Read an Excerpt
Think Globally, Act Locally
“Seasonality” has become a catchword for modern chefs seeking to prove the authenticity of their regional foods. But many consumers ask, “Why not use Costa Rican asparagus in midwinter if it looks good?”
We may ultimately choose to enjoy these fruits of the overnight shipping age, but first we’ll consider the petroleum consumed to ship our goods around the globe, the copious packaging required to ensure their unblemished arrival, and the other hidden costs of instant gratification. Luscious, plentiful local fish like porgies, bluefish, and blackfish often languish in coastal fish markets while threatened foreign species like Patagonian toothfish (a.k.a. Chilean sea bass) and North Atlantic cod get all the attention.
It’s absurd that California oranges are sold in Florida supermarkets, but they are. The Sunshine State that’s synonymous with citrus fruit processes 96 percent of its oranges into juice, which is routinely sold in California. It’s as if you made a pie at home, packed it in bubble wrap, shipped it cross-country, and then bought someone else’s pie, baked thousands of miles away, for your own dessert that same day.
In the peak of the August peach season in the Northeast, produce departments are brimming with air-freight peaches. In urban greenmarkets, like New York’s Union Square market, local cherries thrill the few food enthusiasts in the know, while Washington State cherries take the lion’s share of the mainstream market. In June, New England strawberries are rarely found in mainstream Boston supermarkets, relegated instead to occasional county festivals and farm stands.
Four percent of our national energy budget is used to grow food, while 10 to 13 percent is required to put it on our tables. This illustrates the true cost of our food. While massive production systems may ensure a lower-cost product for the consumer, air, land, and water are despoiled along the way through trucking, packaging, and distribution. The cheap oil we’ve come to rely on for our way of life has blinded us to the absurdity of what our food distribution has become.
On July 21, 2004, the New York Times reported that the last wholesale produce dealers, who dealt primarily in local and regional goods at the nearly abandoned Bronx Terminal market, were about to be evicted to make way for a retail center and park. They were unable to compete with the colossal Hunt’s Point market, the distribution center that sells produce from around the world to nearly all of New York’s food outlets. Local producers couldn’t deal in the huge volume that Hunt’s Point market demands. Ironically, the soon-to-be-homeless vendors were too big to sell to city greenmarkets, which conduct only retail trade.
Every New York State apple that you buy in New York and every Illinois squash you buy in Chicago can make a difference. It’s one less fruit or vegetable that diesels its way across America to the supermarket. New York City is funding research into centralizing distribution of locally produced food. It’s a step in the right direction. But individual action on the part of consumers will be the key to reinvigorating local produce industries. When greenmarkets become so well-attended that they can’t keep up with demand, local-produce wholesalers like those from Bronx Terminal will find markets for their goods. When supermarket chains lose business because they don’t carry enough local goods, they’ll start to carry more of them.
That scenario has already happened with organic foods, and is a selling point for increasingly popular socially responsible supermarket companies, like the sixty-four-store, family-owned Wegman’s chain. The company gives their produce managers bonuses for meeting quotas of locally grown food. The stores have responded by setting up separate sections just for local produce, complete with pictures of the farmers who grew it. The rapidly growing Whole Foods market chain also sources a notable portion of its produce from local farms. Putting a farmer’s face to the food adds to consumer appreciation of the food. Once they’ve tasted fruit that ripened on the tree, instead of fruit that was shipped hard and ripened in a gas-filled truck, most consumers see the benefits that go beyond reducing dependence on oil and supporting local farm economies.
Seek out the sources of local produce, and get to know them. It may not be feasible to buy all your produce from farm stands and greenmarkets, but buy all you can. No one doubts the convenience of supermarket shopping, but until local produce is available with that convenience, make a personal choice to do the right thing whenever possible. Assess your options for buying foods grown in a two-hundred-mile radius of your kitchen. Make the first step right at your local supermarket, by choosing wisely there. State-of-origin and country-of-origin labeling is increasingly clear. It will be the law soon, if obstructionists in Congress don’t derail pending legislation. Read those labels, and use the information to select Florida oranges in Florida, and California orange juice in California.
Markets often carry both homegrown and imported versions of the same produce. With the increased branding of fruits and vegetables, you often need only look at the package to see how near to home a product is grown. While I lament the disposable culture that has brought us cellophane wrap on cauliflower and polyethylene sacks of potatoes, I always read the tag to see where the farm is, and choose the one nearest my home.
To find local growers’ markets where you live, check out databases on these Web sites: localharvest.org, foodroutes.org, and sustainabletable.org. From farmers’ markets in Casper, Wyoming, to natural food co-ops in Atlanta, Georgia, these sites have clickable maps with locations, contact information, directions, and descriptions of sources in every state. Links to each individual market tell you not only where to go, but what to expect when you get there, with seasonality charts listing crops that are available in particular months. Just browsing these sites may inspire a market adventure, opening new culinary possibilities. Included in the listings for the Austin, Texas, Farmers’ Market are local farmers’ fruits and vegetables, herbs, eggs, cheeses, “kindly raised poultry, lamb, beef and buffalo,” and local honey. City chefs are at the market, giving cooking demos. There are gardening workshops, children’s activities, and live music from Austin’s best local bands.
Your local university/college agricultural office will have names of farmers in your region. The USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) supports programs at over a hundred land-grant colleges and universities. These extensions’ century-old mission is to solve public needs on the local level with college or university resources. CSREES partners with state Cooperative Extension Services (CES). Go to either csrees.usda.gov/qlinks/partners/state_partners.html or gardenersnet.com/atoz/ces.htm to find partner extensions.
These USDA extensions can direct consumers not just to farm stands and farmers’ markets, but also to another fantastic resource: community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms. Thousands of small farms sell produce direct to consumers, through CSAs. What they are is a mutual support system between growers and consumers of farm products that provides a conduit for food from field to table. It’s the ultimate in “putting a face to the food.” Consumers pay the farmer an annual membership fee, which helps him run the farm. In return, the member receives a weekly share of the harvest during the local growing season. There’s both a shared bounty and a shared risk, since an abundant, fine crop brings extra benefit to the member, and the membership income defrays costs during lean times for the farmer. The system benefits the ecosystem in many ways: Most farms involved in CSAs grow organic produce, protecting the land and water, and shipping is inherently minimal, protecting the air and natural resources.
Members buy an annual “share,” which yields enough weekly produce to feed a family of four, or a couple on a vegetarian diet. Depending on the farm and the region, shares can range from $300 to $600. Sometimes, half-shares are available. In terms of cost, the produce usually ends up averaging about the same as conventional produce purchased at the supermarket. Buying organic anywhere is good. But buying from a source that circumvents the environmental costs of transporting, processing, and distributing the food is especially beneficial to the environment. While organics are still less than 3 percent of the $900 billion annual U.S. food market, at the present rate of growth, sales of organics could outstrip conventional foods within twenty years.
The CSA movement actually began in Japan, where a women’s group concerned with use of pesticides and the invisible costs of imported produce started a movement called teikei (essentially meaning “food with the farmer’s face on it”). They started their CSA in 1965. Twenty years later, a Swiss environmentalist who had started a community-supported agriculture group near Zurich brought the idea to a Massachusetts farm, and started the first CSA in the United States–Indian Line Farm in South Egremont. Today, there are more than two thousand CSAs in North America. They exist in every state. To find one near you, go to csacenter.org or nal.usda.gov/afsic/csa/.
No Free Ride
Ethical produce is often more expensive than conventional produce. Ethical meats almost always are. America’s food is so cheap in part because so many ethical corners have been cut to make it that way. Fossil fuels are cheap, so the maximum amount of them are used to lower food prices. Small farms employ more hand labor than factory farms, which is important since farm machinery represents 12 percent of all diesel fuel consumed in our oil-thirsty country. Mass production makes widespread crop dusting with insecticides and herbicides economically feasible, so pesticides that pollute land and water make conventional crops cheaper. Concentrated feeding and slaughter operations and animal by-product—based feed make livestock production cheap, and meat overabundant and cheap.
Americans spend less on food than people in any other country. Most of us spend about 10 percent of our family income on food. This is a recent development. In 1950, about 21 percent of income was spent on food. This, despite the fact that more meals are eaten in restaurants now than ever before. The period from 1950 to 2002 saw the percentage of family income spent on food at home fall from 16.9 percent to 6.2 percent. In developing countries like India and China, families spend as much as 50 percent of their income on food.
Most of us can afford the extra few dollars a week it would cost to buy the right ingredients, the ethical ingredients. Organic milk and cage-free organic eggs cost roughly double their conventional counterparts. If most Americans could see the hideous conditions that hens are subjected to in order to keep egg prices low, almost anyone would agree that it’s a small price to pay. If they could see the squalor of the life of a conventional dairy cow, almost everyone would pay the extra $2 a gallon to be sure that it came from a cow that wasn’t confined to a windowless barn clamped to a milking machine 24/7. They might not be able to taste the difference between that milk and milk from a cow that roamed the grass in the light of day (although some can), but they’d feel better about themselves.
The Hidden Costs of Cheap Food
Sometimes local is the economical option. When popular local crops like summer corn, berries, tree fruit, and root vegetables are at their season’s peak, they can be substantially cheaper than imports. Why, then, would West Coast peaches at $2.99 a pound represent 75 percent of the peaches in a New York City supermarket in August, when sweet, tree-ripe New Jersey peaches, selling for $1.49, are so delicious? Part of the reason involves consumer expectation. Seasonal produce grown on small farms lacks the uniform shapes and sizes many consumers have come to expect. It may seem that picture-perfect skin and coloration indicate superior fruit. But any home gardener who’s picked an oddly-shaped ripe tomato from the vine and compared it with the “perfect” hothouse specimen from Holland knows that looks can be deceiving. Supermarkets also favor suppliers who can deliver consistent products in predictable quantities. By shunning local growers whose quality is better but crop size is unpredictable, these markets are starving the local farm economies, making the farms ever less able to produce the desired volume.
Thoughtful consumers should expect to pay a premium for buying locally, because it’s simply a different system of production, with less mechanization, less yield-boosting pesticides, and other higher costs. Unfortunately, there’s an internal mechanism in all of us that tends to prioritize dollar costs above all other costs.
Take it from me. I’ve been a personal chef to clients who represent the top one percent of U.S. income, and they’re more concerned about the price of milk than the middle class is. I’ve been told by multimillionaires that I shouldn’t pay a few extra dollars for more expensive organic ingredients. The food-cost difference to their meal may have been small, but it was the principle of spending those dollars that irked them. To be fair, once I explained the environmental rationale for choosing the organic products, most of my clients endorsed them, agreeing that they should have “the best.”
When the Union of Concerned Scientists (ucsusa.org), a nonprofit group of scientists working for solutions to environmental problems, addressed the costs of industrial agriculture, it revealed the unseen price tags on cheap food. Their report, “The Costs and Benefits of Industrial Agriculture” (March 2001), noted that “a full accounting would include not only the benefits of relatively cheap prices consumers pay for food, the dividends paid to the shareholders of fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers and the dollars earned by exporting American goods abroad, but also the offsetting costs of environmental pollution and degradation.” They concede that the costs are difficult to assess. Water pollution and global warming are influenced by many factors. Many of industrial farming’s effects are felt far from the farms themselves, such as when nitrogen compounds from Midwestern farms travel down the Mississippi and degrade coastal fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. They cite costs including:
• Damage to fisheries from oxygen-depleting algae fed by fertilizer runoff
• Cleanup of surface and groundwater polluted with animal waste
• Increased health risks suffered by agricultural workers and farmers exposed to pesticides
• The high energy requirements of industrial agriculture, such as running giant combines and harvesters
• Energy used to produce and transport pesticides and fertilizers, and to refrigerate and transport perishable produce across the country and around the world
• Global warming gases and ozone pollution produced by tillage; effects may already be occurring in the form of increased violent weather and rising oceans
Seas Are Local, Too
Nothing benefits more from timely consumption than fresh fish. In summer, when bluefish are running up the Atlantic coast, their thriving fishery provides abundant, inexpensive, delicious pleasure to savvy East Coast fish lovers. Porgies also thrive in Eastern summer waters. The idea of choosing South American, Chinese, or South African fish when these exceptional local fish are in season is like buying California oranges in Miami. Likewise, when icy midwinter waters ensure the cleanest, clearest, briniest Eastern oysters, mussels, and clams, that’s the time to skip the Pacific varieties for a while in New England. And the same goes for the Left Coast. Fall and early winter are still the best times for Western oysters from Puget Sound, Wescott Bay, Hog Islands, and Shoalwaters, even though modern technology has brought nonspawning (all-season) oysters to Oregon and Washington State waters.
Getting to know and use what’s local and abundant in your own region also relieves overtaxed fisheries elsewhere. Choosing to dine on local, fresh Atlantic mackerel relieves pressure on stocks of overexploited red snapper in the Gulf, Chilean sea bass in South America, and other trendy fish. It also reduces transportation pollution.
From the Trade Paperback edition.