The Oxford University Press’s 2007 choice for Word of the Year is being heard more often as the average American turns toward local markets instead of giant supermarkets for their food needs. The word “locavore,” which is used to describe the desire to buy fresh food from local farmers, was first coined about two years ago when the idea of eating locally first gained popularity. That was only the start of what can now be called the local food movement – a conscious, collective effort across the country to support local farmers and become more intimate with food.
The movement has environmental and nutritional implications, and it still remains to be seen just how it is going to affect the global food economy. But for now, buying locally is a way to enhance local economies and lessen the food industry’s carbon footprints, or its contribution to global warming. “It’s not something that’s going to go away for awhile. People are more concerned about the environment and realizing the importance of trading locally for business and economic reasons,” said Jim Jabara, owner of The Green River Café in East Lansing, a coffee and sandwich shop that uses as many local products as possible. “It’s riding a wave like all movements do.”
In this era of renewed interest in the environment and health – just walk through the diet section of any bookstore to see proof of the country’s obsession with eating right – it is almost no wonder the amount of farmers markets in the United States has increased by more than 1,000 in the past three years, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Directory of Farmers Markets. In Michigan in the past five years, the number of local markets has risen, from 90 to 160. [cookin]
Aside from an environmental taste, many different factors have contributed to this increase. One is simply a quality issue. “Eating a Michigan-grown peach in mid-August is better than any peach you’re going to buy anywhere else,” said David Conner, a research specialist in the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU. The movement has been furthered by intelligent, well-spoken advocates such as American chef Alice Waters, he said. Waters recently came out with a cookbook highlighting the use of local food and spoke at political and social events to bring the food issue to the forefront of political discussion.
Another element in the local wave is the frequent threat to health caused by food contamination and food-related diseases, according to Elaine Brown, executive director of Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems. She pointed to increased scares about meat recalls and the recent spinach recalls from California. Local foods have a lesser chance of becoming contaminated, due to less travel time and fewer minutes spent shelved in supermarkets. This also contributes to their nutrient content. “The fresher you eat fruits and vegetables, the more the nutrients,” she said.
[conner1]Brown also attributed the movement to increased public awareness stemming from articles about local food in major national newspapers and magazines. “When you start seeing articles in Time and The Washington Post about local food, the general public begins to learn more about it as opposed to just those concerned about sustainability,” she said.
Despite the general term “local movement,” the term “local” means different things to different people. Some describe eating local as the “100-mile diet,” meaning they only eat food grown within a 100-mile radius. Some define it as the time from harvest to consumption. Others look in terms of watersheds and bioregions. Still others define it by geographic boundaries, such as town and state lines. To Conner, the matter of “local” depended on both his professional and personal life. “Professionally, because I work at a land grant university, I draw a box around the state. My work should strongly help these farmers who pay taxes to support this place,” he said. “Personally, there’s no clear-cut line. Close, with all else being equal, is better. Out of my garden is better than down the road.”
However, there are foods that cannot be bought locally due to the climate of Michigan, such as bananas and oranges, and luxury items like chocolate and coffee. Dru Montri, project manager of Michigan Farmers Market Association, said the definition of local is complex and, in her personal life, it is okay for her to buy those foods that cannot be purchased from a local source. “I make conscious decisions about what I purchase, but chocolate hasn’t yet been crossed off my grocery list.”
Despite the fact there are still items that need to come from far away, the variety at local sources is more than enough to eat full meals. It just takes more commitment, Montri said. “This may cut into time for other activities, but depending on a person’s willingness and desire to eat locally, they may truly enjoy spending their time sourcing local ingredients,” she said.
Jabara, of the Green River Café, also said there is a convenience factor that fits into the local food issue. “In an ideal world, I’d like to have a giant root cellar, and grow everything and store everything in the winter,” he said. “In Southern California, they probably do about 80 percent local. We’re not supposed to be living here [in Michigan] – we just figured out a way to do it.” Although there are products that can’t be found locally, in terms of local products, Jabara still uses “100 percent more than most places –which means we don’t have to do very much,” he said. For example, the restaurant uses black beans, apples, potatoes, eggplants, cauliflower and eggs from local sources, like its own Green River Organic Farm, about 15 miles from the restaurant.
Not all places are lucky enough to have their own farms, but there are a variety of opportunities to buy local foods. Farmers markets are the most common – usually outdoor venues where farmers from the area can sell their own products. But there also are food co-ops and grocery stores that sell local products. Food co-ops, while less common, are member-owned retail businesses in which members pay a fee to buy products. One such place is the East Lansing Food Co-op, which was formed in 1976 and currently has 2,200 members from the local community. The Lansing area also has a few regular farmers markets, such as the Lansing City Market, which operates every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Another local food source is community-supported agriculture, where a person agrees to pay a farmer a certain dollar amount for the farmer to provide produce over the growing season. The buyer gets a share of what the farmer grows each week, and what the buyer pays up front helps the farmer prepare land and buy seeds.
In addition, public and private gardens are gaining popularity, even in large cities like Detroit. Brown referred to the “greening of Detroit,” where 450 people are working on growing gardens in the city. “They’re getting fresh local food in food deserts – places with limited access to fresh local food, where people can’t get to a grocery store and instead rely on McDonald’s and the local convenience store,” she said. Large supermarkets are starting to take into account the popularity of both the organic and local food movements, too. Although they were unable to be reached, stores like Meijer, Kroger and Super-Target have set up organic sections and have begun to highlight Michigan-grown products, like apples and cherries.
The emphasis on local food sources has great implications for a region’s economy. It is not difficult to figure out if you buy something from a local vendor, the money has more of a chance of going back into the community than if you buy from a chain supermarket. “The farmer who grows food spends money in the hardware store,” Brown said. “Dollars circulate in the community.” The farmers themselves also come out on top. Conner estimated only about 10 percent of the money generated in large supermarkets makes it back to the farmer because of the costs associated with marketing, transport and processing. “The fewer steps and short distance from farm to fork means more money goes to farmers,” he said.
The economic benefits extend beyond just the immediate community. Brown cited a study that found if every family in Michigan spent $10 a week on local foods, it would generate more than $37 million per week that would circulate in Michigan’s economy. Conner’s group also recently submitted a study that found if everyone in Michigan ate twice as many fruits and vegetables as now and bought the increased amount from the state, it would create 2,000 jobs and bring in $200 million for the state. In a state suffering from high unemployment rates and budget cuts, the revenue generated would be a blessing. The state of Michigan also pays high health-care rates and ranks poorly in diet-related illness and obesity. Because eating local might mean eating fresher food, “it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that if we ate better we’d be healthier, which would lower health-care costs and make Michigan a more attractive business environment,” Conner said.
There’s another side to the story, though. Critics of the local food movement tend to dwell on the fact that by buying locally, it takes away from the poorer, developing countries that rely on food exports and cash crops, taking away from the farmers of those nations and actually contributing to world poverty. However, that argument doesn’t take into account the conditions of the workers in those countries and the fact that farmers in developing countries tend to grow luxury crops for wealthy people, rather than staple crops needed for survival, Conner said.
According to Montri, it depends on the way the argument is framed. “The laws and loans that make those countries export-oriented are exploitative and…prior to those laws and loans, those persons (farmers in developing nations) were growing food they could eat themselves,” she said. Montri pointed out just because money is entering a country from food exports, it is not necessarily making its way into the hands of the farmers. She referred to Peru and its sweet onion production as an example. Before the United States became an importer of Peruvian onions, farmers in the country were growing up to 150 types of potatoes and tuberous crops. Now, onions are the prime crop in many of those farms. “The genetic diversity of crops in the area has been diminished, there have been increases in pesticide usage because of monocultural practices and they still cannot afford to eat what they are growing,” said Montri.
Regardless of the question of the global food economy, the local food movement is continuing to grow in the United States, helping lessen the environmental impact from transportation and packaging of food. But besides the United States, the movement is also gaining ground in other countries, perhaps with even more speed. In Europe, many people have been eating local for decades, because they were directly affected by food shortages during World War II. “[Many Europeans] didn’t have food, so they learned the importance of having food locally,” said Brown.
More recently, the Slow Food Movement has gained popularity. Started in Italy, the movement has spread to more than 100 countries to combat the fast-food trend, emphasizing locally grown crops and domestic farming. It is still a little too early, however, to see the effect these various movements will have on the global food economy.
But there are other green and nutritious options for eating that don’t involve any questions about the global economy, such as eating vegetarian or vegan. Drew Winter, the 2007 winner of PETA’s “Sexiest Vegetarian Boy Next Door” and a journalism senior at MSU, pointed out some of the environmental advantages of giving up meat. Livestock generation contributes more to global warming than transportation because of the gases that come from manure and passing gas. Manure also seeps into water, creating dead zones, where bacteria can thrive and little else can live. Winter also said a large portion of crop production in the world feeds livestock and actually not humans. “If we fed all grains directly to people instead putting them in livestock, we would cure world hunger,” said Winter.
[winter10]He added eating vegetarian is “important to anyone who calls themselves an environmentalist.” Winter himself shops at the local farmers market a few times a week and is able to find vegan substitutes for any food he wants. He said it’s easy to go vegetarian or vegan and that food is available even for picky eaters. “I want people to do whatever they can to reduce their intake of meat and dairy for the environment, for health and for the animals.”
Tyler Joseph, a sophomore in fisheries and wildlife, will not be changing his eating patterns. Joseph considers himself an environmentalist, yet does not see the need to switch to a non-meat diet. “I understand the point of view, but I don’t agree,” said Joseph. “In nature, I see the food chain. It’s natural to eat meat – there’s nothing immoral about it. It’s always been a part of human beings’ diets – it’s not unhealthy.” He would rather see environmentalists starting with reducing emissions from automobiles rather than emissions from animal manure, though he agreed ranchers should look into conservation in raising their livestock. “But it’s not a good enough reason for everyone to turn into a vegetarian,” he added.
Raised as a hunter of deer and duck, Joseph described himself as a strong advocate of animal rights, a humane hunter and a supporter of buying locally. “That’s why I like to hunt – to see where my food comes from, to know what I’m eating,” said Joseph. “If you go to McDonald’s, you don’t know where the meat comes from. It could be a dog, for all you know.” In the summer, Joseph’s family also occasionally goes to the local markets near his home in Grand Ledge, Mich., buying sweet corn and other vegetables.
The ideal would be to combine vegetarianism with the local food movement, but either helps minimize the environmental impact of food on the environment. Buying and eating meat locally is better than buying it from across the country, and it all depends on what the individual is willing to do. For Conner, it is mostly just about the increased importance of food in the daily life of the average American: “If we give food meaning again – right now it’s so anonymous, we don’t know who grows it, where it’s grown, there’s no story to it – we’ll get closer to the food and it’ll change the way we view it, and we’ll probably eat healthier.”

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