Local Food Fight

Pesticide Spraying

This is someone's local food. Who can be faulted for pointing that out?

Helene York, the progressive and highly-visible Director of Strategic Initiatives for Bon Appetit Management Company, penned a brief editorial for the Atlantic today about the far-from-satisfactory — and still seemingly contradictory — notion of “local” wholesale produce. She targets wholesale food suppliers who have adopted locavore vogue without really changing their practices at all:

A big part of my summer has been spent talking to these produce suppliers—22 around the country. Most of them really, really don’t get it. They have put a halo on the nearby farmers they’ve always bought from and declared victory. I’ll admit that most of their designated sources are local to the chefs they are marketing to, but one example—”the country’s largest grower of cabbage, with operations in four states, and nine semi-trailers to deliver fresh to your door” —clearly demonstrates the disconnect between their definition of farm-to-fork food and ours.

Hey, yes, this is true. Those suppliers really don’t care, and they don’t care that they don’t care. They’re businessmen, the whole lot of them, and this is what we should expect, because neither the market — average Americans — nor the overseers (the federal government) really see the food system as all that broken. York’s facts are straight, but her focus — let’s pump up local co-ops to compete with these Agri-Business rascals! — is a depressing nod to the reality that we’re not close to fingering the real enemy here, which is the sad, slow, federal government, and its inability to protect Americans who don’t yet know that there’s a problem.

York is actually (and fairly) hinting at a failure of the local food movement to accurately define itself: a lot of “bad” food is actually, depending on your definition, relatively local to the place where it’s being consumed. Food isn’t grown on the moon, after all; it’s grown on farms throughout the U.S., and price supports haven’t totally inverted shipping logistics. If you’re eating in Boston, it’s still cheaper to get you food from New Jersey or Pennsylvannia than it is from California. Is New Jersey local to Massachusetts? It depends on who you ask. Suppliers — and producers, and vendors, and marketers, and unwitting consumers — are thus able to successfully argue that they are eating locally, and thus intelligently and sustainably, when really, specific geography is far less important than the growing practices themselves. You can use pesticides in Vermont, too. They allow that.

Farmers Market

Local food is great! It's true. But without enhanced federal regulation, it'll never really mean anything.

It’s those practices which have been and remain the issue. Yorke knows this, but do consumers and policymakers? Small steps do matter, of course. When we buy a handful of tomatoes, we should insist on purchasing them from a sustainable source, which is usually one that is local, but should, above all else, be one which doesn’t use dangerous chemicals or excessive amounts of water/energy. We need to exercise our right to choose this farm, even when we know that our purchase doesn’t make a sound in the grand scheme of things. Millions of collective purchases do make some noise, sure, but we run the risk of exhausting our fighter by continuing to push him up against much larger, stronger forces like billion-dollar agricultural firms. AgriBusiness firms want to win not because they love pesticides, but because they love dollars. We shouldn’t compete with huge businesses in this format. This is America. Money wins the minds and hearts of the average person.

The only thing in this country that can ever beat money — and even this doesn’t always happen — is regulation. Free market capitalists find this notion abhorrent, but that’s only because they’ve never seen a true free market, which is too long-term for most people to conceptualize and is more than happy to accommodate an outome like, say, wiping all the trees off the face of the earth. Listen: you probably don’t actually want a free market.

What the country needs is a comprehensive legislative package which outlaws all of the most damaging practices that farmers are currently free to employ. Nitrogen-intensive pesticides. Broad-spectrum antibiotics. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. They all need to be thrown out the window, jarring though the process may be.  Legislation needs to be the chief focus of those who care about the food system, and who care about the American public. The average American is not college educated and makes about $32,000 per year. This person probably won’t ever be a food activist, and we shouldn’t expect him or her to be.

One of the most apt summaries I’ve found for why the federal government needs to get its act straight comes, curiously, from the FAQ section of the website for Five Guys Burgers and Fries:

Q: Does Five Guys serve organic or free range beef?

A: While our beef is neither organic nor are the cattle free range, our distributor purchases raw materials from the major meat suppliers in the US and they treat the cattle humanely and follow all the procedures set forth by the USDA.

Businesses operate within the framework they are given, and once successful, they are able to wield their might to obtain consumers through physical presence and advertising prowess. There is nothing wrong with any of this. What’s wrong is that the country’s food providers are able to purchase food from farms like this and accurately say that they meet the USDA’s standards. Yorke’s perspective is correct and her points are clear and salient. Let’s just hope that those in her position see how important it is to use whatever power they have to put pressure on legislators and, in doing so, inspire us to do the same.

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