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Op Ed: Boston Locavorism and the Myth of Historical Locavorism

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LOCAL. It’s the new organic. It has a similar footprint – pastoral images of small farms and boutique shops and its own nuanced vocabulary and iconography – but with the added sense that its benefits are more localized. Buy local, they say, and you’re supporting your neighbors. Buy local, and you’re doing what your grandparents would have done.

But it’s my opinion that local food constitutes an idealized view of food production systems that ignores the historical realities of trade and regional specialization that have existed since the beginnings of civilization. Furthermore, I’d question the notion that local food is better or healthier. Eating only local food in Boston, while possible, is unpleasant, bland, and foolish. Like any orthodoxy, the ritual starts to overcome the logic.

That being said, as a soft rule, local food is an attractive and sensible approach. If you can afford it, local produce is generally better and more nutritious than produce that has undergone extensive transit. As a Californian from the Central Valley, I’ve experienced both sides of that transit relationship and believe me, it’s traumatic enough of a difference to put me off imports from California.

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Seasonality is another thing entirely. You won’t hear me arguing at all against buying seasonally. Locavorism includes seasonality by dint of being limited to the seasonal availability of one’s locale, and I’d say that the seasonality is probably the most worthwhile aspect of the movement. Fresh tomatoes and zucchini aren’t winter crops. Asparagus should be something to look forward to in spring. When we can get everything at every time, we lose the charm of seasonal foods – the idea that a dish is a celebration of a season’s harvest. When we’re chewing on bitter eggplants and mealy tomatoes in December, we’re consciously ignoring the ripeness of winter citrus or the hidden sweetness of roots and winter greens. We’re doing ourselves a disfavor in terms of nutritional quality and flavor, because much of the storied benefit of vegetables comes from their being grown to maturity in an ideal period and consumed soon thereafter. Winter tomatoes are picked green and spend weeks in transit, which means that volatile and maturity-dependent flavor and nutritional compounds like lycopene and vitamin C simply aren’t there.

Locavorism makes a convincing ecological argument. We expend considerably larger quantities of energy in moving agricultural products than they produce in terms of calories or income to their producers. Trans-hemispherical trade is the most visible example, but people often forget that businesses like Kraft foods or Pepsico, or even domestic meat producers like Tyson and Perdue rely on extensive systems of distribution for products that don’t necessarily require a specific region in which to grow. Here, the conscientious consumer has options – even if we continue to rely on imports of chocolate and coffee, we can make a choice to purchase more localized dairy, meat, and pantry staples. Dairy is fairly simple here in Boston – even conventional groceries stock local cheeses (such as Cabot from Vermont) and milk. Fish is almost as easy: make the choice to purchase sustainable Atlantic fish and seafood. Cod, haddock, mackerel and herring are cheap and abundant, with herring being an excellent source of omega-3s. Meat may be a little more difficult, but some might argue that paying extra for more consciously sourced and raised meat (such as buying it from a farmer’s market or at a higher-end butcher) carries both sound ethical and nutritional benefit. When you spend more, you tend to care more about the quality and flavors and enjoy the product more.

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Then we get to the historical argument. The idea that our grandparents were wholly locavoracious is patently false. Unsurprisingly, before we had the privilege of extensive choice and nutrition security, humans displayed considerable common sense in their food choices. They ate in season. What was grown nearby was eaten local and imported food was scarce and expensive. Yet nutritional anthropology shows that humans have been trading food across distance for as long as we’ve had trade and agriculture. This isn’t just from farm to table, it’s from Middle East to Italy, Spain to Britain, or even Newfoundland to Eastern Europe. The difference of course is in the approach. Rather than trying to imitate freshness, our ancestors embraced the constraints of distance and the novelty of importations. From these developments we see a rich variety of pickles, preserves, and dried products which form some of our favorite foods. British marmalade was made from Spanish oranges. Northern Europeans cherished Italian rice. Salt cod, fished off Canada by Bretons and Basques and traded as a sort of maritime ham, was the pre-industrial equivalent of canned tuna for most of the Mediterranean from Portugal to Palestine. From this historical example, we can take two lessons: appreciate and emphasize what’s local, seasonal and good but cherish the novelty of imports and preserves.

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So how does one practice an economical and sustainable lifestyle as a college student? The best way to secure local food is to take advantage of farmer to consumer networks. World PEAS (http://nesfp.org/world-peas-food-hub) and Boston Organics (http://bostonorganics.com) provide deliveries of organic, seasonal foods. During the fall and summer, the Somerville and Medford farmers markets allow another option; in the winter these markets still provide a solid option for dairy and meat purchase. Even conventional supermarkets can be a resource, though I’d recommend Market Basket (which has a surprisingly fresh variety of produce and fish) over Shaws, Star Market, or Stop and Shop. For pantry staples and baked goods such as coffee and bread, your best options are found in local Co-ops such as Harvest Co-op in Central Square. Not only are the products fresher and higher quality than what you’d find in a conventional supermarket, but they normally have clearly defined paths of transit and in many cases are as cheap or cheaper compared to imported goods. Most important, though, is common sense and practicality. After having converted to purchasing most of your food from local or regional producers, you can cut yourself some slack and recognize that some foods are inherently non-local. These are largely pantry staples such as spices, cereals, and canned or packaged goods. When considering these products, I think of the other 75% of my grocery list. Local means more for certain goods, namely meat and dairy (because of their rates of spoilage and the techniques required to preserve them), bread and coffee (because of their short shelf lives), and fruits and vegetables (because of seasonality and ripeness). So practice a mostly local lifestyle and you’ll not only feel better about your impact on the world but also reap benefits in terms of the quality and sometimes even the price of your grocery purchases.

For more information about local food around Tufts, you can contact us in the comments.

-Edmund Brennan

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