Natural Foods Merchandiser

Shoppers hungry for local fare

Uncertainty doesn't taste very good. Sour and mealy, like a bloated February mega-mart tomato, its tough skin sticks between your teeth like nagging insecurities. In many ways, it's an uncertain world beyond the end of the fork: food-borne illness, cloned cows, genetically modified crops, plus a general climate of iffyness fueled by things like global warming and war. Many people are arming themselves against the angst with locally grown apples and turnips.

Some feel that eating locally produced foods feeds people's hunger for security as well as for delicious fare. While we can't control international events, we can control what we put in our mouths. What we feed our bellies can also nourish our hearts and minds —if we're paying attention. And, judging from the growing popularity of the eat-local movement, more people are paying attention. In 2001, conservation scientist Gary Nabhan documented a year of hunting and gathering within a 250-mile radius of his Southwestern home —including hunting wild peccaries and pit-roasting cactus flowers —in Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods (W.W. Norton & Company).

The book seeded others, such as Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins, 2007). In 2007, Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally (Crown Publishers) by Alisa Smith and James B. MacKinnon, the notion of eating only what could be sourced within 100 miles of home attracted followers to the "100-Mile Diet." Locavore was touted as the Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year in 2007, just a few years after being coined by a group of San Franciscans who vowed to eat within 100 miles of their homes. Time magazine's March 12, 2007, cover urged readers to "Eat Local ? Forget Organic." Supporting local producers and the environment and keeping dollars "in the neighborhood" has increasingly entered the public consciousness.

On average, grocery-store produce travels nearly 1,500 miles between the farm where it was grown and your refrigerator, according to a 2003 Iowa State University study. People calculate these "food miles" into their personal carbon footprints —and light-treading footwear is becoming more en vogue every day.

More recently, studies have highlighted the fact that for some foods, eating "distantly" is actually more environmentally friendly. But in spite of quibbling over carbon emissions or striving for the smallest footprint like a gaggle of green geishas, people's passion for eating locally persists. The movement is grow?ing, appealing not only to peoples' concerns about sustainability, but perhaps on a more visceral level.

"When people sit down to eat dinner, they have concerns about food," says Plenty author MacKinnon. "They could be about chemicals, tainted foods and genetically modified foods —a whole range of issues. And local food really addresses all of them.

"What people are craving is more information," he says. "When you eat locally, answers are easier to find. The appeal of eating locally is that it crosses the boundaries of the political spectrum and ethnic backgrounds. We all want to feel we can trust our food again."

"There's a transparency to local food," says Cassie Green, co-owner of Green Grocer, a Chicago store that promotes local products —often over organic —and stresses seasonality. Eating locally —and in season —is an educational process," she says, and that education is easier when the "textbooks" are local suppliers.

Jen Maiser, one of the founders of the San Francisco Locavores, edits the group's Web site, There, people can sign up to participate in the official eat-local challenge. Media honed in on the group's original challenge and especially on the Pennywise Challenge, which the Locavores created to prove that one can eat locally on a budget. "People are really worried," she says, explaining why some people have embraced local. "They're feeling they really don't know where their food's coming from."

Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest, a Santa Cruz, Calif., information clearinghouse for local and organic information, agrees that public unease is one reason eating local seems wise. There's a growing awareness of things to be uneasy about: food security, environmental issues, nutrition. "And they all go along with local eating," she says.

Local nutrition

Is eating local necessarily healthier? Yes, says Susan Moore, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Eating foods closer to the time they're picked means getting the maximum nutrients from food," she says. Eating food that has not traveled far helps ensure the integrity of the nutrients. "The more food is handled, the increased chance of nutrient and tissue breakdown," she says. "Nutrients can be pretty fragile."

"Studies show that food doesn't really develop all its nutrient qualities until it's fully ripe," MacKinnon says. "A lot of food coming out of the conventional industrial system is harvested well before it's ripened, then ripened in storage."

This may seem logical, but data is lacking, says Keecha Harris, R.D., also an ADA spokeswoman. "There is limited evidence about the health benefits of local food," she says.

History, however, supports eating locally. "Something's missing when we don't eat locally," says Nabhan, who has spent decades studying and working with native communities to revive indigenous foods. He links rampant diabetes among Native Americans to the loss of their historical diet. "Up until the 1950s, when they ate a primarily local food diet, diabetes was virtually absent," he says. The addition of high-fat and -sugar foods wasn't the only cause. The key factor, he says, "was the loss of protective properties of foods found in the local diet."

Ancient hunter-gatherers ate locally —they had no other choice —and existed for tens of thousands of years. "But we need to be careful not to romanticize the Paleolithic diet, or any diet," Nabhan says. "There is no single perfect diet for humankind."

The personal economics of eating local can shift one's diet to healthier patterns. "If you're on a budget, eating meat is more expensive," Maiser says. "Eating locally on a budget forces a more natural diet with less meat and more in-season, fresh vegetables and fruits, which is a healthier way to eat."

Eating locally means eating seasonally, a way of eating that expands one's nutrient palette. "Eating locally was the most diverse way of eating we had ever experienced," says MacKinnon, who says he and Smith ate more new foods and more new varieties of familiar foods during their year of eating locally than ever before.

When it comes down to it, we all want to eat locally —we just might not know it, says Charles Eisenstein, author of The Yoga of Eating (New Trends Publishing, 2003). Our relationship to food comes down to pleasure and desire, he says. "A basic principle of biology is that it feels good to meet needs, it feels bad to do things that aren't meeting our needs. ? Our bodies want us to eat locally," he says. It tastes better, and it's better for us. "We just need to learn to tune into those desires."

"Eating locally is not a cure-all," however, says the ADA's Moore. "We still need to be savvy and ask the right questions to make sure locally grown food is safe."

Local and lucrative

The growing popularity of eating locally offers retailers new merchandising opportunities. "Point-of-sale labeling is key," says LocalHarvest's Barnett. Some stores have 20-Mile-Aisles or 100-Mile-Aisles featuring foods from within those radii.

Ask local culinary schools to suggest recipes that feature local products. More are following the lead of the Boulder, Colo.-based Culinary School of the Rockies. This year, the school launched a local farm-to-table externship program, where students will spend five weeks living, farming and cooking with local producers in western Colorado. Previously, the school's only externship location was France.

"When you eat locally, you tend to try things you've never tasted before," MacKinnon says. This provides an opportunity to highlight less well-known local items in your aisles. Signage can help tell the story of local foods you offer. "It's a really critical thing, and something people love about eating, is seeing the face of the person who grew something, or learning the story about how one variety of bean ended up being passed down through the generations," MacKinnon says.

"We need to tell the back stories of regionally unique foods better than we have been," says Nabhan, who launched the Renewing America's Food Traditions project, which features a list of 1,000 foods unique to places that have faded from menus. "If consumer preferences have led to overharvesting or neglect of these foods, consumer preferences, reoriented, can bring them back," he says. Storyboards can help educate consumers.

Stories might feature the endangered foods on the RAFT list, such as Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter Tomato. A Virginia mechanic spent years perfecting the variety. (Its deliciousness eventually saved him from foreclosure.) Each meaty bite explodes into a mouthful of spicy, fruity juiciness, with a wink of salt and subtly roasted finish. It tastes nothing at all like uncertainty.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 4/p. 20,23

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