Pulling Back the Curtain on Local Food
Local Food. It’s all the rage. We’ve been on a roll for quite a few years now. Locavore became an official word added to the Oxford American Dictionary in 2007. It’s not unusual to see “local” on labels, menus, marquees, magazines, films, books, blogs, and in every imaginable food venue from institutional to household. Local. Sustainable. Artisan. Handmade. Eco-conscious. Green. I get downright giddy when I see these words used in the marketplace. We’re coming along nicely, making inroads into mainstream culture, illuminating a path for the uninitiated eaters of the global food economy.
But for the moment, I’d like to share my own personal reality check in the local food economy. What is behind that curtain, Toto?
We are all consumers. We eat. Some of us are also involved in additional aspects of the food system: perhaps in production or processing or distribution or preparation or service or commerce or waste management. It’s a large, mostly opaque, system that we trust will function without too many hitches. It’s a system that has been industrialized over the last 50-60 years in order to function more efficiently, effectively, seemingly affordably, while inching away from that local food system that we swoon over today. As a consumer, I’m banking on the notion that an economically vibrant, socially responsible, environmentally sustainable local food system is not only possible, it’s the real deal. Fully attainable if we can just put our minds to it.
I have two scenarios to share that give me pause. Two instances of Toto pulling back the curtain, illustrating the complexities of local food.
My first knock-in-the-head-moment came when I happened to hear one of my favorite local farmers sigh in utter exhaustion near the end of a growing season. He mentioned (but not in a whiny way) that he was utterly spent. The weather. The soil. The weeds. The work. The insects. The lack of sleep and vacation and time to think of anything else but farming was taxing him to the core. He was frightfully skinny from the work and stress. One of his devoted CSA members exclaimed, “oh no, you can’t stop. We love your veggies. You feed our family. We now know what real food tastes like and we can’t go back. You must keep going. Please keep farming. Please keep feeding us.” I didn’t utter a word, but I had to admit that those same thoughts had crossed my mind. Easy for me to be a cheerleader for the local food economy. All I do is eat it.
Another awakening came over a period of years while I watched in fascination as my friends at Sweet Water Organics gave everything they had to make a wild dream come true: turning a discarded factory into an urban fish farm. It was mind-bending. Sweet Water Organics drew local, national and international attention for their innovative model of growing food in the city. A couple of roofers dared to take the principles of Growing Power’s aquaponic system to another level, producing healthy food for an urban community, creating jobs, engaging youth, harnessing innovation, repurposing buildings and resources and people. An incredible high renaissance beckoned, with local food as a driver. Thousands came to see the place. Many more heard and read about it. Those that toiled to build and maintain the dream carried the weight on their weary backs. The rest of us were spectators as we cheered the gladiators on to take risks with their limited resources. And when Sweet Water Organics closed their doors and dismantled their Willy Wonka structures, we shook our heads in disappointment. Maybe some even said “I told you so.” I cried a little. It seemed like so much hope and promise was circling the drain.
What is behind that curtain? Honestly, who is bearing the cost of creating the local food economy we hold so dear? Our society is pretty darn tolerant of R&D in other industries, but do we have the patience and the wherewithal to research and develop new ways of doing business in the local food economy which honor our environment and our humanity, and create equitable wealth?
I have tremendous respect for risk-takers. They’ve got moxie out the wazoo. Without risk, we don’t have a prayer of transforming our industrial food system into one that is local, just, equitable and sustainable. It’s just not gonna happen. It’s too hard. Too costly. Too much work. Too complicated. Not enough capital. Too many regulations. Not enough infrastructure. Not enough political will and, quite frankly, not enough social will to figure out it all out.
My CSA farmer friend is not going to quit. He is a darn good farmer, willing to take risks and work for what he believes in. Underneath all that, he is a man of impeccable integrity and courage. Producing food is hard work. We know that, but we sure are quick to forget it and pass that responsibility off for someone else to tend to.
Despite the fact that their doors have closed and all the equipment has been sold off or given away, Sweet Water Organics is a far cry from failure. Sweet Water Foundation, the nonprofit side of the house, remains alive, providing cutting-edge learning in community development and systems transformation through principles of urban agriculture. The Sweet Water Community of thinkers and doers remains vibrant, sustaining a network of innovators across the globe. New possibilities will be realized because of the vision a small group of risk-takers in Milwaukee, WI dared to imagine. Many will stand on their broad shoulders and gain the footing they need to produce food security for urban environments. That sounds like success to me. Albert Einstein said, “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”
I’d like to believe that a vibrant, just, equitable and sustainable food system is here to stay. We have tasted it and we’re hungry for more. However, we need to be honest about what it will take to create the local food economy we dream is possible. We have a lack of resources in financial and physical capital. We lack patience in waiting for innovation to gain traction as new solutions address old problems. We lack understanding of the true cost of food. We are complicit in the mountain of obstacles local food entrepreneurs must face in regulations, codes and social constructs.
I don’t have this figured out. If we get points for trying, then count me in. It will take all of us, and I mean all of us, to be the innovators, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the mountaineers to nourish our communities with healthy, affordable, sustainable food that honors all people every step of the way. Onward together.