LAKE MACBRIDE— During the late 1990s I worked on a logistics project in Ochlocknee, Ga. for four months. I don’t remember much about the town, except it was a poor place, with a per capita income of $10,112. When I encountered locals outside the job site, the conversation was a mix of complaining, gossiping and harshness. The place and its people defined hard-scrabble.
The project was located at the largest employer in the area, which was and is involved in mining and processing minerals for a variety of consumer applications. No local ever complained to me about the mines. The rest of the economy was agricultural: peanuts, cotton and pecans. It was a common practice to let cattle roam without fences, and we frequently had to stop the car on Main Street to let them cross. I decided to stay in the nearby county seat at a motel with cable television— a needed escape after working 14 hour days.
TV Food Network, as it was known, occupied my non-working time, and I developed an insatiable curiosity about food and its preparation. Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Julia Child and others prepared food on screen, and I was captivated, watching episode after episode on Georgia weekends. Food is a common denominator for humanity, and I couldn’t get enough. My involvement in the local food movement today has its origins in the contrast between that uninviting place in South Georgia and my food escape.
There is a broader point to be made than one person’s transient addiction to a television network while away from home. It is that American food pursuits, and the economy around them, continue to be based partly upon curiosity.
I discovered a confection made of dark chocolate, quinoa, blueberries and agave syrup. Why would any informed person want that, given the problems?
Maybe blueberries could be cut some slack, but cocoa production is a fragile and labor intensive operation. The growing demand for cocoa products is leading to deforestation and its negative impact on the environment. Consumer demand for quinoa has elevated prices so that indigenous people in Peru, who used it as a staple food, now can’t afford it. Agave syrup has 50 percent more calories per tablespoon than refined sugar, and like sugar and corn syrup, is a highly processed food. According to WebMD, “the American Diabetes Association lists agave along with other sweeteners (table sugar, honey, brown sugar, molasses, fructose, maple sugar, and confectioner’s sugar) that should be limited in diabetic diets.”
The answer to the question is people like chocolate and are curious about food.
It seems clear that American curiosity about food and food preparation drives what we find in stores. It is a commonplace that corn syrup can be found in every aisle of a traditional mega mart, but it is the endless combinations of diverse ingredients that attract our attention then get us to buy.
By developing and marketing new things— quinoa mixed with chocolate or chicken, troll or pole and line caught tuna, gluten and GMO free products, and a host of others— purveyors of the consumer economy seek to engage us through the current sales cycle. I suspect we will stop buying at some point, returning to staple foods, or moving on to what the food marketers deem next.
In a free society, people should be able to do what they want with only minimal restrictions to protect the commons. In our consumer society, that is a joke. For a local food system to be sustainable beyond the initial curiosity of trying it out, something fundamental must change. It is a need— perceived or real— to change from the act of consuming to the act of production. That involves a lot of hard work, and I’m not sure it could be done in the current society.
If we are serious about sustainability and local food systems, we must get beyond curiosity, and distraction from the challenges of a turbulent world. We must get to the production of things that matter in our lives on the prairie.