Is local food a fad?


Is local food the pet rock of the millenium or something that's been around since, well, forever? That's the question Corner Table chef Scott Pampuch raised on his blog in reaction to the statements made in a recent MPR report about CSA farmers by U of M Food Industry Center co-director Jean Kinsey, who expressed her skepticism that local food will ever be a significant part of the market.

"It's probably useful to know that organic food has been growing at double-digit rates for several years, and in total still occupies less than 3 percent of the total food sales," Kinsey said.

In his own commentary, Pampuch questions the specifics of the research and points out that people have been eating local food a lot longer than they've been eating non-local food:

The point of this article for me is to get people to stop talking about if this is a fad or not, and go on hard facts. One fact: this is not something new. This idea of eating locally has been around forever. it had a lot to do with how this country was founded and how this country ran for a very long time. Another fact: with human rights abuses, animal abuses, the massive rise in food allergies, bovine hormone injections (largely unlabeled) linked to human and bovine health risks, overfishing, topsoil erosion, water scarcity, and (unfortunately) more, we have got to change the way we get our food. The commodity food system is just so pervasive over the past 60 years that we have forgotten that we have the ability to try something a new and, to borrow a line from the computer guys who named their company after a fruit; to think differently.

I brought the subject up with Lee Zukor, the man behind the excellent--and increasingly popular--local food blog Simple, Good, and Tasty, and here's what he had to say:

The word "fad" suggests something that's somehow flimsy, which local food definitely isn't. In a way, local food is the opposite of a fad. It's the Black Hills. It's Niagara Falls. There will be years when fewer tourists flock to these places, but there's no denying that they're here to stay, and that they've stood the test of time. Never mind the local or organic food numbers - they're not even big enough to constitute a fad, are they? As it relates to local food, "fad" is a loaded word intended to give people permission to ignore the health benefits, the environmental benefits, and the animal rights issues.

I'm inclined to side with Pampuch and Zukor. Since the local food movement really started to take hold in MN a few years ago (I became interested in it around 2005 when I wrote a piece on the local chapter of Slow Food for Mn Monthly), it feels like I've written the terms "local," "seasonal," and "sustainable" about a million times. On a personal level, the idea definitely influences my non-work-related food purchasing decisions (I feel a palpable sense of guilt every time I buy, say, a jar of imported Bonne Maman preserves...). Within my own social circle, which, admittedly, is perhaps more likely to participate in the local food movement than most Minnesotans, I've definitely noticed an increase in shopping at co-ops and farmers markets, purchasing CSAs, starting gardens, canning/preserving, etc. But I've also seen the local food ethos make inroads in communities that one wouldn't necessarily expect to take an interest.

In just the past few years it seems Minnesota has established/solidified a strong network of local food advocates: restaurants serving local food (some are planting gardens and hosting farm dinners), co-ops and farmers markets (including the new neighborhood mini markets), CSAs (many now deliver directly to workplaces), mainstream grocers and institutional cafeterias bringing in more local foods, government initiatives (Homegrown Mpls, etc.) and food media (including Heavy Table, Simple, Good, and Tasty). It seems a lot more imbedded in local culture than men in skinny jeans...I hope!