June 20, 2006

Food Movement in US Encourages Local Buying

By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON -- For the last two years, California bookstore manager Sage Van Wing has helped organize the Eat Local Challenge where, for one month, participants only buy food produced within 100 miles of their homes.

She is one of many people across the United States who are joining the burgeoning local food movement.

In 2005, 400 people signed up on the project's Web site, she said. This May, more than 1,000 took part.

"I think it's becoming more and more obvious that if there's no longer a cheap source of oil, then a lot of things need to change in this country," Van Wing said. "And one of the things that needs to change is the food-distribution system -- the way food is grown and the way food is distributed."

Those who buy locally count "food miles" instead of calories and speak of finding dinner fixings in the "foodshed" instead of supermarket.

"You're buying items without a bar code," said New Yorker Brian Halweil, author of "Eat Here," about getting meat and produce at farmers' markets or delivered from farm co-operatives. "When you buy local, there tends to be fewer brokers and middle people in the chain."

He defines "foodshed" as the sphere of land and businesses that provides a region with food, as a watershed does with water. Food miles are the distances edibles travel from farm to final sale. The Leopold Center, for example, estimates strawberry yogurt sold in Des Moines, Iowa, registers 2,216 food miles from its ingredients' combined journeys.

Those trumpeting buying local say high food miles lead to more air and water pollution. They also contend local food is not processed to withstand long journeys and therefore retains more nutrients.


Weil gives the example of an American supermarket selling New Zealand apples.

"When you buy that apple, you're not paying for the petroleum, the pollution. You're not paying a range of environmental, social and health costs in shipping that apple a long distance," he said.

Local officials from Woodbury County, Iowa, also hope buying local will help staunch the economic bleeding of the American Midwest and reinvigorate county farms. Local food is being served at its jail, juvenile hall and work-release center. The county is creating a system to help institutions such as hospitals follow suit.

"We spend $208 million here annually in food ... if you can get 10 percent of that, you're talking about $20 million being added into your local economy that you're shipping out right now," the county's rural economic development director, Rob Marquesee, said.

Socially conscious eaters now face a dilemma of whether to buy local produce or "organic" food that may have come from thousands of miles away, said Samuel Fromartz, author of the book "Organic, Inc."

When organic food was a fringe idea, its farmers couldn't reach large markets and demand was too small for mass distribution. Now, U.S. shoppers can pick up organics from China or Chile at chain supermarkets.

The buy-local movement will have to create a distribution system that gets food as easily into shoppers' grocery bags as organic food, Fromartz said.

"You can make the best argument in the world for a consumer," he said, "if they don't feel it works for them from a practical view, they aren't going to do it."

Or it may be taste that convinces shoppers to change.

The restaurant Komi in Washington, D.C., works to buy local items according to the seasons, said its chef and owner Johnny Monis, because mass-produced food does not deliver the restaurant's signature fresh and simple flavors.

"Tomatoes from California in the winter don't taste how tomatoes should taste," he said.