When a fellow panelist recently characterized the growing interest in local foods as hedonistic elitism, I was a bit taken aback. I'd rejected this charge when I heard it before. But maybe there was something to it.
Perhaps, if one's view of local food is limited to what's offered at Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., or Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., and to the well-heeled patrons who can spend the $150 dinner for two may cost (without cocktails or wine).
To dismiss such establishments as simply pandering to the whims of highbrow taste is to dismiss their vital role in increasing awareness of critical food and agriculture issues among customers who have the resources to cast much-needed votes for a healthier, more sustainable food system. Such settings also provide an increasingly rare transparency about where the food being served came from and how and by whom it was grown.
Blue Hill sets a high standard in this regard. In adjacent pastures, lively chickens that provide eggs and meat on the menu can be seen industriously pecking and scratching. You'd be hard-pressed to find tastier eggs with deeper yellow yolks, or more tender meat.
Greenhouses near the parking lot yield fresh produce savored in the dining room. Customers have unforgettable eating experiences that include learning and tasting how ordinary foods can become something extraordinary.
But local food, and the "locavore" movement, such as the "100-mile Diet" , is about much more than the heirloom tomatoes and tender just-plucked carrots served in white tablecloth restaurants.
It's about transforming and democratizing the food system. It's about increasing access to high-quality, nutrient-rich food and making it available and affordable to all people.
It's about establishing whole food (not Whole Foods) markets in poor inner-city neighborhoods plagued by "food deserts."
It's about keeping more farmers on the land by paying them the real cost of production and about consumers having a stake in the stewardship of productive land. It's about sustainability.
According to the Hartman Group's Pulse Report, "Consumer Understanding of Buying Local," released in February, consumers believe that local products are fresher, have fewer pesticide residues, are of higher quality, and are more authentic. Buying local food is seen as supporting businesses that reflect the values of their community, as "an antidote to commoditization and industrialization" and a way to "protect the local economy and environment."
By providing participants in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program and low-income seniors with vouchers, the Farmers' Market Nutrition Program increases their access to locally produced fruits, vegetables and herbs.
When farmers sell their crops directly to consumers, schools and restaurants, none of the cost is siphoned off by processors, distributors and marketers. An increasing number of farmers markets are equipped with swipe machines for food stamps, affording the poor better access to fresh local farm products.
In reality, elitist is a term more aptly applied to the conventional food system that provides most of America's food and concentrates economic power among an increasingly "select class" (a dictionary definition of elite) of corporations. Just four companies, for example -- Tyson, Cargill, Swift and National Beef Packing -- control more than 80 percent of the beef market.
To keep agriculture subsidies flowing to commodities upon which those and other food system "elites" depend, they exert substantial influence on the political process through hefty campaign contributions and securing key advisory positions in government. That's not the kind of voice enjoyed by the typical WIC mom.
Compared with the subsidies supporting growers of corn, soybeans and a handful of other commodities, governmental support for crops such as fruits and vegetables, for organic production methods and for pasture-based livestock systems, is scant.
So, if you can, support your local farmer, and the chefs that serve her food. And support policies that will make wholesome food available and affordable. Jennifer Wilkins is in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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