Local, organic, sustainable, or ????

by Caroline Brown

What would the lead-up to Thanksgiving be like without an appeal from Earth Friendly Gardening to eat locally produced food? Why, it probably wouldn’t feel like Thanksgiving at all! So I’ll draw your attention to an article published in yesterday’s New York Times.

Kim Severson writes about how the increase in the popularity of organic food and the recent e.coli outbreak in leafy greens has increased consumer awareness of local foods:

When it turned out that several organic brands of bagged spinach, including the popular Earthbound Farms label, were part of the E. coli recall, many consumers had a rude awakening. Although no connection has been made between the outbreak and a specific brand of organic spinach, many people were surprised to learn that Earthbound Farms, a company that began as a small grower of organic produce in Carmel Valley in 1984, had become part of a conglomerate of 185 different growers. The company is now owned by Natural Selection Foods, which operates about 24,000 certified organic acres in the United States, Mexico and New Zealand.

The idea that organic implied safer was shattered for some consumers. Food grown locally and sustainably suddenly became part of the conversation at the grocery store.

“What we know is that as organic becomes more mainstream, it becomes more diluted in meaning,” said Laurie Demeritt, president of the Hartman Group, a market research company in Bellevue, Wash., specializing in health and nutrition.

Severnson describes how a particular Oregon consumer decided to eat local produce was driven by the recent e.coli outbreak, and suggests that eating local food is becoming  <gasp!> a national trend:

Ms. Steineger’s reach for food grown on smaller farms close to home is part of a larger trend that food industry analysts say is gaining ground among consumers who are willing to pay a little more for quality food. As a result, people who grow food on small farms or make artisanal cheese or other foods on a more regional scale are finding new eaters.

Local food producers are taking a new marketing approach to these consumers, embracing their small size rather than trying to sell in large, generic outlets:

They are also forgoing traditional sales methods and marketing approaches. Instead of trying to break into large distribution chains and fighting for shelf space, they are finding that smaller is better, particularly if there is a good back story. Produce from an upstate New York farm, for example, reinvigorated the image of Great Performances, a Manhattan catering company, earlier this year. In California, a family that makes olive oil dropped out of many mainstream grocery stores in favor of farmers’ markets and Internet sales.

Severson says that a small percentage of consumers actually prefers local non-organic organic over non-local organic foods.

For food evangelists — consumers who might shop at a co-op or who can explain terms like eco-gastronomy, food miles and the food shed — a local label is sometimes more important than an organic one. That group, which market researchers say make up about 10 to 15 percent of food shoppers, are most likely to spend time in the store pondering whether an organic pepper from Chile is better than one grown in a nonorganic field less than 250 miles away.

My feeling on this is that the most important thing is to know who you’re buying food from and feel comfortable that it’s produced in a healthy and sustainable way. That’s easier to do when the food producer is small and/or local, because you can simply ask them. Even if you end up buying a non-local brand of organic olive oil instead of relying on a local supplier (because for example, you live in New England where there’s no such thing as local olive oil), you can feel good about the way that it’s produced.

The problem with this approach has to do with transporting the food, because global food shipment contributes to the global climate change, etc., but I don’t have an answer for that problem. (Any ideas, feel free to share!)

Another problem with eating local/organic is summarized by the description of an owner of a restaurant chain that serves local and organic food. Here he describes his target customer:

“I like to call them the Whole Foods moms,” said Dan McGowan, president of Big Bowl, a small chain of casual Chinese and Thai food restaurants owned by the Chicago restaurant company Lettuce Entertain You. “There’s a core of people now who don’t mind paying an extra quarter or 75 cents if they know it’s natural or organic or it’s supporting a local person.”

What about the “Latino Market moms” or the “Southside Grocery moms?” Underprivileged people sorta get left out of the equation.  (Again, any ideas, feel free to share so long as they don’t include the words Wal and Mart. I’m looking for sustainable solutions here.)

If you’re still reading, I’d like to challenge you to try and make your Thanksgiving dinner a local meal. Try to get as many of the ingredients as you can from local suppliers…say within 100 miles of where you live. You might not be able to get everything you want but it’s worth a try. I’m going to try it….I make no promises but I’m going to give it a shot and I’ll blog it to let you know how it goes.

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7 Responses to “Local, organic, sustainable, or ????”

  1. Great Story on so many different levels! I’m glad to see that people are starting to recognize that locally-grown products are better.

  2. Interesting article C, thanks for sharing.

    Happy (US) Thanksgiving to you and Curt. Headbonks to the Kitties Three! 🙂

  3. Caroline: Northwest RI is home to at least two local vegetable producers, both with retail locations on Route 116 in N. Scituate. One is Blanchard’s Farm and the other is Moosup River Farms. I have not yet been to the Moosup River Farm retail stand but have bought produce from them, in season, at their farm. I would think that you can get butternut squash, rutabaga and other vegetables from them. I applaud your efforts to bring us all closer to our food sources!

  4. HI Ginger, thanks for letting me know about these two farms. I’m not familiar with Blanchards but I have hear of Moosup R. Also the Hope St. Farmers Market is not closed until the end of this month! So between all these options, I hope I’ll be able to find enough local vegetables for Thanksgiving!!

  5. are most likely to spend time in the store pondering whether an organic pepper from Chile is better than one grown in a nonorganic field less than 250 miles away

    I’m that sort of shopper – and when I find myself in this quandary, standing in the grocery store trying to create some spontaneous measuring system of what is healthiest and leaves the smallest footprint and gives back the most to farmers (etcetera, ad nauseam), I often have to resign myself to going with what looks freshest between the two, because it’s really a challenge to decide what’s the best choice all around, and it’s not always possible to find “local-organic.” Sometimes something labeled “local” here in Pennsylvania has a “Green House Grown in Canada” sticker. Canada’s close… but not so close as the farm up the road to be called local.

    The best *sustainable* solution I can think of is available to people at all levels of income – gardens. Back yard (or front yard) gardens, neighborhood gardens, and community gardens are the perfect way to know just what goes into the plants (or animals) that yield our foods. Community gardens allow many people of limited income to work together to produce for the many. (The only drawback may be thievery, but one would hope that it went to someone who needed it, and that it’s not a common occurrence: P-Patch farmers in a pickle over disappearing produce, By Jack Broom, Seattle Times http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/texis.cgi/web/vortex/display?slug=ppatch20&date=20061020).

    Unfortunately (or fortunately) community/neighborhood/backyard are not always ideal because they require work – instead of 15 minutes in the grocery store, you spend regular hours in your yard (or at the community vegetable patch) tending the plants, cultivating the harvest. I don’t think it’s just a matter of laziness, but more a matter of practicality for many. People work hard to make ends meet, and the prospect of taking precious time out of the day to tend a vegetable patch may seem impossible compared with the convenience of the grocery store.

    Still, this is the approach that I believe is sustainable, practical, affordable, local, and goes beyond just feeding the mouths of the people – but feeling the spirits of the people and their community as well.

  6. Hello, Your site is great. Regards, Valintino Guxxi

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