Introduction to Local

Introduction to Local

The taste for local food is more about rediscovering food than defining what exactly local means.

A movement for local food crystallized around 2007, when the word locavore was coined and named word of the year by the authoritative Oxford Dictionary. But the preference for local food was part of a much larger turning point that began several years earlier in the producing, marketing and buying of food – what has been called the “quality turn,” which spurned quantitative factors such as volume and price, and emphasized instead such quality factors as ethical, organic, authentically regional and so on.

The taste for the terroir, culture and politics is a compelling instance of part of this larger turn because local conjures up so many positive images – from spending shopping money in ways that support neighbors, to rediscovering face-to-face relationships of a more convivial food system, to reducing food miles and the associated global warming emissions, to the superior taste of food that has come directly off a nearby field, to the assumption that both livestock and workers are treated more humanely by one’s neighbors.

Truth be told, the precise meaning of the word local related to food is in the eye of the beholder, rather than scientific tests. People excited by local food, who shop at the thousands of farmers markets that have sprung up across North America since the new millennium, for example, have in their mind’s eye a picture of what local food means. This picture stands in sharp contrast with the standard picture that has been formed about food produced from far away, by corporate farmers indifferent to the environment, their animals or workforce. Such pictures and stories are what local food is about -- what makes them part of the larger quality turn that is transforming the producing, selling, buying, preparing and eating of food.

Local food is what it is, and isn’t what it isn’t – a shopping list with specific criteria about the distance each food or food ingredient should have traveled from farm gate to food store. There is no reason for locavores to feel embarrassed or inadequate because local is lacking in specific scientific criteria. And there is no value to playing the game of pretending that there are distinctions worthy of measurement in the grand scheme of things.

There are many ways to measure what local might be surmised to measure in food. Some might argue, for example, that the embodied fossil fuel energy represented in all the inputs that go into a food – the fossil fuel fertilizers from a thousand miles away, the plastic bag or package from two thousand miles away, the recycling plant in China, and so on – tell a more important tale than the miles from farm to fork. And they would be right, of course, if the sole function of designating food as local were to reduce the amount of embodied fossil fuel energy in food.

Like other words that capture emotions local intangible but transformative sentiment and commitment – closeness, respectful, trusting, loyal and loving rush into my mind. Certification for sale in anonymous marketplaces, where sellers don’t know buyers by name or personal reputation, is another matter. That needs to be refined so people know what values they are getting for their money.

But for mealtime conversation, local will do. Everyone has a pretty good idea what it means, and few suffer illusions or delusions that it can stand for much more or much less than what they stand on – their little place in the world. I take that as a good sign of the mental health of the local food movement. Drivers, start your definitions.

Urban Agriculture with Dr. Wayne Roberts

Urban Agriculture with Dr. Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts has spent a great deal of time considering how cities, food and people intersect. Canadian Food Policy analyst, Former Director of the Toronto Food Policy Council and author of two books, Food for City Building and The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food, Wayne sat down with us to talk about urban agriculture, education and how we might feed the world’s expanding population.

Dr Wayne Roberts is best-known for managing the renowned Toronto Food Policy Council. Since retiring in 2010, he has served on the boards of several well-respected food non-profits and has written two books – The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food, and a low-cost e-book, Food for City Building.

Douglas Gayeton: What are the most effective examples of urban agriculture you’ve seen?

Dr. Wayne Roberts: I’ve been impressed and inspired by urban agriculture projects around the world. Here’s a short list of my favorites, all of which are described at some length in my book, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

In Sri Lanka, women living in shanty towns earn money and gain personal independence by growing medicinal herbs in their tiny yards, which are sold to the municipal health department for use as free medicines given to the public. In Cuba, some urban residents make a living growing organic food in city parks and selling the food in a variety of farmers markets; that’s where most of the vegetables and fruit eaten in the city come from. In the Netherlands, many urban ag projects are called “care farms” because they earn one income stream from selling food, and another by caring for people or Nature. For example, one greenhouse in Amsterdam hires homeless people fighting addiction, and receives financial support from the city because of the therapeutic value of addicts working in a supportive and warm environment to grow food. In Milwaukee, Will Allen calls his greenhouse-centered urban ag project Growing Power because he sees food as growing the power of individuals and of a disenfranchised Afro-American neighborhood. His brilliantly designed greenhouse couples turns waste into high-quality compost, the growing medium for affordable, delicious and nutritious greens – the cost of which is partly covered from fees for keeping waste out of the garbage stream. In Toronto, my home town, FoodShare uses urban ag methods to integrate school meals and food literacy by using under-used space – in one case, a huge school rooftop – where students can grow their own food.

As you can see, urban agriculture comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s crucial that urban ag policy enable people to make the widest use possible of the potential that food production offers us.

Douglas Gayeton: Is food education a central tenet of urban agriculture?

Dr. Wayne Roberts: It’s a bit of a trick question to ask if education is central to urban agriculture. It’s equally a trick question to ask if providing veggies for people on low income is central, or if controlling diabetes and heart disease is central to urban ag, or if having quiet time in a natural setting is central, or if having quality time outdoors with friends is central, or if growing foods that you grew up with in another country is central.

It’s a bit of a trick question because it falls into the trap of thinking anything to do with food or food policy has once central purpose. The argument I put forward in my e-book, Food for City Building, which is based on my work as leader of the very successful Toronto Food Policy Council, is that “the single most important thing to know about food is that there is no single most important thing.”

Almost all food policies worth their salt – or should I say worth their salt reduction? – serve multiple purposes, the value of which depends on the person who’s directly involved. Which one is central to any particular person at any particular time will vary because the whole crux of food policy is that food is multifunctional.

But I won’t just dodge your question about education. Urban agriculture promotes experiential learning about many things – most obviously things that are related to food literacy, but, equally important, to a person’s general life skills and general competence and confidence.

If I was forced to say the most important thing the experience of urban agriculture teaches, I would say empowerment — empowerment through personal and community growth, and empowerment that’s balanced by humility about how much we humans have to learn and how little we control through tools and manipulation alone.

That’s why people get high on urban ag and on food actions generally; it’s a form of empowerment that’s very grounding (literally) and centering.

There aren’t many activities – there certainly aren’t enough in our society – that give a hands-on lesson in awesome empowerment, empowerment that balances self-respect with grace and awe, based on respect for all the forces that make food and health possible.

The really nice thing about having multiple food goals is that food goals aren’t mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the more the merrier. You can enjoy the personal high of food production and also enjoy the taste of eating fresh food. It’s the non-exclusive nature of food that leads Vandana Shiva to say that “the food movement is a movement of ands, not buts.”

That’s why we don’t want to get caught in the trap of saying food has only one main thing going for it.

Douglas Gayeton: If urban agriculture can’t make a big dent in feeding people, what’s the point?

Dr. Wayne Roberts: To be honest, I see food as the icing on the cake of urban agriculture. A green roof – just to give one example – more than pays for itself by holding onto rainfall and keeping it out of the sewers, which is a huge savings for the city. The food is a bonus, on top of a whole suite of positives — keeping water out of the sewers, producing oxygen in a smoggy city by having more plants to pump out oxygen, providing a safe and comfortable place where neighbors can meet and strengthen their ability to act as a community, providing a safe harbor for pollinators at a time when they’re stressed in a countryside choking with pesticides, and on and on. The same goes for almost all forms of urban agriculture.

Urban ag can pay its way just by making use of all the so-called waste that cities pay billions to haul away to landfills. In fact, I believe shifting so-called food waste – about half the food that’s produced around the world is wasted – from a waste removal to a resource management perspective is a major function of urban ag. Cities should use the money they now waste hauling garbage away to pay urban farmers to grow food.

When we start paying people to grow food in cities, we will get production up. I believe a reasonable start-up objective for a city action plan is to produce a third of everyone’s five servings a day of fresh fruits and vegetables within city borders. Another third should be grown in the area surrounding the city, and the final third can be brought from further afield. There are so many ways that first big step will benefit a city government and budget, a smart city will invest a major portion of the current budgeted which is dedicated to waste removal to food production.