July 28, 2008

Buy Local Farm Fresh Produce and Enjoy All the Upsides

By Anonymous

The LACE (Local Agricultural Cooperative Exchange) Farm Fresh Market, Main Street, Barre, is a place where the community comes to find locally produced Vermont foods and produce. As the latest salmonella scare, this time in tomatoes, sweeps the nation, the LACE community feels a sense of validation for our mission: Buying Local. It's amazing and frightening to realize how little anybody knows about where these bad tomatoes are coming from, and how to be sure we're getting safe ones. The American agricultural system treats our food like cogs in a massive machine; production, transportation, storage, wholesale, retail. A system that is designed to do one thing, bring a uniform quality of product to every market and restaurant in the country as efficiently and cheaply as possible. In the end, though, we pay a price in both quality and safety that could be easily softened by transitioning to smaller scale, locally distributed food systems.

The average distance travelled by a piece of American food is 1500 miles. Anybody who has bitten a garden fresh, or farmer's market tomato knows that the flavor and firmness of the fresh picked fruit is unrivaled. When a tomato is picked to travel, it's plucked from the vine early, before it has a chance to mature and, though they'll ripen just fine off the vine, they lose some of the essential nutrients that they get from those extra few days attached to the plant. Growers who know that their product is going to be shipped also choose fruits and vegetables that hold up best in transit and maintain a better 'look' on store shelves. Customer satisfaction after the point of sale is less critical in this market segment.

The current scare serves to highlight the dangers of pushing food products through these long, complex supply chains. There's a certain magic to being able to go into any supermarket in the country and find a cornucopia of reasonably priced fruits and vegetables for sale all year round. The trick is accomplished through the alchemy of scale. Most of what we eat travels through huge warehouses and vast distribution facilities so that we can spread the cost of all this handling out over as many products as possible to keep it low. But, all that handling and distribution, all that scale is exactly the problem. One crate of tomatoes that got stored too close to a crate of bad chicken mingles and mixes with all the other perfectly good tomatoes and suddenly, it's not just the cost of transportation that's getting spread around. One expert listed the potential cost of this tomato scare, including the cost of lost confidence, in the neighborhood of a billion dollars. How is that efficient?

As a nation, we need to change the way we produce and distribute our food. This system needs to be broken down into something more local and more manageable, something that enables producers and communities to work as part of independent systems. It's what we're doing here at LACE, and it's working. Our customers can't get mangoes or pineapples or even tomatoes in January but when they buy something at our Farm Fresh Market, they know where it came from. Our system isn't going to stop problems from happening. It doesn't mean we're never going to get a bad tomato. What it does mean is that, if the worst happens, it'll be confined and easy to solve. Then everybody can experience what the LACE community experienced this week, biting their tomatoes without fear.

Copyright Boutin-McQuiston, Inc. Jul 2008

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