It’s taken me a while to get around to writing this post, which goes to the heart of why the Waikato Foodbasket exists.
Here are three big reasons why I think buying and eating local food is important:
1. Local food is generally the freshest in season, because it hasn’t had to travel far after being picked. This means better quality, flavour, and almost certainly nutrition as well.
2. Relationships – you can meet the people who produce the food you eat. And you can ask them about how the food has been produced. “Spray free” means nothing unless you personally know the producers. The same goes for “free range”.
3. Buying locally produced food supports the local economy and community. This means money and jobs (and people) stay in the region. The money I pay for kale at the farmers’ market goes directly to the grower, and not to commodity markets or transport companies or supermarket owners.
A fourth reason (which is more about environmental issues than food) is that because local food hasn’t been transported long distances, less fossil fuel has been involved.
American writer Michael Pollan calls this “shortening the food chain”. It means cutting several steps out of the food business, so that you connect with the people who grow your food. As someone who used to buy all my food at the supermarket, I can admit that this feels strange at first. But it’s been really good for my family’s sense of wellbeing and our feeling of connectedness to the place where we live. And the quality of our food.
We do eat plenty of food that’s not local. (I’m not giving up coffee and chocolate unless I have to!) But we try to buy local when we can.
One great reason to shop locally: superb free-range bacon from Soggy Bottom, only at the farmers' markets. Jono hefting chestnuts to go in his (also excellent) sausages. This photo by me (Alice); the strawberry photo at top of page is by Dani Edwards.
At what cost?
Some people (including some green activists) have said to me that they think buying at farmers’ markets and local food shops is too expensive. I’ve done comparisons and I don’t agree. Sometimes supermarkets have cheap “loss leader” specials, and market stallholders can’t match these. Anyway, why should they?
Supermarket veges, fruit and meat are usually very expensive (I think) when they’re not on special. The supermarkets depend on people being too busy or too preoccupied to make a trip to the greengrocer or the farmers’ markets.
Specialist greengrocers, such as Magic Fresh, have prices fairly similar to the farmers’ market (apart from the specials).
And some farmers’ market products are actually cheaper than their supermarket equivalents.
True, it’s easy to spend a hundred dollars at the farmers’ market if you’re not thinking about your cash flow. For that amount you will get several baskets filled with real food: superbly fresh local in-season produce, excellent free-range meat, fresh baking and artisan cheese. And you can be certain that the money is going directly to the producers. It’s money well spent.
If you’re on a budget (most of the time I am), just make a list and stick to it. We don’t eat fast food or go to restaurants. We spend our food budget on good quality ingredients.
Taking food seriously
Michael Pollan says that in nations where food is taken seriously (e.g. France and Italy) people spend much more of their per capita income on food than in the United States (and also I think New Zealand). In France and Italy, even people with very modest incomes take pride in choosing and cooking good quality food.
In New Zealand we have an amazing range of fantastic quality fresh food. It’s an interesting paradox, because our food production economy has been strongly focused on international export for more than a century.
The way I see it, we can have the best of both worlds. Right now, this land could be foodie heaven. But we have just as many people with eating disorders, weight issues and diet-related health problems as anywhere else. (And kids going to school hungry.) It doesn’t have to be this way.
Caring more about where our food comes from, and valuing the people who grow it, is the first step towards dealing with this. Life is too short to eat crap food if you have a choice about it. Choosing to eat good food is essential to living well.
Two great books which have inspired me are
Michael Pollan In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
Vicki Robin Blessing the Hands that Feed Us
Both these books are in Hamilton Public Library.