My next meal may come from nearby
As someone who loves to eat, I’m always thinking about where my next meal is coming from.
Where should I go for lunch? What will I have for dinner? Will I have yogurt for breakfast? Or eggs? Or a granola bar?
In recent years, I’ve become curious about where the food I’m consuming actually comes from.
I didn’t develop this interest on my own.
Rather, it grew out of conversations with friends who were making an effort to shop at farmers markets and food co-ops, grow their own food and cook most of their meals using fresh, high-quality ingredients.
Then there’s the surge in newspaper and magazine articles looking at food-related issues and trends, such as the growing number of restaurants buying meat and produce from local farms and the uptick in projects aimed at getting people to eat fresh, rather than processed, food. You don’t have to be a nutritionist to understand that eating lots of fruits and vegetables is healthier than a steady diet of fast food and frozen meals.
Mark Dunlea, executive director of the Hunger Action Network, said there’s widespread support for local food but the state lacks the infrastructure to process and distribute it. He noted that although there might be a need for fresh produce in New York City, it might not make sense for an individual farmer to drive downstate to sell fruits and vegetables.
“This is not an issue where there’s a partisan divide,” Dunlea said. “But the devil is often in the details.”
In a recent report, the Hunger Action Network of New York State makes recommendations aimed at expanding the state’s local food economy. These include increasing the percentage of food consumed by New Yorkers that is locally grown by 2 percent annually, and promoting programs such as community gardens, veggie mobiles and food-buying clubs. “Most New York consumers are unaware that the vast majority of their food comes from out of state, and that it travels long distances to their plate,” the report states.
Food on the farm
I reflected on the value of local food this past weekend, when I attended a wedding at a small, upstart farm in Cobleskill. All of the food served at the reception was raised or grown on the property; most notably, two pigs and two lambs were butchered for the event. “Thanks guys,” one of the farmers wrote on Facebook. “We appreciate you.” Beverage-wise, there were fancy cocktails, New York wines and homebrew provided by a friend.
I attended high school in New Hampshire with one of the farmers, who relocated to Schoharie County from Philadelphia about two years ago. He and his partner have faced the sorts of challenges many new farmers face, such as a lack of land — right now, they lease — and the need to work a second job to make ends meet. At the wedding, all of the speeches and toasts made reference to how difficult life on the farm could sometimes be. As I dug into my delicious lamb and pork, it was impossible to forget how much work had gone into producing my meal.
The farm wedding was just the start of my weekend of local food.
On Sunday, I traveled to the southern Adirondacks for a harvest feast at a friend’s house. This is an annual event, and the food is always outstanding: chicken, corn pudding, roasted potatoes, salad, fresh-baked pies, cornbread, etc. I love eating at restaurants, but it’s hard to beat a meal like this.
Of course, putting together a meal like this is not easy, as it involves planting and maintaining a large and bountiful garden. And I know how difficult it can be to keep up with a garden, because my landlord and I struggled to weed and water our small plot on a regular basis.
But I do like the idea of local food.
I like the idea of supporting area farmers, and of eating healthier, fresher food. I also like the idea of preserving farmland and creating a local food economy that’s less energy intensive than the system we currently have, which involves shipping fruits, vegetables and meat all over the country. Is it really better to get my eggs from a factory farm in the Midwest than a family farm in upstate New York? I often get my eggs from a friend who owns chickens, and they’re very good.
The Capital Region is home to great sources of local food, such as the Schenectady Greenmarket and Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany. However, shopping at Honest Weight can be expensive, and if you shop there you are making a conscious choice to spend more money on groceries than you would if you shopped at Price Chopper or ShopRite. One of the biggest challenges facing the local food movement might be how to make local food accessible and affordable to all.
My Denver-based friends Dave and Melissa decided that eating good and sustainably produced food was so important to them that they would do all their grocery shopping at Whole Foods. After about a year, Dave sat down and compared the cost of shopping at Whole Foods to a regular grocery store, and found that their food budget had increased by about 10 percent. Not everyone can absorb a cost increase like that.
The morning of the farm wedding, my landlord and I visited our community garden plot for the end-of-season cleanup. Neither of us had been there for quite some time, and the place was overrun with weeds. But it was still producing vegetables, despite our neglect: I picked cherry tomatoes, kale and tomatillos, and dug up the sweet potatoes I planted back in the spring.
I am not a very good gardener, and if I had to depend on my garden to keep fed, I’d probably starve.
But it has provided some very good meals over the past few months, which is a start.