No More Anonymous Food

At a potluck dinner last night, in the midst of local skirt steak, Montauk scallops, a frittata made with the year’s first potatoes, and a salad made with the year’s first tomatoes, the conversation naturally turned to the origin of our foods. The guests included a farmer, two winemakers, and a fisherman, as well as a nurse, several writers, and others who don’t directly make their living from food, but were happy to speak about it.

More than ever, it seems, people are talking about where their food comes from. It must have something to do with the recent news about contaminated food imported from China and other nations whose food safety laws seem equally porous. Food scares always push people toward farmers markets and more home-cooked fare made with fresh ingredients.

In North Carolina, concerned citizens recently issued a grassroots call for food labeling. Finally, there may be enough political will to fight opposition from international food makers and pass country-of-origin-labeling laws that, in the words of a recent New York Times op-ed, let Americans consumers “know where their food comes from before popping it into their mouths.”

But as my dining companions made clear, knowing where your food was grown is only the beginning. At a time when our food travels farther than ever before, eating local is not just about geography—it’s about the end of “anonymous food.” It’s about asking how our food was raised, who raised it, and what impact it had on the landscape. Remember, food is still our most intimate connection to the soil and water around us.

Consider two recent—and creative—“eat local” campaigns. The first was launched by the Center for a New American Dream as part of their six-month Carbon Conscious Consumer (C3) campaign. “Big changes start with small steps” is the campaign’s tagline, and this month’s goal is to buy one pound of locally grown food each week. Future months will encourage people to cold wash their clothes and dishes, reduce their junk mail, and carve out one car-free day a week.

And now, Bon Appetit restaurant company has built on its successful Eat Local Challenge to introduce a low-carbon diet at its 400 cafes at universities and corporate campuses in 28 U.S. states. The chain plans to reduce its use of beef by 25 percent, to source all meat and poultry and nearly all fruits and vegetables from North America, to use seasonal local produce as a first preference and tropical fruits only as “special occasion” ingredients, and to serve only domestic bottled water and reduce waste from the plastic containers.

Perhaps the best evidence of this growing curiosity about how much energy it takes to move our food around is the fact that eating local has even invited a backlash in form of disparaging “don’t buy local” stories from the New York Times and studies from concerned New Zealand shepherds illustrating that, despite the long-distance haul, New Zealand lamb requires less energy to produce than American or European lamb because of the island’s balmy climate and extensive pastures.

According to Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, “It’s entirely possible that under certain systems or certain constraints the local is going to be less efficient than the national or even global food system in terms of energy and greenhouse gas use.” Pirog pioneered much of the thinking on food miles a few years ago, showing that the mode of conveyance makes a huge difference (potatoes shipped by rail from Idaho to New York might be less polluting than Maine potatoes delivered via 18-wheeler truck). “Food miles are a great indicator of localness, but they aren’t necessarily the best indicator of energy use,” he concludes.

But localness has other advantages even when it isn’t the most energy efficient. Eating local keeps money in the local economy, helps preserve farmland, and usually means tastier food. In the midst of food safety crises, eating local also brings a certain peace of mind because the shopper can get much more information about what they are actually buying.

For those shoppers who are most concerned about energy use, though, here are some simple rules of thumb:

  • Shop nearby if you can—driving long-distance to a farmers market isn’t doing anyone any favors. Even better, try to get your local supermarket to host a farmers market in its parking lot.

  • Eat whole, unprocessed foods. The energy use and greenhouse gas emissions skyrocket for canning, freezing, and other processing, and processed foods require more energy to ship.

  • Eat seasonally. Your local tomato grower might have to drive love apples to market in August, but at least you won’t be getting them flown in from Holland in December.

  • And, finally, ask questions. Because the more we ask, the better our food seems to get.