Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day: Poverty and Local Eating

We've not participated in Blog Action Day before -- but this year, when I heard that the subject was going to be poverty, I decided that we might have something to say.

Participating in the Eat Local Challenge has been eye-opening to me in a number of ways. At its root, the point of local eating is to encourage sustainable agriculture by eating things that nearby friends and farmers grow or raise. This reduces the amount of products that need to be shipped halfway across the globe. It supports better air quality and prevents unnecessary pollution. I also think that local eating begets (though it doesn’t guarantee) produce of a better quality. Fruits and vegetables bred to be shipped long distance are genetically tough. Bred to be pretty and resilient, they’re not necessarily the best tasting produce around. But local foods… in the best possible world, they’re superior. Left on the vine until the last possible moment, they offer the highest level of nutrients, the best flavor, and the best guarantee of freshness.

When I think about my own utopian vision, it seems to me that eating locally should actually be part of the SOLUTION when it comes to poverty. A strong local economy should naturally provide affordable options for local citizens, right? ALL parents should have access to affordable, nourishing foods to feed their children. And every citizen should have access to healthful produce. Yes?

Well, as all too many of us know, that’s not always how it works. Farmer's markets, while prevalent and accessible in some communities, are sorely absent in others. Grocery stores in urban areas often fall short when it comes to the distribution of high quality produce. Community supported agriculture programs are often expensive and inaccessible to the families that need them most. In fact, many people have suggested that our emphasis on local (and organic) food is actually a new form of snobbery. A new yuppy trend that offers little to alleviate the world’s larger issues.

It’s true. There are actually some complicated issues surrounding local eating. And one of them is cost. Local eating can be expensive.

Expensive? you say.
Yes, that's exactly what I said. Eating locally can be surprisingly pricey.

There are reasons for this problem. For one, there is often a lack of urban garden space. As suburbanization has forced agriculture further and further away, food sources have moved out of the city. Technically, eating seasonably available local foods should be cheaper than eating food that’s been imported from a greater distance – and this used to be the case. However, in the 20th Century, the rules changed. Transportation became cheaper. The centralization of food manufacturing reduced costs even more. And industrial agriculture all but eliminated the family farm. When the connection disappeared between agricultural producers and the eaters of their foods, there was no infrastructure in place for the distribution of local foods. And that, my friends, was the beginning of the end.

These days, local farmers have to do a lot more of their own work to bring that food to market. Farmers are forced to transport their own agribusiness into the city (to retailers and farmer’s markets) – and that comes with a cost. Transportation isn’t as cheap when you’re operating on a smaller scale. Add to that the rising fuel costs of the 21st Century, and it’s no wonder the cost of a Michigan peach in the Midwest outweighs that of the commercially abundant varieties from Georgia.

So, if local eating isn’t going to solve poverty in the NOW, then why should we pursue it?
My answer is this: While the premise of only eating food produced within 100 miles of one’s home is an interesting and worthwhile endeavor, it is currently impossible for many. And yet, the demand for sustainable agriculture, and the production of nourishing food, is the demand of this century. We need to produce enough food to feed local populations. And, ultimately, we’ll have to focus locally because transportation costs are eventually going to become prohibitive. Therefore, it’s vital that we move in this direction.

On the bright side, organizations like Growing Power in Milwaukee, have made headway in the fight to bring fresh, local foods into urban environments where poverty is an issue. Will Allen pairs education with low-cost farming technologies to produce an earth-shattering amount of food on 2 acres of land -- YEAR ROUND, in Milwaukee, WI. Growing Power also supports other farm project sites in Wisconsin and Illinois. Will's mission is to use creativity to improve the diet and health of the urban poor, and he is living that mission on a daily basis. Will was chosen as a 2008 MacArthur Fellow. As a fellow, he will receive a $500,000 grant to advance his work.

I am privileged to be able to focus my food dollars NOW on creating local, sustainable choices for the future. Shopping locally (at the farmer's market, Outpost Natural Foods, and other local retailers) and supporting the work of Growing Power through their Market Basket program are two concrete ways that we attempt to make a difference. My hope is that the dollars spent now will make it possible for more people to afford the types of food.

We believe that we CAN change the world with our food choices. And we’re hoping you do too.
We’d like to challenge each of you to find out about community programs in your area that support sustainable agriculture, as well as education and accessibility for urban families in your area. Also -- consider a donation of local or regional non-perishable food items to your local food pantry. We’ll be giving our stash to Hunger Task Force here in Milwaukee.

It’s a start!

Check out the other buzz at Blog Action Day 08

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  1. i think i remember reading that local eating also helps by reducing the transportation required to bring food in, which reduces emissions, and helps with the global warming problem.

    for my part, i turn to sites like freerice, kiva, and goodsearch, as ways to help alleviate poverty online.

    saw this post via the front page of blog action day. it's great that you're participating. :)

  2. great article. We all need to eat better. If we pay more for high quality nourishing food we will pay less in health care.

  3. Great post! We try to eat local and support local shops! It is very important!

  4. You are touching on a subject quite dear to my heart. I have sometimes sensed a bit of elitism in the whole locavore movement because it supposes that farmer's markets, farms, and home-grown food are universally available. I live in the suburbs of NYC and I have trouble obtaining local food. Farmer's markets tend to happen at times and places I can't get to them.

    I do spend my weekends in the country with my horses where farms are plentiful, and I'm quite lucky that way, but I'm driving an hour away from home to obtain "local" food. :-D

  5. I think everyone knew about this event but me...where was I?

  6. I'm not a religious guy, but AMEN to that! My friends and I try to eat as local as we can, and love to support farmers markets as best we can. Sometimes it's economical, sometimes it's not, but I think we can make a difference if we stick to it over time. Great post :)

  7. Good for ya'll for doing what's right!

  8. Great blog. I am an advocate of this as well. I studied Population Health and Risk Management and have read numerous books on the topic...although slowly I think we may see more and more local support. Getting more and more blogs out like this will certainly help people think about where their food comes from.

  9. I do live in manhattan and I do shop at the farmers market so I try and do the best I can....


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