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Loco for Locavore: Bashing the Local Food Backlash


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Judging from some recent food journalism, using spurious logic to rationalize the choice not to eat ethically is as easy as slathering a mound of Jif Creamy onto a slice of Wonder Bread.

For example, Portland, Oregon is a great city for green living. Maybe that’s why the Oregonian, our newspaper, recently started a weekly green living column — although with dubious results. The inaugural piece was about how to not feel guilty when you *don’t* buy organic. The gist of the article was that as long as you avoid the “Dirty Dozen” – the twelve foods most contaminated with pesticides — you’re a-okay. As columnist Shelby Wood giddily reported:

With the Dirty Dozen in mind, I paid the $1 premium for organic spinach (No. 11 on the Environmental Working Group’s list) at the grocery last week. But I saved $1 on conventional broccoli (No. 35) and 20 cents a pound on bananas (No. 37). After all, I’ve been eating those for 34 years. And I’m not dead yet.

Great job, Shelby. Perhaps you’d like to celebrate by investing that $1.20 you saved on some low-tar cigarettes.

Personally, I’m thrilled that when I buy organic produce, I’m lowering my exposure to toxic pesticides. But that’s not why I buy organic produce. I buy it because somebody plants, tends, and harvests the crops I eat. Somebody whose potential exposure to toxic chemicals sprayed on those crops is far higher than mine. Somebody whose kid’s potential exposure is also far higher than mine.

In other words: consumers aren’t the only ones in the food chain.

That might seem obvious to anyone who understands that “chain” implies multiple links. But apparently, the Oregonian doesn’t. And it isn’t the only media outlet oblivious to that fact. Which you may have noticed if you’ve been following the spate of articles allegedly exposing the drawbacks of buying locally-raised produce.

I haven’t seen a backlash like this since the last time I watched that scene from The Ten Commandments where Vincent Price as Baka disciplines John Derek as Joshua.

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And we all know how that turned out.

I confess, I grew up eating the same garbage as most Americans (my zayde may have been a Kosher butcher, but by the time I came along, my mother was gleefully unwrapping Kraft singles to put on our family’s processed-ham sandwiches). As an adult, though, I’ve gone from being Cuckoo for Coco-Puffs to being Loco for Locavore. What could be wrong with that?

Plenty, according to a number of news outlets.

Adam Platt, restaurant critic for New York magazine, seems to believe that if we eat local, the terrorists have won. Here’s his description of the increasing emphasis on the benefits of locally-grown food: “the mullahs are out barking the message from every rooftop.”

Homegrown, meet Homeland Security!

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I do have to give Platt kudos for the creative phrasing. How often can you bash an entire religious group and a bunch of concerned food consumers in a single sentence?

Platt’s real beef — or rather, his real lobster, crab, and oysters (a veritable trifecta of treyf) — is that even on his annual summer pilgrimage to a small island in Maine, the quaint, hard-voweled locals were, horror of horrors, eating local. Complaining that the whole charm of Maine “is that it’s irredeemably behind the times,” Platt expresses the misapprehension that the denizens of a fishing community are only just now starting to eat fish, as a result of some pernicious proliferation of mullah-like missionaries extolling eating locally raised foods. Picture New England of yore as Platt imagines it: Ahab lolling about the docks downing Oreos and Triscuits, until he got that goofball white whale notion into his head and took to the high seas.

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Less over-the-top, though perhaps more insidious than Platt’s paean to mass-produced junk food are a series of articles claiming economic and ecological imperatives against eating local. All of which hold together about as well as matzah under a butter knife, once you scrutinize the authors’ assumptions.

According to an article by Tim Harford in Forbes, most food isn’t shipped by air (at least not most food in England, the only country in the research to which the article vaguely alludes). And it doesn’t cost that much to send what does go by air. Ipso Forbeso, there’s no compelling reason to eat local food. As if that weren’t reason enough to order up a gallon of Tibetan yak milk, Harford sternly reminds readers that such locavore approaches as freezing homegrown berries for consumption during winter uses energy.

Of course it does. Although in fact a full freezer keeps food cold with less energy than one that isn’t full. So pardon me while I stuff four more blueberries in the Frigidaire.

Andrew Martin, writing in the New York Times, takes Harford’s hare-brained logic even further. He cites a claim that when mass producers of strawberries ship large quantities of food across the U.S. by freight truck, the fuel cost of transportation per carton must be lower than when an individual farmer delivers a small quantity of strawberries to a local market in a pickup.

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Martin admits that his source for this information may be more riddled with pits than that truckload of berries: “a strawberry distributor did the math on the back of an envelope,” then reported his self-serving conclusions to the person who in turn shared the theory with Martin.

Questionable as the math may be, there are still more reasons to object to Martin’s argument. Anyone who has ever tasted a freshly picked, locally grown strawberry and then one that was mass-produced and trucked a couple thousand miles can easily observe that cost can be measured in more ways than one. Many of us buy (or grow! — the best strawberries I had this year were planted fifty feet away from my kitchen, and the only fuel it took to get them to me came from the rambunctious three year-old neighbor who carried them over, burning only his own berry-begotten energy on the way) local because the food is fresher, tastier, and more nutritious. And because we’re happy to be links in a food chain that supports local businesses and small growers.

If we can expect anyone to be attuned to true costs, shouldn’t it be celebrated Freakonomist (or perhaps Freakonome) Stephen Dubner? But in his recent article about locavores, he dismisses the idea that locally grown food is “more delicious” and “more nutritious” with the observation, “no one person can grow or produce all the things she would like to eat.” True enough, but as my neighbor’s strawberries — not to mention my crisper full of greens fresh from the farmer’s market — prove, you can eat locally without having to yank your inner Gabor out to Green Acres.

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It seems especially freakanomical not to consider local purchasing as a means for acquiring local food. But Dubner has yet another dubious assault to make on locavores. Citing a recently published study that examines the green house gas emissions generated in the commercial raising of red beef, he cites the researchers’ conclusion that reducing red meat consumption can result in greater reductions in green house gases than buying locally.

This may be true — but since when does the efficiency of one environmentalist effort negate the need for any other environmentalist effort? Surely if skipping red meat one or two days a week is good, then buying the food you consume in place of the beef from local sources is even better.

It’s true that eating locally, and seasonally, limits one’s choices in a way that might seem disturbing to a free market freakonomicist. But I’m not sure that it’s really a problem. After I took my first bite of a locally-grown heirloom tomato, I knew I’d never buy another hot-housed raised, out-of-season, shipped in from who’s-knows-where globe of tasteless pinkish-white flesh again. Shouldn’t eating out of season produce always seem as unpalatable as serving your Hannukah latkes with a side of watermelon?

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Let’s hear it for being logical — and locavoracious.

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10 Responses to “Loco for Locavore: Bashing the Local Food Backlash”

  1. Avigail Says:

    Here here! Thanks Lois

  2. Avigail Says:

    or is it hear hear! I supposed I need my English prof to help.

  3. Kim Says:

    Lois the Loco Locavore. My new superhero!

  4. Debra Says:

    Totally agree. Dubner also didn’t seen to really understand what eating local meant. He described going to a local store to buy ingredients to make his own sherbert (the ingredient list including orange food coloring, if I remember correctly), but didn’t say whether the ingredients (milk, oranges etc.) were local, and then he talked about how it would have been cheaper and tastier to buy Haagen-Dazs. But that’s really missing the point!

  5. Mark Hurvitz Says:

    You are *so* good. Thank you for taking the step back and showing the big picture.

    `//rite On!
    ,\\ark Hurvitz

  6. Shelby Wood Says:

    Hi, Lois.
    Thanks for reading my piece in The Oregonian and linking to it, even if you’re not a fan. I didn’t expect everybody to agree with my approach. Nor did I expect several readers, including yourself, it seems, to be so surprised that some people are still trying to navigate a path between all-organic, all the time…and making a few new choices they can incorporate into their budgets without too much pain. I was bummed, really, to hear from a number of folks with your attitude about the $1.20. No, I didn’t buy any cigs with my savings. Yeah, I, personally, can afford the extra 20 cents a pound for organic bananas, and in fact, I’ve started buying them lately. I like local food, too. I choose the Washington apples over the ones from New Zealand, and I’ve stopped buying grapes from Chile. I’m trying, see?
    But in a state with a median household income hovering around $47K (http://www.census.gov/hhes/www.....c/h08.html), it’s a bit out of touch to dismiss financial considerations altogether. That kind of attitude only alienates people who are trying to figure out what it means to live in a more sustainable way — including myself. What’s wrong with starting with the Dirty Dozen?
    Thanks,
    Shelby
    shelbywood@news.oregonian.com

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