A Thumbs Up Book Review
Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket
By Brian Halwell
Norton/Worldwatch Institute Books
Review by Bill Sanda
Eat Here is an economic treatise on the value of local foods versus international agri-food. Halwell takes us on a journey to communities as far flung as Lincoln, Nebraska, Nairobi, Kenya, Naples, Italy and Oslo, Norway. He introduces us to small farmers from around the world, farmland trusts, locally bought school meals, local food processors and distributors and a host of farmers’ markets. (One interesting fact: sociologists estimate that people have ten times as many conversations at farmers’ markets as in supermarkets.)
Food now travels much further than ever before and little of what is produced at home is eaten at home. Statistics from one wholesale market in Chicago show that the average kilogram of produce travels more than 1,400 miles, nearly 25 percent further today than in 1980. Halwell provides a historical context for the rapid growth of agri-food through the development of refrigeration, cheap diesel fuel, a national highway system, shipping systems and air transport.
Market concentration is another problem. The typical supermarket contains about 30,000 items, about half of which are produced by a mere ten multinational food and beverage companies. Although the plethora of food products at a typical supermarket gives the appearance of choice, much of the variety is more a matter of branding than of true agricultural diversity. Halwell describes transnational agri-food as the “global vending machine.”
Halwell stresses the fact that a critical problem with today’s food system is economic, citing a Minnesota study which showed that the vast majority of profit from corn and soybeans went to food companies rather than farmers after farmers shipped the crops out of state. What applies to Minnesota applies everywhere else.
Bob Dylan paints a bleak picture in his 1983 poem Union Sundown:
They used to grow food in Kansas,
Now they want to grow it on the moon
and eat it raw.
I can see the day coming when even
your home garden
Is gonna be against the law.
Halwell provides economic arguments for rebuilding the local food system in order to “offer the first genuine economic opportunity in farm country in years. . . to the extent that food production and distribution are relocated in the community under local ownership, more money will circulate in the local community if crops are not only grown locally but also processed locally or served in local restaurants.”
Halwell describes formidable barriers facing local foods: agribusiness can easily squash competition; cheap long-distance shipping (although that is changing); a conception that “farmers as producers” have no need to connect with consumers; and federal, state and local policies that discourage local farms, farmers’ markets and food cooperatives in favor of factory farms, megamarkets and long-distance trade. However, when interviewed, 80 to 90 percent of American consumers indicate a preference for products grown, processed, and marketed from small, local operations so there is still hope for a local food system.
One promising innovation spreading across Europe is the “farm shop,” in which a group of farmers who produce a variety of products join together to acquire and manage a food store that sells their products exclusively. Likewise, on-farm stores in parts of the U.S. are thriving, and saving many family farms.
Lastly, rather than dwelling on the horrors of mass produced, industrialized agri-food, Halwell urges us to dwell on the pleasures of growing and eating local and reflect on the delicious foods that enter our palate. I am heading to my fridge for my raw milk cheddar and butter to make myself a sandwich with locally grown lettuce and tomatoes. Enjoy!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2004.