What It Means to Eat Local
When it comes to what we put on our plates, “local” is all the rage. Food that is locally produced, marketed and consumed is generating increased interest from consumers throughout the United States, and in Northeast Florida, we’re no exception. Our growing desire to “eat local” has given rise to a network of farmers’ markets throughout the region; the robust proliferation of small, entrepreneurial food-related enterprises; and a community more engaged and connected than ever before around the table.
And yet, in the face of all these advances, lingering uncertainty remains. We’re told that buying local is a good thing to do. We hear that eating local is helpful. But when it comes to really understanding the value of buying close to home, the one thing no one seems to know is: What, exactly, does “local” mean?
There is no universal definition of what “local” food means, though locavores might argue the magic number is 100 miles. A clause in the 2008 Food and Farm Act also stipulates that products which travel less than 400 miles from their original point of origin or are produced within the same state can be called “locally or regionally produced,” so when consumers read “local” on labels, social media or even billboards, there’s no real way of knowing how the “localness” of that product or service is being defined. For some consumers, “local” refers specifically to food grown within a certain region, generally reasonably close to the place they identify as home.
For others, “local” food is associated with natural, organic and other specialty products marketed through grocers or restaurants or handcrafted food makers. For others yet, there’s a social component; buying “local” means knowing and supporting the people and businesses that have had a hand in bringing food to their table. National proponents suggest “local” is only a matter of geography, and therefore, when we think of eating and drinking local, our definition must include producers of all kinds—farmers, ranchers, fishers—in addition to individuals and institutions engaged in producing, processing, distributing and selling food in a given region. Of course, while it might seem silly to overthink the term “local,” the problem with leaving it fuzzy is that if we can’t define what it means, even in general terms, we also can’t define its relative value to our health, our communities and our economy.
In Northeast Florida, we needn’t look too far back to see how one wave of the “local” movement started. It was at Henry Flagler’s famous Ponce de León Hotel in St. Augustine. With a growing number of guests, Flagler needed more fresh vegetables. He collaborated with Thomas Hastings (a relative of the architect) to establish a nearby farming community to supply his ventures. What started as a small, diversified, farming district in the late 1800s has been renamed Hastings, and today is recognized for large-scale production of potatoes, cabbage and onions. Flagler regarded food not in terms of individual products or services but as an entire food system—a network of mutually beneficial relationships that support one another in growing a regional economy. Not only would excessive transportation and long-term storage diminish the quality of products served to guests, sourcing at a distance also passed over opportunities to create local jobs and cultivate a new market of consumers willing and able to buy their own region’s products. In short, buying too much produce from afar didn’t make good business sense. And some make that same argument today. Is it possible to eat 100% local all the time? With diligence and a bit of creativity, yes. But is it practical, given the demands of modern day society? Maybe not so much. That doesn’t mean, however, that a shift in the direction of “local” isn’t both doable and desirable.
LOCAL MEANS KNOWING YOUR FOOD
There is a new generation of food makers who recognize the need for a systemic, sustainable approach to cultivation and production of food, and it is perhaps this generation of “real food” advocates who best understand the value of, and challenges within, our shifting paradigms. Every day they are responding to consumer demands for locally grown food, traceable to its source, humane and sustainable in its production, while also battling the market realities of providing such products (often at slightly higher prices, or in locations that aren’t as convenient for shoppers). The good news for these growers and producers is that consumer trends are shifting and participation is definitely on the rise. According to Mimi Iannuzzi, leader of Slow Food First Coast, a regional organization dedicated to transforming food policy and production practices, “We are noticing younger moms are cooking more often, and they express real concerns about the integrity of the foods they use at home. The more they know, the more they are beginning to change their buying habits.”
LOCAL MEANS BIG-PICTURE THINKING
The irony of “eating local,” of course, is that it requires some serious big-picture thinking. Gone are the days when we had the time to grow all our own food and lifestyles that allowed us to manage its use throughout the seasons. Charming and quaint as it might sound, small farming in Northeast Florida isn’t an easy go, nor is running a small food business committed to sourcing local. There are real and serious business challenges—like pricing products competitively and reducing spoilage rates when food isn’t sold, teaching consumers the value of what’s being provided and finding time to “market” your goods. Thankfully, the number of local farms and producers is growing, and with that growth will eventually come a few efficiencies. Slowly but surely, thinking in terms of food systems will yield returns and the value of these produers’ big-picture planning will pay off.
LOCAL MEANS INNOVATION AND CONSERVATION
One of the most easily overlooked elements of the “eat local” movement is the incredible innovation that comes as growers and producers look for solutions to food system challenges. Every year, local farms are finding new ways to produce new products from what might otherwise be considered waste. Twinn Bridges Farm, for example, maintains a recycling program that converts vegetable oil (from the restaurants they supply) into bio-fuel and extracts glycerin as a by-product, which is then used to make natural soap. Cognito Farm, a protein powerhouse is producing sustainable beef, pork, poultry and eggs while eliminating the need for excessive use of antibiotics or growth hormones just by caring more humanely for their animals. But growers and producers aren’t the only local advocates invested in this new way of thinking. Chefs and restaurateurs are increasingly active proponents of the movement as well. As the most prevalent public face of food in our communities, their leadership is essential. Sustainable, local food practices require innovation, and a commitment to conservation. “Implementing conservation is not easy. We need to be extremely proactive and diligent to achieve our goals,” says Tom Gray, Moxie’s owner and chef. “We’ve instituted all sorts of conservation practices and invested in infrastructure that most people never see with the goal of producing the smallest carbon footprint achievable. While none of this is mandatory, we do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Jeff McNally, co-owner of The Floridian in St. Augustine, embraces similar practices. According to McNally, “We showcase locally crafted and locally grown ingredients every day, not only because buying local is good for the community, but because these foods are interesting, delicious and fun.”
LOCAL MEANS COMMUNITY
It’s impossible to understand the significance of buying “local” without also understanding the contributions our region’s farmers’ markets have made to the movement. Weekly gatherings of producers and consumers have become the iconic activity associated with “buying local”—and they enjoy a reputation for being true to what we believe is good about sourcing food from people we “know and trust.” Farmers’ markets are not only places of commerce, but also of community. It should be noted, it’s not always safe to assume that every farmers’ market in our region features vendors who source produce directly from a local farm. Markets that sell goods from various locations (with sources sometimes unknown to the sellers) still provide tremendous value to customers by making fresh food available in areas that might otherwise lack access, but some critics contend there’s a need for greater transparency in the transaction. The logic goes like this: If local farms aren’t supplying food directly to the market, then markets shouldn’t be called local farmers’ markets. Instead they should be more accurately described as produce markets. Some farmers’ markets in the region are taking a proactive approach by clearly defining parameters for its vendors. The largest market of this type is Beaches Green Market in Neptune Beach, which requires vendors to grow at least 75% of their offerings with the balance sourced directly from nearby growers. No store-bought items are allowed for resale, and vendors are directly accountable for knowing exactly where the food they are selling is sourced. Similarly, the Riverside Arts Market seeks to improve access to locally produced foods in Jacksonville’s urban core. Vendors must operate within a 100-mile radius of the city and are limited to products grown only on premises.
So what do all these swirling dynamics have to do with living “local” day to day? We’re not sure. What we do know is that “local” food is about so much more than food. How Florida’s First Coast chooses to define “local” will ultimately be shaped by the conversations we have, the decisions we make and the investments we choose to stand behind as a community. These are the things that will eventually define our region’s “local food” movement. As our region continues to develop an answer, it’s important to keep asking the questions: Where does this food come from? How was it grown or processed? Do I know and trust the maker of this product? Are these foods grown with a sustainable future in mind? Beyond odometer readings and borders on a map, it seems that living local is about building community, preserving farmland and making our food system more transparent to everyone. It’s about building a sense of social connectedness, a feeling of mutual exchange and a relationship between a consumer and a vendor. In its simplest form, it’s about knowing your food and trusting the people who make it.