Just one more reason to eat local food | Civil Eats

Just one more reason to eat local food

Our industrial food system has lost all sense of place. In our ever-industrialized farm system, food crops are shipped across state and country lines, and packed and repacked with different labels and brands. When a health problem occurs in such a system, there is virtually no way to trace the problem back to the source.

A recent salmonella outbreak has made nearly 1000 people ill in 28 different states. For over a month the FDA, which regulates food safety, had thought that the outbreak was linked to tomatoes, and issued warnings causing many establishments to halt using them.

Unfortunately, nearly two months later, the FDA still doesn’t know the cause of the outbreak. More surprisingly, tomatoes might not be the cause at all. Put quite simply, it could be almost any vegetable, contaminated in any field or warehouse.

It’s a frightening prospect and an unfortunate fact of the current system, but there is another way.

First and foremost, simply buy locally from your local farmers and produce markets. Ask questions about where and how your vegetables are grown, and develop relationships with your farmers. Alternatively, join a local CSA group and receive a weekly box of vegetables from a specific farm or farm group. If there are ever any problems with your produce, either of these solutions provides farm-to-table tracking with a few simple phone calls.

Backyard and community food gardens can also be part of the solution. By growing even a small percentage of the food we eat ourselves we will foster a greater understanding and connection to our food cycle.

On a larger scale, regional growing regions need to be established and a point of origin labeling system enacted. This doesn’t have to be complex, or even regulated by any agency. A farmer-generated system is in everyone’s best interest.

Returning to the tomato example, when the recent outbreak occurred everyone across the entire country stopped buying tomatoes. This hurt growers no matter how far removed they were from the source of the problem. If we know the origin of contaminated foods, we can quickly control problems as they arise.

Today’s food system is complex.

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Similar systems are already in place for some agricultural groups. A prime example comes from the idea of “terroir” in winemaking. Terroir refers to a group of growers from a specific region, growing specified varieties of grapes, sharing the same type of soil, etc. This concept has crossed over into tea, coffee and a few other crops, but it certainly has a lot to offer if it is expanded even more.

The benefits of such a system would go far beyond controlling contamination. It would also help us understand the subtleties of our food – how does a Baja tomato, grown in the hot desert, differ from the one grown in my backyard? For one thing, tomatoes from the south often develop thicker skins to protect themselves from the hot sun….but flavor also differs.

Ultimately it is up to us, the consumers, to demand to know the origins of our food. Our agricultural system is part of the larger economy where dollars count as votes. By buying local, good, clean and fair foods we all stand to benefit.

Photo by bucklava

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Chef / Ecologist Aaron French is the Environment Editor at Civil Eats. He is the chef of The Sunny Side Cafe and is writing his first book "The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook" (Voyageur Press, 2011). He has a Masters in Ecology and is currently working toward his MBA at UC Berkeley, with a focus on sustainable business practices. Read more >

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  1. Hey Aaron, I enjoyed your post, great writing, and actually like the comparison of wine's terroir to local fruits and veggies.
  2. Hi Niko -

    Thanks for the comments. I see you are from Sacramento - my home town. I grew up on a small 1-acre farm near Fruitridge blvd. We grew for ourselves, and also sold our fruits, veggies, herbs, and eggs to the Sac Natural Food Coop and some local restaurants.

    Keep up the good work!


    So true! In my mind there is a permanent place for the tomatoes that I ate near Naples, grown in rich volcanic soil -- the taste is unforgettably sweet and acidic.

    And the tomatoes that came from an olive farm near Siena? Again, completely reflective of the terroir there (though the variety may have had something to do with it). There is a common component in the olive oil from olives grown next to the tomatoes, and the tomatoes themselves: the soil, air, and climate.

    Keep up the good work, and maybe one day we'll have real regional flavors.

    SF, CA

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