A strong local food system won’t happen overnight

Photo by Sarah Walker Caron

My last column (“Our country is out of touch with our food system. Can we shift the tide here in Maine?”) focused on local food systems, the dangers we willingly undertake when we allow corporate farming to decide what and how we eat and whether this is a tide that can be shifted.

To be honest, I was excited to see the response to this. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart. Some readers may remember that my cousins own an organic farm in Connecticut and prior to moving here, I worked on communications for them related to their community supported agriculture program.

On Facebook, farmers and folks passionate about local food shared and commented on my story. On the BDN site, conversation was limited but one commenter’s vitriol confused me. Here’s the comment:

Jonathan_Albrecht: “There is value in these institutions [grocery stores] for feeding the masses,…” Doesn’t this give you the impression that the author is an elitist fool. Don’t you think the author really wants to say “Let us superior folk eat right and leave the garbage to the unwashed, unclean yokels. 

Local farms do not have the distribution systems nor produce the volume of food that can feed even Mainers much less the country nor the variety of foods that Mainers want (never mind  “a romaine heart roasted with the most succulent roasted tomatoes, creamy stilton cheese and delightful apple cider vinaigrette”). The commercial food system does leave much to be desired. Its really, really bad. Like dining on a Dupont’s production line. Often injecting untested, unproven, and unhealthy chemicals into the food supply to increase their profits.

But this article won’t address that. 

Well, no, “this article won’t address …” anything that isn’t in it. Or anything that is off-topic. Because I already wrote this one. 

What’s interesting about Mr. Albrecht’s comment is that we are, essentially, on the same page. We agree that the commercial food system our country operates with is bad — broken even. 

But my column wasn’t about processed foods with untested preservatives and chemicals. That’s an important topic, for sure, and one for another column. I will say this though: We don’t yet know the full extent of how the chemicals and preservatives and other unnatural additions to food will ultimately affect our bodies, chemical makeups and DNA. And that should scare everyone. 

Doritos, for instance, might be a tasty snack. But does anyone really think that the bright orange cheese is doing anything good for our bodies?

Last week though, I was talking specifically about produce. And that seems to be where Mr. Albrecht and I differ. He doesn’t think that farms here could possibly feed Maine. I disagree. 

A change like this — one from a transcontinental food system to a thriving local one — isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s something that happens over time. People buy fewer vegetables at the grocery store and buy more at farmers markets. They mark out plots in their backyard and plant some tomatoes. They shift, incrementally, to choosing local first.

And the laws of supply and demand kick in. When more people shop local for their food, farmers plant more, grow more, sell more. Here’s what I know: we have the land here in Maine. We even have people who know how to do this. We just need more people to want it.

Still, I take issue with the idea that I am looking down on anyone in my piece.

With all due respect to Mr. Albrecht, who quoted part of a paragraph without providing context, read the full paragraph where that excerpt was taken. You will see that I indicated grocery stores have value because most people don’t know where to begin with growing their own food. Those skills have been lost. What I said had nothing to do with how much income one has or the construct of class he wants to levy onto me.

That’s why we need farmers and farm land. That’s why we need farmers markets and local food systems.

I wonder if this commenter knows about the programs available in Maine for low-income folks who want to shop at farmers markets? Some match dollar for dollar — or more — with SNAP dollars allowing folks to shop local for in-season, wonderful quality produce. The Bangor Farmers Market is among those that participate in this. 

For that matter, I wonder if he knows about the good work Good Shepherd Food Bank does with farmers through their Mainers Feeding Mainers program?

In any case, locally grown food is for everyone. And we’re lucky here in Maine to have people working behind the scenes to make sure that everyone has access to it. That can’t be a bad thing.

I think I’ve spent enough time on this comment. But I couldn’t let it go. If you want to think the worst of me, go ahead. But don’t misrepresent my words by selectively quoting them. That’s just rude.

One other commenter had something interesting to say: 

UpNorth21: I’m fine with locally grown produce, so long as I’m not being ripped off for the “privilege” of buying it.

I couldn’t help wondering while reading this what constitutes being “ripped off” when it comes to buying fresh, local produce. Farmers put the work in. They pay for the fuel, the electricity and maybe even the water that helps the crops grow. They employ people. They pay insurance. They pay for space at farmers markets.

So if a farmer wants $3 a pound for something, I am going to pay it. I am paying for the privilege of not growing potatoes or cauliflower or whatever I forgot to plant. And I am totally okay with that. 

Don’t be fooled. You might sometimes pay more to buy from local farmers. But you are paying for the hard work that goes into growing. And you are getting food that’s grown with care by people you can see who are with that food from the moment of planting to the moment of sale. You are paying for more than just a head of lettuce. 

That’s worth something.

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