Local is the New Organic - What on Earth am I Supposed to Eat?
This article is an excerpt from a longer article written for Hazon's New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride’s Participant Pack.
Imagine you are standing in the aisle of a supermarket in New York City. Two adjacent bins of peaches are displayed in front of you. The sign over one bin reads “organically grown, Mexico.” Over the other, the sign reads, “low spray, upstate New York.” Which of the peaches, if either, do you put in your cart?
Over the last several decades, “organic food” has morphed from a virtually unknown idea, to a buzz phrase favored by granola-eating idealists and, more recently, into a billion dollar business. Once confined to natural food co-ops, organic foods – those grown or raised without synthetic pesticides, growth hormones or antibiotics - are now common fare at supermarkets and restaurants. The USDA certified organic logo graces the labels of mainstream products like macaroni and cheese, mayonnaise, and even decorative cake sprinkles.
As organic foods have grown more popular with consumers (they now represent the fastest-growing sector of specialty foods in America), large corporations have begun to offer organic versions of their conventional products (organic Heinz ketchup recently hit the shelves), and have started buying smaller organic companies (Stonyfield is owned by Dannon, Seeds of Change is owned by M&M/Mars). These large companies have joined the organic movement - some because they are genuinely interested in using their corporate leverage to make difference in the world, but many others simply recognize that the joining organic food sector could increase their own profit margins.
Whether or not the attention from big business will ultimately equal a victory for the organic movement is still unclear. The emergence of “big organic” does mean that organic foods are now being purchased and eaten by more families in America than ever before. But whereas organic certification standards (like the USDA organic label) were originally created to assure customers of more sustainable growing standards, their connection to big industry renders them a potential source of consumer confusion. A USDA organic label on a peach is one thing, but organically certified Oreos or Tostitos? The organic movement was pioneered by small food producers that wanted to move away from conventionally produced foods. Should food items filled with saturated fat and processed sugar grown 1,000 miles from the factory be considered organic simply because the wheat in them was grown without synthetic pesticides? A number of smaller organic certifications (e.g. NOFA, Oregon Tilth, Pennsylvania Certified Organic), which are arguably more thorough in their certification standards than the USDA, might be reluctant to certify Oreos. But according to the USDA, which is currently the most widely-recognized organic label, organic Oreos are just fine (and will hit the shelves in the near future).
A peach that tastes like a peach
More recently, the concept of eating locally – which roughly translates to eating foods grown and harvested within about a half-day’s drive from one’s table – has begun to percolate into the American food conscious. (Though, people who remember eating before World War II, which marked a major turning point in American consumerism, would rightly point out that locally grown food is not a new phenomenon.)
According to Michael Pollan, author of the current best seller, Omnivore’s Dilemma, (highly recommended by the Hazon staff!) local foods appeal to the consumer’s desire for authenticity – the idealized notion that food is more pure if it was grown by a real, hardworking farmer or caught fresh from the wild. In theory, eating local foods also connects a consumer more directly with the place the food was grown (“Poughkeepsie! We vacation right near there!), and with the people – typically small family farmers - who grow it.
Local food also attracts consumers with the promise of freshness and quality. In today’s supermarket, uniform but flavorless produce is the norm. A peach can be grown by unjustly paid migrant workers, picked before it is ripe, and shipped thousands of miles before it gets to the store, and still be labeled organic. Of course, not all conventional produce is tasteless, and not all local produce is outstanding. But in comparison to the big box options, eating a peach picked at peak freshness that very morning can be incredibly tempting. Some consumers are even willing to overlook the spraying of a few pesticides on their fruit if it was grown locally. Farmers markets and, more recently, CSA (community-supported agriculture) projects have sprouted in communities to fill the growing consumer demand for local produce grown on small family farms. Hazon’s own CSA project, Tuv Ha’Aretz follows in this tradition by enabling Jewish families to put their purchasing power behind organic family farms, and connect their purchases with Jewish values and Jewish community. (For more info go to www.hazon.org/CSA)
Local is the new Organic?
In addition to farmers markets and CSAs, local foods are starting to make their way into larger food chains. HMO Kaiser Permamente, recently started sourcing part of the produce served in their hospitals from local farms. Universities across the country have also begun to serve local foods in their cafeterias (Yale, Brown, and Middlebury have received significant press for their efforts, but many other schools are part of this trend.) Some food companies like Ronnybrook Farm and Red Jacket Orchard in the Hudson Valley now sell their products at local and regional supermarkets, as well as farmers markets.
For years, Whole Foods has been considered a pioneer of the organics movement. More recently, it has emerged as one of its most robust business partners. In Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan criticizes Whole Foods for not carrying more local products and produce. After a lengthy email exchange between Pollan and Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, Whole Foods released a statement which outlined the ways in which they plan to support local farms in the future. In addition to committing to purchase from more small farms, the statement said that “stand alone” Whole Foods stores (i.e. Whole Foods that are not connected to shopping centers) would allow a portion of their parking lot space to be used for weekly farmer’s markets.
The upward arc in popularity of local foods seems to inversely mirror the growing skepticism towards organic food. One might even assert that, in the eye of many consumers, local is the new organic. On a recent trip to a Whole Foods in New York City, I noticed that each check out kiosk had a newly-installed screen which rotated photos of local farmers from whom Whole Foods purchased produce. The pictures were startlingly similar – white, middle aged, bearded men, some standing with their families, and all placed directly in front of their field with the farm location flashing underneath the picture. They were also mesmerizing – the woman ringing up my groceries had to snap me back to attention in order to get me to pay.
Leaving the store, I felt like I had done something noble by purchasing New York State yellow plums instead of blueberries from Vancouver. I felt this way partly because I have come to value the concept of local eating, and partly, I realized later, because Whole Foods spends a lot of money to make customers feel good about their purchases. But despite the register kiosks, I didn’t actually know my plum farmer. For some people, that hardly makes a difference, but I personally get a thrill out of cooking Farmer Ted’s kale or making an omelet with eggs from one of the Garden of Eve’s chickens. But more importantly, unlike Tuv Ha’Aretz or any other CSA or farmers market, I had no guarantee that my purchase was making a difference in the life of one of the farmers I saw on the kiosk. I also had no real guarantee that he was using sustainable growing methods– because unlike a CSA or farmers market, I couldn’t ask him.
I don’t write this to start any further Whole Foods controversy (I quite like Whole Foods). I only intend to raise the question of what would it mean if local foods went the way of organic foods? Is it possible that, if they continue to rise in popularity and demand, that local foods could be affected by same big-business pitfalls as the organic movement? It is certainly possible that the USDA could create a Local Foods certification. A national certification could turn the very intimate practice of local eating – which is currently typified by small-scale, farmer-to-consumer transactions at farmers markets and CSAs – into a government-regulated affair. It is also possible (though far less likely) that big food companies like Dannon or McDonalds could start purchasing their milk, eggs, potatoes, or fruit on a local scale, which would potentially lead to a redefinition of what was considered “local,” “seasonal” or “small-scale.”
So what about that organic peach from Mexico and the low spray peach grown in upstate New York? The answer is not multiple choice (hey, maybe you don’t even like peaches). The real question is: what do you want to be buying? What do you want to be eating and serving your family? Understanding the issues involved is the first step to making one’s own consumer decisions. Hazon’s hope for this Shabbaton is that, in addition to having a wonderful time, you have the opportunity to learn about and be inspired by your food – through conversations with the Adamah fellows, by visiting Adamah’s sadeh (field), through learning about Tuv Ha’Aretz and community-supported agriculture, or through sampling the amazing, locally grown organic produce you’ll eat in Freedman’s dining hall. We have our own conclusions about what should be considered “fit eating” (and our own challenges living up to them), and we would love to hear yours.