Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Local Food, Local Hunger

Since we first met them a year ago, a couple has been encouraging me and my partner to turn locavore. The Urban dictionary defines a locavore as “someone who eats food grown or produced locally or within a certain radius such as 50, 100, or 150 miles usually for ecological reasons.” Another entry adds “Noune (sic). A person whose diet focuses on foods grown and produced nearby, typically 100 miles.”

A few days ago, they had us over for dinner and we sampled locavore cuisine – they served us vegetables grown in their community patch, steaks from half a cow with a Mennonite farm pedigree, and ice cream churned from the milk of a free-range heifer. Indeed, we could taste the difference between their food and the provisions we pick up at Giant or Safeway.

The other day, the New York Times featured this growing trend of buying and eating local. The author’s angle was from that of lazy locavores – folk who’d like to get on the bandwagon but don’t have the time, energy or interest in gardening much less animal husbandry. Not quite like our friends, these true blue Manhattanites hire a chef to market for and prepare their local-themed meals or an assistant to tend vegetables in their patios.

Aside from the quality, taste and health benefits of harvesting local and organic fare, an argument for the local food movement is that it makes economic sense. Stephen J. Dubner was asked in his NYT Freakonomics blog if this were indeed the case . Dubner, in a nutshell, answered no because of the huge inefficiencies involved in producing one’s own food (comparative advantage rules).

While it might be well and good that the movement is gaining traction, the Food Research and Action Center reminds us that “one of the most disturbing and extraordinary aspects of life in this very wealthy country is the persistence of hunger.” In 2006, 35.5 million people were food insecure - 22.9 million adults and 12.6 million children. Moreover, those who were worst-off increased to 11.1 from 10.8 in 2005. Black and Hispanic households experienced hunger more than other Americans (United States Department of Agriculture, 2006). One can wager that there would be more hungry Americans in 2007 and 2008.

So while some people get finicky about where their mache is grown, millions of women, men and children skip a meal or two, cut back on the food they purchase and go to bed hungry. More and more families and individuals have also turned to food banks.

And so have these agencies hitched on the local food band wagon.

Earlier this week, USA Today featured an article on gleaning. Gleaning is the process of collecting left over crops from local farms and making them available to people who resort to food pantries. While not a new practice, more organizations are engaging in it as they find it harder to replenish their inventories. Fewer people are donating due in part to rising fuel and food prices. Some who used to donate themselves are now surviving on items found in food banks.

Now let’s get one thing clear: though the produce might come from local farms, it isn’t fresh. And these folk are not locavores by choice.

Illustration by Julia Gran in


Valerie said...

One cool thing I see every week at the Rockville Farmers Market is a table set up by Manna (the Montgomery County Food Bank). The idea is to buy a little more than you need from the farmers and donate the excess produce to Manna. You feel doubly rewarded to support the farmers and Manna and the Manna recipients receive the same actually fresh produce the rest of us can enjoy.

Erwin said...

In response to this post, Tom E. wrote on Facebook:
"You make some interesting points, Erwin. It's unfortunate that a lot of the publicity that has attached to the locavore movement in this country has focused on what I would call "locavoraciousness," local eating for self-centered reasons (e.g. it's chic, it tastes better, it's less expensive), as opposed to "locavory," local eating for other-centered reasons (e.g. it's more sustainable, less energy-intensive, more environmentally friendly). This neglects the critical point that locavory can also be a political act that is not captured fully by reductionist economic analysis and that, if practiced more widely, could have a significant impact on maldistribution and outright waste of food. I don't want to go off on a rant about our misshapen global food market, but I do believe that if more people thought more about where their food was coming from, they might also think more about where other people's lack of food is coming from."