Monday, March 26, 2012

Local Eating Elitist? Hardly

People make me think. On the one hand, I hate having my ideas challenged, because I hate feeling like I have to defend myself, but on the other hand, when it happens (and it's more often than one would think), it gives me the opportunity to take a very close look at what I have said or what I'm doing and decide, for certain, if it's true for me.

The question I was left pondering recently has to do with the local foods movement and whether or not this lifestyle choice is elitist, as has been asserted on more than one occasion by more than one person. In fact, there's been quite the negative stirrings around the practice.

The complaint regarding the local foods movement has to do with cost and availability of local food, and the supposition is that local food is more costly than imported food, which means that the average poor person can't afford the more expensive local food.

What I found interesting, though, about the above referenced article is the map developed by Department of Agriculture, that shows the value of agricultural products sold directly to consumers. Maine has a lot of dots, which means that there are a lot of foods, here in Maine, that are grown here in Maine and consumed here in Maine.

I guess I find it kind of funny or ironic or just plain unlikely that any elitist movement could take such a strong hold in a State that is in the bottom third for income levels in the US. In a 2009 survey of the biggest welfare States, Maine was #2 with 2.37% of the population (or 31,148 people) receiving some sort of public assistance, which costs our State $61.73 million per year. The unemployment rate that year was 8.3%. An estimated 12% of Maine's citizens live below the poverty level.

Maine is a very poor State. We have a higher-than-average percentage of our population on assistance programs, and yet, we've found ourselves in the forefront of the Local Foods Movement.

Which leaves me wondering how one can claim that it's an elitist movement.

I guess what bothers me most about the whole elitist argument is the assumption that food must be bought, and I think what has given the locavore movement such a strong hold here in Maine is that most of us, Maine locavores, do not believe that our local food must be purchased.

In the 1990s the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR, a.k.a. Russia) crumpled under a mountain of bad policies and inescapable debt. The dozens of countries that made up the former USSR were left to fend for themselves, and the USSR retreated to its former landholdings and became, once again, "Russia." Initially, the biggest concern was with regard to food security, and if one talks to anyone who lived there during that time, there will be stories of widespread food shortages and bread lines to rival those of the 1930s Depression-Era US. What surprises many people is that the hunger issue wasn't more widespread, and it wasn't more widespread, because people ate what was locally available - most of the time from their own gardens. They embraced "local foods", not intentionally, but out of necessity, because their only other choice was to starve.

When I talk about eating local, it is with the same goal - to encourage people to eat what's available in their local food shed, and the menu is not going to be the same for every person. It's not that I think local food is healthier (although, overall, I do believe it is), or because I want to support local farmers (although, that's true), or because I think we all need to reduce our carbon footprints (although, that is also true), but rather, at the very bottom of all of the rhetoric regarding the American diet is the simple concern that our days of being able to afford to import food to Maine from across the continent and around the world are waning.

We're getting poorer - not just in Maine, but worldwide-, and while the whole idea of making dietary choices based on some morally-superior ideology is pretty elitist, the practice of eating local food, especially during hard times is not.

The fact that I'm being accused of being "elitist", because I promote the idea of growing one's food and/or sourcing it from local farmers is kind of funny to me, because it's such a bass-ackwards way of veiwing things. In very poor countries, store-bought food is an elitist practice. Eating from one's home garden is what poor people do.

During the 1930s, the people who were most successful were those who had a little plot of land with a garden. They may not have had money to buy things, but they, at least, ate.

And, for me, that's the bottom line when it comes to why I have chosen to feed my family foods that grow in our local environment.

We're at the end of the Age of Cheap Energy. We've used up more than half of the world's oil supplies, and while there are a few decades left of oil still in the ground, getting that oil is becoming more difficult and more costly.

As the price of oil increases (it's at $107/barrel today), so too will the cost everything that we transport using that fuel - including food. Some people accuse me of having an elitist attitude about my food choices. I say that in the not-too-distant future, eating local will no longer be a movement, but rather the way we do things around here - if not by choice, by the fact that we can't afford to buy Hostess Twinkies any more.

There are other reasons related to food security that have prompted me to focus on sourcing local food. One has to do with availability. In 2008, the world wheat crop was devastated due to unsetttled weather patterns, drought in the Middle East and flooding in the Mid-West. The price of flour doubled that year. The price of flour has, since, decreased a little, but it never went back down to it's pre-2008 price.

If I'm dependent on most of my food to be imported from around the country and/or the world, then I am prey to things like weather and war over which I have no control.

By contrast, if my diet consists, mostly, of foods that I can grow or source locally, I can adjust for seasonal anomalies (like the very wacky maple syrup season) that make some foods more prolific than others. For instance, two years ago, because of a late frost the apple season suffered, but that same year, the berry season was awesome. Because I eat locally, I knew I could eat more berries, and I knew that I needed to be sure to get what apples I could find while they were available and store them.

... And that's the other thing. If my diet is local, it's also in season, so by the very nature of what's available, my body is also getting what it needs to survive in this climate. In his very dense tome, Healing With Whole Foods, Paul Pitchford explains that our bodies need different types of food at different times of the year. In the summer, we need cooling foods (like leafy greens and raw fruits and vegetables), and in the winter, we need warming foods (like root vegetables and dried fruits and nuts). It seems intuitive, but the availability of whatever we want whenever we want it has made us insensitive to what our bodies are craving. Eating seasonally gives me these things, because there are no leafy greens in the winter, and most of the roots aren't edible in the summer as they're preparing for fall's crop.

It may be true that there are people who don't really understand my motivation behind the local food movement, and frankly, when they can get a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese for $0.33 a box at Wal-Mart or California strawberries in December for $2.50 a quart at Hannaford, don't understand why I would discourage them buying either of those items and suggest instead purchasing the 5# bag of Maine potatoes or the 3# bag of soft, mealy-tasting Ricker Hill Orchard apples.

But that's exactly what I do, and will continue to do, even in the midst of accusations that I'm being elitist, because the reality is that strawberries from California may not be available this year, peaches from Georgia may be scarce or very expensive, and peanut butter may be a luxury item.

We can't continue to depend on farmers thousands of miles away from us to feed us, but we can depend on ourselves. Maine farmers and fishermen can feed 40% of the population here in Maine without any imports or any help. If the rest of us had a small garden and, perhaps, some livestock, the whole State could be thriving on what grows, right here, where we live.

For me, the local food movement is about empowerment and the sense of security that comes from knowing that no matter what happens in the world at large, I can still feed my family on what will grow where we are.


  1. Weird. I mean farmers' markets in NYC accept EBT/Food Stamps and have for quite a few years. That doesn't seem very elitist to me.

  2. Brilliant, Wendy! I will be directing my FB friends to this post :)

  3. I won't belabor the point, but the site you pointed to is not one I would consider a reliable source for just about anything.

    To me, it's just smart to support local business, and farms are businesses. It doesn't have to be morally superior, or "green," or whatever excuse detractors try to make up to oppose it — it just has to be smart to support nearby suppliers so they'll be there when you need them.

  4. My teenager is living with her father in Nevada and the entire sophomore class has to write a report about where food comes from. They recently watched "Food, Inc." but my teenager doesn't seem to have gotten the message. Rather than actually price out local food she just began arguing with me, and her teacher and the other students that "factories" are the only way we can feed everyone. I challenged her to prove that but of course she can't. She angered me and herself in the process.

    Basically what I'm saying is, if it's Elitist to eat carrots I grew myself well then call me "Rockefeller".

  5. Divide them and you'll rule them.

    "if it's Elitist to eat carrots I grew myself well then call me "Rockefeller"". nice one Lace