Friday, February 29, 2008

What Is Local?

Saying you're going to "eat local" is all well and good, but what counts as local? In a large, semi-arid state with few population centers, I have to figure out how widely to cast my net. No matter where you live, this matter of arriving at an appropriate definition is crucial and must vary from place to place, depending on the productivity of local land and the activity of the local economy.

My community food coop, for instance, defines their "local" product label to mean that the food is produced within 300 miles. That seems a bit far to me-- perhaps more "regional" than "local"-- but not absolutely absurd given the landscape I live in, and the fact that it's around 100-200 miles between cities here. There is at least one direction (east) in which I can drive 300 miles and still be in the same state.

View Larger Map

On the other hand, in the Northeast, where I come from originally, 300 miles would be a ridiculously long distance to consider local. Is Boston-to-Philadelphia "local"? Yet it is only a few miles farther than Bozeman-to-Miles City.


Here's a great post from the Wedge Natural Foods Coop in Minneapolis, struggling with the same issue. Writer Barth Anderson considers and rejects a number of problematic definitions of "local" eating, including the "100-mile diet," simply in-state, and within a day's round-trip drive, before settling on a very broad criterion: "any local food company or local grower located in Minnesota or a state bordering ours" (so that would be Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin-- and what about Manitoba and Ontario?). Note also that "local food company or local grower" includes foods that are processed locally out of ingredients that may not be local-- another problem requiring a decision.

Then Anderson goes on to remark that, for him, "Cargill is local," a troubling complication. What if you live near a Coca-Cola bottling plant? Does that count? The fact is, "local," however it is defined, only goes so far as a food ethic.

The Farm-to-Dartmouth project also notes how difficult it is to define local, but here's what they came up with for their purposes:

For many people, local food is more easily defined by what it is not than what it is. Local food, by this classification, is not mass-produced food shipped from distant regions at the expense of taste and nutrition. Often equated with greater nutritional, social, and ecological benefits, local food is simply that which is produced by farmers living in a region geographically intimate enough to be called a community. For the sake of this project, the definition of local is that approximately 80% of the food is produced in the 69 towns of the Greater Upper Valley using ingredients produced in that same area, and the remaining 20% is produced in the bi-state region of Vermont and New Hampshire.


The Wikipedia page on the local food movement raises more problems:

Where local food is determined by the distance it has traveled, the wholesale distribution system can confuse the calculations. Fresh food that is grown very near to where it will be purchased, may still travel hundreds of miles out of the area through the industrial system before arriving back at a local store. [...]

Often, products are grown in one area and processed in another, which may cause complications in the purchasing of local foods. In the international wine industry, much "bulk wine" is shipped to other regions or continents, to be blended with wine from other locales. It may even be marketed quite misleadingly as a product of the bottling country.

Finally, this final section of a report from the Hartman Group, a market research group that looks at underlying motives and trends in consumer behavior, should serve as a warning that big corporations are already seeking to play on our desire to “buy local.”

In the industry, there is a belief that you can only be local if you are a small and authentic brand. This isn't necessarily true; big brands can use the notion of local to their advantage as well. There are a lot of ways for a big brand to be local by having limited edition and/or seasonal products. A nutrition bar, for example, could have a nut in it that is grown in a certain area that gives it better taste perceptions.

It is important for manufacturers, marketers and retailers to understand that quality markers, such as use of local ingredients and narratives of local production and origin, are factors that resonate most strongly with consumers when it comes to determining what is authentically local.

As local continues to evolve in sophistication as a marketing concept, the ultimate success of the "buy local" message (e.g., selling more products, increased revenues, higher profit margins, improved quality image, repeat purchases, etc.) and its sustainability over time depends on any number of cultural, societal and lifestyle factors, all covered by this overarching principle: you can’t fake authenticity.

Taste perceptions”???

More and better definitions:

Gary Paul Nabhan, whose tremendous 2001 book Coming Home to Eat detailed his own local-eating experiment (within 200 miles of his home in Flagstaff, AZ), writes in his blog post "Deepening Our Sense of What Is Local and Regional Food" that-- now that "eat local" is becoming a popular concept and catchphrase-- "It is time that we deepen our sense of what we mean by local and regional, offer others better reasons as to why these concerns matter, and steadfastly resist any pressure to endorse simplistic formulas such as a 100-mile diet or an in-state diet."

His own list of what it means to promote local eating includes:

1. Local means from a farm, ranch or fishing boat that is locally-owned and operated, using the management skills and the labor of local community members. [...]

2. A regional food is one that has been tied to the traditions of a particular landscape or seascape and its cultures for decades if not for centuries. [...] Yes it may be produced five miles from your home and thereby reduce food miles, but its seeds are not saved and adapted to local or regional conditions, they are bought from afar every year.

3. The miles a food travels (“food miles”) must be placed in the size and volume of the mode of transport, its source of fuel, and its frequency of travel. Using biodiesel in a larger truck may be more efficient, and leave less of a carbon footprint than using leaded gas in an old clunker.[...]

4. On-farm energy and water use matter. [...]

5. Other on-farm inputs matter just as much. Where are the sources of hay for livestock, compost for garden crops or nitrogen for field crops? They should be locally if not regionally-sourced. [...]

6. Fair-trade with other cultures, localities and regions is fair game. Circumvent the globalized economy for the items you truly need from other regions by establishing fair-trade exchanges. [...]

7. Invest in the foods unique to your region that cannot or should not be grown anywhere else.

Sure, some of the above are a tall order to fill. But remembering that we're choosing local foods for reasons beyond simply saving fuel is important. Nabhan's list provides a number of reasons why Cargill, no matter where you live, is not local.

So, the question remains, of course: how should I define "local"? And should I define it at all, or simply follow my instincts towards the best available choices?

I am open to suggestions.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Let the Locavory Begin

I've mentioned this to several people now. But I'd yet to make a public commitment. Here goes:

My daughter and I are “eating local” (with a couple exceptions), for a year, starting June 3 with the opening of the first of two local farmer’s markets.

In this, as many will recognize, we are inspired by Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful and immensely popular Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I also raved about here.

It’s also the case that, as my shopping habits have changed over the past few years, I have naturally increased my use of local products. The majority of my vegetables this year have come from a farm called Gallatin Valley Botanical, where I have a CSA share; I ate them fresh during the summer, and froze some for winter (I’m still eating them now, at the end of February). My bread and flour, and my milk and cream and eggs and butter, have long come from local or regional producers. I don’t buy much meat, but we have excellent local beef, buffalo, and other meats in Montana, and I try to choose grassfed products from nearby ranches. In various seasons, I can and do get local apples, dried beans, vegetable oil, honey, and other products.

But I’ve always approached food shopping with list in hand, the question of what do I need/want? having been considered ahead of time, and the choice amounting to which version to purchase (local? organic? cheapest? etc.). Because, in our American market environment (with the exception of certain “food desert” areas), everything on the list is virtually certain to be available. Years ago, when I did a lot of exotic cooking, yet thought little of seasonality or food transportation distance, I’d be flummoxed on the rare occasion when some fresh produce item demanded in a recipe was not to be found in any of my several nearby supermarkets. It was scandalous, because anomalous, when nobody happened to have lemongrass, or Belgian endive.

The real problem, as Kingsolver and others have made clear, is not that it is difficult to adequately feed oneself on mostly local products. The challenge is to change one’s mental habits so that one embraces the food available, then figures out how to best and most deliciously use it. This requires abandoning the idea, I think, pushed by many American personal-budget gurus, that meal planning must come before shopping. When endeavoring to eat locally, we need to take an approach that should come more naturally to us as a formerly foraging species: go out and gather what there is, whether from our own garden, a nearby farm, or a market. If we live in an area with a cold season, then we have to gather more than we immediately need; avoiding waste means preserving the excess, not shopping according to a rigorous plan.

After all, which gives me more joy? Buying a jar of spaghetti sauce, a bag of pasta, and a pie slice of parmesan cheese in preparation for a dinner when we will surely have spaghetti (again)? Or receiving those unsolicited boxes of tomatoes, or root vegetables, or apples, that our elderly neighbors used to leave on our doorstep, overflow from their productive back yard, and musing over “how to use them up”? Even leaving aside all questions of sustainability, the first task is simple, carefully-delineated, impersonal, and more or less the same from week to week; the second is creative, complex, invokes a neighborly relationship, and never failed to give me a feeling of abundance and satisfaction. Potatoes, carrots or apples, yes, I did always have a use for them.

I am positively looking forward to what feels almost like a luxury: instead of budgeting some precise weekly amount for food, if I find something wonderful at the farmer’s market, I will buy it. (Maybe a lot of it, because we only get fresh foods, here in Montana, from about June to October.) I will give myself leave to explore the really good stuff that’s out there, instead of always maintaining a carefully balanced larder of peanut butter and breakfast cereal and salsa and rice and frozen juice concentrate and spaghetti sauce. I will enthusiastically take my friend up on her offer of sharing her yard’s yield of apples and rhubarb and raspberries, in exchange for picking labor and some vacation garden-watering. (Fruit is a northern-climate luxury: YES, I’m interested.)

I bet I’ll eat better than I do now, though I may have to give up peanut butter (honestly, I don’t really care). I’ll be motivated for the first time to fully explore what foods are produced in my area. And you know what’ll be fun? Travelling. When I go to Austin in July, it’ll be exciting, because there will be different local foods there.

There are a few things I can’t give up. Coffee—it’ll be locally-roasted, but I have to have it. Spices and salt—but these are dry goods used in small quantities, and I don’t feel too badly about their transport. The same would probably go for things like leavening. The idea is not to suffer deprivation, but to investigate and enjoy what is available, and to relearn some more traditional ways of food use and preservation.

And, if I’m at your house, of course I’ll eat anything you serve me.

As we are living this project, I expect there will be many follow-up posts about various details.

Wolves to be delisted; How do your Congressional members stack up on environment?

Gray wolves
will be removed from the Endangered Species List unless litigation from a number of environmental groups delays delisting. After reintroduction to the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem 13 years ago, wolves have had impressive success at reproducing and dispersing, winning some enemies in the process. Management of the wolves would fall to the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and would likely allow hunting; each state, however, has committed to maintaining its own population of 150 wolves, including at least 15 mating pairs.

While some groups (including NRDC, the Sierra Club, and Earthjustice) are disputing the decision, other environmentalists and biologists believe the gray wolf is truly an example of successful species recovery and that delisting is appropriate. The original goal was
a stable Northern Rockies population of 300 wolves; current population exceeds 1500.


If you are curious about a U.S. House or Senate member's environmental record, the League of Conservation Voters gives a quick, easy-to-use
environmental scorecard.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Downer Cattle Update: Now It's Recalled

So, as you all may remember, we were supposed to feel reassured when state and local officials reminded us that Westland beef had not been recalled, despite serious concerns about sick "downer cows" having entered the food supply.

Because, if it's not recalled, it must be OK. It's when they recall it that you should be really concerned.

Tonight from the AP:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Sunday ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of frozen beef from a California slaughterhouse, the subject of an animal-abuse investigation, that provided meat to school lunch programs.

Officials said it was the largest beef recall in the United States, surpassing a 1999 ban of 35 million pounds of ready-to-eat meats. [...]

Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said his department has evidence that Westland did not routinely contact its veterinarian when cattle became non-ambulatory after passing inspection, violating health regulations.


Officials estimate that about 37 million pounds of the recalled beef went to school programs, but they believe most of the meat probably has already been eaten.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Some links, 2-16-08: bats, beets, and budgets

A widespread affliction is threatening bat populations in the Northeast.
The disease was first discovered in a cave near Albany, N.Y., in January 2007 and was soon found in three more within 7 miles. In March, officials at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation determined that as many as 11,000 bats had died from the disease, dubbed "white nose syndrome" because of a flaky white fungus on the nose of many of the sick and dead bats.


Scientists say they are extraordinarily concerned because the disease is already affecting four species - including the Indiana bat, recognized by the federal government as an endangered species - and mortality has reached as high as 97 percent in some caves. In one New York cave, the population crashed from 1,300 bats several years ago to 38 this year.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has asked the public to stay out of caves, mines, and other bat havens in the Northeast, for fear that humans may be serving as a vector of disease spread.

Bats are important in insect control, and diminished populations could have a negative impact on area crops.


The Jew and the Carrot covers this year's big new GMO story: Roundup Ready sugar beets. Like Monsanto's other Roundup Ready products, the GE sugar beets will revel in the application of herbicides; the EPA has increased the allowable amount of glyphosate residues on beetroots by 5000% in a remarkably accommodating gesture. There are other problems, too. Read the post, by a lawyer for the Center for Food Safety.


The new Bush budget for 2009 proposes to cut public funding for agriculture research at land-grant schools by nearly 1/3. Without public funding, our research institutions are dependent on corporate dollars to determine research priorities. As Nancy Scola writes at Alternet,
When it comes to how industry-university relations shape academic research, UCLA's Andrew Neighbour is the person to talk to. While an administrator at Washington University in St. Louis, Neighbour managed the school's landmark multiyear and multimillion-dollar relationship with Monsanto. (Note: WashU is a private institution.) "There's no question that industry money comes with strings," Neighbour admits. "It limits what you can do, when you can do it, who it has to be approved by."

And so the issue at hand becomes one of the questions that are being asked at public land-grant schools. While Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, et al., are paying the bills, are agricultural researchers going to pursue such lines of scientific inquiry as "How will this new corn variety impact the independent New York farmer?" Or, "Will this new tomato make eaters healthier?"
This is a fairly long and complex piece, which is definitely worth a read.

Please Weigh to Be Seated

While word has it it isn't going anywhere, this crazy-ass bill has actually been introduced in the Mississippi legislature:
Are you effin' kidding me? (Apparently not.)

That is all.

Our New Oceans

We have mentioned, before, the vast floating wasteland of plastic debris-- fairly recently described as "twice the size of Texas"-- that has accumulated in the North Pacific subtropical gyre. I still encourage anyone to read the long Best Life Magazine article at that link, but not if you're already at the edge of despair today.

Turns out, not surprisingly, that our ocean garbage dump has continued to grow since that article was published. It's now twice the size of the United States, as also blogged at Daily Kos by FishOutofWater. From the Independent article linked above:

About one-fifth of the junk – which includes everything from footballs and kayaks to Lego blocks and carrier bags – is thrown off ships or oil platforms. The rest comes from land.

The garbage soup, which floats in a becalmed area of ocean normally avoided by boats, was discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore, an oceanographer and heir to a large oil fortune who “subsequently sold his business interests and became an environmental activist.”

The research vessel “Alguita” is currently exploring the Garbage Patch, and keeping a frequently-updated blog of their observations. From Feb. 10’s post:

Clear skies and gentle seas made debris watch a much more appealing activity, and drew the crew with nets, cameras, and binoculars to the bow. For a solid two hours, we fished as fast as we could, pulling up floats, toothbrushes, plastic and glass bottles, a golf ball, a billiard ball, an unused glue stick for a hot glue gun, and several rope boluses filled with crabs and tiny striped fish - But most appalling was the plastic confetti. An endless stream of delicate, white snowflakes, like plastic powder coating the ocean’s surface. This, remarked Charlie, is indicative of the gyre, “where the trash comes home to roost and degrade…..”. A school of cavorting dolphins lightened the mood - the first Charles has spotted in his 10 years of visiting the gyre.

Our Manta sample mirrored what we observed – a bowl full of plastic, with almost zero evidence of life. We wouldn't be surprised if the plastic to plankton ratio here was 100 to 1. The contrast between this “clean” sample and the mass of zooplankton from the other day was remarkable, illustrating the dramatic range in biological productivity throughout the ocean.


In more bad ocean news, yesterday’s Los Angeles Times reports on growing “dead zones” off Oregon and Washington, likely a result of climate changes that in turn affect winds and currents.

Peering into the murky depths, Jane Lubchenco searched for sea life, but all she saw were signs of death.

Video images scanned from the seafloor revealed a boneyard of crab skeletons, dead fish and other marine life smothered under a white mat of bacteria. At times, the camera's unblinking eye revealed nothing at all -- a barren undersea desert in waters renowned for their bounty of Dungeness crabs and fat rockfish.

"We couldn't believe our eyes," Lubchenco said, recalling her initial impression of the carnage brought about by oxygen-starved waters. "It was so overwhelming and depressing. It appeared that everything that couldn't swim or scuttle away had died."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Superdelegates and Me

I took the time to write a note to the superdelegates as requested by David Plouffe, Barack Obama's campaign manager, explaining my support for Obama. This was, in my opinion, a clever move on the part of the campaign; I'd heard they were specifically trying to prevent their supporters from relentlessly pestering superdelegates in unauthorized fashion, and had some kind of coordinated plan in mind. This is it. They're collecting testimonials and bits of persuasion, collating the best material themselves, and then distributing it. Sure, the end result will be a little more polished and less perfectly representative than the pool it's drawn from. On the other hand, it'll spare the superdelegates aggressive rants, a good deal of pablum, and mountains of repetitive material.

I decided that, since I hate telephoning, this was one thing I could try my hand at. You can too, at the above link, if you're a supporter. Since I bothered to write it, I figured I might as well post it here too, and come out as a true partisan.
I went into this primary season undecided. It was not for lack of paying attention; I follow election politics closely, but I liked both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I'd read Clinton's autobiography and Obama's Audacity of Hope. I'd read endless discussions of their relative merits and demerits on political blogs and in the press. I felt Clinton was a tough progressive with her head screwed on straight about most issues, who'd been unfairly maligned by right and left for many years. I was impressed by Obama's pragmatism and eagerness to look past kneejerk ideological posturing in seeking solutions, his humor and charm, his charisma, and his tremendous facility with language.

For a long time I'd told others I was "leaning slightly" toward Obama, but I didn't make up my mind for certain until the actual primary campaign drama began to unfold. That seems like an age ago, the beginning of January. Since then, I've become progressively more sure of my vote until my preference has become something of a passion. The highly distinct campaigns the two candidates are running are the reason why.

While I like Clinton personally, her campaign has failed to show a unifying vision for the country. Across the board, her strategy has been to dismiss and divide. Whether it's downplaying the importance of African-American voters in South Carolina, leaving aside entire rural states-- like Idaho or North Dakota-- as unworthy of attention, or using surrogates to make racially-tinged remarks about Obama, her campaign has chosen badly if it wishes to attract goodwill and maintain a rapport with all segments of the American electorate.

Obama, to his great credit, has taken the opposite tack. His campaign is inclusive and has clearly brought a sense of individual political empowerment to many volunteers. There is campaign presence in every state, and it is diffuse and democratic in nature. Watching 15,000-person rallies in Boise and listening to volunteers gush about the pleasures of door-to-door canvassing in Nevada and phone-banking nationwide... I can believe, not only that Obama will bring millions of new voters into Democratic politics this year, but that the enthusiasm and skills they've learned from their activism on his behalf will carry over into continued engagement with the work of the nation after he is President. (The potential down-ticket effects for Democrats are nothing to sneeze at, either.)

I'm a 36-year-old almost-divorced mother living in Bozeman, Montana. Although Montana has tended to vote Republican in presidential elections, we now have two Democratic U.S. Senators, as well as a very successful Democratic governor. Obama has shown tremendous strength in this region of the country. I believe he would have a real chance to win this "red" state, and others like it, in the general election-- and paint vast acreages blue on the national map. I urge you to cast your vote for the candidate who is living and breathing the 50-state strategy, and make Montana matter again.
So, it's short, it's trite, it's not terribly personal; maybe you can do better. Give it a shot.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

[UPDATE]: My Daughter Won't Eat Downer Cows Forever

A commenter on yesterday's post, My Daughter Eats Downer Cows, understandably assumed an adversarial position against the school food service:
That's awful. I encourage you to write to Mr. Burrows, who isn't worried and should be, and your local newspaper and also to encourage other parents to write. Let those meat-choosing folks know they are being watched.
I responded to this with a note of caution:
School lunch programs really don't have a lot of choice when it comes to[...]commodity items; they have to feed kids for a very low cost per lunch, and, if they use their USDA-provided meat, cheese, flour, potatoes, then they can use their funds for things like fruits and vegetables. Until we change a lot of other aspects of federal policy, school districts will be limited in their ability to respond to parent demands[...]
This evening I attended a public meeting intended to increase community involvement in our nascent district Farm-to-School program. The talk revolved around fruits and vegetables; bread, flour, and milk are already sourced locally, along with some other odds-and-ends. During the Q & A, I asked the panel (almost all of whose members I knew from smaller meetings), the following question: "Given current policy limitations and budgetary limitations, how impossible is it to think about meat sourcing?" As the representative from the school food service began to laugh and look a little sheepish, I added: "especially given the article that appeared recently in the paper, which maybe you've been hearing from some people about..."

The panel members said more or less what I'd anticipated (USDA commodities, local meat costs 3X as much, shortage of local processors to deliver the cuts we need, the food service rep provided some hard numbers); I'd just wanted to register the issue and didn't expect surprises.

However, I got one. Bob Burrows, the food services supervisor quoted in the Bozeman Chronicle article linked in yesterday's post, turned out to be present in the audience. He stood up and made an extended comment in response, and though he agreed with the current budgetary assessment, he also expressed a great deal of concern (not manifest in the Chronicle version) about the fact that Montana schools, surrounded as they are by local cattle ranches, are serving mostly beef from the midwest and Texas. For Burrows, the driving force of his frustration was a desire to support the local and regional economy; anxiety about food safety was secondary, he said. But he professed to have been distressed by this particular problem for twenty years, and extremely interested in pursuing policy changes to address it.

He sounded surprisingly impassioned, and I believed him. Even the people within the system, they want to change the system. They're not enemies, but natural allies. If a wide spectrum of interests can gather to keep pushing together on state and federal policy, I think by the 2013(?) Farm Bill we can dream some bigger dreams.

Monday, February 11, 2008

My Daughter Eats Downer Cows

January 30's Washington Post discussed videos, taken with a hidden camera by a Humane Society investigator posing as a slaughterhouse worker, of illegal, abusive practices used to rouse "downer cows" for USDA inspection.
Video footage being released today shows workers at a California slaughterhouse delivering repeated electric shocks to cows too sick or weak to stand on their own; drivers using forklifts to roll the "downer" cows on the ground in efforts to get them to stand up for inspection; and even a veterinary version of waterboarding in which high-intensity water sprays are shot up animals' noses -- all violations of state and federal laws designed to prevent animal cruelty and to keep unhealthy animals, such as those with mad cow disease, out of the food supply.
The relevant Humane Society videos, titled "HSUS Investigates Slaughterhouse" and "Downer Cows Update," can be viewed here.

Hallmark Meat Packing, in Chino, CA, supplies Westland Meat Co., which in turn provides commodity beef (100 million pounds over the past 5 years) for school lunch programs across the country, as well as supplementary food programs for low-income and elderly citizens.

Apart from the question of utterly inhumane treatment of cows, use of downer animals increases the likelihood of a) eating meat from a seriously diseased animal, including one with BSE ("mad cow disease") and b) fecal contamination of the carcass from being dragged through manure and across dirty floors. Allowing such meat to be offered for sale, let alone giving it away to our schoolchildren and most vulnerable populations, is a major public health and safety risk.

I have a schoolchild. She eats commodity beef in her lunches frequently, lunches that we get for free because we're low-income enough. There's certainly plenty of good-quality, local beef here in Montana; but the cost to the school system, compared to what they can receive via USDA, is prohibitive. Right after the WaPo article came out, the story was covered, front-page, by my local newspaper.
About 37,000 pounds of Westland ground beef was delivered to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ food commodity warehouse in September, and much of it was distributed to schools, senior centers, homeless shelters and food banks throughout the state, Hank Hudson, the agency’s human and community services administrator, said Friday.


Bob Burrows, support services supervisor for the Bozeman School District, said the district had about 130 cases of the Westland beef on hand.

The meat will not be used, but the USDA order will not impact the district’s lunch program, which dishes out about 2,200 lunches daily, at all.

“I’m not worried about it in the least,” Burrows said. “We have other supplies that are not part of this. And the meat has not been recalled, that’s important to note.”
The meat has not been recalled. What a relief.