“Local” isn’t enough

“Mind the ‘local’ trap,” Branden Born warned. But wait, I thought “local” was good!?! Last Thursday, in the debut talk in a Seattle Arts & Lectures series on the culture and politics of sustenance, Born challenged us to get clear about what we really want from our food system.

He points out that the food industry has been nimble in capturing the words we use to describe what we want our food to be: “natural,” “organic” . . . and, yes, “local.” In the face of this country’s huge losses of agricultural land, rapid urbanization, and corporatization of the food system, we no longer know what our food looks like, where it comes from, or how it actually gets from plot to plate. We don’t know who grows it or who processes it for our consumption. But we have a sneaking feeling that we have put ourselves in the hands of people who just may have interests other than feeding us well! He quotes Wendell Berry, the animating spirit of the lecture series:  as urban dwellers, we now share the fears of “people who understand what it means to be landless.”

When we say we want to eat locally, in Born’s view, we point to a whole range of more fundamental ideas that we value (and he encourages us to discuss values, not scale). Food safety. Food equity. Access to healthy food. Democratization of the food system. Connection to the earth. Given our current urban environment and food supply-chain system, these values are in fact in trouble. But Born points out a range of alternative choices that we can begin to make to create a “new urbanity”around food.

For instance, if we value community engagement over food production efficiency, we might join an urban ag activity like Seattle’s p-patch system.  Go here to see a group working  in the High Point Garden (http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/ppatch/)–one of 75 community gardens in the city. These gardens don’t just provide food and a sense of community for the people who work them; last year, p-patch gardeners donated almost 21,000 lbs. of fresh produce to local food banks and feeding programs. (Full disclosure: I put myself on the waiting list for my neighborhood p-patch last year; I hope to get a plot before I’m too old to work it. I mean, I’d better hurry!)

Or, we might go with urban development that scales up our sense of what urban gardening can be; vertical gardens can cover the side of your house (see http://www.cleanspirited.com/blog/?p=336) or a chunk of a huge multi-story building like Weber Thompson’s Eco-Laboratory (see http://inhabitat.com/files/ecolab-lead01.jpg), designed around a community garden and featuring numerous other “green design” elements–energy systems, ventilation, etc.

Or, we might focus on urban community-development activities. Born described a number of fascinating programs. To offer just one example, the Clean Greens program runs a community garden east of Seattle in Carnation (read: likely to get some actual sun) to grow and deliver “clean, healthy, and fair produce for everyone at affordable prices” (http://www.cleangreensfarm.com/), especially families in need in Seattle’s Central District. They also have a thriving educational program focused on healthy eating habits and food justice.

Eye-opening talk! You can find much more on these topics on Born’s website, http://faculty.washington.edu/bborn/.

Branden Born is a professor in UW’s Dept. of Urban Design and Planning. His talk, “Bringing the Urban Back into the Food System–Questions of Culture & Technology,” was the first in a five-talk series from Seattle Arts & Lectures, “Following Wendell: The Culture & Politics of Sustenance,” http://www.lectures.org/season/sal_u.php?id=298. I’m signed up for the series, so stay tuned for future installments!

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Can that be right?

Tonight I made one of my favorite cheap-and-easy dinners–fettucini with an uncooked sauce made of chunky peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, red pepper flakes, and chives. Mix it up, dump the hot pasta on top and toss. Add a salad of lettuce leaves with vinaigrette. Eat!

Earlier today in a New York Times op-ed piece, I had stumbled upon a startling comparison of the amount of money people in various countries spend on food consumed at home. Americans invest a total of 6.8% of their household spending on this kind of food. Compare this to the figure for Algeria, where they spend 43.8%! Or Morocco, 40.3%; Egypt, 38.3%; Tunisia, 35.8%.

So I went off to the Web to see what I could find out about spending on food in countries that look more like the US. According to Eurostat, in the European Union as a whole, people spend about about 12.7% of their household income on food and non-alcoholic beverages.  But it varied widely from country to country; in Romania the figure was 44.2 %, compared to 9.3% for Luxembourg. So, the richer you are, the smaller the share of your income that you spend on food. But even among the world’s richest countries, nobody spends as little as Americans do.

A few days ago, also in the New York Times, Mark Bittman described our American diet as “unhealthful and unsafe.” You get what you pay for? Well, yes, but that’s not close to all of it.

When I was growing up in a small town in Texas, my family ate well, but plainly, and the atmospherics were that paying too much attention to what was on your plate was . . . unseemly. Effete. More or less in the same category as not knowing how to change a tire. My mother was quick to adopt innovations like canned ham and Potato Buds. We were sturdy people, by God, and we would eat sturdy food, without fuss.

Lately, like many others, I have been discovering the pleasures of the garden, the kitchen, and the table. As I think more about food, I want to prepare it with fresher ingredients, fewer additives, and more humanely produced animal products. I want to buy my food from local producers down the road or across the way. Inevitably, these choices are driving up my food bill. But never, ever will the percentage of money I spend on food reach the stratospheric levels of around 40% of all my expenditures.

Food is the great irreducible. You can put off expenditures on clothes; you can do without a car; you can move in with family or friends. But if you don’t eat, you won’t live. And the picture is fast coming into focus that more and more people around the world are struggling to put food on their tables.

I don’t know how to resolve these conflicts. I can eat lower on the food chain, and be healthier for it. I can seek out organizations devoted to building global food security when I decide how to allocate my giving. But it looks like we are going to have to attack this problem on a much larger, more coordinated scale, and soon. Look for future updates as I dig into what is being done, close to home as well as globally.

(The 2/5/11 New York Times article I began with, “The Kindling of Change” by Charles Blow, pulled together a number of  statistics suggesting the roots of the protests spreading across North Africa and the Middle East. Mark Bittman’s article, “A Food Manifesto for the Future,” appeared Wednesday 2/2 as a kickoff piece for his new column. You can find him at nytimes.com/opinionator.)