costs more (and by how much) needs further research.
Even if the costs for local food are marginally higher, people with low-incomes or on tight budgets truly cannot afford those extra dollars/month and/or rely upon food-support programs such as the Good Food Box or the local food-bank. Good Food Box (fresh food made available monthly at wholesale prices and sponsored by KFL&A Public Health) has taken considerable effort to stock ‘local’ (i.e. Ontario and /or Picton) food in its food-boxes; however, it cannot provide local food during the winter months and has no Kingston food-terminal through which to acquire local food at wholesale prices.
It is also difficult for people on low-income to engage in long-range food-stocking or production (e.g., the higher-volume purchases at peak season that are involved in canning and preserving are prohibitive for those on lower-incomes), and are thus driven toward feeding themselves on a month-per-month, week-per-week basis.
Getting to local food outlets (because of the cost of transportation and the limited locations of these outlets) is also a big challenge for those on low incomes and for those who live in more isolated areas.
Local CSA shares (with seasonal vegetables only) are, on average, $22/week: this size of share is designed to feed two adults.
If you are like most North American consumers, you will scan the chart (at right) to determine where you can get your groceries most cheaply. But are the savings really worth it within a broader system of values or in terms of real economy? Any money saved does make a big difference to low-income families, not to mention that persons living on social assistance (with $600 or less/month in income) cannot afford to eat enough at all, whether locally or otherwise. For families not within these income-brackets, however, let’s put the dollar-saving reflex aside and examine this issue of cost a bit further.
The Cost-Illusion :
Many local foods are not much more expensive than their non-local counterparts, even in deep winter. In some cases, local food is actually cheaper than non-local (e.g. $2.50 bought four large local leeks from Picton; three smaller leeks from Mexico were $3.99 at the grocery store). In other cases, it was at par (e.g. canning tomatoes from two local sources were $1.25/lb and $1.49/lb -- the same price as their grocery store counterparts).
There are also many hidden costs to non-local foods that we and our children will pay for in the generations to come. The costs of non-local and industrial-scale food-production (so-called cheap food) have been outlined by many writers and commentators before, but they bear repeating: environmental degradation, resource-depletion, dependence upon fossil fuels, and the weakening of safeguards on public health and safety.
A Shift in Values:
One of the greatest obstacles to local food purchase is the common cultural practice amongst middle- to upper-income people of paying the least amount for food bought at a grocery-store, in order that the money might be spent somewhere else. In these income-brackets, a shifting of priorities would help many make the move to local food by helping the local food system grow and build infrastructure.
We must make a mental shift and realize that to compare a tomato produced locally with sustainable practices to one shipped in from a unsustainable farm-operation is actually a false comparison. In many ways, these two tomatoes are not the same product in flavour, nutrition, or planetary impact.
Farmers are not charging prices that meet their real production costs, because typical prices are artificially depressed. Eaters need to understand this.
Making Local Food Accessible:
Local food providers who are willing to make low-budget food boxes (similar to the Good Food Box) available would aid many low-income families in increasing their consumption of local food.
Institutional buying (say, for school cafeterias) would help make local food more available and accessible to a large number of people.
The preserving of produce (as well as the preparation of food) in cost-saving cooperative kitchens or food-preparation groups needs to become more commonplace. Kingston Community Health Centre is piloting many such programs this spring (April 2011); many more are needed.
Delivery and multiple food drop-off points are already used by some programs and CSAs to make local food more convenient, especially for those with limited transportation.
The development of gleaning-programs is also important: opportunities for social service agencies and other members of the public to pick or collect local produce that would otherwise go to waste.
Challenge # 2: Availability
Assumption: “Local food is not available in sufficient variety and quantity especially during the off-season months of November – April.”
Of the 18 people I interviewed, almost all stated that the most challenging aspect of trying to eat locally occurred in the winter months: specifically, getting a sufficient variety of fresh local vegetables and fruit and locally-produced staples.
Some produce is not available from local sources (e.g. tropical fruit) or is only available at certain times of year (e.g. local broccoli, in the summer). This reduces the variety of foods that one can choose from (though there are also some foods that can only be found locally.)
Acquiring local flours, oils, dairy products and other staples were listed as challenges. Local meats are becoming more available and are widely used year-round. Fish is rarely available from local sources.
Some reported challenges in using more local foods with children who have grown up eating specific foods. Producing school lunches for children is particularly challenging.
We are not asking anyone to stop eating imported foods. Even eating some local food will offer local variety and support local farmers, meaning there will be more variety in the future.
There are many innovative and wonderfully flavourful recipes for local produce that allow us to present even a few items in a broad variety of ways. Recipe exchanges, potlucks and food sharing groups are ways to find new and creative ways to prepare food. An accessible and central online link to these recipes and food-gatherings in the Kingston area and countryside would help focus these efforts.
By preserving local food, we can enjoy the variety of summer produce into the winter and early-spring months. Canning, freezing, and lacto-fermentation (i.e. for sauerkraut, pickles and preserves) can be easy skills to learn.
More local producers of winter (cold-frame & greenhouse) vegetables, of staples (most notably flours, oils, spices) and of fruits are needed. Other ‘gaps’ such as these within the local-food system also need addressing, including local creameries and sellers of meat, legumes and fish.
More community gardens and seed-exchanges would help increase the variety and volume of food available for eating and processing.
More year-round producers’ farmers’ markets would be an asset: would help build continuity and customer-loyalty, as well as making the food available.
Challenge # 3: Convenience
Assumption: “Local food is not as convenient to purchase or prepare as super-market [or restaurant] food.”
On average, the local eaters whom I interviewed for this article spent 1.5 hours/day in food preparation.
Although there are retailers who sell prepared local food, most local food still requires preparation on the part of the eater (i.e., cooking, preserving or processing) and this preparation demands time and skills that many people do not possess.
Local foods are not always available for purchase in one convenient location CSAs and cooperatives are working to address this concern, and there are also local-food delivery-services such as Desert Lake Gardens and Wendy’s Mobile Market, but it is still the case that most local eaters had to make several ‘stops’ to acquire the various items on their weekly shopping lists.
Increasing the number of CSA’s and food delivery services.
Food-preparation groups meeting regularly to produce food preserved through canning methods or freezing, saving people time and teaching essential food preparation and preservation skills (Kingston Community Health Centre is piloting such a program this spring).
Increasing the number of pre-prepared local-food providers, thereby helping singles, seniors, and anyone who is cooking for one or two.
Due to health-regulations, most farmers cannot process their products into food on their farm premises. A central and large commercial kitchen would allow value-added products to be produced either by farmers themselves or by others.
Top Twenty Needs for Meeting the Challenges of Eating Locally
In addition to the need for sound policy-decisions at all levels of government that will benefit a local and sustainable food-system, implementing the following ideas will help us all meet the challenges of eating locally:
1) Canning, preserving and storage know-how.
2) Meal-planning and food-preparation know-how.
3) Greenhouse production for produce out of season.
4) Gatherings of local food enthusiasts.
5) More sources for local staple-foods.
6) Cooperative food preparation and sharing organizations.
7) Low-income food-programs that utilize local food: buying groups, cooperatives, food boxes.
8) Local fish, eggs and dairy.
9) More sources of prepared local food.
10) Delivery of local food boxes to families with transportation needs.
11) More delivery-sites and more conveniently-located sites.
12) More community gardens, storage facilities and seed exchanges.
13) Farmer action-research groups and services to price local food accurately and fairly.
14) 'Story' marketing of local foods that stresses the accountability (nutrition and safety) of the local food-system and its suppliers.
15) Shifting values: me, my family, my community, the planet deserve something better.
16) A local food terminal.
18) Year-round producers' farmers' markets.
19) A central and large commercial kitchen for processing produce and developing value-added products according to regulations.
20) A central site (virtual and/or real) for feedback about the local food-system as well as where to get local food and recipe exchanges.
The challenges of eating locally are real, and cannot be met in isolation; they will require the ingenuity, good-will and hard work of the entire local food-producing and eater communities. Many are already being addressed, but more and more people will need to take up the work if we are to make the local food-system an integral part of our everyday living – as ordinary as breathing or eating itself.
Those I interviewed said that overcoming these challenges could also be a source of deep joy, satisfaction and genuine community in their lives. Again and again, people said eating locally was all about relationships – among family-members, community-members, farmers, producers, eaters, and citizens; relationships with their own selves and with the planet. Our industrial food-system, on the other hand, relies on anonymous relationships that are both dependent and exploitative. It is time to take our dignity back; through sustainability and commitment, creatively and cooperatively meeting the challenges of eating locally together.
Karen Holmes is a spiritual director, retreat facilitator and educator farming and (aiming to) eat local near Verona.