Thursday, October 27, 2011

eating the locavore way


Recently I posted some thoughts on organic food and gardening. Food is such a centerpiece of our lives that I wanted to write more about the evolution of our eating choices. Ever since reading a few books about how processed our food has become in America, Nate and I have been gradually changing the way we eat. First we cut out fast food almost completely and began eating more organic food back in 2003 after reading Fast Food Nation. Fast forward a few years to after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma; Michael Pollan's book encouraged us to change our thinking again to look toward more local food rather than solely focusing on organic.

We now know that organic can be as big business as industrial food production, and we increasingly trust and rely on our local farmers to produce healthy food for our dinner table as much as we can afford to do. The "locavore" movement, as it's called, encourages healthful and sustainable food production by focusing on less miles traveled rather than obsessing over the USDA organic certification.

We participated in a CSA last year, and although we didn't do it again this year, we thoroughly enjoyed the experience and plan to do it again in the future. This winter we are participating in a local, non-organic meat CSA for the first time, and we are impatiently and enthusiastically waiting for it to begin. If you're still not sold on the notion of prioritizing local over organic, I read a great article last week about why organic is not always better. In addition to purchasing locally, we are also trying to eat seasonally as much as possible. Who knows, I may even begin preserving food soon. Baby steps.

It seems to me that eating food, watching people make food, and buying food is hitting some kind of tipping point lately. Earlier this week I listened to NPR's "On Point" with Adam Gopnik, a food writer who has written a new book on eating well. My favorite part is when he discusses how people of different cultures around the world turn to rice pudding more than any other food when experiencing family events and milestones. Rice pudding! My favorite. Another quick read this week comes from "How to Cook Everything" author Mark Bittman, who shared a letter to chefs on eating well.

6 comments:

Mary Ann said...

Some other books you might like:
Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappe
Diet for a Hot Planet, Anna Lappe
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver

Justine said...

Thanks M.A.! I've got "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" and am about half way through it. I admire people who commit to growing their own food because I know how difficult it must be to make that switch. Just having our own compost bin takes some thought/upkeep.

Alastair said...

First of all, I admit I haven't read the Omnivore's Dilemma. However, I'd be interested in hearing more about why you and Nate are pursuing local food.

It sounds like your primary reasoning is health based. But how do you know that a small local farmer near you is healthier than a co-op farm somewhere else in the country? Is it because farmers who sell locally are more likely to make an effort to produce higher quality (which might not be the same as healthier) produce if they know they'll have to face any customers who get sick?

Is it to support your local economy? That in of itself raises more philosophical questions such as why it is better to support people around us than across the country. Is it because we have a self-interest in maintaining a well-off community around us, along with all the positive social aspects that come with that?

Maybe it's because distance traveled is a proxy for environmental damage resulting from creating the food. However, this is not particularly clear cut; it is more energy intensive to grow food in hothouses in Europe or New England than shop it in from afar.

Are there other reasons that I haven't mentioned?

Justine said...

Wow, Al, these are great questions. I talked to Nate tonight to confirm we agree. (Aside: Read Omnivore's Dilemma! There's a fantastic part about farming in it that goes into much greater detail than I can). Our primary reason is not health, economy, or environmentally based, but they are tangentially related. First I'll address the quantifiable, tangible reasons and then move on to the more qualitative.

On the meat side, I assume one is likely to find a farm in California that is as good (or maybe a bit better) than a farm in Massachusetts; but, if you can find a local farm that you trust to do a good job of treating the animals well, not giving them hormones, and feeding them the right food, then why not buy the local product that does not have to travel? As far as buying local meat over organic, we have learned that the USDA organic distinction does not necessarily mean you are getting better quality and often brings with it costly hurtles on the part of the farmer that provide no or little benefit for anyone.

On the vegetable/fruit side, I'll divide the answer into summer and winter. Let's first assume again we can buy equally good products from anywhere in the country. In summer, I believe we undeniably are getting a better product by buying locally instead of one that has traveled, even if it doesn't bear the organic distinction, so long as we've checked out the institution and trust their practices. As an added bonus, by buying locally we are not supporting the seriously troubling use of aquifer irrigation in California. I'll leave the sustainability conversation for another day.

In the winter, we try to eat seasonally as much as possible, meaning we eat mainly root vegetables. Your question about the environmental cost of hothouses versus traveling is a very interesting one, and I would love to know the answer. We love salads and do eat cucumbers, Boston lettuce, and tomatoes year-round that are grown in New England hothouses. Part of what I love about eating seasonally and shopping at the farmer's market is that we consistently discover new delicious foods like fiddlehead ferns and beets.

Qualitatively, we both love the notion that our food comes from the same place we are living; in other words, that our food has a soul in a way and that we have been breathing the same air and drinking the same water. I think what you said about maintaining the social aspects of community definitely ring true for me. I love the community feel of Massachusetts and that it has a diversified economy. I love that we still have farmers and vacuum stores!

Alastair said...

Thanks for the thoughtful answers Justine. I hadn't really considered the freshness line of thinking.

Saw this in the NY Times the other day:
http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/01/local-food-no-elitist-plot/

Justine said...

I saw that article too (link here). Mark Bittman is an intelligent chef who provides insight into local thinking, and I completely agree with him about the farm bill, which I wrote more about today. We absolutely need to ensure we have farmers to grow actual food, not just commodities. By supporting local farmers, we will encourage affordable production of high-quality food.

My one criticism of his article is that he doesn't address the positives that have come from international produce trade. I for one am unwilling to give up year-round fruits; I can't get them from New England hothouses and do enjoy the occasional banana or orange in winter. We wouldn't have nearly the diversity of cooking ingredients if we didn't import produce, and I would have liked for him to mention striking a balance. I also recognize that for many people, it simply isn't possible to eat seasonal fresh ingredients due to climate and budgetary constraints.

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