Spring is officially here (although I thought we were still waiting for winter), and for many growers and local food enthusiasts that means being gripped by planting mania. For me it manifests itself in attending events like the 8th annual Toledo Grows seed swap or having way more seeds than space to plant them in – like 40 varieties of chili peppers this year! So, with all the enthusiasm people have right now, it is clear that we are steadily building the future of food one garden, one plant and one person at a time. The popularity of local food is now clearly undeniable, although it’s still hard to believe that just a few short years ago local food remained a pretty obscure concept.
Local food has gone mainstream, it’s true. And the popularity of locally raised and produced food has actually helped a wide range of people better understand how their purchases can affect not only their health, but also the local economy and other people’s job prospects. In this way, purchasing food from local producers has encouraged people to not only alter how they think about food, but also how they approach buying in general. Both are super positive developments. In fact, after starting to grow your own food, the learning curve tends to bend in the direction of making more and more basic consumer goods yourself at home and/or repurposing or re-using other goods in some capacity.
So what happens when the very thing you are doing to have more control over your consumption decisions itself becomes the next hot commodity? When an independently-owned organic brand turns out to be a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Monsanto? Or just when the organic produce that has the potential to transform the way people eat is so expensive at the grocery store that it encourages people to rationalize the purchase of only microwaveable, processed foods? These are just some of the food contradictions of our life in the industrial food system. I don’t have the answers, but I’ve had countless experiences that lead me to ask these questions.
Overall, since organic and local food has become so popular, there are many businesses that are using those very labels to their benefit, trying to tap into what they see as a trend of “ethical” or green consumption. And that would be good, if it weren’t for the fact that many labels are misleading. Unfortunately, many of these operations see local food more as dollar signs and less as an opportunity to strengthen the local economy or build community ties, so they are more willing to cut corners when it comes to labeling. Not to mention that in the U.S., it is not legally required to even identify genetically-modified ingredients (GMOs) in food (although that soon may change in California:
The point is not to depress us further but to remind us that we need to be aware of the difference between businesses who claim to do good works and have ethical and/or locally-sourced products and those that actually do them. That may sound cynical, but local food and other “green” products have hit the level of popularity now that entrepreneurs are coming out of seemingly everywhere to turn some aspect of local food and sustainability into new engines for their own personal economic growth. Don’t get me wrong, as there are some amazing organizations out there that do vital work for local food, urban farming and community sustainability.
All I’m saying is that experiences I’ve had recently have reminded me of the importance of doing your background research and offering support only to those organizations whose goals and methods match your own. In this case, actions actually do speak louder than words, so lucky for us we have websites like Real Time Farms, Local Harvest and Yelp to help us gather information about growers, producers and other suppliers of our food. After all, the way to truly know your food is to know your farmer, and next time we’ll help you do just that with a preview of farmer’s markets, vendors and even a few words about CSAs.