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Wandering with locavores

By Dave Moe, Food Processing Consultant – According to the online dictionary, localization is a “process of adapting a product or service to a particular language, culture or desired look-and-feel.” By this definition, the product or service may be local or tailored to appear local. locavores favor foods grown, processed and consumed close to home. It is sometimes hard to determine if the product is “real” or “perceived” local. I always consume foods in a local environment depending upon where I am at a particular time. However, the foods I purchase are more likely to come from a global environment. This does not mean that I am anti-local, but that I prefer a wider food choice and try to look beyond the marketing or other hype.

By Dave Moe, Food Processing Consultant

According to the online dictionary, localization is a “process of adapting a product or service to a particular language, culture or desired look-and-feel.” By this definition, the product or service may be local or tailored to appear local. locavores favor foods grown, processed and consumed close to home. It is sometimes hard to determine if the product is “real” or “perceived” local. I always consume foods in a local environment depending upon where I am at a particular time. However, the foods I purchase are more likely to come from a global environment. This does not mean that I am anti-local, but that I prefer a wider food choice and try to look beyond the marketing or other hype.

The term locavore was coined by three San Francisco women in 2005, according to locavores.com. Their goal was to challenge bay area residents to eat only foods grown or harvested within 100 miles of San Francisco for the month of August. This challenge lasted well beyond 100 days and continues to be practiced by many people that were not a part of the original challenge.

Locavore was the “word of the year” for 2007 in the “Oxford American Dictionary.”

When growing up, my diet was more local than it is now. In-season vegetables came from the backyard, out-of-season vegetables came from a “Ball/Mason jar” or can, meat came from the butcher and bread came from a local bakery. Except for a “lug” of fresh peaches every year, most fruit was seasonal or came from a can. Most all groceries were purchased from the corner grocery owned by an Italian immigrant with bills paid monthly. Lettuce always showed up on the bill as laddis (a local green). This all started to change when larger stores and supermarkets opened. The trend now was to drive rather than walk to the grocery store and fill the grocery cart (invented in Oklahoma City). The garden plot became smaller and “Wonder Bread” and other more processed foods started to show up. Many national brands were produced locally and were considered part of the local scene. The “Jolly Green Giant” lived in a valley less than 100 miles away.

Little did I realize I was somewhat of a locavore during grade school way before locavores became locavores.

At the same time, there was some globalization taking place. Dried Codfish was shipped in from the Lofoten Islands and processed locally into lutefisk. Herring was also brought in from Norway for pickled herring, which was processed and eaten locally. The same company is still in business and claims their herring products to be “all natural, kosher and gluten free.” Pizza became a local choice when Totino’s Italian Kitchen opened. I was introduced to pizza by Mama Rose Totino. Totino’s expanded beyond the local market into frozen pizzas. The company was later sold, and the brand has continued to expand. Rose and the restaurant have become history and the original restaurant site is now an apartment building full of pizza delivery customers.

Other countries produce 10 to 15 percent of food consumed in the U.S., according to the Food and Drug Administration. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service noted approximately 53 percent of fresh fruits, 30 percent of fresh vegetables and 93 percent of seafood are imported. To break out the ERS numbers further: 99.9 percent of bananas, limes, mangoes and pineapples were imported in 2016. In addition, 95.6 percent of asparagus, 74.2 percent of cucumbers, 60.2 percent of bell peppers and 57.2 percent of tomatoes were imported. Only 50 percent of grapes were imported. The U.S. remains a net food exporter due to sales of grain, soybeans, meat and nuts.

The import numbers above are not hard to believe if one has an awareness of seasonal foods and observes signs, labels and price-look-up produce stickers when shopping.

“Although local, seasonal and farm-to-table are watch words for many consumers, globalization has triumphed in the produce aisle,” said Jens Mortensen for The New York Times.

Economists generally agree food and other goods are produced in a location where there are competitive advantages.

Eat your fruit and vegetables is still good advice even if the product takes a longer ride.

Farmers markets always show up on lists as a place to find local foods. Most farmers markets do sell local fresh and processed foods. For example, the Stillwater, Oklahoma, farmers market is well represented by local products. However, the term “farmers market” often times is about as meaningful as saying “farmers markets are where farmers buy their food.” Many farmers markets I visited do sell some seasonal local products, but also feature beautiful displays, set up by local produce re-sellers. The re-sellers may or may not display local products depending on availability.

Talk to the farmer/person that opened the box and removed the price-look-up stickers.

I visited two farmers markets and one “green” market over the past several weeks and found local jewelry, tie died shirts, mushrooms, honey, baked goods, plants, food trucks and several produce re-sellers. Except for produce, all products could be considered as local. The number of vendors and product mix fluctuates some seasonally, but local probably refers more to the vendor and not necessarily the product being sold. Living in a state that produces a vast amount of fruits and vegetables, the irony is that a major grocery chain gets the first choice for “Florida Grown” products with the remainder going to other buyers.

Produce re-sellers at farmers markets Increase the variety of produce available for purchase.

Local produce packagers also pack product from the global system to keep the label and employees’ active year around.  A tomato label may say product of Florida, Texas, Canada or Mexico in the fine print. A local strawberry brand may contain Florida berries in local season and California berries during off-local season. Bell peppers appear to be sourced like the song “I been everywhere man, I been everywhere.” I have noted bell peppers from Peru, Canada, Holland, Central America, Mexico as well as the U.S.

According to Strolling of the Heifers, a nonprofit food advocacy organization based in Vermont, the most locavore of all states are Vermont, Maine, Montana and Oregon, according to its 2018 locavore index. Oklahoma is ranked 46, Florida 47 and California 27. The rank is based on a weighted average of component categories.

“The weighting is as follows: farmers markets per 100,000 – 15 percent; CSAs per 100,000 – 15 percent; Farm-to-School (product of participation rate and budget percentage) - 10 percent; Food Hubs per 100,000 – 5 percent; direct sales per capita – 20 percent; and hospitals sourcing food locally 10 percent.”

There is a perception that local tastes better and is healthier. My answer is yes and no. There is anecdotal support for these claims but limited factual support. My (non-factual) observations are sweet corn always tastes best if eaten within a couple of days of harvest. The same is true for Iowa, Canadian or Florida corn. Fruit always seems to taste better at any market on the west coast. Apples from New York, Washington and New Zealand are equally good if eaten in season.  Cioppino (fish stew) is always delicious at fisherman warf in San Francisco. If on the menu in Oklahoma City, I would go with the tacos. A local cantaloupe eaten in Honduras may be tasty, but the same cantaloupe after a 2000-mile ride is another vote for the taco.

Food miles (distance from harvest to consumption) also typically appears on the list of advantages to eat local foods. My take is it is more efficient to ship the food from various global locations than to ship the eater to consume the food at the point of origin. Eaters I know, prefer to have food available every day and not just when locally grown food is available. The sad part is there are so many local eaters without a consistent source of food.

Local, like natural sounds good, but the meanings are not well defined.

For those who want to move beyond being a “locavore,” thought should be given to become an “invasivore.” The idea is to control harmful populations by eating nonindigenous invasive species. Lionfish and kudzu come to mind. Lionfish is edible and hard to catch. Kudzu is easier to catch and roots, flowers and leaves are edible. This may be a tough sell.

When visiting a local farmers or other specialty food marketplace, part of the fun is to search for a food on one’s current shopping list but also for products with some unique features. The features may include the product itself, freshness, flavor, texture, unavailable elsewhere, non-local, unique variety, untried before, etc. The choices go beyond local products. Always be prepared to accept results that are not win-win. The experience is always a winner even if the product is not. As the world’s most famous eater says, “keep searching, my friend.”