by Suzanne Johnson
I'm hungry. It’s 8:30 p.m., and I’ve spent nine hours at work, grabbed lunch at my desk and attended a two-hour workshop. Dinnertime came and went.
Hunger’s a primal need—straight from Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy, right next to water and breathing. I wonder how the famed psychologist would feel about the food options on my route: two supermarkets, six fast-food spots and a half-dozen restaurants, most serving that ubiquitous Southern delicacy, the chicken finger. I suspect Maslow’s mind would boggle. In his day, chickens didn’t have fingers waiting to be battered, fried and dipped in ranch dressing.
A few years ago, after reading Michael Pollan’s groundbreaking The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I vowed to buy organic. Smug and virtuous, I lasted two weeks before my monthly food budget disappeared and I realized my organic grapes had barely survived their journey from Ecuador. It’s hard to feel virtuous when you’re out of money and creating a carbon footprint only King Kong could fill.
Finally, led astray by lower prices and the siren song of a McDonald’s French fry, I left the natural world behind.
Now it’s 2010, and it turns out Pollan was onto something. In the past five years, Americans have made bestsellers of Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and Carlo Petrini and Alice Waters’ Slow Food Nation, just to name a few. The public appetite for information about food—local food, fast food, healthy food—seems insatiable.
The message that we should eat more locally grown fruits, vegetables and meats has resonated with readers struggling with diabetes, food safety, grocery store prices, and environmental concerns. Food is no longer a question of what’s for dinner; it’s a political issue, a “green” cause, a health matter—a movement in every sense of the word.
I’m always willing to jump on a bandwagon, so I set off to explore an aspect of the healthy-food trend known as “eating local.” Because as any eco-zealot will tell you: Local is the new organic.
Local-eating converts call themselves “locavores,” and they’re fervent about eating only food grown within a certain radius of home: 25 miles, 100 miles—pick a number. Before a homegrown advocate coined the term in 2005, “locavore” wasn’t even a word—two years ago, the New Oxford American Dictionary chose the term as its “Word of the Year.”
Local eating is a hot topic, but I could easily get cold feet. Can I do it long-term? And what’s in it for me, anyway?
I trail aimlessly through my supermarket produce aisle. Water mists over delicate green grapes and glossy red peppers, hydrating them to just-picked beauty. Both originated in Chile, where it’s late summer. In Auburn at the very end of winter, my local produce is limited to sweet potatoes with a chaser of turnip greens. The sign says “Product of USA.” That covers a lot of real estate.
I leave the produce behind and snag some frozen-in-the-USA vegetables and boneless chicken breasts—a typical dinner—then round up the manager to ask from whence my chicken came. He stammers as if he suspects it’s a trick question, so I call the manufacturer. I’m passed from operator to employee to PR minion until I finally reach the bottom of the corporate food chain, where an annoyed woman says she has no idea.
Auburn University water-quality researcher Jayme Oates wouldn’t be surprised. She tried the same thing herself once, looking for the source of a supermarket purchase only to be told it was “proprietary.”
She decided to grow her own. I consider the small patch of red clay that passes for my backyard and suspect it wouldn’t sprout a crop of rocks, even if I were so inclined.
Yet it’s hard to talk to Oates without becoming a convert. She’s petite, sports sensible shoes and worries she’ll come across as a tree-hugger. Toy cows and horses stare from the shelves of her office, and I begin to suspect she is a tree-hugger—trees even are knit into her green sweater—but a person who has allowed julienned-and-fried potatoes to lead her down the road to ruin shouldn’t pass judgment.
Oates’ day job aside, her passion lies 10 miles away in rural Notasulga, Ala., where she and partner Justin Taylor are working the land and slowly expanding their biofriendly farm. Oates brings me fresh eggs, brown and speckled, with thick shells and yolks that break a startling shade of yellow compared to their supermarket counterparts.
She and Taylor run their Mahone Creek Farm as a “certified naturally grown” operation, meaning they adhere to organic standards without undergoing the expensive federal designation process. They not only avoid pesticides, but eschew fuel-consuming machinery in favor of old-fashioned helpers: After crops are harvested, rabbits graze the land and fertilize the fields. Later, chickens eat insects and deposit more waste. Finally, cover crops aid in completing the cycle before spring planting begins anew.
Though Oates comes from a multi-generation farm family, she is part of an idealistic new breed of young, environmentally savvy agricultural entrepreneurs, says Mike Reeves, a commercial horticulture expert with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. “In the last few years we’ve seen a lot more interest from people wanting to produce fruits and vegetables for local markets,” he says.
Factors driving the increase include the national economy, individual health concerns and the burgeoning environmental movement, Reeves says—there are a lot of people like me questioning the big-picture cost of buying South American cantaloupe out of season.
Zach Randle fidgets, keeping one eye on the darkening sky. It’s 7 a.m., thunderclouds are gathering, and he has work to do. Like Oates, Randle is a recent college grad from a farming family, but on a larger scale. He and up to 90 employees work 160 acres southeast of Auburn, always with an eye on the environment.
He forgets about the impending storm temporarily, and I can tell we’ve hit on a subject he cares about. “It takes somewhere between 12 and 14 calories of energy to get one calorie of food to the grocery store. That’s just not sustainable—it doesn’t make any sense,” he says.
Locavores most often cite the environmental cost of mass production as the biggest reason to buy food grown close to home; the average food product travels about 1,500 miles between farm and table. With a few mega-farms feeding the masses, my Chilean grapes aren’t that fresh, plus they require a lot of gas to get to my kitchen.
Not so long ago, a footprint was a shallow hole I left in the sand on the beach. These days, it represents how much my lifestyle impacts the environment. An online footprint calculator claims that if everyone lived like me, it would take four planet Earths to sustain us—even though I limit my driving, recycle and have replaced all my light bulbs with energy-savers. A four-planet price tag seems harsh.
Auburn University sustainability chief Lindy Biggs has eliminated the need for both a car and a major appliance: She rides a bike to work and hangs her wash to dry. For Biggs, the local food movement represents one more way individuals can save the world. “It’s all about decreasing the environmental footprint of everything we do,” she says. “From a sustainability standpoint, eating local is better than eating organic, because food that has to travel a long distance has a pretty big footprint.”
A cluster of black cows stares from a green pasture as I drive up the hill to Auburn’s Lambert-Powell Meats Lab. The cows chew placidly, but I avoid eye contact—I’m about to buy beef to grill for dinner. Jayme Oates says seeing the source of our food makes us respect it more. She doesn’t mention guilt.
Eating local might be easier in Auburn, where university-owned farms and academic programs in animal and poultry science translate to campus-grown meat and eggs for sale. Most folks rely on their local farmers market.
A decade ago, only 17 farmers markets existed in Alabama; this summer, there will be at least 110, says Don Wambles of the Alabama Farmers Market Authority. More than 5,000 farmers markets serve customers nationwide, up from 340 in 1970.
“People want to support their local economy,” Wambles says. “And they want to buy food that tastes good as opposed to buying something that looks pretty but doesn’t taste good. Local agriculture is a bright spot in our state’s economy.”
Some farmers are taking other marketing routes. The year he graduated from college, Zach Randle began allowing local consumers to pay an upfront fee—called a “community share”—to his family’s farm in exchange for the promise of produce from future harvests. The Randles use the money to fund their operation, and“shareholders” divide the produce. The business model, known as community-supported agriculture, allows farmers to spread their financial risk among customers. If a late freeze cuts the tomato crop in half, shareholders get fewer tomatoes.
Randle began with 25 shareholders in 2005 and now has a waiting list. “If I let everybody in, we would have hundreds,” he says. “But this old farm can’t feed everybody.”
Should the local-food movement catch on, what happens to the mega-farms? If I’m moving my food dollars around, somebody’s business is bound to suffer.
“That’s the mindset we’ve been brainwashed into thinking,” Randle says. “Some of those huge farms might go out of business, but in the long run having hundreds of acres of any crop is not sustainable. In order to have hundreds of acres of anything, you can’t do it without pesticides and killing everything in the soil to guarantee a crop.”
Though federal and state officials keep tabs on the effects of pesticides on crops, groundwater and soil, Biggs believes mega-farms could be nearing the end of their life cycle.
“Soil is the mother of all things,” she says. “Real soil is a living thing, full of microbes and insects and life. If you go into a field that has been heavily farmed for a long time, there’s no life left. In order to continue growing, the farmer must use more fertilizer and pesticides, which further deplete the soil.”
In California, where mega-farms generate more than half the nation’s food supply, water shortages and pollution threaten farmers’ futures, Biggs adds. In 2007, California became the first state to declare war on widely used fumigants and estimated its strawberry, carrot, tomato and pepper farmers would bear the brunt of the cost—up to $40 million per year—to ensure their operations meet emission targets. Between soil contamination, air pollution and water shortages, what happens when California can no longer feed the nation?
Ashes to ashes, soil to soil. I just want to eat a banana without setting off an agricultural apocalypse.
Finally, I have answered the “what’s in it for me” question. Eating local is good for my health, the environment, the local economy and maybe even my own pocketbook.
But can I do it? Is it realistic for this city dweller, with limited time, space and resources, to become a locavore?
Sadly, I conclude, probably not. But I can do better. Wambles says if you can’t eat local, at least eat American.
I head back to the supermarket, wandering row-by-row through the produce and reading the signs over each bin. Most of the fruit is from South America, but there are a few early strawberries from California, potatoes from Idaho, sweet potatoes from North Carolina and my favorite Fuji apples from Washington. I wonder if my counterpart in North Carolina is pawing through a bin of sweet potatoes from Lee County, Ala., and what Maslow would think of the convoluted food system we’ve created.
For now though, it’s time to eat. I grab a North Carolina sweet potato to go with my Auburn rump roast and head for home.