Ithaca Blog

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Local Food Movement

What the organic food movement was in the 1960's and '70's, the local food movement is today.

The organic movement promoted chemical-free farming as better for health and the environment, and small, independent farms as a more diverse and beneficial food system than huge, corporate agribusinesses.

Today, after decades of development and success, organic food is the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. But its success has attracted some growers and manufacturers who seem more interested in the potential profits of organic food than its philosophy or goals.

Wal-Mart is selling organic produce, but buys it wherever it is cheapest, including China. Earthbound Farms, a grower included in the recall of bagged spinach this year for E. coli contamination, began as a small grower of organic produce in 1984, but now is part of a conglomerate with over 24,000 acres in 3 countries.

Today, the local food movement says that organic is no longer a guarantee of the highest quality or practices. The movement encourages consumers to buy from farms within a certain radius of where they live, or from sellers they know.

What's the point, the movement asks, of buying organic apples or broccoli to protect the environment, if the produce is shipped thousands of miles by plane and truck? If the "farm" is actually a monoculture plot of thousands of acres in New Zealand or Mexico? If the distributor is a mass marketer like Wal-Mart that undercuts smaller businesses and family farms?

Alternative, independent forms of marketing, such as farmer's markets, food co-ops, and specialty retailers, are emerging as small farmers look to keep control of their products and profits, and customers look for greater connection to their food and communities.

In Ithaca, the Farmer's Market started with the organic movement of the 1970's. For years it was a no-frills operation where farmers came to town on Saturday mornings and sold out of the backs of their trucks in a parking lot that is now Center Ithaca. With the development of Center Ithaca, the market moved to a parking area on Taughannock Boulevard. The dream at that time was to someday have a permanent building.

By the 1990's, the dream was achieved with the Farmer's Market pavilion, on the Cayuga Inlet off Third Street and Route 13. On Saturdays and Sundays, from April through December, the Farmer's Market is home to scores of farmers and food producers, who must grow or make what they sell, and come from within 30 miles.

Retailers such as GreenStar Co-op, Ludgate Farms, and others are responding to the local food movement with increased dedication to buying and promoting local foods, and foods sold by independent and principled distributors. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County has taken leadership in the educational aspect of the movement, promoting the environmental and economic benefits of local foods.

Beyond addressing issues of pollution, nutrition, urban sprawl, saving family farms, and aiding local economies, locally-grown foods provide a simple benefit in the opinion of many consumers: better taste.

At the Ithaca Farmers Market recently, Pat, age 70, was buying organic sweet potatoes. "When I first came to the Farmer's Market, I didn't know what organic was. Now I do. It's vegetables grown without pesticides, like we used to grow in our gardens when I was a kid. People don't do that anymore like we used to. When I eat one of these sweet potatoes, it's like the ones I used to eat that were so good but I forgot."

Stephen Burke
for Ithaca Blog

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