Is Local Food Sustainable?

Published on: 10:49AM Jul 07, 2010

A neighbor who was out of town for the July 4th holiday asked us to collect the produce – mostly veggies, but also some blackberries – from the Community Supported Agriculture collective to which her family belongs.  So last week, we did.

My wife drove to a Home Depot about four miles away, which is the regular rendezvous point where the farm, located in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, trucks its produce to the Fairfax County, VA, patrons that support it.  The haul was mostly potatoes, squash, eggplants, some sweet corn, and the aforementioned blackberries….more or less the same type of stuff appearing in the local farmers’ markets at this point in the summer.  And for that matter, mostly the same produce we would purchase, either at a farmers’ market, if we go, or more likely, at one of the large supermarkets in our community.

As I was eating the eggplant that my wife fried up last weekend, I reflected on that fact that CSA’s are, like farmers’ markets, an interesting way to market foods to people willing to pay a premium for direct delivery, and more importantly, people willing to accept whatever is in season that grew successfully on that particular farm.  Would we have normally bought zucchini and corn?  Yes, the kids like those.  Eggplants? No, and the kids didn’t much care for it.  Blackberries?  Yes, but we prefer strawberries and blueberries, although the former is no longer in season and is doubtless being shipped in from somewhere not local, while the blueberries are in season – in New Jersey – which is kind of local, but not near enough, if you are a purist about it.

On that last point, I recently read this short column in the Atlantic magazine about how people need to think less rigidly about food miles, and about what is really “local.”  The example that Barry Estabrook (who is a chef, and at least apparently once worked on farms) gave was that tomatoes coming from the southern part of New England were just as good as if they came from closer to where he lives in northern New England. 

So yeah, that seems like a no brainer….but the question is always, as compared to what?  If you like tomatoes, and it’s not during the summer, are you willing to shed your devotion to sourcing local foods from Connecticut if it means buying tomatoes from California, or Florida, or even Mexico?  What if you want bananas (which I eat almost daily) and coffee for breakfast?  Those aren’t ever local or even U.S.-grown. 

Estabrook’s column concludes that eating a “balanced, sustainable” diet is the best thing for the environment, and a person’s health.  That sounds reasonable, but is it?  If I like citrus, along with bananas and tomatoes – all healthy foods – how do I procure them sustainably if they come from the West Coast, or for that matter, from Latin America?  The local CSA farm I may patronize anywhere along the East Coast will never in a million years grow coffee, tea, bananas, or oranges…but the local Safeway always has those things.  So my question then becomes, what if the foods I enjoy purchasing for my health are actually not sustaining local farms, if only because I want mangoes and kiwis, not blackberries and eggplants?  (and speaking of coffee, there is a terrifically insightful recent blog posting from Freakonomics writer James McWilliams about the shortcomings of the Fair Trade movement).

No wonder people get emotional about the seeming polarity of these choices.  They are inherently contradictory, which is why the rhetoric is so hostile when we discuss them.