« River Repatriation, II | Main | NEW Math »

January 21, 2005

Eating Close to Home

Pike Place MarketEat Here, a new book by Worldwatch Institute’s Brian Halweil, takes a close look at a topic that is close to many northwesterners’ hearts and taste buds: the burgeoning local food movement. The book is a bit too data-packed—not quite accessible enough for a general audience—but it does have some gems in it, including a series of case studies of communities, businesses, and consumers around the world who are working together to make their food less traveled and more sustainable.

Among these is a fast-food chain based in Vancouver, Washington, called Burgerville. Burgerville a 40-year-old, 1600-employee business whose menu is reminiscent of McDonald’s, except for one thing: it buys the bulk of its ingredients from farmers in Oregon and Washington--Oregon beef, Tillamook cheddar, Pacific Northwest halibut, and so on—and works with local distributors and wholesalers. Even more unusual: Burgerville’s menu changes with the season.

Programs that promote local, sustainable agriculture have made inroads in other unlikely arenas: Kaiser-Permanente, the United States' largest health care provider, is experimenting with hosting farmers markets and with serving locally grown produce and antibiotic-free meat in its cafeterias; big food-service firms such as California’s Bon Appetit now offer meals based on regional produce. Even school cafeterias are starting to implement such programs (the Olympia, Washington, school system is a Northwest model). And then there’s the rise of farmers' markets, subscription farms, “farm shops,” and other farm-to-market efforts.

Why does all this matter? Because at the other end of the spectrum, the food industry is going global with a vengeance—as Halweil describes in detail, starting with an interesting thumbnail history of the storage, shipping, and hybridization breakthroughs (eg, tough tomatoes) that have led to today’s global supermarket.

Key stats include the tripling of international food trade since 1961 and a 25 percent increase in the distance food travels since 1980, with corresponding increases in packaging waste, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and loss of local farmland.

Perishables, the fastest-growing segment of the food transport business, are among the biggest environmental culprits because it takes so much more fossil fuel to transport them than they provide in food energy. One expert calls the process “burning lots of petroleum to ship cold water around.”

Long-distance food can also be hazardous to your health, because it’s more vulnerable to contamination from bacteria, biowarfare agents, and good old infectious diseases, such as the hepatitis A that a Chi-Chi’s restaurant served up in 2003.

Eat Here offers a menu of strategies for fostering local-food efforts (some are online); prioritizing them according to practicality and impact would be helpful. Beyond policies and programs to support local farms and farm-to-consumer efforts and to stop sprawl, he proposes systemic shifts to make food prices reflect their true costs, such as tax shifts to discourage sprawl and energy use; and elimination of massive subsidies to big growers of select crops.

As consumers, probably the first thing we can do is pay closer attention to our choices, and the contradictions inherent in them. Halweil points out—which Whole Foods’ John Mackey echoes in a Grist interview—that consumers are part of the solution and the problem. We want to know the producer, as it says at Pike Place Market, but we also clamor for exotic produce and international foods. Can we have our heirloom tomatoes and Mexican mangoes too?

P.S.: Ecologist Sandra Steingraber aired another idea for supporting locally grown food (or specifically, locally grown organic food) in a recent essay.

P.P.S.: The Northwest, of course, has many innovative businesses and organizations who help consumers connect with local growers, including Portland’s New Seasons Market and the Food Alliance; Seattle Tilth; BC’s Farm Folk/City Folk; the Chef’s Collaborative; Washington’s Farming and the Environment; and WSU's climate-friendly farming program. And for more on why eating local may trump organic--see an earlier post here.

Posted by Elisa Murray | Permalink


Thanks for a great post! I'm delighted that you're spreading the word on the importance of eating locally grown food. I first started paying attention to this issue (and made relevant changes in my food-buying habits) several years ago, when I read Joan Dye Gussow's book "This Organic Life." It's an idiosyncratic book--it's part memoir, and it includes many recipes--but woven through it is a powerful and convincing case that our current food system is destroying the planet on which it (and we) depend. Perhaps if the book you mention (Eat Here) is too fact-filled for some folks, they can turn to Gussow's book for a more narrative introduction to the topic.

Posted by: Elizabeth B. | Feb 1, 2005 4:54:12 PM