Monday, September 17, 2007

The Economics of Local and Organic Foods

This post continues the trend of my other Eat Local Challenge posts in pushing against the edges of the movement to see what the problems are, in the hopes that it engages people (how's that for vague -- I could say "you," "dear readers" or all sorts of other congenial phrases) in a discussion on how we can act more ethically whether we engage in these practices on a wide or small scale. So today's post has three goals:

  • to tell you about my own experience trying to buy local
  • to consider how this example demonstrates the restrictions and limitations of buy local and organic movements at the current moment
  • to point to some people who are helping to make ethicureanism economic-neutral.

So Sunday I went to the grocery store to buy food for the meal we made for company. I mentioned I was planning to cook an all-local meal, but the first problem is that takes time. I need to know what's in season, then what recipes to cook with that stuff and then do the cooking. Oh, and know this in enough time to make it to the Farmer's Market on Saturday morning...Well, I decided to read for class and Nate decided to do work and compose. We're awful people. When I arrived at the store to get ingredients, however, I did pay careful attention to where things were coming from. Whole Foods has these cute little signs saying "Grown in Wisconsin" (which is albeit not entirely "local" as it's a huge state, but something) and I started paying close attention to them, even if I wasn't buying what they had. But inevitably what they were selling was more expensive: sometimes significantly so. Soap? Kiss My Face olive oil soap is $2.49 for a small bar while the Wisconsin soap of the same size (maybe smaller?) was $5-6. Produce wasn't so dramatic, but I couldn't find scallions (maybe I should do without them in the Winter?), wasn't eating broccoli and so forth. However, I bought local tomatoes and they were the cheapest option. So, I didn't meat my goal really at all but did have a chance to observe how impossibly difficult it would be to follow an all-local diet on : a limited budget or a busy schedule.

And that's my transition into the central topic of my post: these movements, as one article pointed out are economically skewed towards those who have money, or don't buy meat (i.e. off-setting the higher cost) or, like us, just make food a priority in the budget. (A big priority -- it's absurd really how much we spend.) And this assumes we always have time and energy to cook. (We didn't tonight.) But imagine someone on a limited budget, working 2 jobs to make a below-poverty level salary to support her two kids. How are these movements practical for her? Even if she could afford to shop at Whole Foods, she won't live near one (only in rich areas). But also, how does she hear about these movements? They are primarily internet-driven, which might be something she doesn't have access to (library visits are timed access to the internet and if you work two jobs, you're not going to have time to go to the library); her children won't encounter such messages in schools; and so forth.

Thus what are our solutions? I've found a few interesting sites (by no means all) that I've found while thinking about these issues:
  • The Edible Schoolyard is a middle school that incorporates food entirely into its curriculum via lessons that encourage students to be outside, reflect on their connection with nature, garden (organically), cook (using what they make in their garden) and so forth. I think what I most love about this is how the school seems to be ethnically diverse, encourages a love for nature and beauty and really emphasizes -- and exemplifies -- responsible living. Teaching our students about such values should be foremost in our curriculum because it creates a safe, nurturing environment and removes the separation of us from the world about us. And they do it without compromising a solid education. In fact, many of their lessons are pretty creative and practical, which is something all education should adopt.
  • The People's Grocery is a resource I just stumbled on and their mission statement looks really promising, though I've no idea how successful they actually are. I like the emphasis on educating and enabling lower-income people, not just guiding them to an organic, local diet, but further working to improve their economic situations through farming and local food distribution outlets. Thus, it uses the local food movement as a job creator!
  • Tree Hugger reported on New Roots Urban Farm, a project that works to create sustainable communities in inner cities. Again, note the emphasis on not just changing diets, but lives. Here, too, the community building emphasis insures that residents won't find jobs elsewhere, leaving the urban area just as blighted, but provides resources so that residents can make a healthy life for themselves and build their own community. Their website reports they feed 100 people during the growing 1/2 an acre!

In general, what I most like about these programs is the multiple ways in which they address such problems as poverty, poor diets, the environment, obesity, lack of fitness regimes while restoring dignity and rest to people who have been ignored by the wider world. Further, it reminds me of a post a college friend of mine made today entitled Righteous Indignation where she inveighs against the poverty in this country because it does not just marginalize people, but women in particular.

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