Kitchen Garden Writing

Green Washing and a Local Food System

Spring Onions

Wind came up yesterday and would not relent.

I planted onions and cilantro in the garden, transplanted some seedlings to larger pots, but that’s about it. The septic tank service arrived and pumped our solids tank while I trimmed the lilac sprouts from the space in front of our house.

Constant wind beating against me took its toll.

The first of five spring shares was ready yesterday afternoon from our CSA: Bok Choy, Koji and Broccoli Raab.

Both CSAs where I work are running behind due to weird spring weather. Carmen Black’s newsletter summed up where we are nicely:

First of all I want to thank all of you for your patience and understanding in starting a week later than planned! As I’m sure all of you can guess this weather has been very difficult to deal with on the farm. Two weeks ago it snowed, and today it’s eighty degrees! In addition to the swings in temperature its been the driest April on record, which means that everything we’ve finally been able to plant has needed to be watered immediately. Through all of this weather stress I’ve been very grateful to know that you all are so supportive of this farm, and will understand the challenges we’re facing in organically growing local veggies this spring.

First Seasonal Salad

Dinner was a salad to go along with pasta last night. Three kinds of greens and this year’s spring onions along with odds and ends of cold storage vegetables. It’s why we invest our time and resources in a food ecology.

The words “local food” mean less today than they did, and not what we thought they meant. I discuss local food with farmers and gardeners and I’ve heard the usage it is a form of green washing. Is “local food” a form of green washing? Maybe.

I know the produce harvested in our back yard is local food. With each passing season I see less significance. We want food we serve at home to be fresh, tasty and pleasurable. When we take a dish to a potluck, using garden produce gives a personal touch to a classic casserole. A kitchen garden like ours serves those things well.

“Local government can make policy that makes it easier to grow and consume #LocalFood,” Johnson County Supervisor Kurt Michael Friese posted on twitter.

If anyone is familiar with the local food system, Friese, a long-time restaurateur and food writer is. He is well positioned to make and implement policy that supports local food. But what exactly is that?

Breakfast Quesadilla with Homemade Salsa

Early on, local food referred to how and where food was sourced. There was talk about mitigating “food miles.” As I explained in a 2013 post, “Food distribution and related costs are a social construct that makes transportation seem inexpensive, or irrelevant to what we find in grocery store aisles.”

Where advocates of local food may have gone wrong is using the idea of food miles as a place holder for complex, flawed arguments. Costs are costs, and a producer has to recover his or her financial production costs when the consumer buys an item. Using any complex argument, including food miles, as a place holder seems a diversion. Such talk belongs more appropriately in a sales and marketing context as a form of puffery.

Read my entire set of arguments here.

The better framing for “local food” is to know the face of the farmer. Two years ago I wrote at length about what it means to know your farmer and practices they use. Here is the salient point related to green washing:

Driven in part by mass media, consumers are concerned about a wide range of food issues that include contamination with harmful bacteria; dietary concern about consumption of carbohydrates, fat and sugar; the way in which plant genetics are modified to improve them; and more. Partly in response to media campaigns, annual sales of organic food exceed $30 billion in the U.S. (USDA). The increase in organic market share from national advertising campaigns is significant. If you get to know your local food farmer, what you may find is they benefit from this marketing, but their customers come and stay with them because of a personal relationship with the farmer.

Local food is not exactly green washing, which is defined as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” However, there is a lot of conflicting and sometimes contradictory information related to food. Plant genetics alone set off a firestorm of media and organizational controversy and spawned a new food labeling process under the aegis of the Non-GMO Project. Simply said, it’s complicated.

If a definition of “local food” is elusive, how our county defined a local food system may be as good as it gets:

In Johnson County we see the need to localize our food system – and we are working to create a healthy, intact system that lessens resource inputs, promotes worker’s rights and preserves the natural environment.

Yesterday’s wind blew a single-use plastic bag into our Ash tree where it got stuck and is flailing in the wind. Part of me is tempted to leave it there as a symbol of all that is wrong with our society. Then again, if I want it fixed, I’d better do something about it. So it is with the local food system.

Full Moon Setting Behind Clouds