The term locavore was coined in 2005 by Jessica Prentice, who, along with Sage Van Wing and Dede Sampson, made a commitment to eat only food sourced within a one-hundred-mile radius of their homes in Northern California. This effort was publicized in the media during World Environment Day in San Francisco, and subsequently entered the lexicon. Originally conceived as a movement against industrial farming and the high food-miles (and subsequent carbon footprint or total carbon emissions created by a product via production and transportation) that a typical supermarket meal racks up, focusing on locally-grown food was a way to ensure that the farmers growing one’s produce, meat, and dairy were using methods aligned with one’s values. This was especially of interest to those concerned with the provenance of their food in a landscape where “natural” had become a packaging buzz word with no real meaning and large-scale organic farms were being reported as causing new kinds of environmental damage, such as water mismanagement and faulty oversight of practices.
I know for me, in this world of CAFOs and ultra-pasteurization and GMOs, the ability to visit the farm or talk to the farmer helps ensures that the food that I eat is grown in a manner consistent with my own values. As hard as it might be for me to spend the extra dollar or so a pound on locally-grown onions and apples, I am almost always rewarded in the end. The bland apple taste of granny smiths grown a continent away will never be as interesting or enticing as the empire grown a few towns away. While the nuances of the onion will be hard to detect after cooking, I can almost imagine the flow of my few dollars staying close to home as I wipe away the northeast dirt from the transparent burgundy skin as I peel it before slicing. With the meat and dairy I purchase, I insist upon no hormones or antibiotics, humane treatment and low pasteurization – ideals I can often only ensure if the items are from local, known farms.
But yet, more and more, I have ceased looking for the place of origin if these other criteria can be confirmed. With produce, yes, the local farmer’s market is my go-to place to shop. But I also belong to the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, which has made their national reputation on vetting each of their products and purveyors for adhering to similar guidelines. I often buy red peppers or fair trade pineapples from them year round. When in Somerville, I shop as often as possible at Sherman’s Market for dairy, meat and seasonal produce, but those are not the only items in our home. Quinoa, purchased in bulk, is a frequent staple on my grocery list, as is Revere, MA-based organic Teddy’s peanut butter. But I also indulge in the fantastic new ramen place in Cambridge, whose roast pork is tender and juicy and of unknown origin, but clearly of high quality and made with the utmost care, as is the rest of the only dish on the restaurant’s menu. In Brooklyn, I’ll gladly hand a few dollars over to the woman behind the counter of my favorite doubles joint for two handmade fry-bread-and-spicy-chickpea sandwiches. The beans and flour were most certainly purchased in bulk and are not organic, but the food is inexpensive and filling and I know the money supports a small local business while providing a welcome peek into the culture of my Caribbean-American neighbors.
I am proud to be the locavore in the city, but I am equally proud that my own definition of locavorism has evolved. Focusing on local farmers and purveyors has helped me to understand the seasonality of food, the quality that comes with both freshness and care, and the community that can be created when consumers take the time to get to know each other and those who help feed them. But focusing on the local has also reminded me that I live among a diverse community as well; my neighbors are not all farmers and cheesemakers. They are also laborers and teachers and mechanics and office workers and ethnic cooks. And when I travel – something I think is so important for understanding the larger world and being inspired and learning more about myself – local will mean something completely different. My new goal as a locavore is to be conscious of my global footprint while also being inclusive of what I can learn from others. Food, for me, is a universal language. While my husband may connect to others through music, or a photographer through images, I connect through food.
My own definition of locavore has evolved as more and more studies have come out that question the environmental single-mindedness of a strictly local diet. Yes, a local diet keeps money in the immediate economy. Yes, it can lower the overall carbon emissions from food procurement. But there are other factors at play when looking at the feasibility of a strictly local diet – from affordability to individual health to persistence. Some of these factors have to do with the larger culture we live in: we don’t yet have a food system where small and large players are treated equally, or where organic and local foods are equally accessible to all who might want them. Further, foods that reflect the values of diverse cultures and help them connect with each other and their greater community are not always available locally, and other non-local products are so ingrained in the typical western diet that for a large population to give them up for ideological reasons would have drastic personal and global effects. These are valid arguments against focusing on local-only procurement – and perhaps can lead us to focus upon a more expansive value system that can help create greater change beyond our individual communities. Buying fair trade coffee, chocolate, and exotic fruit is one avenue. Yes it costs more, but I also know that my values are represented from grower to table, much like the onions I buy at the farmer’s market. And like that local apple, it tastes better.
Over the past year or more I have been moving towards a broader interpretation of “locavore” – and I am not the only one. Locavore is now often taken to mean food procurement that is often or mostly local, but always embracing sustainability and quality, community and environmental soundness. Reflecting on this change as we move to the new year, I am still proud to call myself the Locavore in the City – even if how I define myself has evolved.