Monday, September 3, 2007

Whither Local Food?

Anyone care to guess what this is a picture of? If you said people waiting for one of the bakery stands to open at our local farmer's market last Sunday, you would be correct. I was working on a magazine article about cooking with local produce and it was all I could do to avoid being swept away in the crowds. It was a mad house.

And this at one of the most expensive markets in the area, right in the heart of the District of Columbia. In August, no less. I thought everyone had left for the Hamptons...

This just points up the growing popularity of local, sustainably raised produce. New farmer's markets are popping up everywhere. U.S. agriculture officials report the number of markets was up to 4, 385 last year from 1,795 in 1994. So the number of markets more than doubled in an 11-year period. Meanwhile, the amount Americans spent on locally-raised food increased from $4 billion in 2002 to $5 billion. That's a 25 percent increase in four years.

While those figures may be heartening, it hardly shows that Americans are giving up their nasty food habits for healthy, local foods. Unfortunately. Keep in mind that the total annual food consumption in this country runs something like $900 billion. Local foods would therefore represent just a tiny fraction, something like one half of one percent. And 25 percent over four years is not a raging increase, not even a hiccup compared to all the money being spent at traditional grocery outlets, fast-food joints and restaurants.

But what concerns me more is that the infrastructure for a more meaningful shift to healthy local food production is just not there and is not growing but shrinking. The price of farm land is rising. Urban sprawl continues to gobble up prime acreage. Farmers are getting older. Some farmer's markets are now having trouble recruiting enough local farmers to fill all the open vending slots. And those farmers who do practice sustainable local agriculture can't fill the demand for their products.

Here is one narrative from a Vermont pig farmer who sadly cannot meet the demand from local restaurants. Are we nearing a peak in what local farmer's can supply? I have no way of knowing. Perhaps I am just seeing the glass half- empty instead of half-full. But I have a bad feeling about the big picture. I have a feeling that as a country, we don't care enough, we aren't doing enough, the leadership isn't there on the issues that really matter.

But do by all means get out and enjoy your local farmer's market. All those farmers working hard to provide us with healthy local products surely deserve our support this Labor Day.

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