How To Eat Locally Without Doing the Work Involved

So, the New York Times had this article a few days ago, which I found out about thanks to Tessa, my Mom-in-Law, about the different little service-industry businesses which are growing up to cater to folks who want to eat local foods without having to grow them, go to the market for them or in some cases, even bother with cooking them.

The article, entitled, “A Locally Grown Diet With Fuss But No Muss,” outlines the various different ways that affluent people can jump on the locavore bandwagon without getting their hands dirty. Various enterprising gardeners, cooks, chefs, farmers and caterers have started offering services to the public that allow people to eat farm fresh foods without bothering with the farm, or the farmer’s market and in some cases, without even entering the kitchen.

Michael Ruhlman, author of The Making of a Chef (and many other good books besides) posted about the front page article and asked of his readers, what they thought the impact on our society would be as the locavore movement becomes more mainstream (as it has done increasingly over the past three or four years). He wanted to hear what other folks thought about the trend–was it driven by forces that would give it longevity in our fast-moving, attention deficit disorder cultural climate, or was it all just a fashionable whimsy which will have its fifteen minutes of fame only to suffer a swift and painful demise, exiting our consciousness with not a bang, but a whimper?

Ruhlman asks a fair question, and rather than clog up his comments section with an essay, I figured I’d ruminate on the subject here.

I think that generally speaking, the mainstreaming of the practice of eating locally grown food is a good thing. It certainly has done a lot to boost local economies, especially in rural areas like Athens, Ohio, where we lack lots of sources of employment and income for our residents. The idea of local eating has done a lot to highlight the good that is done in our communities by small farmers, and has helped people to understand that when they spend money in their communities by turning their backs on large corporations and supporting smaller businesses, that money tends to stay in the community.

In other words, when you shop at Wal-Mart, other than supporting the local employees salaries, you are not doing a lot to support your own local economy–the lion’s share of your shopping dollar goes back to Wal-Mart headquarters and helps to pay CEO salaries and the like. And you can just bet that those CEO’s in Wal-Mart land are not exactly traveling back to your little community and spending that money you gave them on any businesses in your neighborhood. Whereas, if you give money to a local small business operator, like, say, a farmer, that money tends to in turn, be spent within your own community.

I not only care about the national economy, I care about it on the local level, and whatever I can do to help make that smaller economy more robust and healthy, I will make it a point to run right out and do it.

I also believe that locally grown food tastes better and because it wasn’t picked and kept in a refrigerated truck, warehouse, distribution center, or grocery store produce department for weeks, it is more nutritious that the stuff at the supermarket.

While some may fault me and call me an elitist for saying that I give enough of a damned about taste to pay more money for it, I think that they wrong.

How the hell can I be an elitist when I eat the way I grew up eating as a lower-middle-class farm girl? My grandparents and parents were not rich, but we ate the tastiest food of anyone I knew, in large part, because it was fresher that what came from the store.

Yes, it costs more now–but as demand rises, and more farmers and producers step into the market to supply that demand, the prices will FALL, and thus that so-called elitist food will fall in price, and thus become affordable to more people. (Hey, I do remember a few things from those economics classes from umpteen years ago in college! Who’d have thought I would?) One could say that by buying local food now because I have the money to spend on it, I am helping to ensure that the price will fall so that others may partake of it later. (It isn’t like I am buying boutique food–I am just buying farm-fresh products.)

In addition, there are programs in place on both a state and national level that help offset the cost of local produce for low income families and those on fixed incomes like the elderly or those with disabilities. I suspect that as local food moves farther into the mainstream, these programs will grow in number, and that is also a very good thing. I think that everyone deserves to eat fresh, nutritious food that supports their local economy and ecosystem.

Do I even need to mention food safety issues, in light of recent salmonella outbreaks from tomatoes and jalapeños where no source of contamination has ever been successfully tracked down, though hundreds of people have fallen ill? In a local food system, these outbreaks would not only be easier to trace after the fact, they would be easier to contain, and the damage to public health would be lessened.

I also think that as conventional food prices rise, we are going to see a lot more people attempting to grow at least some of their own food, in an effort to reduce food bills and to boost their family’s nutrition.

Once again, I think that this is a good thing. I’d love to see every lawn in America either dug up and replaced with a combination kitchen/ornamental garden, or used to graze small livestock.

It isn’t just because I hate lawns and think that they use up way more resources than they are worth in the form of gasoline, pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, time and personal energy, nor is it just that I find large expanses of perfectly manicured green grass to be monotonous and boring to the eye. It isn’t even that as a chef and the granddaughter of farmers that I hate to see perfectly good arable land wasted.

It is because having a multitude of different kinds of plants in an area is not only better for your table, better for the aesthetics of a landscape, and better for the soil, it is better for all the other creatures who share the earth with us. Birds, butterflies, bees, chipmunks and squirrels have to eat, too, you know. And, yes, so do slugs, snails and Japanese beetles, but I reserve the right to remove them from my garden when they eat enough to damage my own food supply.

I think that gardens don’t just grow plants and food, they grow communities. And I think that Americans could use a good shot of community in our culture right about now. Here in Athens, where the community garden allotments have grown exponentially this year as folks return to growing some of their own food, you see neighbors chatting and sharing knowledge over their hoes and shovels in ways that remind me of my childhood. Part of it is indeed because Athens is a pretty special small town and the folks here are awfully nice, but I think that helping each other grow food creates a bond that is healthy for our psyches.

There are lots of reasons that I think that local eating is both good for us and is here to stay, but I won’t go on about all of them now, because I want to talk more about the New York Times article, because some commenters on Ruhlman’s blog went on about how silly it was to pay people to, for example, dig up your yard, and build and tend a kitchen garden in its place for you, from seedlings to harvest.

I don’t think that it is silly at all.

There are several legitimate reasons why someone might pay a gardener to dig up their yard and replace it with a kitchen garden.

1. Lots of people love gardens, but have no bloody idea of how to garden, and they don’t have the time to learn. So, if they have the money, why should they not pay someone who is an expert to build and tend their garden for them. Not only does this employ a local gardener and boost the local economy, it also gets rid of more lawn and gets fresh food to one more family. (Besides, I suspect that folks who do hire gardeners this way end up learning enough about gardening that if they have time, they can do some tending and harvesting themselves. Maybe even some propagation and planting.)

2. Some folks love to garden, but have physical disabilities that impair their ability to dig up tons of soil and move it around, so they hire a gardener to do the heavy work that they cannot do. Some elderly folks just cannot get down on their knees like they used to, and some people have found that it is really hard to run a rototiller or wield a spade from a wheelchair, so why should they not hire someone to do the parts of gardening that they cannot, while also reaping the benefits of having a garden–fresh air, sunshine, and delicious, home grown produce?

3. Some people have more money than they have time because they work jobs which preclude them from doing the work that is necessary to tend a garden, yet they still want one anyway. Why should they not hire someone to do the work which they do not have time to do? (Or is it wrong for busy people with money but no time to hire folks to clean their houses, too? I bet some professional house cleaners might disagree with that–just as professional gardeners might disagree that hiring themselves out to garden for others is frivolous or silly. Once again, we are supporting the local economy.)

As for the personal chefs, the caterers and the takeout businesses who use local ingredients for their clients–why is that any sillier or more frivolous than having a personal chef, caterer or patronizing a takeout business in the first place?

And why is it wrongheaded for a city-dweller to buy a share of a cow on a farm outside of city limits? Or a pig, or whatever? How is it any different than the practice that some suburban, urban and city dwellers have done for years, of buying all or part of a steer from a local farmer, and having the wrapped and frozen meat delivered after the animal is taken to the slaughterhouse? (Clue–it isn’t any different, or wrongheaded–it just has a clever name–”cows pooling” these days.)

The thing is–none of this locavore business is new. It is, quite simply, how most Americans ate before WWII. Sure, staple items, like flour, coffee, sugar, pasta and rice, came from elsewhere, as did luxuries like bananas (and citrus fruit for those not in their growing regions), but by and large, much of the food people ate, the meat, dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables, came from farms nearby. People tended to grow some of their own food, particularly during WWI, the Great Depression and WWII, because it helped cut costs to do so.

Now I am not saying we need to go completely back to the old ways of doing things. Agriculture on a large scale does some things right–the growing of grains, for example. But, what I am saying is that because eating locally isn’t really that new of an idea, people will catch on to it more readily. My own parents, for example, remember what pre-Confined Animal Feeding Operation chicken and pork tasted like, and when they taste local chicken and pork, they are returned to the way food used to be, and they want that flavor again, and again.

I think that a lot of people are like that–they want to taste what food used to be like, even if they are not old enough to remember it in the first place, and that is why I think that the locavore movement is here to stay.

(Thank you, Michael, for asking such a good question–otherwise, I might have just posted a link to the New York Times piece with minimal commentary. This was much more fun to write, and hopefully to read, too.)

6 Comments

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  1. Very thoughtful and well-reasoned. And spot-on. (I’m a goat-share owner, too.)

    Comment by Kitt — July 26, 2008 #

  2. I agree with you on many points. This will be a fad for some, but the trend teaches good lessons regardless. It is good to know where your food comes from and how much work goes into producing it. Organic once was a fad, expensive, and hard to find. Now, prices have come down on at least a few things and the products are everywhere. I get to go to the farmers market this morning…I don’t see that as elitist at all!

    Comment by Dawn — July 26, 2008 #

  3. I think I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. Being a locavore is a marvelous idea…if you can afford it. I love the idea of supporting my local economy and normal people who are trying to make a living in such a difficult environment (I wouldn’t be a farmer for anything). I love farmers’ markets, and (theoretically) I am willing to pay a little more to support local farmers. Tasty, healthful chicken and beef? You bet.
    However, I can rarely afford it. I’m a student with more than $30,000 worth of school debt and a wage which, while it sustains me and pays my bills, doesn’t give me much leeway. When a pound of beef costs as much as my entire food budget for a week (and literally it does at my farmer’s market), I either have to buy the cheaper beef at the grocery store or go without it altogether.
    It’s often the same with buying things online. You mention how easy it is to get wonderful things like kaffir lime leaves online, but it’s easy only if I don’t mind spending more on a pound of them than I would spend in a week and a half on food.
    All I can say is, keep pushing local foods, and all you people who can afford it, keep buying it so that the prices will come down for people like me, who dearly want to be able to afford it. But also recognize that there are people for whom the extra dollar a pound or so for tomatoes would actually be a hardship.

    Comment by Christy — August 1, 2008 #

  4. Oops. Pardon my mistake. That would be more than my entire food budget for a week for *3 ounces* of kaffir lime leaves.

    Comment by Christy — August 1, 2008 #

  5. Just a quick note on the Wal-Mart CEO comment. Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott earned $29.7 million in total compensation in 2007. Wal-Mart revenues for 2007 were $351 billion. So, of each dollar you spend at Wal-Mart, $0.00008 goes to the CEO. In other words, for the CEO to make a dollar, you’d have to spend approximately $12,500. While I agree that CEO pay is a problem, and there are lot of biases in the system that determines that pay, it’s not “the lion’s share of your shopping dollar”.

    Comment by Ted — August 1, 2008 #

  6. And just as a further update, you can easily see from the Wal-Mart annual report that they spent 76% of each dollar of revenue on “Cost of Sales”, which consists of product cost to Wal-Mart, the cost of transportation to the warehouses from suppliers, the cost of transportation from the warehouses to stores and the cost of warehousing for Sam’s Club. That’s where “the lion’s share of your shopping dollar” goes at Wal-Mart and at nearly any retailer.

    Comment by Ted — August 1, 2008 #

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