Tuesday, 6 August 2013 | 56 comments

Foibles of local eating (& tomatoes, many ways)

Things seem pretty good for seasonal, local food, if you take a look at my dining room table. I don’t have a ton of disposable income, but I chose to spend a lot of it on tomatoes last week. And from the numbers, you might believe this reflects national consensus. Back in 2011, the USDA projected that local food would bring in $7 billion in sales.

A lot of you who read this site would probably consider yourself “locavores”. It’s a group with which I also identify, but uneasily. The movement is one under which people with very different priorities gather, united by a single objective: buy food grown or produced nearby.

Locavorism alternately emphasizes that local food takes fewer fossil fuels to produce and transport, supports the local economy, promotes biodiversity, preserves rurality, mitigates environmental damage, is grown more naturally and seasonally, and is generally healthier. It seems so simple, really. How can buying local agricultural products be panacea for so many of society’s ills?

The short answer is that it cannot.

I do think there’s a certain, very small set of hardcore consumers who choose a close-to-home product at all costs. On the other hand, “local” can be confusing to everyone else less committed to the tenet, who know that they’re supposed to like and support local producers per the wave of current social consciousness, but for whom the grocery store seems much more convenient, offers more variety, and hey—even has organically grown stuff.

This type of confusion is on display at any greenmarket on a Saturday morning, where inevitably, some customers walk away disappointed when they can’t cross everything off their grocery list. “I need oregano and potatoes, “ a customer pleaded at a farm market I worked early this summer. Another person demanded to know where the strawberries were, because “there are always strawberries in June”.

This is probably why that much-lauded $7 billion figure seems meager when you compare it to the total amount we spent on food in the same year—near $700 billion (and that’s just the at-home food spending).

But honestly, I think that confusion and skepticism is well merited. For a movement that promises so much, and that has been gaining so much ground, there’s little real evidence out there to back up many of its sweeping claims.

. . . .

A food system is exactly that: a system. Systems, by definition, are always changing and are almost always complex, with moving parts and actors. There are positive and negative spillovers that we might not anticipate. A locally produced food is not, by definition, produced without use of fossil fuels. It is also not, by definition, grown organically or with low chemical use. To be locally grown is to be many things, but it doesn’t always encompass the host of virtues that have somehow become associated with it.

In fact, the concrete benefits of locally grown or produced food are those about which we infrequently talk.

One of the reasons that I buy food from local sources is that I care about keeping nearby farmland—almost all of which is occupied by family-owned farms—in production. I also care about transparency in the ways that food is produced, and there’s no better way to see what goes on in the production of your food than to live in a place where you can drive over and see what’s going on, or to talk to the person who grew the product at your local market. The bottom line, I suppose, is that I care about place, and about the smaller, more regional economies into which local producers feed their goods.

Notice, though, that I said nothing about a particular farming practices. While small farms may be more likely to practice better stewardship of their environment, there is no guarantee that “local” equals “chemical free”. It is near impossible to grow an unsprayed stone fruit in Virginia—but I prefer a sprayed Virginia peach to a certified organic California one. The point is not that one is necessarily better than the other. The point, instead, is that it’s not so simple.

In this light, maybe you understand why I’m uncomfortable with the blind “buy local” gospel. Local food just may not do what we want it to do.

What is always left out of the social justice rhetoric surrounding local food—and ironically what is probably, in my opinion, the reason why the movement has grown so much—is the deep pleasure that many of us get from knowing food, growing food, getting it from within our communities, and then, in that ultimate “agricultural act“, putting that food on our tables. There is a reason why farm markets are gathering places, where people wander and linger, and supermarkets are not.

But maybe you understand, then, why I get frustrated. Buying locally produced food is a safe, comfortable, pleasurable way for us—and by us, I’m speaking as the relatively privileged white, educated person that I am—to feel as if we’re promoting some vague sort of social good. (Save the world: All you have to do is sip a latte as you stroll around the farmers’ market and buy $5.25-per-pound-grass-finished ground beef!).

I fear I’m sounding too negative. This is not to say I think buying local food is futile. But I do know that I don’t see many farm market customers discussing the Farm Bill that’s been in pathetic, year-long Congressional limbo as they snap up their Cherokee Purples. That same Farm Bill continues to place their favorite, quaint family farm in jeopardy (not to mention the intertwined fates of folks on SNAP who can’t afford those same heirloom tomatoes), while financially safeguarding the existence of industrial farms they so despise.

The heart of the issue is, of course, more nuanced still. No one can deny that food systems play some role in creating or alleviating the myriad specters of overdependence on fossil fuels, disappearing farmland, unsafe or contaminated products, or even our own health and wellbeing. To work to improve these systems, it may be true that we should buy locally, but we also need to overcome our shortsightedness—we need to actually think.

. . . . . .
I made another e-booklet—only took me a year!—this one, five meals/recipes to deal with a glut of tomatoes. It was supposed to be the entirety of this post, but clearly…someone got sidetracked. —S


§ 56 responses to Foibles of local eating (& tomatoes, many ways)

  • Tina/@teenbug

    So much goodness! The curry tomato with chick peas has me clapping with anticipation!

    So beautifully designed as well!

    GO YOU!

  • Wow, Sarah, thanks for your honest, well-written, and thought-provoking ideas about eating locally. I think you hit on the crux of the issue by describing the complexity of the system–we have to make choices that are, to the best of our ability, made after careful consideration of the options, but we also have to know that there is no panacea–our food system is a complex one and we can only hope to do our “best” in any given situation.

    And what a beautiful book! I can’t wait to try some of these very, very soon. Any suggestions for what to do with the mountains of cucumbers my garden is currently producing?

    • My favorite right now: cucumbers, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced, tossed with olive oil, sherry vinegar, chopped basil and mint, sambal oelek, salt to taste. Really good cucumber-chili-mint cool-spicy stuff going on.

      What is it about this year? We have a sh*t-ton of cukes, too, and not much else this moment. Thanks for stopping by, Lindsey! —S

  • Thanks for well written post, I think you said what alot of people think to say but don’t, so kudos to you.

    Also thank you for your tomato book, with our garden in full bloom and I’m picking 10-20 pounds of tomatoes sometimes in a day, I’m always looking for new ideas on how to use them. Thanks!

  • I love the way you think AND I adore the e-booklet. Wonder if you have tried Chez Pim’s 15-Minute Tomato Sauce. It’s a flavour revelation.

    Thanks for doing what you do – so well.

    Deborah Reid

  • I very much identify with the thought process and logic that you’ve laid out so beautifully here. Thank you for taking the time to put it to words.

  • Your e-booklet is absolutely stunning! I can’t wait to try the goat cheese crostata- and honestly I don’t think you can ever have enough tomatoes ;)

  • Well done, Sarah. Thoughtful, intelligent piece. And the book is beautiful!. Kudos and thank you.

  • Absolutely love this, every bit of it. Thank you for sharing your honesty and thoughts about locavorism in such a direct, compelling way. We need more bloggers starting these kinds of conversations that challenge trends instead of always feeding them. And especially adore the book you put together – I basically know what my weekend dinner is going to look like now. Thank you!

  • Brilliant, as always.

  • Brava! Well said!

  • Well said, Sarah. The sexiest, simplest solution to a complex problem is rarely the right one (cue the latte-sipping, farmer’s-market-browsing image you drew upon). But it’s so sexy! Have you seen The Atlantic article from June by David H. Freedman about junk food and the role he believes it could play in ending obesity? I wonder what you think of it.

    Nice tomatoes. Lovely ebook.

  • Jessica

    What a poignant post! (On a side note, I think all your posts are just wonderful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!) I live in Burlington, VT and the “local vs. organic vs. local organic vs. big organic vs. GMO vs. non-GMO vs. conventional” debate is raging around here. I spend a lot of time thinking about my food choices and the concessions I make or don’t make when purchasing from any given source. It’s often not as simple as it should be.

    • Thanks, Jessica. I appreciate it. I think the point is that it’s not necessarily local versus organic versus GMO versus big organic. It’s kind of comparing apples and oranges. I don’t know. It’s nice to hear that you live in a place where debate is actually taking place—to me, at least where I live, it seems that the discussion does not even begin. Thanks again! —S

  • Margit Van Schaick

    Another post from Vermont–this one from Bennington County in southern Vermont. I have a small garden where I try to grow lots of greens, kale, chard, an abundance of herbs and squash, beans, tomatoes, carrots, onions, beets,peas, flowers, and whatever else there’s room for. Harvest depends greatly on weather and the whims of plentiful deer, rabbits, groundhog, as well as my own time and energy. This year, climate change came to Vermont in the form of over three weeks straight of tropical weather, with mid-90’s and above as well as daily monsoon rains. Consequently, the tomatoes did’t get pollinated and the plants are thin and straggly. So sad. Peas, forget the early crop. Some things are doing well, and I greatly enjoy creating meals from whatever edible is thriving. To supplement my own garden, I try to buy organic, as locally as possible. This year, even more than previous years, I’m meeting up with what, to me, are serious problems: the cost as well as availability. The local organic farm let their strawberry crop rot on the vine, rather than open their field up for U-Pick at hours working people can go(they opened from 9:00-12:00 maybe 5 times during the week, 4 days on week-ends. A bunch of 6 radishes costs $2.50. Lettuce is $2.50 a head. Tomatoes might as well be gold. How can a family with two children afford a salad which would cost at least $10.00? Our local “health food store” has 5 Russet Potatoes for sale; how can we shop every day to have a chance at getting basic staples, which I consider potatoes to be? Your questions raise issues of huge importance that we need to solve. Living in small village Vermont, I would hope that we can work on food security for all as a Community and as a region of Communities. We need to share ideas and be brave about creating solutions. And,yes, the act of THINKING is probably the first necessary step! Thank you, Sara, for your eloquent and honest post on this vital subject.

  • Karma

    Great post! I remember The Farm Bill getting a lot of media attention and local attention when I was growing up in Kansas. I’m surprised (and sort of not at the same time) at how little attention it has gotten in the past several years. It seems like a majority of Americans have stopped caring about where their food comes from, or simply stopped thinking about it altogether. I live down in Texas and we’re finding it harder and harder to garden down here with rising temps and drought. That and the soil out where I’m at is really poor and rocky. I live out in the country and would love to stay out here, but between not being able to grow food in the soil and ridiculously expensive and sloooooow Internet, we’re ready to move back into town. It’s such a, pity.

  • Fantastic post.
    Living here in Charlottesville, it’s fairly easy to eat locally, something that I am most grateful for. I spend my summers putting up as much of the bounty as I can so that my family can eat local all year long. I’ve developed relationships with local farmers which has led to my joining the board of the nonprofit that supports our farmer’s market. We run the SNAP program at market and are actively trying to work with other groups in the area to increase awareness of the program in the area. Sadly, I recognize where it’s sometimes just easier, not to mention cheaper to grab industrially grown & processed food at the grocery store than it is to get it at the farmer’s market, esp for SNAP participants.

    • Yeah. C’ville’s such a decent place for food (the City Market is so great!) I like SNAP programs at farm markets in general, but I think they’re pretty underutilized. Which is another whole issue (but related) in and of itself—the culture of what you eat and who eats what why. Food anthropology, I guess. Thanks!

  • We are another household of two which spends a lot of our disposable income on food. And like you, I will choose a local, non-organic fruit over organic flown in from far away. At the farmers’ market, I do try to choose those sellers who advertise “no spray” or “organic” and I know that the organic certification process can also be a burden for small farmers. One thing I don’t do as much as I should is to ask questions of the farmers themselves. If they do use pesticides, why? etc. Of course these are complex questions, but the more we know the more we can talk and share. Thanks for starting a conversation.

  • Berta

    Beautiful photographs.

    My tomatoes are still green, I can’t wait to get at them! I don’t know what’s wrong with my garden this year…

    • Hi! Yeah, it’s been a weird summer in these parts. My big tomatoes are still green too (cherries are ripe though), and I think you’re over the mountain from me, where it’s even cooler!

  • joanne

    I bought heirloom tomatoes at Whole Foods yesterday. They looked ugly enough to”perhaps” taste good. My tomatoes are still green, my plants are struggling with mildew from the weather this summer, and I have not been able to supply the house with enough of anything–and it’s August.

    In my small Town, buying locally is a religion. They all must have deep pockets. We have many Farmer’s Markets but the prices are very high. CSAs are $500 a share (or more). The community did plant a Common Good garden to provide vegetables to the Food Bank but so many low income families do not know how to cook fresh produce. I think the Locavore subject needs to be talked about much more.

  • Amen, sister.

    I stand by this:
    That’s a lot of thinking, for one apple.


  • Lovely thoughts and words always, Sarah … and that e-book! Stunning! “Moon blush”!!

  • Terry Covington

    Coming from several generations of small farmers, the issues you talk about here are very emotional ones for me. I also live in an area where some small farms are thriving but many are being eaten up by housing complexes and repetitive businesses (meaning the 4th Home Depot in one town, for instance; how many shopping centers do we need?). I very much appreciate your honesty and yes, bravery, in talking about these issues, and helping to educate people (including me). Additionally, while I am not a gardener myself, I volunteer at a local organic botanical garden and so talk to master gardeners regularly. This has helped raise my awareness about soil issues and about bee populations, as well. As you say, these things are not simple (don’t even get me started on the Farm Bill); but food issues tie into every other issue on this planet, and what we take for granted now (the abundance, the ease with which we buy things) will not be the same in 10 or 20 years.

    • Thanks, Terry—yes, exactly. Soil, water, pollinators, everything…fairly missing from the dialogue. I think you’re right about the future ease with which we obtain (or don’t obtain) food. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. –S

  • The ideas you wrote about have been eating away at me for years. Did you know the largest purveyor of organic food in America is Wal-Mart? I know my CSA farm uses chemicals in their food production, but that doesn’t stop me from using them. And I wonder if it should. My tomatoes probably last longer on my counter because of it. When we were in The Netherlands, I was shocked at how quickly our friends’ vegetables rotted. They explained it was because there were no chemicals used by the local farmers. And goodness, don’t even get me started on the farm bill. I was so excited when farmers’ markets started saying the accepted SNAP, but what’s the use if the food remains unaffordable? Such good stuff, Sara. I should really comment more. Consider me one of your silent groupies.

  • Thank you for the thoughtfully written post. All quite true, and something we talk about often at our house, too.

  • I’m lucky to live in a place where food (and food systems and food problems and food solutions) is talked about all the time. There are so many people having the very discussions you outline – and I think (hope) it is a matter of time before it all percolates out into the larger culture. We each need to find our way to accountability for the load that the planet, soil, food systems bear on our behalf … thanks for putting this out there and helping lead us in that direction.

  • sarah

    in the end the simplest way I like to think about it is this: where are my dollars going? to my neighbor who sells his eggs or to the big chain grocery store.

    but when I go to the big chain grocery store and see they have a ‘farm stall’ in the middle of the produce section featuring one local farm’s produce, I buy that too. it’s Hannaford – a chain store we have in upstate ny. and my hat is off to them.

    that is where we might start to see real significant change, is when big chain grocery stores start buying local produce (and paying a fair price for it).

  • Since I live in Germany your thoughts on the locavore movement don’t apply in the same way to the eating and food buying habits in this country. Farmers markets here are more of a long standing tradition (that never went away) and buying food from a local farmer, organic or not, is not nearly as costly as in the United States. I was shocked about some of the prices I saw on farmers markets in California last year – I understand that a lot of people are excluded from the luxury of shopping there.
    It seems to me that the tradition of a market to sell ones (locally produced) wares was done away with in the US sometime in the last century and now bringing it back is a “trend” thats hip. Therefore the latte sipping crowd buying the expensive beef (or whatever).
    I will continue to shop at “my” farmers market to make sure they stay in business. And if that means that i won’t have potatoes and oregano when I want it – so be it, I’ll just have to think of something else to cook ;-)

    Thank you for the beautiful e-book on tomatoes, i am so looking forward to my own tomato crop this year to try all the recipes.

  • Missy

    I suppose I am considered one of the hippie types, at least according to my sister in law I am. I buy nearly all organic; it’s not all certified organic, but I ask the owners of farmers market stalls how they grow their produce and what they do with their animals. I actively shop for local produce and meats that are grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. I do it because I care about my health, the welfare of the animals I eat, as well as the health of the farm workers. My own perspective of organic being better is different from most; I grew up on a farm around those fertilizers and pesticides. I helped with the raising and slaughtering of animals. I personally do not want to be exposed to more of the chemicals and I find the way factory farms treat their animals abhorrent.

    The funny thing is that I spend less for a family of three adults than most people I know who purchase conventionally grown food in a grocery store for just two people. I still keep to a modest budget by shopping according to the season, not eating out except typically one day a week, and cooking meals from scratch rather than boxes. I also stretch my dollar by growing produce myself in my own garden and cutting back on the portion sizes (especially when it comes to meat.) I also have never noticed organic produce rotting faster than the factory farmed produce.

    Factory farming and mega corporations changed how we view our food since the end of world war 2. We bought into the usage of hazardous chemicals (most of the pesticides cause cancer in very small doses), getting “perfect” looking food that’s designed to look pretty, not taste good and provide good nutrition, and have immediate satisfaction rather than live by the seasons. In return, we are losing our bees, have water contaminated by loads of chemicals, and antibiotic resistant bacteria thanks to the foolish use of the antibiotics (factory farms are the predominant users of most of the antibiotics.)

    I will get off my soap box now. I really look forward to trying out some of the tomato recipes. I just hope the weather warms a bit so my tomatoes ripen soon. I have loads of green ones just taunting me with their potential.

  • Love this post…I too agree that the “buy local” motto is not as straight-forward as it sounds. Nor is it always better. I recently read an article about how the carbon footprint of food is maybe 3-4% of its total energy consumption, and therefore, it would be better to buy beef from California if it is raised in good practice (environmentally and humanely) than to buy generic, factory-farmed beef from down the road. While I don’t think this always should be the rule, it has made me think about my food in a different way and gotten rid of some of the guilt when heading to the grocery store.

    LOVE the e-booklet, so beautiful!

  • What a lovely little e-book. Thank you for sharing!

  • Judy

    Recipe for Zucchini, Tomato and Onion Casserole

  • I am an architect by training, but in an attempt to jump a couple of the hurdles to eating primarily local, I decided to open an online store that supports + promotes local food producers. Our approach is simple. 1. If it’s on our website it is locally and sustainably produced. 2. You shop in your pj’s and your food magically arrives at your door step so you don’t have to drive all over the county buying food or dragging your toddler to the farmers market and try to meal plan on the spot. 3. Your box comes with a complete meal plans and everything you need to prepare the meals with the exception to olive oil and seasonings. This keeps you out of the store, it’s fun to try tasty new recipes, you waste less food, and it saves you time.
    We have had people from all over the US interested in replicating our model so we hope eating local will soon be simple + fun in more than just Bellingham, WA.
    We are fans of your blog and recipes! Oh and don’t listen to all the age BS…. if you’re a brilliant hard working woman, people think your “not normal” or “wise beyond your years”. That’s crap. :) You’re just brilliant.

  • Heidi

    Thank you for the beautiful blog. I’ve been reading it methodically from the first post, because it is wonderful and good for me.

    Here in Oslo, Norway, my family is on a waiting list to join the newly started grocery cooperative. The idea is that each subscriber receives a bag of organically grown fruit and veg from the area around the capital, every second week. In return, one pays a very reasonable sum, but has to donate three work hours each month, packing bags or suchlike. Apart from the health and environmental benefits, i love how the idea of creating a community is central, and I am particularly in love with the idea of taking back power from the large chains that decide what we should eat. Link here: http://kooperativet.no/. All in Norwegian I’m afraid, but the pictures speak for themselves. Do you have a lot of this sort of thing inthe US?

    I want to simplify as well. It just doesn’t make sense to work like an animal so I can pay someone else to mind my child and clean my house and feed my family on apples from Italy and oranges from South Africa. Because then whose life is it?

  • Love the photo in this blog post. It would make a fantastic poster-size print for somewhere (anywhere) in my house.

    Ahhh, tomatoes. Love those things!

  • Asking questions are truly pleasant thing if you are not understanding something entirely, but
    this article offers good understanding yet.

  • Hi Sarah – this must be the third or fourth time I’ve returned to this piece, and I just want to say thank you for the nuanced and articulate skill you bring to talking about this stuff. As someone who worked in various family support capacities throughout my 20s and then married a farmer and then struggled to make ends meet from farming, the whole of what you touch on here could not be more near and dear to me. But I have struggled enormously to talk about it all in any cohesive, public way. I’m so grateful that you’re doing it, here and in other posts.

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