Challenging Local Foods
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.