Getting Started on Local Food

Betty's Fresh Produce
Betty’s Fresh Produce

The local food movement is a growing group of individual operators struggling to make a living and an impact in a turbulent world.

It is a nascent system directly tied to our consumer culture, dependent upon disposable income and open mindedness in meeting humankind’s most basic need.

I spent six years in our local food culture and can say food we consume is not all local, and needn’t be. At the same time there are benefits of a local food system beyond better taste, eating fresh, and knowing the farmer who produced the groceries.

In our home fall canning leads to a pantry full of soup, tomatoes, hot peppers, sauerkraut, vinegar, apple sauce, pickles and sundry items from the garden and farm. The freezer gets filled with bell peppers, apples, broccoli and sweet corn. It is food – as local as it gets – driven by what is fresh, abundant and on hand.

Along with home processed goods are bits and pieces from all over the globe, each serving a purpose in our culinary lives. Putting ingredients together in a personalized cuisine is where the local food movement will live or die.

More people seek processed or precooked food because of a perception there is too little time for cooking. If adding kale to a smoothie seems easy, making a stir fry using kale is less so. Contemporary consumers want a quick and easy path to making meals and snacks, and don’t have the patience it requires to add new recipes to their repertoire. Cuisine as an expression of local culture has been tossed out the window by many.

Having worked in the local food system, whether at home, on a farm, or in a retail store, has been an important part of my life since retiring in 2009. It is a way of life to grow food for direct consumption or sales. Local food is also a jumble even if farmers and consumers want it to be more organized and systematic.

One operator runs a community supported agriculture project where members pay in the spring to help avoid a farm loan then share in the luck, good or bad, of the farm. Another sells chits which can be used to buy the face value of any goods at a local outlet framed as a “store.” Another grows specific crops to sell to restaurants, absorbing any financial risk. All of this leads us to a point where an onion isn’t only an onion anymore. And it’s not about the onion but the culture.

If someone could organize a local food system, there may be a living in it. That misses the point. Local food systems are intended to cut out the middlemen in the food supply chain. At the same time, faced with a need for scalability, most operators could potentially use the help of local food brokers.

While some of the figures of a sustainable, local food movement – Alice Waters, Joel Salatin, Fred Kirschenmann, and others – are well known, a sense of coherence or agreement on basic terms seems missing among local producers. It is as if operators would rather work inside the bubble of what works for them personally as long as it does work for them. In a way that is not much different from how corn, soybean, egg and livestock producers view their operations.

Where we go from here is uncertain. Something I hope to discover in the pages of this memoir of my experience in with our food system.