Two weeks ago, a Grist article on local food asked readers, “Do you have the balls to really change the food system?”
Rebecca Thistlewaite’s article upped the ante for locavores by questioning their commitment to supporting local farmers and making broad-scale changes in the food system–asking whether they were hands-in-the-dirt die-hards or (what the headline referred to as) “fair-weather foodies.”
You watched Food, Inc. with your mouth aghast. You own a few cookbooks.You go out to that hot new restaurant with the tattooed chef who’s putting on a whole-animal, nose-to-tail pricy special dinner. You bliss out on highfalutin’ pork rinds, braised pigs feet, rustic paté, and porchetta.
Later that weekend, you nibble on small bites as you stroll down the city street, blocked off for a weekend “foodie” festival.
Then you go back to your Monday-Friday workaday routine, ordering pizza and buying some frozen chicken breasts at Costco (“Hey, at least they’re ‘organic’!”) to get you through your hectic week.
As much as I enjoyed (and shared) this article, a couple of recent conversations with locals who are concerned about their community and are interested in local food (to a point) made me look at it in a somewhat different way.
Not everyone is completely consumed (sure, pun intended) and impassioned about their local food supply to the point of going out and helping butcher chickens–or even to the point of getting dirt under their manicure.
In fact, most people aren’t. I would guess that most people who really like to eat good (and local, and sustainably-produced) food aren’t fired up about spending all their time learning about it and preparing it.
We still need those people, but maybe we also need to cut them a little bit of slack. We should probably avoid a dichotomy of who’s a real local foodie and who isn’t up to snuff. Especially if those who aren’t making one particular grade are helping in other ways–economic development or grant-writing or stopping by the farmers market before they buy their other groceries–or even stopping by after and dropping a few bucks. As a producer, I was happy with all these kinds of support (and, of course, continually encouraged more when I deemed it appropriate).
That isn’t to say we can’t laud the efforts of those who are seriously commitment to food systems work, only that we shouldn’t disparage those who are just checking out the food festival or the special meal or the farmers market–and maybe even bragging about going to it. That’s good press, too.
Producers know that one of the biggest issues in the local foods movement is with processing, storage, and distribution.
Yes, it’s a pain to have folks come up to your market table and say, “so-and-so down the line has x for half that price” (gee, thanks for letting me know!) or “why would I buy this when I can get it from my neighbor for free?” (so why are you even here?).
But the real pain is having produced a product that goes to waste for lack of the infrastructure to preserve it in a form that is salable beyond the end of the fresh-market season. The hogs and chickens can only eat so much of the wastage. And then who’s going to process those, and how can they legally be sold for a decent profit?
From a consumer perspective, the infrastructure issue is about getting those local food products on the shelves of stores where people regularly shop–and in a form they are at least somewhat familiar with using.
Several smaller communities are already taking these steps. Recently, the Vernon Economic Development Association helped initiate a project to transform a closed manufacturing plant in Viroqua, WI into a local food processing and distribution facility that will be available for rent to local producers.
So, yes, we need to develop more markets and do more education about what to do with unfamiliar grains, cuts and kinds of meat, and vegetables, but we can’t expect people whose passions lie elsewhere to expend the bulk of their time and energy figuring this stuff out so they can win the “real foodie” award.
A recent conversation with an area resident suggested that there are plenty of folks who’d buy a bag of local flour or a grass-fed roast or a jar of locally-produced spaghetti sauce if they knew purchase of those products was supporting local, sustainable farmers and the community as a whole.
But they weren’t necessarily going to go down to the farmers market and buy a couple bushels of tomatoes and spend the weekend canning them all themselves–even if they had the skills and equipment to do so.
I know, I know. Crazy, right? But what it seemed like they were saying (if this makes any sense at all) is that they didn’t think that’d be a fun way to spend their days off!
And they also don’t want to be made to feel like they aren’t welcome at the local foods development table because this kind of endeavor isn’t their cup of tea.
Lots of folks want to support local foods; they want to buy it; they might be interested in developing the infrastructure and maybe helping get the word out with education; they just don’t want to spend all their free time thinking about, producing, and processing food to feel like they fit in.
So, as much as I said, “YEAH!” when I read Thistlewaite’s article, and as much as I appreciate her comprehensive list of tips for really supporting local farmers and ranchers that appear at the end of the piece, I think it’s a little counterproductive to ridicule a person’s choice to watch TV for a couple hours instead of sweating over the butter churn.
After all, they might be watching a show about how to roast a delicious “new” cut of grass-fed lamb on the Food Channel.