All across America, the small towns of yesteryear are disappearing. Those near urban areas are turn- ing into bedroom communities served by national chain stores and malls that have replaced local businesses and Main Street, USA, while more remote communities are drying up altogether as the young people move away and the farming economy continues its nosedive.
As small local businesses are replaced by national brands, communities become colonies where people hardly know each other and where neighbors are united not by social and economic ties, but by proximity only. Television and car culture contribute to the breakdown of community: no longer do we sit on the front stoop and watch people walking to the corner store, or chat at the baseball diamond and the post office. Instead we live our lives indoors, in private, except when we drive out of the neighborhood to shop, work, or socialize with carefully selected friends. Alarmed by these trends, social activists have taken up the cause of localism and the rebuilding of community. What many of us do not realize, however, is that localism is not just a worthy social cause, but an important health issue as well.
The skeptic might object, “What does it matter where your food is grown? As long as it is certified organic, as long as it has ingredient X and not ingredient Y, what’s the difference if it is grown locally or in California?” Such a view fails to recognize two essential truths:
- That there is a deep-seated conflict between health and a commodity-based food system, and
- That physical health can never last long in isolation, but reflects and is reflected by healthy communities, healthy land and healthy relationships.
Whatever the ingredients or processing methods, and whether or not it is organic, food from distant, anonymous producers is really nothing more than a commodity, in that the only relationship between the producer and the consumer is a monetary one. Because commodity trade is governed by strict market mechanisms, cheaper producers will inevitably dominate those bearing higher costs. This fact creates an inexorable pressure on producers to drive down costs and cut corners, as long as the products meet the letter of the law. For example, regulations stipulate a minimum cage area per hen for organic eggs, so a producer motivated strictly by cost minimization will pack them in to that limit, regardless of whether that is sufficient for the hens’ health and well-being.
Contrast this situation with that of a small producer selling to local customers whom he or she knows personally. Because the relationship is not based on money alone, cost is not the only factor determining the treatment of the hens. Producer and consumer might, for one, have shared understandings about how hens ought to be kept; secondly, they will typically develop a mutual trust over time. The consumer grows to trust the producer’s integrity, and the producer trusts that consumer will remain loyal, even when distant, mass-produced eggs might be a few cents cheaper.
BRINGING OUT THE WORST
Anonymity tends to bring out the worst in people. It is much easier to put out inferior products, even unhealthy products, when you cannot see the people they affect. Commodities markets actually drive out people who care more than they need to–they will be undersold by another firm that cares less. That is why corporate slogans about “caring for the customer” ring so hollow. They don’t even know you. You are a market statistic to them, a number. While there may be saintly people in these corporations who truly do love all humanity, even those they have never met, such sentiments quickly degenerate into slogans when it comes to making business decisions.
What kind of food would you rather eat: food from someone who knows and cares about you, or food from a total stranger–a series of strangers, in fact? Essentially, the function of laws, standards, and regulations is to institutionalize and automate caring. They substitute the ethics, caring, and goodwill people naturally harbor toward others in their community with mere deterrence; that is, the fear of the consequences of breaking the rules. Now it might be true that if we had rules comprehensive enough and enforcement strict enough, a commodity food system could approximate the quality of a system based on personal relationships–but this scenario is not likely. There are always loopholes, always shortcuts, as the incessant wrangling over organic standards demonstrates.
Laws requiring the pasteurization of milk force a choice between relying on regulation or on trust. While the history of pasteurization laws certainly reflects a lot of ignorance and greed, it is also an inevitable consequence of the move to mass production and long-distance shipping of milk. When milk is unpasteurized, it is important to know that the cows are treated well and kept in a sanitary environment–easy to ascertain at your local dairy, but impossible when the milk is coming from thousands of dairies all over the country. Rather than attempt a meticulous inspection of each dairy, a blanket solution–pasteurization–was imposed. Even I, a believer in raw milk, will not buy it from a producer whom I don’t know personally (or through a friend). I will not buy it as a commodity.
The organic brands you buy in the supermarket probably meet the letter of the law, but there is no incentive for their producers to go a step beyond, because to do so would raise their costs and put them at a disadvantage in the commodity market. That is why even the strictest laws are far less reliable than personal relationships: the trust, earned over time, in someone you know.
Mass production and long-distance shipping of food compromises its quality in other ways as well by requiring product uniformity, standardization of materials and processes, and long shelf-life. Local plant variants, ideally suited to a given climate, may not meet the needs of factory processing. The most flavorful and nutritious varieties of fruits and vegetables may not be the least perishable, or perhaps they don’t have the uniform ripening time that allows mechanical harvesting, or perhaps they don’t ship well. Live fermented foods suffer from short shelf life and non-uniformity from batch to batch. Whatever the reason, local food produced by farmers and artisans who love their work somehow tastes different–and better–than even the best “store-bought” food.
I believe there are also energetic qualities of food, little recognized by conventional scientists, that nurture us only if we live close to where the food originated. Small amounts of foreign food are okay, but when the bulk of the diet consists of foods from thousands of miles away, disharmony eventually manifests in the body. Food is a primary means of our connection to the earth, and when our food comes from far away, we are less rooted to our local environment, less grounded, less at home where we are.
This observation leads to the interdependency of health on all levels: physical, emotional, community and ecological. It is not, for example, mere coincidence that organic food is better for the environment as well as for the body; each necessarily feeds back into the other. Similarly, when we support local farmers (and by extension, the local businesses these farmers patronize, and therefore the community as a whole), it is not mere coincidence that the food we get will contribute to our physical health as well as to the health of the community. On a very practical level, local food offers the advantages implied by the foregoing critique of mass-produced commodity food. We need not rely on impersonal regulations and the vagaries of their enforcement, but instead can find real people whose philosophy of food and farming is aligned with ours. Moreover, as we get to know them and their customers, we become connected to other producers, to practitioners of the healing arts, and to other people who reinforce our way of life. This support is essential in a society that beckons us with the delusory temptations of convenience and frightens and confuses us with undependable health information from the so-called experts.
So many people today seek “financial security,” as though, with sufficient money, we could be independent of all other people. Indeed it is true that with enough money, you can be independent of any specific human being–after all, you can always “pay someone else to do it.” This is a false security though, because it merely substitutes dependence on people you know with dependence on anonymous strangers. True and lasting health cannot come from such “independence,” which is really the attempted separation of oneself from the world. Health, which means wholeness, comes instead from stronger connections with others, not weaker ones, from interdependence, not independence. Like an ecosystem where each species relies on many others, security comes from strong mutual ties to other people.
Certainly it is better to buy organic rather than conventional produce in the supermarket, or to ship in pastured beef from out of state if none is locally available, but this is only a small first step toward real food. Real food cannot be separated from real people, real land and real life. What is real is what can be seen and heard and felt with our own senses. It is time to begin stepping away from the world of anonymous, distant institutions that inevitably reduce food to money. Or you could say, it is time to get real.
LOCAL VERSUS NON-LOCAL BUYING
Buy Local (according to availability): Dairy products (milk, butter, cream, cheese, yoghurt, etc); eggs; chicken and turkey; beef, pork and veal; seafood; seasonal vegetables (use your Brix meter!); sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup; lacto-fermented condiments and beverages.
Buy at Stores: Some fruits and vegetables; grains, legumes and nuts (unless available locally); seafood; dried herbs and spices; healthy fats and oils (olive, flax, coconut and palm); sweeteners such as sucanat, rapadura, maple sugar and molasses; some canned products.
Mail Order: Unrefined seasalt; supplements and superfoods; any product that cannot be obtained locally or at stores.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2004.