Good news: the local food movement in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County has built success on success over the last few years. It really is a social movement in the sense that it represents a conscious change in the way we view food production and consumption, and is the result of individual and group actions by many people and different groups and institutions.
What is the motivation behind the movement? Actually, there are several.
The understanding that our food was being produced using too many toxic materials (especially pesticides) has been growing over decades and a demand for organic food is now well established. There is a national organic certification system that has a mixed effect (not a subject for this post) but it is simple wisdom to “know your farmer, know your food” in order to be confident of how the food was produced.
Beyond the issue of toxics, the nutritive value of food is dependent both on how it is grown and how processed. We now know that grass-fed beef is more healthful because of the fatty acid content, and fresh vegetables contain more nutrients than those that have been stored. And of course, the types of food consumed have a profound effect on health. As Michael Pollan has thoroughly discussed in his book In Defense of Food, the Western diet is making us sick. He has warned us against eating food that “your grandmother wouldn’t recognize” and boiled down the lesson to his now celebrated basic rule: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.“ (“Food” here means recognizable food, not industrial synthetic “product”. Twinkie, I’m looking at you.) Locally grown real food is a direct way to achieve this goal. This is the driver behind the “Farm to School” effort. The idea is to train children to appreciate fresh, real food, and to make it available to them through school food programs.
Slow Food, an international organization, has been an important impetus behind the local food movement. Our local chapter, Slow Food Huron Valley, has provided a real brain trust and organizational center for the movement. As their website says, “We inspire a transformation in food policy, production practices and market forces so that they ensure equity, sustainability and pleasure in the food we eat.” Note that last – the slow food movement is not just about the environment or helping small farmers, it is about the taste. Part of the local food movement has been an epicurean interest in artisanal foods – food made by hand, locally.
The local food impetus ties in to a larger quest for local economic vitality. The BALLE organization (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) exemplifies the effort to encourage “human-scale, interconnected local economies that function in harmony with local ecosystems to meet the basic needs of all people, support just and democratic societies, and foster joyful community life”. This relates in turn to the concept of localization, the notion of creating self-reliant local communities. This concept is the core basis of this blog. For a comprehensive review of the concepts of localization, see the book The Localization Reader. This set of readings is used for a seminar on localization taught at the University of Michigan by Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen, who are the editors of the book. The articles contained within have little to do with food and much to do with energy and philosophies of social organization. Some of them are classics and some newly written by the editors.
Encouraging development of the local food system is the focus of FSEP (Food System Economic Partnership), which is housed in Washtenaw County but has members (counties) throughout the SE Michigan region. FSEP has supported small food business development through education and expert assistance and is conducting a Beginning Farmer program through its Tilian Farm Incubator Program.
Grand Rapids is ahead of our region in using the food system for business development, with their Downtown Market project. (Read local blogger Mark Maynard’s take on this.) Still, though we do not have an indoor facility, we do have a year-round Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market with a venerable history (download pdf of history, thanks to The Arbor Market) and a growing list of other farmers’ markets.
A really exciting recent development, the Washtenaw Food Hub, is now emerging as a reality. It recently received a grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for continued development of the former Braun farm (4175 Whitmore Lake Road) into a center for commerce, education, food storage, food preparation and other system-building activities.
Ethical and environmental considerations
Making food choices has increasingly become, for some of us at least, a battle of conscience. Our industrial food system has been very efficient at delivering relatively inexpensive food, but the cost isn’t just to our waistlines. It is to the global environment and to other animal species.
As Michael Pollan outlined so well in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, our industrial food system rests heavily on the cultivation of corn (maize). It is used in many industrial food products as a sweetener and source of chemicals, but most of all it is used to feed animals. Zea mays is a very remarkable species. It can be remarkably productive, partly because it is a C4 plant. Many other grains, like wheat and millet, are C3 plants, which means that they have a defect in their photosynthetic mechanism which causes them to be very inefficient under conditions of high temperatures and water stress. Maize loves those hot Iowa summers (with enough water). But its cultivation requires high inputs of fossil fuels for high production. So as we consume its products, we are also exacerbating our planet’s energy budget problem.
Cattle are fed maize for rapid weight gain, though they are not adapted to be grain eaters. This often happens in crowded feedlots where inhumane events are well known. The animals are under stress during this time and at slaughter. Chickens are also often caged under stressful conditions. (California was the first state in the nation to pass a law requiring changes in chicken cage sizes.) You don’t really want to hear about pigs. All of these thoughts can affect your appetite. (There are others; I discussed this in a post on a different blog some time ago.)
Thus, eating local food, in particular locally raised meat, eggs, and dairy, probably not only gives you access to better food but often to food from humanely treated animals. Of course, the more vegetables (local of course) that you eat instead of these animal products, the more you win on both ethical and health grounds.
Community food security
And finally, the most important reason of all. Food security means that people have enough to eat. We’ll discuss that at more length in the next post.
Note: Posts on this subject are listed on the Local Food Page.