Friday, 31 October 2014

Local Food: What is it?

Local food:  what is it?  To many farmers' markets in eastern Ontario it means food that is sourced from within 100km.  To many public institutions local food means food sourced from within Ontario or up to 50 km outside of the province (which would include parts of New York state).  To companies like Tim Hortons and A&W, it means "One hundred percent Canadian Beef!"

But what is local food at its core?  What does the experience of eating local really mean to those who care?  If you read the 100 mile diet, you see a food system that is challenging, subversive and rewarding in ways that take a certain willingness to sacrifice.  If you read this New York Times article, it means experimenting with foods that are acquired tastes, foods like cowpeas and emmer wheat, and mustard, and other highly nutritious legumes and grains and roots that are not a part of the current North American menu.

At a recent summit on Local Food, hosted by the university in my area, local food was discussed as something that might be more widely used in our public institutions, making it a central part of our larger food system.  The trouble with discussions on local food is that there is usually enthusiasm that can't quite connect to the real world - it can be embraced only once it has fully matched, in its volumes and variety, what currently exists in the food industrial food system, which is not likely to happen.

A moot discussion

The day involved group sessions with representatives from various government agencies and non-profits.  There were a few distributors, a few curious people, and a few producers.    

The central challenge, it was established, was that of taking the nebulous world of local food production, rounding it together into a functioning system, and bringing that abundance to hospitals and schools and universities.  But the assumption that made the session largely moot was that there would never be enough producers capable and well-connected enough in this region to make regional food a viable alternative to the current system of sourcing food from across the world. This is a real challenge because we are in the midst of a decades' long process of dismantling local food infrastructure.  Larger food companies can afford to set up their own processing plants for their own sprawling production needs. but small, more diverse groupings of producers in a given region cannot do the same.  In some cases, producers band together to form cooperatives, but they encounter challenges from regulators, as well as financial burdens, as few investors are interested in putting money into them.  Any discussion on local food should address these issues, but  the challenges of local production in a globalized economy centred on cheap food would not really come into the discussion. 

At various points we came back to the topic of small farms, direct-to-consumer markets, and what ordinary people want in a local food system.  One woman pointed out that she did not want to get up on Sunday morning and go the farmers market.  She wanted to have local food nearby, every day.  Just like a trusty Loblaws.  And when that happens, she suggested, she will be ready.  And so will many others, it seems.  After all, the buzz around here, as in many Canadian cities, is that people are craving local food, but they can't afford it and can't find it.

They can afford it and they can find it.

But the real issue is they don't really want it, perhaps because they don't know why they should.  Our culture is not really focused on food choices beyond the occasional blurb from health Canada about the importance of a balanced diet, or the Heart and Stroke Foundation's plugs for Becel margarine. This brings me back to the idea of local food as challenging, subversive and requiring sacrifice - all things that are not in line with a culture of hyper-consumption and overabundance.  This is attractive to me, but getting up on Sunday morning to go to a farmers' market is not everyone's cup of tea and if it isn't, then that is quite alright.

As a local food producer, I am not looking for a customer base that:  buys local food because they want to be able to say they buy local; buys local food because they think they should, or; buys local food as an occasional gesture of support.  I am looking for customers who buy from me because they like my product; they genuinely find it worthwhile from a price standpoint, and; they look forward to consuming it.  They know it is not from a cheap food model, and they know it is not always convenient to come to the market on Sunday, but it is worth it to them, and for that reason, there is a market for me, however small.

The idea that many more people would buy locally if they could afford it doesn't really pass muster.  I, along with many other people I know, including young couples with children, buy local food in spite of being in a relatively low income bracket.  For many who don't buy local food, reportedly because it is expensive, the real issue is that they don't see its merit and they don't want it badly enough to pay a small premium for it.  I am convinced of this because the first time I bought an organic chicken was during a period of my life when my finances were quite comfortable.  I had been in a natural foods store, in my early stages of interest in local and natural foods, and had called my sister later that day, asking her how I could justify buying a chicken that cost twice the price of the ones I was used to buying.  She advised me that it was not the same product and could not be compared as such,  That stuck with me, and now the price I so reluctantly paid for that chicken is normal, standard, simply the price for the luxury of eating chicken....but I digress.

For anyone who truly wants local food but does not know where to find it, a simple internet search puts one in touch with several local markets, where one can meet vendors and find out more about where to source their food, as well as connecting with CSAs for those who have church service Sunday morning or cartoons on TV.

In Conclusion

There is no question that supplying large institutions with food is a challenge, whether it is sourced locally or from elsewhere.  It has a lot to do with what is prioritized in government and in the larger culture. It's a scrappy, messy business, one that I don't understand well.  Shifts in how we source food on this scale will require changes in the attitudes of government and in society as a whole and I guess they would probably come more in response to crisis than as progressive, proactive changes. Whatever the case, a truly local option for supplying food to local institutions does not currently exist, at least that was what I gathered from the discussion.

As individuals, buying food on a day-to-day basis, the business is not as messy.  There are no board meetings, no charters to ratify or legislation to pass in order to start new habits.  But a small local food community does not advertise the way a large grocery store chain does, and sometimes it has to remind people that it does not just exist in theory - it exists as a current, viable choice.

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