Eating Local in Big Ag Country

I live in the Bay Area, where it’s easy to be a locavore (there’s even salt here!). Not so in Iowa, where the agricultural focus on commodity crops like corn means that the vast majority of the state’s food is imported. Chef Kurt Michael Friese writes movingly in Grist about his uphill battle to run a locavore joint in Iowa:

My thought was, the closer it is to my kitchen door, the fresher it’s going to be. ... So 11 years ago I opened Devotay, a tiny, quirky little restaurant serving Spanish-style food made from local ingredients (wherever feasible) smack in the belly of the agribusiness beast. There were ADM and IBP (now Tyson) and Quaker plants less than 30 minutes away. There was one other business I could find that endeavored to buy locally (the renowned New Pioneer food co-op), and when I walked through the farmers’ market in my white chef’s coat, people looked at me funny.

Friese began making connections with local farmers, started a smallish garden with his wife, and kept going to the farmers’ market.

Along the way I learned that buying all my ingredients off the back of a truck from U.S. Foodservice is definitely easier, and often cheaper. But that food is never of a higher quality, and it takes its toll. Any business can take great strides when it stops looking at price and starts looking at cost. Same holds true for individuals and families. For just a moment set aside the price on the tag, and take a good hard look at the hidden costs of cheap food.

Chefs, you may think it cheaper to buy that commodity beef from Sysco. Moms and dads, it may seem more convenient to get the cheap grocery-store apples from New Zealand than to visit the nearby orchard, or to get the frozen entrée rather than making a simple pasta dish at home. But imagine the impact on our environment and health-care system of all that processed food. Think of the fuel used to ship an apple halfway around the planet. Then consider the benefits of taking a walk through an orchard with your children, of having them learn at your apron strings, of shaking the hand that raised that steer.

Chef Friese, you get it. In the age of Wal-Mart it can be easy to forget that a cheap price may not convey the hidden cost of what’s produced—and to forget that often the costs are borne by those who can’t speak up for themselves.

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