Mendocino Local (Food) Politics


When is local really local? My local grocery store advertises that to them “Local Means Local.” Front and center in their store this afternoon, I encounter a contradiction. A large display is built up in conjunction with their latest ad featuring “Bocconcini Salad,” a Caprese by another name, I suppose. There are piles of hothouse, yes, hothouse cluster tomatoes. Why, I ask myself, at the height of Northern California’s tomato season? I am told they hail from California, so I guess, in some obscure fashion; it is more local than say, Mexico. Where are the beautiful heirloom tomatoes produced and delivered by the farmer from across the mountains that drives here twice a week to delivery freshly picked produce? Next to the tomatoes are individual, factory sealed tubs of various sizes and shapes of “fresh” mozzarella cheese in water. In this case, local is a little closer, as the cheese comes to us from the San Francisco Bay area, by way of Sacramento. Also on the same shelf is row upon row of glistening clear glass bottles of obscenely inexpensive organic extra virgin olive oil. Turning the bottle over, I search for a point of origin and find it at the bottom of the label in smallish print. The oil is “Produced in Turkey.” Now in the world of extra virgin olive oil, the words “produced in…” mean nothing more than “bottled and labeled in…” so I have no idea where the olives are grown. This particular store entreats its customer to “…keep your dollars local,” rather than shopping for inexpensive, imported goods at an unnamed national discount chain, known for their low, low prices. They point out that the value of purchasing locally produced, higher priced goods from a local retailer is more than just the price, and I heartily agree. Around the corner, in another aisle, there is a display of large, stainless steel containers that hold bulk artisan Northern California olive oil. You could easily miss this product, on your way to the soup or the mayonnaise. When questioned, the answer is always the same. The store must provide value to the hard working customers that are on a budget. The thinking is such, that as long as the alternative is available, it makes it acceptable to feature and promote inexpensive, anonymous, mass-produced products from nations somewhere around the globe who pay their workers a dollar a day?

Consumers today flock to purchase products labeled “organic,” as if it is some sort of magic safeguard against greedy corporate profit takers and unscrupulous users of chemicals and hormones in food production. What ever happened to knowing where your food comes from? Whole Foods touts the benefits of their organic wines, produced under their private label in Australia. Don’t we have enough good, sustainably produced local wines in California? I saw a cartoon in the paper yesterday, where a child tells the parent that organic produce wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic film is a contradiction, and the parent looks as though he doesn’t understand. Fears of pandemic food-borne illnesses lead the customer to embrace the sterile packaging, yet how much imported oil does it take to process food in this way? Are we looking for the 3” x 5” card on how to shop and eat? 
In contrast, I shop for produce each week at our local farmers markets. Even in my small town, where we have markets only from May through October, I can purchase meat, baked goods, produce, cheeses, eggs, honey, fish, olive oil and even seedlings for my garden. I can talk to the producers, handle the product, smell the peaches that are so ripe that they are beginning to burst from their skins. Yes, I pay a bit more than if I were to cruise the aisles of the larger supermarket, but the experience of purchasing food that is produced by a human being that I know by name and converse with regularly causes me to show the product a bit more respect. I am less inclined to let these items lose themselves in the back of a too-large refrigerator until they are mere shadows of their former selves. I am also less inclined to buy more than I need for a given day or week, knowing that this food is at its peak and should be honored and respected for what it is, not to mention the time and effort expended to produce it.
I swap the lore of growing beans with one farmer, and of producing olive oil with another. One of the bakers works for me on occasion, the other bought the business I used to own. I stop to admire both the goat farmer’s cheeses and pictures of his new baby, and we talk about mutual friends both near and far. To me, local means someone you have a connection with. We humans are social animals, and marketing is one of the last vestiges of village society. We lose something when we lose this connection to our foods. When we disconnect our food from the people that produce it, we reduce it to merely the exchange of money for goods. I guess, in that circumstance, the price would become the most important component of the transaction. We forget the hard work that goes into producing our food, the long hours that the farmer spends tending the crops, the early mornings when he rises to load the truck for one more market day, and the late nights when he returns to his home and family. I refuse to let large corporations dictate what I cook and eat, and today, I can still log a small victory by buying from a local farmer. But how long can this continue? Somewhere, somehow, there has to be a shift in values. Will it take a catastrophe, as some predict, or is there some small part of every human’s brain that longs for the connection? As Wendell Berry is quoted by Slow Food, “Eating is an agricultural act.” In an obscure way, this means we are all farmers of sorts, and equally responsible for cultivating our future.
Post by Julia Conway on July 22nd, 2008