On Buying Local Food, And WhyBy Daniel Payne for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
I decided some time ago that I wish to eat as little as possible from the “industrial” food chain; that is to say, I wish to buy little food from factory farms which viciously and needlessly abuse the animals they produce and which degrade the earth in which they grow their plants. As a result, I buy as much of my food as I can—most of it—from farmers’ markets, from small stores, and directly from the farmers that have grown the food. It has been fairly though not totally easy to make this transition, and my health and the health of my local community are better for it.
In a sense my purchases are a protest against the types of farming I abhor, but in another sense—a more important one—my purchases merely reflect how I view the best allocation of my money, the type of farms I believe are best to buy from, and what I believe to be the healthiest food and purchases for both me and for the planet. These are simple and quantifiable reasons for how and why I spend my money, and are thus best understood by referring to Occam’s Razor: the simpler, the better.
Still more deeply, on a philosophical level, I shop for food the way I do in part because of my deeply held beliefs concerning self-governance: I cannot govern myself well if I cede so many acts of governance to people who I have never met, do not know, and cannot trust. In contracting others to grow my meat, my milk and my vegetables, I wish to keep this arrangement as closely and intimately as I can to myself and within my control. To purchase from an “industrial” chain is to engage in ignorance, uncertainty and recklessness, for it is almost impossible to know exactly what I am purchasing, and from whom I am purchasing it. To buy food locally, to learn from where it comes and who grows it, and how, is to replace that incomprehension with a sturdy bedrock of certainty, and the ability to exercise one’s own sovereignty rises in direct proportion to that transparency. The difference between corporate agribusiness and small local farms is all the difference between a Congressional caucus and a family meeting: from which gathering comes more clarity, efficiency and genuine progress? Which is better for the people involved?
Still, my beliefs and my way of life sometimes make people upset with me, and so my purchases and my philosophy can sometimes make for a lonely way of life. “You will never be able to feed the world on local food,” people sneer, “and anyways it is too expensive.” Of course, I am not interested in feeding the world on local food—I am interested in feeding the local community on local food. Yet critics often begin with this charge as if it actually means something. The jealous assumption seems to be that if I were to enjoy a fine rib-eye steak from my local farmer, then it must follow that the world should be able to enjoy it, and if my farmer cannot provide enough rib-eye steaks for the entire world, then he should close up shop and let the feedlots and the big slaughterhouses take care of things. Thus in one fell swoop is eliminated both the concept of local food and the concept of localism itself, the idea that different things work for different people in different places. And with the death of localism surely comes the death of local government and even self-government; why should it not?
The charge that local food is “too expensive” is also oft-cited, and, so far as I can tell, it is made solely by people who have never purchased local food, or who have purchased only a luxury item (such as a rib-eye steak) from a local farmer, deemed it too expensive, and returned immediately to the safety of National Beef, or Tyson’s, or whoever is selling the most food the most cheaply these days. But of course one has more options than a filet mignon or a similar cut. There are beef bones, chicken bones and chicken heads and feed and gizzards and necks—all things that could be used to make hearty, healthy soup stocks to which one could add a modest amount of meat and vegetables and grains, and for an astonishingly low price; surely the price is lower per calorie and per nutrient than one could buy from a stock can in the grocery store. Yet having been proven wrong on price, people will instead switch to the contention that local food “takes too much time,” by which of course they mean they are unwilling to assume personal responsibility for the preparation of their own low-cost, high-nutrient-density meals; they would prefer the supermarket suppliers take care of that troublesome business, no matter how unhealthy or economically inefficient it may be. So we have gone from, “I cannot afford it,” to “I do not really care to do it.” Thus do we make the transition from helplessness to bad self-government, which is not a great conversion but is an easier one to quantify.
To purchase “industrially,” of course, is not to abandon or mock the principles of self-government and individual sovereignty and local community, but it does these latter things some harm, and not an immeasurable amount of harm. The tenets that underlie the one are in direct competition and contrast with the tenets that underlie the other; one can partake in both economic and ideological strains to some degrees, but the result will be two doctrines that do not mesh Ultimately, one must triumph over the other. This outcome will depend not solely on what we purchase, and from where, but also in how we think about what we purchase, and how we examine the effects our purchasing dollars have on ourselves, each other, and the larger world.