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I can vividly recall my sister chasing me around her Boulder apartment with a wheatgrass shot and kale chips one fall afternoon. Since then, I’ve been more or less skeptical regarding the hype surrounding the local food movement—afraid that it was exclusively the domain of tree-hugging granola people.
Now, the following that the locavore movement has gained in this city is nothing to scoff at: On any given day of the week, you are guaranteed to find a Greenmarket going on somewhere in New York City, and today, over 400,000 New Yorkers visit 54 markets on average each week.
For Jenny Wang, a business development intern at the New Amsterdam Market, it’s all about “bringing the vibe back.”
“There used to be a real deficit of local food in Lower Manhattan,” Wang says. “So we’ve been putting together a business plan and conducting surveys to see what people want to see this grow into.”
There seems to be much excitement surrounding local food. By late morning at the New Amsterdam Market, there are families with young kids eating local ice cream, community organizations collecting food scraps, and farmers like Patrick and Theresa, who make First Field ketchup, with tomatoes grown only in New Jersey, peddling their wares.
However, a look around at the prices gives a clear sign of the movement’s limitations. Rachael, who sells First Field ketchup at the market, recognizes that at the moment, local food isn’t as accessible as many would like, despite its popularity among well-to-do demographics. “The price is still a little bit high for some people to wrap their heads around,” she says. “It’s always been about finding the lowest prices, and quality suffers.”
A recent NPR study shows that Americans today are spending nearly twice as much money on processed foods as they did 30 years ago, a fact that hints at the challenges for many of incorporating the lofty ideals of the local food movement into daily life.
“In some ways, it does involve going back, but it is often a privileged white person’s view of what it would mean to go back to the past,” says American Studies professor Rachel Adams, who teaches Food and American Culture at Columbia. “It’s certainly not a way of eating and a way of life that can be practiced by the majority of Americans living in the contemporary world.”
“I think it is wonderful that the Greenmarkets accept food stamps,” Adams explains. “I think it’s wonderful that there are all these programs popping up teaching disadvantaged people how to cook again and to break up the food deserts. At the same time, the local food movement is very closely tied to the slow food movement, often a synonym for prepared from scratch, involving very laborious and time consuming processes that are completely unrealistic for so many families in the country today,” Adams says.
Aside from its feasibility and accessibility, we have to question how practical and sustainable going local is for our country’s food system and the global food system. “Continuing to import food from anywhere is important—there’s a food aspect, and the political aspect—trade in food sustains whole economies in certain places, and there is diversity,” Mitchell Davis, the executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, says. “I don’t think we should import everything, and I think we should try different ways to produce what we can. I don’t think we will ever be satisfied with only things we produce here.”
Citing cheese, olive oil, chocolate, and coffee, Davis notes that, “there are global commodities that can only be grown in certain places, and we’ll continue importing them.” Both he and Adams point out that the situation is different in California, where the climate allows for more variety of local food year-round. But a trip to a New York GreenGrowNYC market at Columbia market in the middle of winter will reveal why we can’t live off local food alone.
Adams agrees, and explains that the “food mile,” which describes the distance food has travelled from producer to consumer, is an inadequate way of measuring the true environmental impact of what you buy. “There are some foods that are so energy intensive to grow in certain environments that it makes much more sense to ship them in bulk by cargo ship, or however you do it, across long distances, because they can be grown or raised in more sustainable ways in environments that are distant,” Adams says.
For Adams, importing food from abroad is simply “a fact of globalization”—and similarly, the locavore’s idea of harkening back to a simpler time when people lived off their land is not entirely accurate, since “people have always eaten foods that come from afar as well as living off of what was available.”
Although locally produced food will remain a minuscule component of an incredibly complex system for at least the near future, the movement has been successful in raising awareness about food production and can be used as a medium to think more globally and engage with our food.
“The farther away we get from where the food is produced, the harder it is to know anything about it,” Davis says. “We need to be importing foods that are held to the same standards—whether it’s labor, whether it’s pesticide use. Just because it comes from somewhere else doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to various aspects of its production.”
“I think one of the reasons people like local food is the idea that they know where it’s from, we can understand how it’s made.”
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