In Western Massachusetts on a sunny winter day, a farmers’ market was taking place in the entryway of an elementary school. The smell was a mix of apple cider, homemade donuts, and gymnasium. Long rows of tables were heavy with piles of root vegetables, hardy apples, fresh pies, pasture-raised lamb, honey wine, and handmade brooms. There was enough diversity that, if determined and creative, one could make it through an admirable portion of a long northern winter.
In the last few years, winter farmers’ markets have been turning up everywhere, tucked into corners of community centers, churches, and school auditoriums. Farmers in cold climes are pushing the limits of their seasons, growing vegetables in greenhouses and building root cellars to make their harvests last. And communities are aligning their appetites with their climates, relinquishing mealy winter tomatoes in favor of the joys of parsnips and cabbage.
In today’s globalized system, the number of miles a typical piece of food travels before it gets to its final point of sale averages 1,000 to 1,500, depending on which of the many studies one is reading. A small bag of trail mix we recently purchased listed 11 countries as far-flung as Greece, Chile, India, Vietnam, and Tanzania as possible sources for its three ingredients of almonds, cashews, and raisins.
Food literally transverses the globe, creating a major disconnect between us and our source of survival, and creating plenty of opportunities for middle-people to make a profit along the way. For every dollar spent on food in the US, about 84 cents go to middle-people, while only 16 cents go to farmers.[i]
Nearly one-fifth of oil and gas consumption in the US is used to power our industrialized food system.[ii] This doesn’t just include fuel for shipping food, but also for growing it (tractors, pesticides, and fertilizers), processing it (factories, refrigeration, packaging materials), and distributing it (warehouses, stores, and restaurants). When we stand in front of our open refrigerators peering in for a snack, the cold air streaming out the door is the last hurrah on the long, energy-intensive journey our food has made. Between 7.3 and 10 units of fossil-fuel energy are required for each unit of food energy that we consume.[iii] In our current food system, far more energy is used up getting that small bag of trail mix into our hands than we gain from eating it.
Some advocates are strict in their commitment to local sourcing, envisioning an entirely local diet. Others believe that if something can’t be grown in a region and is imported, the price should more closely reflect the true costs, including the environmental impacts of transporting the far-flung food.
Taken alone, “local” or “organic” doesn’t necessarily equate “sustainable.” Local foods can be grown with heavy pesticides or without respecting workers’ rights. And today we have the Walmart-ization of organics, which replicates some of the same destructive practices of industrial agriculture. An increasing amount of organic produce is grown on industrial-sized farms, utilizing harmful practices like monocropping and poor water and soil management, and more of it is being shipped around the globe. As organic food has become a lucrative market, big companies like Kellogg, M&M Mars, and Cargill have gotten in on the gold rush, buying up smaller organic companies and starting organic lines. A deluge of “green-washing,” marketing with intentionally vague labels such as “natural” or “naturally raised” and drawings of idyllic country scenes, is further manipulating and misinforming consumers.
As with everything else related to food and agricultural systems, change toward the local and the sustainable is underway. Below are a few ways that you can contribute:
• Buy your food from a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm or farmers’ market in your community. Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org) maps out sources for local food in the US. A CSF (community-supported fishery) is an option for seafood lovers. Local Catch (www.localcatch.org) provides a similar map of CSFs;
• Share a garden space with your neighbor or friends;
• Liberate land. Reclaim urban and rural spaces for food production (and ensure that it is done responsibly, without contributing to dispossession of the land or property of marginalized communities);
* Work with your local government to pass a community gardening ordinance that protects land for gardens. Learn more about how to leverage existing policies and laws to liberate land with the help of Public Health Law and Policy’s “Seeding the City: Land Use Policies to Promote Urban Agriculture” (available at www.nplanonline.org);
• Save seeds from season to season or organize a seed swap. Get started by reading “How to Organize a Community Seed Swap” (www.foodnotlawns.net);
• Buy heirloom and organic seeds. The Organic Seed Alliance has a list of organic seed companies (www.seedalliance.org/Seed_Companies_Selling_Organic_Seed);
• Share your harvest with those you love, and those you haven’t met yet. Or host a collective meal, which is a great way to connect people across generations and cultural backgrounds. The town of Greenfield, MA, holds an annual free harvest supper and has put together a how-to guide (freeharvestsupper.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/howtorunfhs.pdf);
• Ask your grocery to stock more local and healthy items;
• Join or start a buying club with other folks in your community. A buying club is a group of people who get together to buy healthy food in bulk. You can find guides for joining or starting a club online (for example, www.organicconsumers.org/organic/buyingclub.cfm).
* Get involved at deeper structural levels, to change the systems which are impeding a healthy, local, and just food supply chain. Check out the Harvesting Justice website and article series for ideas. Articles each week offer inspiring success stories and concrete suggestions for reclaiming food from the corporations, changing government policies to privilege small farmers and local production, and creating better wages and working conditions for food and agricultural workers.
[i] Patrick Canning, “A Revised and Expanded Food Dollar Series. A Better Understanding of Our Food Costs,” (Economic Research Report No. 114, U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, February 2011), iv.
[ii] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 83.
[iii] John Talberth, et al., “Building a Resilient and Equitable Bay Area: Towards a Coordinated Strategy for Economic Localization,” Center for Sustainable Systems, November 2006, 9; and Christopher Cook, Diet for a Dead Planet (New York: New Press, 2006), 252. The 7.3 figure is taken from the first report; however, David Pimentel of Cornell University claims the figure is closer to 10.
Download the Harvesting Justice pdf here, and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website. Harvesting Justice was created for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, check out their work here.
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