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Challenging Local Foods

August 14, 2012

September marks the third annual NY Locavore Challenge. So now is the time to start thinking about local food. And almost on cue, the Times Union ran a piece this weekend entitled, “Our farms to Giants’ tables” about local food at the Giant’s training camp.

Except I find it kind of appalling.

What’s interesting is that when I showed the article to reasonable people, they didn’t quite understand what I was getting so upset about. And that was because they didn’t look carefully at the pictures.

The words are written by Steve Barnes, and he makes a measured case which is carefully crafted to not overstep its bounds. That said, the headline for the story doesn’t play out in the body of the article. Still, most of this piece is just human interest fluff. Very little relates to food except the following paragraph (boldface has been added for emphasis):

A significant portion of the produce, dairy and meat they eat every day comes from local and regional sources. Signs throughout the dining facility…identify the names and locations of farms that supply the products. Last week, potatoes were from New Bedford, Mass., milk was from Binghamton and local vegetables, grass-fed beef and a whole pig used in a pig roast were all from Purdy & Sons Foods in Sherburne, about 30 miles west of Cooperstown.

So what’s wrong with that? Well, let’s talk first about local food, and then we’ll go to the pictures.

The backlash against industrial agriculture has taken many forms. For a while it was organic, which focused on food produced without synthetic pesticides. At the birth of this movement, small farmers opted out of the status quo and found a way to make a living without succumbing to the demands of agribusiness.

But as organic food became more profitable, big agriculture took notice, and now it’s hard to tell some organic farms from their conventional Big Ag counterparts. So the focus shifted away from organic and onto sustainably produced local food.

The goals have always been the same: buying food that is raised with care, thinking about the land, and supporting those who are dedicated to preserving ecological diversity.

Sure, there are additional benefits that come along with buying local, like reducing transportation costs and keeping money within the community. And there are some people who are drawn to local food through these channels.

But I’m less concerned about potatoes that come from New Bedford, MA. That’s because they come from Jansal Valley Farms, and they are trying to preserve farmland in the south eastern corner of Massachusetts. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that they are in our region, and it’s a bit disingenuous to claim Jansal Valley as one of “Our farms.” However, putting them on the menu supports their efforts, and I can get on board with that.

Still, we have Sheldon Farms, a sixth generation family farm in Washington County that grows potatoes. And they have been very good about working with restaurants in the past. Plus they are just one of the many local farms that grow potatoes in the Capital Region.

I’m more concerned about things like milk. The words of the Times Union piece kind of brushed by that one saying that it came from Binghamton. But if you go to the picture, you’ll see that all the milk is from Hood Dairy. Sure, this large conventional dairy based out in Lynnfield, MA sources milk from many farms, some of which are in Binghamton.

This is not the milk that local food advocates are encouraging people to drink. It’s not that Ronnybrook milk is any more local than the stuff that comes from Binghamton. It’s just that it comes from a third generation family farm in the Hudson Valley that takes better care of their animals than most organic dairies.

Now you may just think I’m picking nits. But these are just the foods that were mentioned in the story. When you start looking at the pictures, you begin to see that more and more of the food labeled “local” does short shrift to the “Farm to table” movement invoked by the headline of the article.

Eat Local Ice Cream includes Edy’s which is distributed from Albany (but made in PA and based in CA).
Eat Local Yogurt
features Hood Dairy again. Really local would be Cowbella.
Eat Local Bread is Freihofer which is now Bimbo, the world’s largest bakery (in Mexico).
Eat Local Cheese comes from Great Lakes Cheese based in OH (with NY ingredients).
Eat Local Carrots are distributed from New Bedford, MA. Who knows where they’re from.
Eat Local Broccoli, Mushrooms & Onions all come from the same MA distributor too.

Look. You want to serve this food to the Giants at training camp, that’s fine with me. You want to write a story that says they really like the food at training camp, and they eat an awful lot, we’ve got no problem.

But when you start patting an organization on the back because they’ve brought food from “Our farms to Giants’ tables” and that includes meat that came through a local distributor, Hood milk, and produce from 200 miles away? Well, that’s a different story.

The good news is that people are starting to think about local food, and see it as a desirable thing to serve to special guests. But someone needs to stand up and say that in this case the execution is falling short of the goal.

I had hoped that would be the Times Union. I guess I was wrong.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2012 11:00 am

    Brilliant, Profusser. Let’s just hope Tony Romo is eating locally sourced chimichangas in anticipation of the Cowboys-Giants rematch two weeks hence.

  2. August 14, 2012 11:19 am

    I noticed that, too, like “hey, Massachusetts isn’t exactly local… it’s the next state over… but maybe they really mean regional, Northeastern?” I guess they couldn’t even go that far.

  3. Michelle permalink
    August 14, 2012 11:38 am

    Purdy and Sons food isn’t even a farm and who knows where they actually get their products. You certainly can’t tell from their website. They lowball the farmers and resell to institutions. They are the regional equivalent of Sysco and pretty much the antithesis of the Farm to Table movement.
    Try to get your product into a facility that uses Purdy and they will tell you that they can’t
    buy from you, you’ll have to sell to Purdy (at a greatly reduced price) to get into their facility. All the while, these institutions are actually TEACHING sustainability courses.

  4. August 14, 2012 11:57 am

    We’re pretty sure we saw a few Giants in the shop in the last couple of weeks (big, athletic guys loom large in our small space). I sure hope they could tell the difference between what they were getting in the cafeteria and their meals with us.

    The required parsing these days, and greenwashing, of many terms concerning food (local, sustainable, organic, beyond organic, non-gmo, all natural, etc.) is the reason we want to start the process of becoming Green Restaurant Assoc. certified. The desired goal of more regional and hyper-local foods getting on menus in the Cap Reg is happening but we’ve heard on the backend that some restaurants are saying they’re doing it (or implying their entire menu is sustainable/local/fresh) but not actually following through. We want to be ahead of the curve so that our customers know exactly where we stand – transparency and truthfulness (and getting down to the nitty-gritty, as you have here Daniel) are important to us and an increasing number of people. All of the benefits you stated for buying local foods are absolutely why we are so passionate about the issue; I have to add one more: we form relationships with the people who produce our food which translates into very real community building that can have long-lasting effects on wide-reaching levels. The farms are close enough to visit, we see the actual producers every week at our farmers market, and a network of local farmers/producers supporting each other has been created (we’re trying to help swing everyone’s nets a little wider).

    The Friehoffers and Portside Distributors use bugs me. Sure, they are sort of local (FH used to be anyway but eek, the stuff they put in the bread is scary). Portside gets their stuff (at least I was told they used to when they were Able Bakers) from Rockland Bakery in NJ and I know Rockland is using gmos, dough conditioners, etc. Marcus Guiliano of Aroma Thyme Bistro in Ellenville (“Chef on a Mission”) calls them out: http://www.chefonamissionblog.com/2012/01/this-bakery-is-scamming-school-kids.html

    What I’d like to see is UALB bring in a consultant (perhaps from Adventures In Food?) who can show them how to start sourcing all of their meals from within a certain mile radius (the Coop uses 150), all fresh, no frozen with more vegan and vegetarian options. I know the majority of students would go for it. One of these colleges needs to get involved in improving their food and supporting the local agricultural bounty many farmers are working really hard to provide. I bet Kilpatrick, Denison or any other of those around w/ big CSAs and presence in FMkts could have provided the produce for these meals.

  5. PensiveEngineer permalink
    August 14, 2012 12:41 pm

    Spot on. But I think you’re expecting a lot from the times union.

  6. August 14, 2012 1:23 pm

    I can certainly understand your point of view when it comes to exactly how this headline was worded, and I also believe that you were right in pointing out it was mostly a human interest article. While I am not a supporter of the local food movement, I agree that the aforementioned items weren’t what I would consider to be local. Moving outside the box a little here, but I really think this was just an article to attract people interested in either the Giants or food issues. This would arguably increase the articles’ readership since we can assume each interest group has at least one person who isn’t interested in the other topic. Slightly misleading, yes, but I’d be a betting man and say it didn’t cause too much harm either.

    With all that in mind, local food is full economic fallacies unsupported by any notable agricultural economist, or by any objective empirical study either. Saying that local food is flat out good for the economy is biased, unproven, and a bit naieve. I know that would grind a lot of peoples gears when I say that, but that is just how I see it as a student of economics and statistics. I need to see and read empirical evidence to support a claim, and I discount any argument fully founded in rhetoric. In the end, assessing the cons of this article is only justified if you can be a little skeptical of the pros of local food, which otherwise seem to be held with great reverence here.

    • August 14, 2012 2:04 pm

      Well said, Dave.

      Supporting local for the sake of quality is key, because if people buy stuff just because it’s local and it turns out to be complete garbage, that’s not promoting any advancement in agriculture or economy; it promotes complacency and doesn’t entice the casual shopper who doesn’t really care that local farms produce things they can buy at supermarkets.

      One more point I think is important to distinguish is that although the labeling has some of the caveats Daniel pointed out, the fact that people want to know where their food is coming from and that this information is actually listed (in some capacity) at the Giants’ meals is a major step. The story wouldn’t be at all notable if the headline read “Sysco truck backs into U Albany and feeds the Giants.” Who knows…maybe next year it will be the more immediate farms involved in this.

    • August 21, 2012 10:39 am

      Here ya go Dave: “Empirical research has found that expanding local food systems in a community can increase employment and income in that community.” Which is one of the major resasons why we buy from local producers. I personally don’t think it’s naieve to help members of our responsible food-producing community survive and thrive. “Direct-to-consumer marketing amounted to $1.2 billion in current dollar sales in 2007, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, compared with $551 million in 1997.”

      http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/122864/err97_reportsummary_1_.pdf

  7. August 14, 2012 6:58 pm

    If it makes you feel better, in most newspapers the writer of an article does not write the headline for their story, so you should probably be aiming your fury at the section editor, not Steve. This happens more often than you would think, because of that division of duty.

  8. silver account permalink
    August 18, 2012 5:19 pm

    Where should the first steps towards localisation take place? Since food is something everyone, everywhere, needs every day, a shift from global food to local food would have the greatest impact of all.

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