Food for Thought: Local Food!

8 Apr

Living in the Pioneer Valley it is almost impossible to ignore the numerous groups and non-profits that are looking to promote the sourcing of local food. Bumper stickers urge one to “Buy Local!” and that “Farms = Food”. But why does it matter where our food is coming from? And is it possible to source all of our favorite foods locally? And, what does “local” actually mean?

As it turns out, there is not a universally accepted definition for a “Local (or Regional) Food System”.  According to a USDA Economic Report from 2010 (you can read the whole report here), definitions vary from food sourced up to 400 miles from where it is produced, to food produced in one’s state (I’ve also heard people claim anywhere from 100 to 500 miles is “local”). These varying definitions obviously leave a lot of room for interpretation, especially because states differ drastically in size, but, at the very least, they serve as a jumping off point for the less geographical characteristics that make up a Local Food System. According to this same report, people also associate local food with small farms and with the values those farms embody in their farming practices (organic, solar power, sustainability, etc).  For many, local food also means investing in the local economy—and the USDA does note that job creation seems to be increasing in areas that support community agriculture, since more agricultural production can mean more available jobs in processing, transporting, packaging, and retailing. When consumers have relationships with local farmers, it encourages them to demand more locally produced food in places that are often controlled by bigger companies, and as the movement grows, more and more of these local products are making their way into supermarkets, restaurants, schools, and convenience stores.

Challenges (both financially and logistically) concerning local production have emerged as consumer demand for local food has increased. Seasonal produce, limited resources, inaccessible prices (depending on the product/farmer/location) and slaughterhouse zoning are just a few variables that those who are determined to create sustainable regional food systems have to juggle.

However, those who are resolute have had no shortage of creative solutions. A few examples include: year-long crop production in greenhouses, more and more farmers markets being able to accept SNAP benefits (formerly called Food Stamps), and innovative solutions like mobile slaughterhouses, which can really alleviate transportation hassles and costs that livestock farmers face in areas in which zoning prevents slaughterhouses construction. CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are also spreading—last fall my roommates, neighbors, and I shared a weekly CSA from Hampshire College, which was affordable and plentiful (we also got to pick our own flowers, and were given carving pumpkins in October). However, if this option doesn’t fit your needs, there are plenty of other CSAs in the Pioneer Valley, and these include vegetable shares, meat shares, egg shares, etc! A shout out is also due to Professor Paul Wetzel, who for the last few years has run a neighborhood CSA, which neighbor Eleanor Cook (’13) described as “a wonderful way to build community on Petticoat Hill Road”. Another place to find local products is at River Valley Market—they have a wide variety of foods as well as weekly tastings, events, and rewards for bringing your own bags and/or biking to the store.

But why should you care about eating local? Humans used to eat locally, but that was mostly out of necessity, and we have now developed an international food system that is extensive, incredibly varied, and, in a lot of places, terribly exploited. For me, my forays into food studies began when I took a semester off from school and had the opportunity to live in Burkina Faso, West Africa. Most people I met while I was in Burkina ate millet (or sorghum) ground up and cooked into a pasty substance called  (the consistency reminded me a bit of tapioca pudding). Meat and fish are expensive and thus rarely consumed, and sauces made of cabbage, tomatoes, or onions usually complimented the . When we ate at restaurants we usually ate rice or couscous—but the rice served there was all imported from China or India. Burkinabe farmers are growing rice (incredibly, as much of the country’s natural resources have been exploited and much of the soil has been completely depleted of nutrients), but they are having trouble selling it, as they are unable to compete with how cheap the price of the imported rice is.

ImageUncle Sam’s face was everywhere—although most of the rice bags I saw were no longer holding their products, but instead being used as schoolbags. 

The U.S. is in a very different situation than Burkina, (especially in terms of food and water access) but our food choices—because of our far reaching economy, monetary resources, and taste for variety—have an impact on the lives of others around the world.  If we can’t eat locally here in the Connecticut River Valley, an area full of incredible farmland, then we will only continue to become more dependent on imported crops—many of which are cultivated with environmentally harmful methods and cheap, unregulated labor. We have to change the system, for our own sake and for the sake of people in places with less opportunity, money, and resources. By eating locally we ensure that our neighbors are supported—and the stronger, and more sustainable, our community becomes, the more we will be able to help others who have not been so fortunate.

And it’s not as difficult as you’d think! If you (like me), frequent any of the restaurants and cafés in downtown Northampton, it’s hard to miss the “Local Hero” signs and stickers that many businesses display. They’re in Serio’s Market and State Street, as well as at GoBerrySylvester’s, and Woodstar (these are just a few of my favorites—to see a full list of businesses that buy locally, click here!). But where do these labels come from, and what exactly do they mean? Well, the organization behind these yellow stickers is Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), a non-profit that operates out of South Deerfield. To learn more about CISA and the Local Hero program, I talked with Margaret Christie, who was serving as CISA’s executive director from 1997-1999 when the Local Hero program first started. She is now the Director of Special Projects.


Eva: Why (and when) was CISA founded? What are CISA’s main goals?

Margaret: CISA was founded in 1993 by a group of people who wanted to involve the larger community in addressing some of the challenges facing agriculture in the Pioneer Valley. Our focus continues to be on sustaining agriculture in our region by connecting farmers and the community. We care a lot about farm viability and about making local food a larger part of the diet of all of the residents of the Pioneer Valley, regardless of where they live and eat.

Eva: Who does CISA work with? How big is its reach?

Margaret: As a link between farmers and the larger community, we work with lots of farm businesses and with their customers—individual consumers, retailers, restaurants, dining services, specialty foods producers. We also work with partner organizations that are concerned with health and wellness, local economic development, and related activities like youth leadership, farm to school, or farm business incubation. We work primarily in the 3 counties of the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts, but also work statewide in some cases—for example with the other Buy Local organizations in Massachusetts and the statewide Food Policy Council and Food Policy Alliance.

Eva: Why was the Local Hero program started? How does one become a Local Hero? What are the requirements? The benefits?

Margaret: When we started the Local Hero program we realized that many farmers in Massachusetts had taken significant steps to benefit consumers—we had a strong Integrated Pest Management program at UMass, an organic certification program, a model farmland preservation program—but farmers often did not see the benefits of these actions in the marketplace. We wanted to raise the profile of local agriculture and help consumers understand that they could play a role in sustaining local agriculture and the benefits that come with it—a strong local economy, connection to how food is grown, reduced transportation impacts, and beautiful rural vistas.

There is a lot of specific information about Local Hero membership and benefits on our website (and see business-type-specific information at each tab on the right).  Members pay to join the program, and those payments partly cover the costs of running the program. Specific membership requirements vary based on membership type—restaurants, for example, need to provide receipts from several different local-food-vendors or farmers. Specialty foods producers have two tiers of membership depending on how much they use local ingredients. For the most part, however, growing local or using local ingredients is the primary requirement—there is not, for example, a requirement related to growing practices.

Eva: What are some of CISA’s long-term goals?

Margaret: We would like to see local (and regional) food and farm products become a larger portion of the diets and household use of Pioneer Valley residents. We’ve just announced a goal of reaching a quarter of our food purchases in the next 20 years.

Eva: Are there opportunities for students to become involved (volunteer, intern, etc.) with CISA?

Margaret: Yes, we have lots of interns, and we regularly have them from Smith. Kamillah Weeks is working with us now.

Eva: What other programs does CISA run or is CISA involved with?

Margaret: Senior FarmShare—pays farmers to supply a share of the harvest to low-income seniors

Technical Assistance—we provide a lot of consulting, mentoring, and workshops to farm and food businesses.  Our current calendar is here.

Food system development and education—currently we are researching options for meat cutting and processing.  We also provide information and referral services for many start-up farm and food businesses, and provide information about how to scale up the local food system for a lay audience.

 Emergency Farm Fund—a zero-interest revolving loan fund for farms that have experienced a weather-related disaster.

 PVGrows*—CISA provides staffing for this collaborative network focused on the food system in the Pioneer Valley.  CISA staff are also actively engaged on the PVGrows Steering Committee and the PVGrows Loan Fund.

Eva: What (in your opinion) has been the most exciting accomplishment thus far for CISA?

Margaret: The Pioneer Valley has a culture of commitment to local food and farms, and I think CISA has played a critical role in creating that culture. Farmers choose to farm here because of this enthusiasm and active support, and people who live here count it as a huge benefit. Local foods businesses can count on that support, and that allows them to do new, hard, and creative things that bring a lot of benefits to residents here.

 If you want to learn more about CISA, you can visit their website. Thanks to Margaret for taking time out to answer my questions, and be sure to keep on the lookout for those Local Hero stickers!

*Smith students are invited (and encouraged!) to attend the bi-annual PVGrows forums. Last fall I (and a few other students & professors) travelled to Springfield and met with numerous business owners, educators, and community members to discuss a wide variety of food related issues and topics. I had the opportunity to sit next to Gary Schaefer, one of the owners of Bart’s Homemade Ice-Cream, and tell him about the four pints of his ice cream that were the main attraction of my apartment’s caramel pecan brownie sundae party, as well as hear about some of the challenges he faces as a small business owner. If you haven’t tried Bart’s, do yourself a favor and pick up a pint of the Mud Pie flavor—Bart’s is now available in the Campus Center!

Image(Zoe Travis, ’13 and the home-made brownies –anticipating the delicious locally made Bart’s ice cream that is softening on the counter)

And if you’d like to be informed about any food related events and opportunities (like the PVGrows forum), email Joanne Benkley—she’ll put you on the CEEDS email list.

Thanks for reading!

P.S. Seniors (and those that are 21+)! Looking for a light, refreshing, bubbly drink to welcome in the warm weather? Try some Ginger Libation (and Local Libation), made by Green River Ambrosia. They boast a “Local Hero” sticker and, due to tremendous demand and stellar reviews, are available at State Street, River Valley Market, Provisions, Doyle’s, and Liquors 44. It’s perfect for graduation celebrations, and made right up the road in Greenfield! It’s important to remember that “local” isn’t just limited to food production—you can also get products like flowersalcohol, and pet food from a nearby producer!

P.P.S. Love Ted talks? Check out this one by Ron Finely—a guerilla gardener in South Central LA. His work is similar to Gardening the Community—an extraordinary project happening right up the road in Springfield, MA.

-Eva McNamara, ’13

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