I remember several years ago reading about the so-called localvore movement. Perhaps that was made the most vivid reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It was a great exercise in adding prose to an otherwise dry topic, albeit a very delicious one. While hardly at the bleeding edge of localvorism, I was into it before it was plastered all over menus across the country and in the lexicon of the common person. However my experiences with that have to date been intermittent. What I was hoping to do along with the rest of the diet experiment is to try to eat more local and cleaner. I was afraid that maybe it would be too difficult, but after a little help from internet I believe it won’t be too bad, or too expensive either.
Eating with the seasons and locally year round is one of those things that sounds good in theory, to some extent. However when you live in the northeast US this isn’t something that you are probably going to do in a 100% pure way either. Certainly I’m not, as I chomp down on pineapple, mango and berries while typing this. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to being more proactive in taking control of where your food is coming from and how it is raised. There is of course the organic label, which has been watered down year after year by the big agribusiness along with their friends in the FDA/USDA. There is sustainably raised. There is humanely raised. There is fair trade. There are countless labels that you could spend hours trying to balance, the end result being driving yourself crazy. What is a potentially better solution is to just buy from Farmer Joe up the road.
I think buying local and within what you are comfortable with is a great thing, if you have it as an option in your area. It allows you to see exactly what is going on on the farm that you are buying from. It allows you to interact with the person literally growing your food. It allows you to support local small businesses versus the ubiquitous megacorporations. In the case of livestock and animal products I think it is even more important than for vegetables. If you’ve ever seen any of those slaughterhouse or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), where almost all our animal products are raised, then you will understand the problem. The lure of cheap easily available meats however is hard to beat, and for people under intense budget pressure not even an option. However the more we support these local, sustainable, humane operations, the more they will multiply. They can never beat the price of “conventional” agriculture because they don’t get the billions in government subsidies, but perhaps those too will one day end.
A great site to find legitimately small, local farmers and food operations businesses is Eat Wild. This site only lists local producers that are growing responsibly, based on organic principles (but not necessarily certified organic), raising livestock humanely, et cetera. They have a convenient guide that spells out each of the aspects of the farmer or producer and then hyperlinks to the respective website and their contact information. A person can pick their state and then just go to town. As I said above, the more we use these things the more these types of operations will grow. I know when I first ran across this site a few years ago there were a good half dozen or so sites that had something I would be willing to go drive and see. Now it’s more like a couple dozen all within two hours of me.
While browsing through each of these sites and trying to decide whether I should be buying from any or all farms to sample, I ran across a site that makes even Eat Wild seem inconvenient. Hometown Harvest is a DC area business that does collections from all these local small scale producers, as well as others within the United States. It is like Peapod for localvores. The site lists what products will be available for sale in the next week. You make your shopping list based on that information. Then, on the designated day of the week you will get all your groceries delivered to your doorstep. Talk about convenient! They even are concerned about not driving all over creation and thus blowing up their carbon footprint, so have optimized their pickup and delivery routes.
One of the neatest aspects of the site is that they list the producers for each of the local products they support. When in season (May through September/October) almost all of their products are local. In the winter and early spring months that isn’t the case, however all of their products are coming from comparable farms within the United States. Again, if what you are really trying to do is take control over where your stuff is coming from and to stay in season you can’t find a more convenient method. You know exactly which farm your stuff is coming from, so you can even go out and visit it if you like. Most of these small operations welcome visitors, although many want some heads up you are coming first. You can then plan out your meals for the next week knowing where your ingredients came from and that you have nailed it being local, seasonal and responsibly raised. What about the price of this convenience?
The site doesn’t charge anything for delivery. It doesn’t require membership fees. It doesn’t require you buy a certain amount each week. You are looking at paying a premium for buying food that isn’t receiving government subsidies and is a more labor intensive operation. How much more are we talking about? Compared to the local Wegmans, organic bulk carrots are $1.8 per pound instead of $1.5 per pound, but I know they will be coming from Breezy Hill Farm down the road in Virginia. Organic kale is $3.75 a bunch instead of $3 per bunch, but again, Farmdale Organics up the road in Lancaster, PA. There is something to being able to actually go out to these farms and see how they are growing things and being able to confirm that they are more than just a cute label and marketing to make you feel better about paying to try to be responsible.
Again, the animal products is where I’m most concerned about things. I feel like a cop-out knowing how poorly animals are treated in modern mass agricultural operations compared to how they should be, and used to be. This is really what pushed my search for these sorts of markets recently. Here you are going to see more than a marginal difference, but at least now it is all in one place. A dozen eggs legitimately raised free range and eating a proper diet versus “free range” meaning a door in the side of an overcrowded barn will run you $4.50 per dozen versus $5.29 a dozen for “cage free” organic. Wait a minute, those are cheaper from the local producer. Interesting. Store brand non-organic cheddar is $4 a pound, the fancy Cabot Vermont Cheddar is $4.50 a pound and the local guy’s grass fed humanely raised cheddar is $6 per pound.
Organic chicken breasts at the store are $6 a pound to the $9.50 a pound from the local guy that raises them on natural food, legitimately free ranging and cage free. That sort of thing isn’t even an option at the supermarket, sadly. The supermarket does have grass fed beef sirloin for a little over $13 a pound, which is a lot more money than conventional beef. However the same thing from the local producer that has his cows living like cows on fields has it for just under $13 a pound. Grass fed filet is $23 per pound but the local producer’s is just over $21 per pound.
In the end it is clear that the prices for going with these local producers through this convenient service will be a bit higher compared to the supermarket, but I think it’s worth it to get more control over my food sources and to help contribute to the market forces leading towards the development of these food sources. The price of this stuff at the store is often significantly more than conventional products. If I was living paycheck to paycheck, I’d just try to eat less animal products and deal with the reality of my situation. However thankfully I have more leeway in my food budget each month so can try an operation like that. Even if a person can’t solely source through a method like this, it would be good to just try to do it every once in a while to see what the experience is like.
I do intend to visit these local farms and see what is going on as I so choose. Also, while Hometown Harvest is convenient, not everything is available through them. I still need to find fresher dairy than I can get through the supermarket to try making more cheese experiments. I also want to try to sample some of the products from the farms that isn’t available via the site. For example, once I get the hang of cooking with these products I like the idea of buying a side of beef or pork, or perhaps buying grain in bulk and grinding it rather than buying it a few pounds at a time. I’ll be doing it in baby steps anyway, and I can think of no good reason to turn down such a convenient and relatively well priced option like Hometown Harvest or the stores each of these local producers have setup.