Thursday, July 21, 2016

El Pollo Local?

Among people walking around with smartphones that were made in China, wearing clothes that were made in Bangladesh, and planning their dream vacations abroad, there are plenty who seem to be uber-maniacal about eating food that is locally produced.  As if everything else foreign is ok, but the cucumber shall not be from more than a few miles away!  An illogical and unrealistic fixation on "local":
While local food has emerged as an alternative to industrial food, many people have simply transferred their expectations from the grocery store to the farmers’ market. Consumers still expect a global array of products, despite natural restrictions in season or geography. Additionally, emotional expectations surrounding food have increased. People want to imagine chickens free-ranging in a pasture without knowing anything about their deaths. They want their farmers to be simple, iconic food heroes.
It is all emotional. Indeed.  Thinking, as opposed to merely going with emotions, is hard work:
Consumers should be dogged in insisting that food be represented accurately. This includes asking questions and requesting labelling programmes at farmers’ markets. It also helps to know about crop seasonality in your region. Watermelons appearing at winter farmer’s markets were not likely grown anywhere in North America, much less locally.
It’s up to consumers to advocate for policies that allow farmers to succeed. If you care about artisan cheese wheels, you should care about dairy prices.
When it comes to smartphones, we do not care about how the phones are made, and the conditions in which the labor works in order to get us those phones.  This disconnect then helps us not even think about the harsh impacts on the environment in those countries where the manufacturing happens, or about the terrible working conditions.  If we did, then we would want to act on it,  But then the smartphones will be more expensive, and the tshirts won't be available for $5.99.

With the "local" food, while we might prefer the connection between us and the growers, we rarely ever look into the realities of the local food.  With romantic notions, we developed the idea of CSA--community-supported agriculture.  
It was a private transaction in which all the money went directly to the farmer. It did not rely on distributors or brick-and-mortar stores, and it gave farmers a crucial infusion of cash for the winter, used to buy seeds, repair equipment and expand into new growing methods.
The goal was for C.S.A. farmers and members to build a mutually supportive long-term relationship. Members would get straight-from-the-farm produce from a farmer they knew and trusted, and farmers would get financial stability.
But then strange things happen:
Now, online hubs are using sophisticated distribution technology to snap into the food chain, often using “C.S.A.” to describe what they deliver.
The term is not regulated in most states, so companies can define it as they wish. Peapod, the online shopping service owned by the international grocery giant Ahold, delivers farm-sourced boxes throughout the Northeast; FreshDirect offers a variety of C.S.A. options in and around New York City.
In case you thought that this somehow helps out the farmers:
Depending on how and where these new businesses buy their produce, consumers can receive all the benefits of C.S.A. membership, while the farmers get only a fraction. Some farmers say that after years of steady growth, their C.S.A. memberships have dropped since the arrival of services like Local Roots or Farmigo.
As I often remind students, it takes a lot of work to be an engaged consumer and an engaged citizen.  That means a whole lot of critical thinking day in and day out.  
Taking the time to tease out whether buying granola made in Brooklyn qualifies as supporting local agriculture can test the patience of consumers
A "patient consumer" is an oxymoron in this world of instant gratification.  I read a sarcastic comment the other day that instant gratification takes too long!   Oh well, maybe we humans were always impatient and unthinking and it is I who have been living with an unrealistic fixation on a world of critically thinking consumers and citizens.  It is a good thing that I am also on my way to extinction ;)


Ramesh said...

It indeed takes a lot to be an engaged consumer.

Let me explore another area of inflamed passions . Why is it morally superior to be more concerned about the relatively well off Oregonian farmer rather than the poor destitute Bangladeshi garment worker ? When all the railing against globalisation is taking place, there is not a word mentioned about the 300 million people who have been lifted out of abject poverty in China.

So who is the community ? Just people who live within 10 miles ? Just people who look the same ? Why not all of us, the human race, as one community .

Mike Hoth said...

Did you ever talk at length with Dr. Petersen-Pearlman during his short time teaching at WOU? The phrase he tried to pound into our heads was "know your farmer" because he too understood that what the corporations call free-range and local aren't what consumers are likely to picture. Alas, just as carbs were once an evil to be avoided, non-local foods are unacceptable to trendy consumers who wish to look like healthful paragons.

Sriram Khé said...

I agree with you, Ramesh. I have no idea why people think that drawing a boundary around them and engaging with the people within that boundary makes people better off. It is remarkably stupid, to say the least. But then, it takes a lot of effort to think that through ;)

Hey, wait a second, Mike. I am a paragon of health here ;) Ok, it is more than silly humor that I am attempting there. My point is this: if health is the focus, which is what it ought to be, then whether something comes from a mile away or a thousand mile away is not the issue, and whether or not I know the farmer is irrelevant. People get carried away by the slogans, because they don't want to think through :(

Anne in Salem said...

Supporting local farmers is not the only moral victory in local food. Nutritional value and carbon footprints are part as well.

Generally speaking, the closer to picking time that a crop is consumed, the more healthful it will be. Nutrients will have less time to degrade, and pathogens will have less time to multiply. Likely it will also taste better. If the food is local and in season - tomatoes from the market in summer, not the grocery store in winter - it is likely to be better nutritionally and culinarily.

Those December tomatoes likely traveled thousands of miles to the store. A kiwi any time of year in the US - half the globe was traversed. Consider the fossil fuels consumed in either trip. Local means less damage the earth.

If someone in the US wants to eat locally in an honest manner, he won't eat a banana or drink coffee ever again. Try getting that pledge out of the locavores. If someone wants to eat locally in an honest manner, he better have a humongous freezer and know how to can, pickle and preserve. Ask the locavores if their talents skew domestic.

Sriram Khé said...

Good to see you after a long break, Anne. Plus, you came in at the right time, when Mike just took off ;)
As for the content, we need to sort out three different issues: Taste, Nutrients, and environmental impact.
a. Taste is taste is taste. In a market system, we don't question people's tastes, which is why there is everything from trashy TV shows to fast food to ... the only thing we could do from a policy perspective is to skew the prices in order to influence tastes.
b. With many vegetables--and fruits that are freezer-friendly--freezing them right off the harvest preserves way more nutrients than when they are taken even to the neighborhood store where it might sit for a day or two. So, a frozen vegetable packet from a thousand miles away could deliver more nutrients than the vegetables from the farmers market.
c. The relationship between local food and environmental impacts are not as straightforward as we might think. Way too complex for me to summarize them in this comment. Local does not equal less damage to earth.

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