Does the local food movement really work?

Action Speaks!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 6, 2010

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Providence cultural center AS220's panel discussion series Action Speaks! continues with a look at the "local food" movement.

All of the Action Speaks! chats use an underappreciated date in history as a starting point. In this case, it's 1971 — the opening of Alice Waters' Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California.

The launch of the restaurant and Waters' subsequent press to bring gardens to Berkeley schools are considered watersheds in the country's "locavore" movement — a phenomenon hailed as answer to everything from global warming (local food need not be shipped so far) to cultural degradation (keep your neighborhood farmer in business!).

But lately the push has faced some tough questions: What is really wrong with internationalism in food? Why should local farming be protected if it isn't financially viable?

These are among the queries moderator Marc Levitt plans to level at his four panelists: Tom McNamee, author of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse; Rolando Robledo, a locavore chef based in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Katherine Brown, director of the Southside Community Land Trust in Providence; and Christine Thompson, associate dean of arts and sciences at Johnson & Wales University.

The discussion, free and open to the public, is set for October 13 from 5:30 to 7 pm at AS220, 115 Empire Street. The Phoenix, a sponsor of the series, caught up with Thompson for a Q&A over email.

Thompson writes that she grew up in a small farming community, "milk from the neighbor's cows, mushrooms hunted by my grandmother, peaches from a local orchard." She has worked as a chef and written restaurant reviews. She's taught courses in food writing and in the role of food in film and literature.

BLOGGER STEPHEN BUDIANSKY, IN A RECENT OP-ED IN THENEW YORK TIMES, ARGUED THAT THE LOCAL FOOD MOVEMENT MAKES HYPERBOLIC CLAIMS ABOUT ITS ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS. HE ALSO SUGGESTED THAT SHIPPING CALIFORNIA-GROWN VEGETABLES ACROSS THE COUNTRY ACTUALLY CONSUMES LITTLE IN THE WAY OF ENERGY. DOES HE HAVE A POINT? I haven't evaluated the claims about food miles or carbon emissions associated with local food production v. corporate farming. I do worry about the size of agribusiness. Yes, they have achieved remarkable economies of scale, but it is this very scale that creates great risks. The lack of biodiversity in the varieties of grains cultivated, pesticide use on large tracts of land, use of antibiotics and hormones — these cannot be sustained in the long term. Not good for the land or for our health.

Even with cross-country transportation, suppliers are able to keep prices low. My point of comparison would be quality. Would you rather have lettuce just picked by a local farmer or purchase lettuce at a supermarket that was picked five days ago? Do we get square (conveniently sized and shaped for packing), picked green/ethylene red (not ripe) tomatoes cheap or do we buy fewer vine-ripened? Is that the quality we want?

If food at the farmer's market is more expensive, can everyone afford it? Can everyone get to the market? How much energy is consumed by people getting to farmer's markets? I expect it is not much more than what is used in weekly trips to the supermarket. Access and price are the critical factors. During the summer in Rhode Island, there are many farm markets within reach (Kennedy Plaza, Hope High School, Pawtucket, etc.) but during the rest of the year, access to a wide variety of fresh produce and other foods is not as accessible.

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