August 1, 2008

Eating Local

By Howard Weiss-Tisman, Brattleboro Reformer, Vt.

Aug. 1--BRATTLEBORO -- Over the past year, Tristan Toleno has seen his costs for nonlocal, commercially processed foods rise by almost 30 percent.

Vegetable oil. Flour. Frozen foods.

All of it has to be grown, picked, processed and trucked, and for every step along that chain, the rising cost of fuel has pushed up the wholesale price.

At the same time, the price Toleno pays for local food has not risen as sharply.

Toleno, chef/owner of the Riverview Cafe, is committed to the local food movement.

His reasons for buying local food vary from cutting down on his carbon footprint to supporting the local economy to just enjoying the way it tastes.

But as the effects of the energy crisis are felt in grocery aisles and restaurant kitchens, Toleno said that the local food economy is somewhat sheltered from the recent dramatic rise in food costs.

"Local farmers are less dependent on the long supply chain that most of the commercial food relies on," Toleno said Thursday as he took a break between lunch and dinner at his restaurant. "It's a step-by-step process to ship food across the country and fuel costs are going to make an impact every step of the way."

Vermont farmers are not fully shielded from the high cost of energy, said Agency of Agriculture spokeswoman Kelly Loftus.

Everything from diesel fuel and fertilizer to sawdust and manure have been hit by the worldwide petroleum crisis.

And Loftus said that while those costs will raise the prices at the local farm stands, consumers are not likely to see as steep a jump as they might see on food that is shipped across the country.

"The Agency of Agriculture has seen that trickle-down effect as there is more concern about how far food has to travel," said Loftus. "People have more interest in how and where their food is grown."

At the Riverview Cafe, Toleno said that as the local food supply chain strengthens both the farmers and consumers will benefit if gas prices continue to go up.

When he opened his restaurant eight years ago, there were fewer choices for local food.

Now he is adding products all the time.

Even when he offers an option on the menu between local and commercial foods, his customers are increasingly likely to pay a little more for the knowledge that their food was grown or raised by the farmer.

"There has been a cultural shift in the last few years," he said. "And there is the growing realization that we need to do this."

The Riverview Cafe is a member of the Vermont Fresh Network, a statewide nonprofit that works to educate patrons about the value of supporting local food while helping restaurant owners connect with farmers.

The group's executive director, Meghan Sheradin, said chefs and restaurant customers decide to support local farmers for a variety of reasons.

And while the price of gas has crept up over the past few years, the local food movement at the same time has strengthened.

"Certainly as there has been a rising awareness about out impact on the environment, people are waking up and it is logical to look at the food system," said Sheradin. "Everyone is affected by the cost of fossil fuels but the local food system is probably not affected as much."

Sheradin said there is an argument that it is still more efficient to grow acres of carrots and ship hundreds of pounds of them to a market.

When four of five farmers drive four of five boxes of carrots to a farmers' market, and all the shoppers make a special trip to the market to purchase a few carrots, it can be argued that the large scale farming produces less greenhouse gases per carrot.

Still, when considering the benefits and costs of locally produced food, Sheradin said you have to look at the whole picture.

Beth Chevalier, the kitchen supervisor at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, said consumers are being squeezed on both sides by the cost of fuel and the co-op tries to walk the line between offering local food and keeping it affordable.

When the cost of filling the gas tank doubles, there is less money to spend on expensive prepared foods.

But at the same time, the co-op shoppers demand local food and the kitchen has to find a way to fill the niche even while the cost of food goes up.

"It is always out first choice to buy local because that is what we want to do," she said. "But this is hitting everybody in the pocketbook."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at [email protected] or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.


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