Devin Ellsworth

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Silver Bullets and Mantras

Last Fall I attended an event here in Boston called the “Local Food Festival.”  Being the pretentious-grass-fed-organic-sustainable-free-range-local-all-natural-michael-pollan-hipster-snobbish-reusable-grocery-bag-liberal-foodie that I am, I was excited.  The event was held on a beautiful Autumn day by the water.  I had come with expectations of mantras and creeds and unifying messages of hope and practical steps toward more sustainable food systems.  Or maybe I was just looking to affirm what I already believed and feel better than everyone else for knowing it already (Enter the “pretentious” label).

However this festival was nothing like I had imagined.  Instead of an organized machine operating under one cause, it was a chaotic mess of vendors and booths and tents, all peddling their own agenda and trying to fit it under the guise of the event.  Leave it to America, right??  (Enter: hipster).  There were some non-profits, trying to do the right thing.  There were some co-op markets, some farms with CSA’s, some hope.  But the vast majority of it was corporate America trying to be trendy.  Okay maybe not “corporate,” but it was certainly the market trying to respond to the educated (and predominantly white, of course) audience.

After about 30 minutes of perusing the various restaurants and food producers selling their “local” food, I had had enough.  “Good day, sir.  I say good day!”  The experience that put me over the edge was a little old local tortilla shop that scavenged up enough cash to afford a booth, simply to share the product they love with anyone they could.  Or at least that’s the image they’d prefer.

I walked up to this booth because unlike the other vendors, they were giving out free food, and hey, who doesn’t like free food.  I talked with the gentleman who handed me the tortilla wrapped with some delicious goodies in the middle.  He looked at me and said “Hey.”  What a jerk!  No I am kidding, he said, “Hey – you look like someone who likes to eat at Anna’s Taqueria?”  For those of you not in the Boston area, Anna’s is a popular burrito joint with them young people today.  Well upon affirming that I am indeed a poor college-aged kid who looks like he eats a lot of burritos, he said “well you know, Anna’s uses our tortillas exclusively, and we make these in a factory just outside of Boston, as we always have.”  This gentleman then proceeded to hand me a packet of these wonderful tortillas for me to savor at home.  “Yes!”  I thought.  I had come home with a great, local product.

Or so I thought.  Local, yes.  Great?  The question mark means that I questioned it’s greatness.  And I will explain why.  Starting right now.  It is because I looked at the ingredients of these tortillas only to audibly recoil in horror.  A few bystanders stared at me with concerned glares, but I assured them that the gasp was entirely warranted.  “Guar Gum!” I said.  “Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate!”  “Monocalcium phosphate!”  “Water!”  Ok, I guess water is an acceptable ingredient.  But “Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate”?!?!  Let’s break down the word for a second.  Sodium, which we all know is toxic to your entire body.  Acid!  Do I need to explain?  And PYROphosphate?  Burning salty acid is what they should call it.  Yeesh.  I was disgusted, to say the least.  I looked back at the gentleman who handed me the free item, and I THREW IT ON THE GROUUUND.  I told him to go put that garbage in another man’s veins.  I also reminded him that I am not a part of his system.  (If you don’t know what I am referencing go watch this.)

All jokes aside, this led me to an important conclusion.  Mantras when it comes to food are dangerous.  It is ultra-trendy these days to say “I try to eat only local.”  But what that really means is important.  I am not bashing the local food movement at all, not at least its intent.  However, if you live down the road from the Coca-Cola bottling plant, it is conceivable to drink a “local Coke.”  These tortillas, while “local,” were just as processed as any other tortilla you’d find in the store.  Should I be happy that someone in Canton, Mass. made that tortilla?  Does that even make it local?  Where did the guar gum come from??  Unless that wheat was harvested here, the sunflower oil grown and pressed here, and the acid collected from the rain, that tortilla is by no means local.  You have to trace each of the component parts, and I bet when you do you will find that the wheat came from the midwest somewhere and the guar gum from the guar gum forests of candy land.  My point is, eating local makes sense in large part for whole ingredients.  Things like produce, meat, fish, dairy, etc.  But calling any highly processed “food-like substance” (enter Michael Pollan) a “local food” is just a conceit.  And a dangerous one at that.

Eating local is important.  The extent of its importance can be debated, but it is a step in the right direction to attempt to eat more locally.  But while it is important, one thing needs to be remembered – it is not a silver bullet.


Leave a Comment!

You highlight an important shortcoming of the term “local food.” As most “locavores” use it, it means much more than grown or processed in a place that is physically close to the point of purchase. It may mean produced in manner like that of the time when most farmers were family farmers and food couldn’t travel as great a distance to market; a “simpler method” from a perceived “simpler time.” Local may also mean produced in a way that is easier on the local ecosystems or that it is grown by farmers that are close enough to be accessible to the consumer.

There is also no consensus on the distance that food can travel to be considered local. Different standards can include: produced within the state it’s sold or within the country it’s sold, produced within a certain radius which might be measured in miles, or hours traveled by delivery truck, the closest source that is available in the current season, and many more standards.

The main problem, as I see it, is that there is no word that encompasses all that “local” means, at least not in the English language. I think the term “permaculture” comes closest at this point, though it is not nearly as widely known or understood. So, until someone coins such a word, “local” should only be part of the standard used, in combination with terms like “humanely raised,” “free range,” “no pesticides/herbicides used,” “permaculturally grown,” “family farmed,” “USDA organic,” “sustainably grown” and so on.

But really, all these terms are just shortcuts for actually getting to know the practices of a particular grower. That is the only way to truly know if your food meets your standards. And this is where I think the local movement really has power; in connecting people in a meaningful, physical way, to the food they eat, the people that grow it, and the land that produces it.

I write this response shortly before I go to a grocery store that specializes in “local food.” As I peruse the aisles I will keep an eye out for your “corporations in local clothing,” so to speak.

Great post, it has been food for thought, or maybe, as Steven Colbert says, “thought for food.”