FORUM – Eating Locally: What Does It Really Mean? Part Three

24 Aug 2001

The text of the speech the author of This Organic Life made to the Slow Food USA 2001 Congress in Bolinas, California on Saturday, July 21

Some small groups of consumers are already learning this when their CSA choices are narrowed by a drought or flood–I was struck by the headline for an article Elizabeth Henderson, a CSA farmer in upstate New York wrote for our local organic farming newsletter. She called it ‘Drought, Floods, the Fire Next Time? Reflections on vegetable growing in 1999 and 2000.’ But climate-dependence is going to be a very hard lesson to teach widely because the market, at least for now, provides little indication to consumers that the weather has battered their local farmers.

And that leads directly to the second major lesson I’ve learned: we’ll need to change our eating patterns a lot if we really want to live by the seasons. Because I restrict myself to what I grow, I recognize that I narrow my winter choices more than most people would need to, but some hard truths would affect everyone. Fresh tomatoes are only available in my home from July through December–when the last ones have ripened from green in my cold cellar. Asparagus comes for one month in the spring–almost anywhere north of the equator. And in winter I never have a lettuce salad unless I’ve been far-sighted enough to plant in the cold frame. It’s encouraging to know that inventive farmers like Eliot Coleman are teaching other farmers to grow lovely winter greens in unheated greenhouses, in chilly places like Maine. Which means local limitations may be eased by human inventiveness. But in some parts of the country, we’re going to have to adjust to several months of a lot more root vegetables than most of us are used to.

But seasonality is not what people know–or have been taught. In this taste-blind country, we’ve been taught to think that a meal is a meal is a meal whether it’s June or December. One example of this is the widespread conviction that the salad of iceberg lettuce and tomato is an essential food group–year around; another is the notion, encouraged by the California produce marketers, that Five-a-Day even in December everywhere means a banana, an orange, a bunch of grapes and a lettuce and tomato salad, rather than, for example, an Indian stew containing five winter vegetables in a single dish.

CSAs, of course, are marvelous educational devices. Faced with unfamiliar early spring and late fall vegetables, people learn to change their diets with the seasons. But everyone can’t join a CSA so we’ll have to educate lots of people, among others, food writers, who all too often feature recipes that have nothing to do with what’s seasonally available.

I am heartened by the thousands, literally thousands, of efforts around the country, some of them yours, to connect schools and farms and chefs and farms and consumers and farms. I am chair of the board of a group in New York City called Just Food which has helped start 19 CSAs. Using the new census figures and estimates of the number of people our CSAs feed, I calculated that we are feeding one out of every 2000 New Yorkers. That’s fabulous, and a beginning. But small.
The overwhelming majority of people are still choosing their foods, mindlessly, from the global supermarket that the rest of the world provides for us, choosing what they eat for price, taste and variety – with an emphasis on variety and price – good taste being represented by what they’re used to – heavily dosed with sugar and salt. It won’t be enough to convince people to shop at farmers’ markets in the summer, helpful as those are. We need people to shop mindfully year round, seeking out seasonal local produce even in the winter.

We have lots of work to do. We need to talk seriously about just what we mean by local–how local? I think grains and beans might reasonably be shipped, for reasons that I explain in my book. And I see no reason why people who live in colder climates can’t sometimes have oranges. Spices which are light, and of high value, should surely be shared around the world. But produce is, overall, about 90% water. To use a statistic I repeat in my book, it costs 435 fossil fuel calories to fly a 5-calorie strawberry from California to New York, so we are warming the planet shipping cold water around the world. Yet a strawberry researcher in New York told me that we could have a much longer run of local strawberries in the east if there were rewards for breeding them; and they would be grown there if California produce didn’t arrive so cheaply in our markets. So produce should be largely local.

Moreover, exporting what we import is insane. Britain in 1998 imported 240,000 tons of beef and exported 195,000 tons. Foot and mouth disease is normally a mild illness in animals and harmless to humans, but because cattle with foot and mouth disease couldn’t be exported, Britain slaughtered tens of thousands of animals. If the British had been allowed to eat British beef, these animals would not have had to die. Foot and mouth is an economic disease. My favorite economist, Herman Daly, noting that we in the US both imported and exported Danish Butter cookies, suggested that we might better exchange recipes.

Once after I spoke about the problems of global agriculture, someone came up and said skeptically, ‘Do you really imagine there’ll be a time when cities will be surrounded by farms producing much of their food?’ I don’t know. I surely can’t imagine how we’re going to get to such a place from where we are now, but I know one thing for sure – what’s out there now isn’t going to last because the planet is already showing signs of a terminal illness. The simple fact is that a global food system isn’t sustainable; we might, just might, be able to make local ones that are. As someone concerned with food, I can’t now imagine any other way to live.

Let me end by citing a comment from someone I have only lately learned to admire, the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, who is currently campaigning against nuclear arms and large dams in her native India. This is what she said: ‘When you go to Europe or America for the first time, you arrive in a city where you don’t see any mud, and everything looks really nice, all the cars and the steel and the glass. But I look at a car and I think ‘somehow this came from earth and water and forest.’ How? I don’t know. But you need to know–you need to know what the connection is; who paid the price of what.’

That’s exactly what I would say about the foods we eat. We need to remember that somehow they came ‘from earth and water and forest, and we need to know how, and who paid the price.’ We need to know what the connections are, and then we need to use our power as eaters to demand delicious food produced by local food systems that are economically sound, ecologically sustainable and socially just.

Joan Dye Gussow Ed.D. is Mary Swartz Rose Professor Emerita at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the recent bestseller This Organic Life.

Photo: Joan Dye Gussow

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