The Gospel of Local Food

I live in the suburbs. I’ve lived in the suburbs most of my life, the only non-suburb time being the four years I lived on the campus of the university I attended in Downtown Chattanooga. For the most part, I love the suburbs. I love having a yard, I love the quiet, I love the mortgage payment (which is significantly lower than if the house we live in were located in a more urban area of Hamilton County). Sometimes, I love being far away from everything. It’s nice to live in an area where I pretty much never have to worry about any real traffic, and, as I mentioned before, it’s nice and quiet (except when the neighbors decide to drive their very loud dirt bikes up and down the road, or around New Year’s and Independence Day when they break out the fireworks).

What I don’t like about the distance, though, is the relative lack of access to local food in the near vicinity. There’s a farmers’ market at a nearby church on Saturdays, but right now, there’s only one vendor attending while the weather is cold. For a while, we were buying eggs from a guy who raises chickens in his back yard. They were half the price of the organic eggs I buy at the store that have been transported from who-knows-where, but it seems a little awkward to go to someone’s house to buy eggs and I kind of let that dwindle. Beyond that, the other farmers’ markets in town are about 30 minutes away, as are the more “organic” grocery stores (which still sell a pretty limited selection of local food)….so, I shop at one of the big chain grocery stores, and making my grocery list totally depresses me.

I love buying my food from sources I know and trust. I love being able to talk to the person who grew or raised the food. I love knowing that pretty much every penny of my food dollars is going back into the local economy. When compared to produce, meat, and eggs from the grocery store, local food can seem pretty expensive…but a book I have been reading really put this into perspective for me.

In his book Folks, This Ain’t Normal (Center Street, 2011), farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (featured on Food, Inc.), states, first of all, that potato chips cost an average of $8.00 a pound. How’s that again? So, processed junk may seem less expensive than whole foods….but would you ever consider paying $8.00 a pound for potatoes? I didn’t think so. I’ve never seen conventional or organic potatoes at a premium like that!

Next, Salatin breaks down the idea of government subsidies. You might think that subsidies would be meant for the little guys, but you would be wrong. Commercial, conventional food is highly subsidized-conventional meats, processed foods, etc.-while small producers receive little or no money from the government. In the chapter entitled, “You Get What You Pay For”, he puts it like this:

“Suppose the nation had five auto manufacturers and the government decided to subsidize four of them to the tune of $5000 per automobile.  Would it be fair to scream at the fifth one about their high prices?  Of course not.  And yet that is exactly what people do when they accuse the local, ecologically based food system of high prices.”

In other words, those processed foods are artificially cheap.  You’ve already paid for them once….and there’s a good chance you’ll pay for them again in the form of medical bills somewhere down the road.

In my neck of the woods, finding local food is not always easy, and I am sure I am indefinitely going to continue spending quite a bit at the chain grocery store…but I am determined to make more of an effort.  Of course, I will continue my support of local restaurants, too.  I realize that chains put money back in to the community as well by providing jobs, but local businesses are better for the economy and the spirit of the community.  Can you imagine how life would be if we supported the local businesses instead of the wealthy, subsidized chains?  The people who work for the chains-and may not enjoy it all that much-could go to work for the local businesses.

This is way more opinionated than I typically am, but I feel a lot of conviction about this right now.  If we want local food to be affordable and accessible, we have to express a desire for it-by purchasing it….and we may have to change the way we look at our food costs.  Sometimes cheaper…isn’t better.

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17 thoughts on “The Gospel of Local Food

  1. Amen Sister. We’re also in the middle of doing this as well. I’ll have to check out that book… I just finished “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan. Since moving up here we’ve not done the best job of monitoring what we’re eating & where it comes from, but we’re trying our best to change that. I also am buying eggs from a guy that raises chickens on his farm…. a bit strange, but I’m trying to make it normal until I have my own chickens. :o)

  2. As someone who sells eggs, raw milk, and veggies from their farm I found it very strange that you found it strange to go to a neighbor’s house to buy his eggs. Eating locally can be fairly easy in the suburbs if you know your neighbors. Many of them probably garden, if not a veggie garden at least a few edibles mixed in with the flowers. I have a friend in New Jersey who has very limited space but grows almost all her own vegetables. Check out Localharvest.org and find farmers near you. You may be surprised.

    • One great thing about the land in suburbia is the ability to have a garden. We are still learning, and we had one in 2010 but not last year because my husband had surgery & it threw everything off. We will definitely be doing it this year. I have been looking on localharvest…..I think the “local eating” is a fairly unfamiliar concept in this area so there aren’t a lot of offerings on my side of town, but they are definitely growing!

    • Oh, and also….I guess the reason it feels strange to me is because, while everyone tends to think of the south as very “homey” and especially the small-town south (my town has less than 25,000 residents) as a place where everyone knows everyone else, this is definitely out of the ordinary here. I was a little embarrassed to admit that it felt awkward to me….I definitely know better 🙂

  3. Why would you feel awkward buying eggs from another person? Local economies are built on relationships — maybe you should rebuild that one.

    • I know what you’re saying, Erika, it’s just not the way things are “usually” done….a mold I’m trying to break out of! Convenience, as much as I hate to say it, was a factor too. It’s just easier to pay $4.00 at the grocery store since I’m already there than to figure out when the egg man was home, drive over there, make sure we had cash, etc., etc. We will definitely be working on better planning so that we won’t have to worry so much about those things.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly. I haven’t read that book yet (it’s on my list) but I read something a while back about Joel Salatin believing that thoughtful farmers who farmed well deserved a white-collar salary, and that’s really stuck with me.

    • It’s really a wonderful book! Yes, he says something about seeing a farmer driving a BMW-would that sit weird with you? Of course it shouldn’t, because if someone works hard for their money they deserve every penny they earn! Unfortunately, we tend to have a skewed view of who “should” and “shouldn’t” be paid well. The book is well worth your time!

  5. I’m going to be the jerk who’s gotta say it.

    you can eat almost totally local food. How do I know? I live in Alberta, and there has been snow on the ground for 3 months and I am eating almost 100% local food (save for salt, yeast and some spices). I’m defining local as within 200km of my city.

    I would encourage you to rethink your diet if local food “isnt possible”. It was very possible for me once I resigned my self to the fact that I will probably eat a rotation of about 5 meals from now on, but it is plenty healthy because it’s complete (veggies, milk, bread, meats).

    As for the 30 minutes drive part, you would be more than willing to drive that far if the industrial food had its true price. If its only once per week thats really no that bad.

    • I don’t think you’re a jerk, but I also didn’t say that eating locally isn’t possible. Like many, I deal with issues of convenience (as I mentioned below, cash can be an issue, since I never have it and usually pay for things with my check card), and I absolutely agree about the distance but I do have a full-time job and am also a student, so there’s a lot of planning involved. I’m not trying to make excuses, just saying that if I am going to do this, I have to be more intentional about planning what I am going to eat and where I am going to get it. It’s definitely not going to happen overnight-it’s a process-but in the book I reference the author refers to a family that made it their goal to buy nothing that had a barcode (obviously those things you point out like yeast would be exceptions) and I would really like to pursue that.

  6. Good luck Mary. I try to buy at least one item local evey week. You can start small and still make a huge impact on the environment, the local economy, your health and the joy of knowing ” I made a difference today”. What I like to tell my girls is that we make
    a double difference. We support the local farmer and we don’t give our money to the huge industrial operations ruining our countrysides.

  7. Alright! I posted a link to your article on facebook today. I really enjoyed your thoughts on trying to eat local. I don’t live in the burbs, I live in the country near a tiny town. Try getting local food out here! Whew! So we are going to raise our own chicken, eggs, turkey, and vegetables, and sell the poultry and eggs as well to try to get some local food movement going here. Here’s to knowing where your food came from, and knowing what’s in it.
    Lacy

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