Local Food for Thought

Two takes on local food

Local Food for Thought

Two members of the University of Minnesota’s Local Foods Task Force discuss the ins and outs of local food, from transportation to trade.

Farm to fork. Food miles. Foodsheds. Locavores. While these concepts and buzzwords are nothing new, they’ve recently seen an American revival. Spurred by environmental, economic, health and lifestyle concerns, society is getting back to the basics once again. But the exact definition of “local” is just one of many issues left to contend with. Proponents are still sorting out the details of transportation, distribution, supply and demand, and a batch of other conundrums.

In search of some clarity, Momentum sat down with two members of the University of Minnesota’s Local Foods Task Force. Here, we’ve rolled the key ingredients of the conversation into bite-sized remarks.

Margaret Adamek
Research Fellow, Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, University of Minnesota

“I spend time every year in Mexico and their local food system is alive and well. There are families that walk out to the backyard, grab an egg out of a coop, pull a mango off the tree, and dad comes back with a fish that he caught that morning. It doesn’t mean they don’t have an industrial food system. But it’s not necessarily seen as a cultural movement because they haven’t gotten so far away from it.

Local food isn’t just about food miles. It’s about relationships to place, to foodways, to mealtime, to food traditions. It’s a look backward and a realization that we need to retool our food systems. There’s a family life policy dimension, too. It’s not just about the support of policy to get the food in and out of the ground. It’s also about making people’s lives manageable to create this shift.

With commodity-based agriculture, the price tag might be cheaper, but the farmer doesn’t necessarily get a fair price. Then, there are all the costs that are unaccounted for in the industrial food system. There’s a lot of math left to be done on the exact formula for reducing our carbon footprint. Maybe we’ll end up with stills in our basement and coops in our backyard to avoid the problem altogether.

We’re renewing an old way of doing things and, at the same time, we’re layering in new technologies and ideas. There’s an enormous learning curve. And it’s not an either/or issue, where you’re either a locavore or an industrial food-meister. There’s this huge gray area in the middle. We’re not going to figure it all out before we do it. We’re going to figure it out by doing it.”

Robert King
, Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota

“When they find these old Greek ships, what’s in them? It’s food. It’s wine and olive oil and other things. Trade in food products has been happening for thousands of years and people have benefited from that. So, we shouldn’t lightly give up the benefits of trade. Local foods can help support the local economy by cycling more dollars in, but if you want to export food, you should be willing to import it.

One challenge right now is that local foods systems are inefficient from a transportation standpoint. When you look at a farmers market, for example, you’ve got a lot of trucks going a fair number of miles, carrying fairly little, and going back empty. You’ve got consumers who often drive a long way to get to the market. And farmers can spend many hours getting ready for and going to the market. So, I think we need to look at how well they’re getting compensated.

Also, we need to get up to a scale where more efficient means of distribution can be used. Yet, I believe there are people in this movement who don’t want to get to that scale. We need to find ways to achieve scale without losing that connection with individual people. And there will be times of the year when it’s not feasible to be getting fresh vegetables. For those times, maybe we want to think about connecting with communities in warmer places.

The question is, ‘How do we create a local foods system where the contributions people make get rewarded fairly, but also one that’s efficient and not too expensive for people to participate in?’ That’s going to be an exciting challenge.”