Local Eating Challenges: Geographic and Seasonal Food Realities and the Slow Food Movement
The “eat local” movement is a resounding and powerful force in the food industry. Locavores love to eat local as a way of life, as an ethos, and because they believe it’s healthier and the food tastes better. One measurable result of this movement is the number of registered farmers markets: In 1994, there were under 2,000 of them — by 2014 there were over 8,000. That year, local foods accounted for about $11.7 billion in sales, and that number should climb to $20.2 billion by 2019.
Many staunch adherents to the locavore movement are proponents of environmental stewardship and sustainability. To locavores, the call to eat locally grown food is a call to support sustainable farming and ranching practices at the same time as it’s a demand for healthy, fresh ingredients. You’ll also hear people talk about “slow food” and the slow food movement. In broad terms, the slow food movement is a backlash against processed foods, monocultures, and fast food. Like any movement, slow food faces its challenges as local eating comes under scrutiny.
What Is the Slow Food Movement?
In 1989, Folco Portinari created the Slow Food manifesto. The manifesto became an international movement when delegates from 15 countries signed it. In brief, the manifesto contends that the model of mass food production and consumption that began with the Industrial Revolution is harmful. Portinari calls for people to embrace “regional cooking,” set aside the “fast life,” and stop consuming foods that alter our “way of being” and threaten “our environment and our landscapes.”
Note that the manifesto does not say people should only eat locally grown foods. Rather, the word Portinari used was “regional.” The basic rallying cry of the Slow Food Movement is “a food chain that is good, clean, and fair for all.”
At its root, the movement wants to unseat the mainstream, mass production agricultural system from its throne. Instead of huge farms that grow only one major crop (monocultures), such as soybeans or corn, Slow Food advocates for small, regional farms that practice crop rotation and grow a variety of crops. Instead of crop maintenance that employs insecticides and herbicides to produce large yields, Slow Food advocates for natural means of maintenance, including cover crops and helpful insects. Instead of processed food, Slow Food advocates for whole foods. And, instead of shipping foods thousands of miles, Slow Food advocates for minimal food miles from farm to table.
What Is Considered “Local” Food?
Somewhere along the way, Slow Food’s advocacy for regional cooking branched off into a demand for local food. But there’s some confusion as to what that means. According to Columbia University’s Earth Institute, food is local or regional if it travels less than 400 miles from its “origin.” Many people, however, have a more exclusive definition of local, and take it to mean the food traveled less than 100 miles to reach their plate.
Some local food advocates want their foods to come from the closest possible sources and they’re used to being able to access food from nearby farms because of where they live. But others aren’t so lucky. Super-fresh, premium, healthy food from small farms goes to the highest bidder, and the big markets are often in more wealthy areas. This creates food deserts in some locations.
What Is a Food Desert?
The American Nutrition Association defines food deserts as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” Many supermarkets where you can find local food have migrated to middle and upper class areas of cities. Less wealthy citizens without cars either have to take long bus rides to get healthy foods, or they have to shop at the closest convenience store or dollar store, where there’s nothing but processed foods.
Supermarkets, co-ops, and farmers markets primarily determine where you can find local foods. They also determine truckload shipping seasons. January through March is the “quiet season”, when freight loads are at a lull and the cost of shipping is in flux. It’s no coincidence that the winter months coincide with a lower demand for freight loads. Retailers scale back their produce sales during the winter months because plenty of people don’t really want to eat the root vegetables and cruciferous vegetables produced on the local and regional level.
The Washington Post’s Cynthia R. Greenlee sums it up: “It’s nearly impossible to feed myself solely on foodstuffs grown within an arbitrary radius set by food thinkers and theorists who don’t live where I do and whose confident advocacy often fails to acknowledge that ‘local and seasonal’ doesn’t mean affordable or accessible.” For people living in food deserts, local, seasonal produce isn’t affordable or accessible. Local and seasonal may not mean sustainable, either.
Is Eating Local Really Sustainable?
This depends on a number of factors, but the main answer is it depends on what type of food you’re eating.
According to the Earth Institute, food transportation only accounts for about 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Food production, on the other hand, contributes 83 percent of emissions, including CO2, nitrous oxide, and methane.
Producing red meat for consumption generates 150 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than chicken or fish production. So, you could be eating locally sourced beef and be proud of where it came from, but you would be contributing more to environmental sustainability by eating chicken, fish, or vegetables shipped from across the country. Likewise, eating regional, organic and seasonal foods will lessen your carbon footprint more than a diet consisting entirely of local foods when that diet includes red meat and dairy.
What’s more, if you’re buying from a big farm that happens to be local, it could be contributing to phosphorus pollution from fertilizer. Farmers use cow manure to fertilize fields, and the phosphorus runoff pollutes rivers, streams, and lakes. It’s better to buy from a small farm across the country that practices environmental stewardship than a big farm that pollutes and ruins the soil through its production techniques.
When it comes to sustainability, it’s not the miles from farm to table that matter most, it’s the production methods and the type of food you’re eating. You could buy sustainably produced organic produce from 1,500 miles away, and thanks to advanced shipping technology, the trip to your table will produce minimal emissions.