Are You a Local Family – You Need to Be Counted

April 18, 2013 at 2:01 pm

A Locvore Index is a Great Idea, but Is it Looking the Right Way?

There was a lot of locavore chatter last week about the Locavore Index, a state-by-state ranking of how well went the local eating. Everyone knew that Vermont came in first. Then, various states (so to speak) reacted to their place in the ranking.  A few commentators on the Index hit on its chief flaw, the weighting of items per capita instead of on a whole.  It did not matter how many farmer’s markets you had, what matters in the index is how many farmers markets you have compared to your total population.  On one sense, this makes a lot of sense.  Vermont’s population is about 1 percent of California’s.  There should be way more farmer’s markets in California.  Yet, the per capita measurement of farmer’s markets (as well as CSA farms and food hubs), misses something key.  It’s not how many who are giving, its how many who are getting.  One market in Santa Monica may as effectively serve its large population as several markets in Vermont serve their smaller population.  At the end of the day, we’re measuring it the wrong way.

Are you a Local Family?  How much of your food do you get from local sources.  No one (not here ate least) expects total fealty to local limits.  I’m looking at reasonable local families.  And I’m assessing how much of a local family you are against two axis.  First, how much of your total grocery budget is spent on local food.  Do you get a CSA box but use supermarket meat?  Look at the full range of your eating needs, how much of it is from local sources?  Second, how often or how long, over the year do you eat local.  When the CSA subscription ends to you revert to conventional produce.  Do you preserve and put away.  Haunt the winter markets.  At the end of the day, we could get Nate Silver to put it all in an algorithm, right?  That, we can measure against a state’s total population to see how many local families exist within their borders.

Not to slight Vermont, which I do believe to be a locavore paradise*, the Index looked the wrong way in its measurements   As I noted above, there is no fundamental reason why large markets or large CSA operations mean less in eat local terms.  In fact, many people would argue that we have too many markets in the Chicago area–our score is too high!  In addition, the Locavore Index misses two other key facts in making happy local families.  One, many people get their local food from other states.  A New York locavore probably gets a good amount of his or her food from New Jersey, Pennsylvania  maybe seafood from other nearby states.  Chicagoans get a lot of their produce, especially fruit, from Michigan.  The amount of CSA farms in Wisconsin affects local eating in Illinois as much as it does Wisconsin.  Two, people don’t have to get their local food simply from CSAs, Farmer’s Markets or Food Hubs.  The last, Food Hubs, a concept of aggregation only used in a few areas, could ostensibly account for getting local food in other sources.   Except around the country without food hubs, we can get local food in a lot of other ways.  We go to supermarkets or Whole Foods, specialty stores, co-ops,  and farm stands.  Surely a lot of us get our local food by growing it ourselves.  In total, I bet a lot more local food gets obtained these ways than in ways measured in the Locavore Index.  

The Locavore Index perpetuates a fundamental chasm I continue to see in the good food movement.  That is, do we need more farms and farm distributors or more farm customers.  Most of the smart people will tell you the problems stand in supply and related infrastructure.  All you gotta do to believe them is to hear a grocery store manager or Chef relate a story about how they could not get the lettuce or whatever they needed at a given moment when they needed it.  Likewise, you hear of farms at capacity, that sell everything they grow.  In response to the latter, I’d just point out all the farms below capacity, who feed their cows all winter on the squash not sold.  To the former, I ask, when you could not find enough lettuce, why did you not make them squash.  To really have a local food system, we need to have people who can and will eat the food their local foodshed provides.  I insist in believing we do not have enough demand. Instead of looking to get that much more lettuce into the system, look to get people to make salads of frost-kissed spinach, which can be supplied at times when lettuce is scarce.  A state will truly be thriving on a real locavore index when more and more of its families want to be local families.  The Locavore Index  keeps the focus on supply not where it needs to be, demand.

The flaws in the Locavore Index will not keep us from being local families.  We will be counted.

*Want to be jealous of Vermont?  My friend Randal who lives in Vermont, recently hooked me in to his first Spring CSA shipment.  Here’s what he got to be a local family: 

A very enthusiastic initial grade for our CSA so far. Beyond vegetables (frozen peppers, carrots, many varieties of potatoes, watermelon radishes, several cabbage varieties, beets, pea shoots, mixed greens, frozen spinach, parsnips, onions, etc.), it has included: rolled oats, eggs, cheese, barley, kidney beans, hot relish, pickled onions, farm cheese w/herbs, tomato sauce, several loaves of bread, tomato puree, pizza dough, and eggs. And this bounty is before the ice has fully melted.