In fact, the word “local,” Farmer Lee continued, is the most bastardized term being used (misused!) since the word “organic.” Why? Because “local” is being defined as if it automatically equaled “great”—and that simply isn’t true. Plus, “local” doesn’t always even mean that the food is being grown locally!
To illustrate these points, Lee shared a story of when a customer from upstate New York told him how he could no longer buy product from The Chef’s Garden. He needed to buy locally, the customer told him—defining the term geographically—or lose his job. So, of course Lee told him to protect his job and, when Lee was in New York, he went to visit him.
During this visit, the man told Lee how the product in his cooler was all from his “local purveyor,” which immediately set up red flags for Lee. Big red flags. And, upon a quick inspection, Lee discovered how the haricot verts were actually grown in Guatemala, the cherry tomatoes were from New Zealand, and the fruit was from somewhere else entirely.
In reality, Lee shares, “He’d actually expanded his carbon footprint by three thousand times.”
Think about that. He’d expanded his carbon footprint by three thousand times, even though the restaurant surely had had the very best of intentions when “buying locally.”
You can hear more of Lee’s thoughts on the subject in this video clip:
Now, for argument’s sake, let’s say that Lee’s anecdote—although compelling—is, well, just anecdotal. What about the facts?
Fortunately, we’ll be sharing hard data from a scientific study later in this post. First, though, for context, we’ll share definitions of the buy local food movement to show how a very well-intentioned movement has gotten off track.
Then, we’ll bring Catherine Golding into the conversation. Catherine is the North America Business Development Manager of Meat & Livestock Australia, and she served as moderator for the local food panel at Roots 2018: Cultivate. Catherine will share data that is turning beliefs about food transportation and carbon footprints from food production and distribution upside down.
Eat Local Food Movement: Definition and Purpose
EdibleCommunities.com is willing to tackle the elephant in the room, as well, admitting that there isn’t a universally agreed upon definition of what eating local food even means. Some “locavores,” they say, “might argue the magic number is 100 miles,” defining the distance between where food is produced and where it’s consumed.
Or, the post continues, you could look at the 2008 Food and Farm Act that allows products that travel less than 400 miles from their original point of origin or were produced in the same state where they’re sold to be called “locally or regionally produced.” Yet other consumers consider local foods to be those “grown within a certain region, generally reasonably close to the place they identify as home.”
(If, by the way, you want to see how far astray the definition of local can become, we invite you to read At Tampa Bay farm-to-table restaurants, you’re being fed fiction.)
Other definitions that EdibleCommunities.com offer for consideration include those that dovetail remarkably well with what we discussed in our Roots panel. They include focusing on:
how the food is grown
traceability of the food’s source
humane, sustainable production
integrity of the food
“knowing and supporting the people and businesses that have a hand in bringing food to their table”
fresh produce that’s not diminished in quality by transportation or long-term storage
providing innovative, creative solutions to today’s food system challenges, including “finding new ways to produce new products from what might otherwise be considered waste” (here’s just a little bit about what The Chef’s Garden and the Culinary Vegetable Institute are doing to reduce food waste)
Yes, the definitions included in the bulleted list are remarkably like the conclusions arrived at during the Roots panel—and, to us, that’s a good thing. A very good thing. That’s because we want to take the focus off the artificial boundaries of geographic miles of transportation and put that focus on what really matters—and, the more people chiming in with that focus, the better.
In comparison, here are the high-level points we made when describing what to expect during our Roots panel—and that’s to focus on:
food traceability and transparency
how and where food is produced
how ethically it’s produced
how environmentally sustainable the food production is
quality, quality, quality
“I’m certainly not opposed to people buying local,” Lee says, “and I truly do believe that this movement started out with great intentions and got an important conversation started. But, here’s the issue. People involved in the movement didn’t necessarily consider the farmer’s perspective.
“Think about it. Most farms are in rural areas. The Chef’s Garden, for example, is located in a town of 7,000 people next to a village of 1,300 people. From the farm’s perspective, that’s not enough customers to serve for us to stay in business. Meanwhile, people who live in large urban areas aren’t next to farms. So, if they bought local, what would they buy? They’d miss out on our crops, grown in the some of the world’s most prime farmland, one with lake bottom soil.”
Lee continues with this train of thought. “Small farms provide food for less than 5 percent of total consumption so, if people only ate local food, for many of us, the food wouldn’t meet quality standards, and that just doesn’t make sense.”
What really matters is that the focus is on sustainability, which includes being:
Now, here’s the scientific data that shows how carefully choosing who produces your food is in fact much more sustainable that choosing food by distance in miles.
Data Shared by Catherine Golding
Shortly before Roots 2018, we published an interview with Catherine where she summarized conclusions from scientists from The University of Toowoomba, The University of Arkansas and the Queensland University of Technology.
Transport, Catherine shared with us and then with our Roots audience, “isn’t really the biggest contributor to the carbon footprint, energy or water use in the product’s lifecycle. The majority of this activity [more than 95 percent] takes place on the farms and processing plants before the product even gets on a truck or in a boat.”
More than 95 percent.
Taking a Step Back
Now let’s think about what early adopters of the local food movement had in mind when promoting their cause. They wanted environmentally sustainable food, a cause we fully support—and, in fact, fiercely promote ourselves.
And, what this study confirms is that to focus on environmentally sustainable food, it’s crucial to carefully analyze what’s happening on farms and ranches.
What this tells us is that, by focusing on growing quality produce through sustainable farming techniques—a philosophy that’s at the very heart and soul of what we do at The Chef’s Garden and at the Culinary Vegetable Institute—we can achieve the goals of the buy local food movement wherever we’re located geographically.
“At any one time,” Lee shares, “two thirds of our acreage are fallow. We plant cover crops like clover, buckwheat and barley to capture the sun’s energy and rebuild the soil naturally, rather than chemically. We grow our vegetables slowly and gently in full accord with nature.”
And that, my friends, is sustainable farming.
To continue this discussion, we’re now going to quote from an interview we did with Catherine before the Roots culinary conference began. The quote will be in italics.
“In short,” Catherine explains, “environmental sustainability isn’t really about the ‘where’ your food is coming from – but ‘how’ it is being produced. Food miles are simply not the silver bullet indicator of environmental friendliness.”
Questions that chefs who want to be part of the buy local movement, then, should ask are:
Whom are you purchasing the food from?
How is it being produced?
Does this production fit within ethical/sustainable production guidelines?
Is the food good quality?
Does the food satisfy your diners in terms of quality and flavor?
Notice that these questions don’t ever ask “where” the food is being produced, only how.
“You need to tick off every item on this list,” Catherine concludes, “and they all need to mesh together.”
Disconnect from Food Production: What on Earth Happened?
In our Roots panel, we talked a lot about how to get the message out about what’s really important—sustainable production of quality food—and this challenge is clearly bigger than it would have been a few generations ago. Why? Because we’re less connected to food production today than when people typically produced at least some of their own food.
As Lee shared in a post from 2017, he believes this disconnect really began to gain momentum during World War II, a time when women helped with the war effort. This left them less time to prepare meals, and so convenience in food preparation naturally appealed to them. That made perfect sense, a reaction to a challenging time in history. Over the next few decades, though, the swing toward increased convenience continued to grow, especially when more and more families had two working parents—with the result being the era of the frozen pot pie.
You know the era, you know the kind: half-frozen-in-the-middle with the gummy crust, MSG-laden gravy, mystery meat and questionable vegetables served in a foil tin.
“The pendulum swung,” Lee says, “from my grandmother’s generation’s focus on quality food, and the family breaking bread together, to the next generation’s focus on convenience. And, as can happen, the pendulum simply swung too far.”
So, now what? According to a study from 2011, people really do want farmers and ranchers to provide healthy choices for their tables. In fact, 79 percent of people in the study said this focus is very important for farmers and ranchers to consider. But, in that same study, 72 percent of participants admit that they “know nothing or very little about farming or ranching.”
This is the disconnect in a nutshell.
“Fortunately, though,” Lee shares, “reconnection is happening. Diners and consumers have become more interested in where ingredients come from and more savvy about answers they’re being given. There are more farm markets today in the United States than ever before, and there is more seed being sold than ever before. People are saying, ‘Wait a minute. My food came from where?’ and they want to know the real answer.”
An important part of our job, we believe, is to keep the conversation going.
Wisdom from Bob Jones, Sr.
“None of us,” he often says, “is as smart as all of us.”
Yes, he often has a twinkle in his eye when he says that—but, he means it. And, more importantly, he’s right.
None of us is as smart as all of us.
So, through conferences like Roots and by empowering restaurant teams to educate diners through storytelling, we can share our collective wisdom, spreading the good word.
Here’s how Chicago chef Daniel Huebschmann of Gibson’s Restaurant Group is putting that wisdom-sharing into practice. He knew that, to capture the attention of Millennial diners, his 30-year-old steakhouses needed to provide what these customers wanted—which is steak from free-range cattle that weren’t fed antibiotics or hormones. Yet, he also needed to provide them with the quality and flavor they rightfully demanded.
His solution, ultimately, was to switch from corn-fed cattle to begin serving his diners grass-fed beef from Australia, and then he needed to market that change, talk about it, get people excited about it, and tag it on the menus. This involved having conversations with customers about the change and why it was made, letting them know how Gibsons was able to provide quality and flavor by choosing sustainably-ranched, grass-fed Australian cattle.
Catherine and Dan then discussed Meat Standards Australia (MSA), with fifth-generation rancher Matt Pearce joining in by Skype from Australia. Because grass-fed beef doesn’t have the marbling that diners in the United States are used to, the trio discussed, they needed to develop their own MSA standards.
MSA grading ranks beef (and lamb) from 1 to 100 and the rankings are intended to let ranchers know how well they’re doing, to allow them to use this feedback to raise the best product possible. And, programs and rating scales like these can serve as talking points to facilitate conversations with consumers.
Quality, Dan reminds us, trumps everything. It’s about what the customer tastes. But he also brings up the point that telling stories to customers about the carbon footprint of the food on the menu can make a big difference. Yes, you need food that tastes good, but it will taste that much better when customers know where it came from and the positive impact that nurturing can have on the environment and our health alike.
Final Thoughts by Farmer Lee Jones
“I believe we should take the best of the buy local food movement,” Lee shares, “that of choosing the source of your food carefully, and then build partnerships with like-minded people with similar philosophies about food. At The Chef’s Garden, we grow vegetables slowly and gently in full accord with nature. We wholeheartedly believe in that philosophy. We grow in harmony with Mother Nature, never trying to outsmart her.”
And, fortunately, we have chefs who have allowed us to defy traditional distribution and go direct. Think about it. Let’s say there are cucumbers that are grown in Mexico and then shipped across the border to, say, California. They’re packed there, and then labeled with “Packed in the USA.” That’s pretty misleading—and then let’s say that the cucumbers are shipping to Chicago or New York.
By this time, seven to ten days have passed since they were shipped from Mexico. They now sit in a cooler, maybe for another ten days, as they get distributed from that cooler in Chicago or New York. Then another truck load comes in and the process repeats.
“The energy consumed in this process is wasteful,” Lee says, “and the integrity of the product is compromised. Food is wasted, too, and the flavor and nutrition of the product decreases.”
Now, compare that to what happens at The Chef’s Garden. We don’t harvest until a chef places an order. Then we wash and clean it according our strict food safety standards, pack it ourselves and then ship in out on a truck that was already going in the direction of where our customer is. “It’s like carpooling,” Lee says, “much more efficient. Then, within 24 or 36 hours, the fresh produce is delivered directly to our customers, with no in-between purveyors.
“If you share that philosophy, then we invite you to not limit your food selection by miles, but by the integrity of the products grown and the people who grow them. Yes. Be conscientious about growers. Be conscientious about how plants are sustainably farmed and about how the farmers care for the land and for other people. Be conscientious, yes. And then let’s work together so you can make the best choices possible.”
Finally, here is the entire panel discussion about the locally grown food movement.