Features and Occasionals

What’s Local?

By Carmen Taylor

As Eat Local Week nears, we ask three Salt Lake City “local food” activists: What’s “local”?

Eat Local Week’s mission is simple: challenge yourself to eat more locally for a whole week. Now in its seventh year, this annual, localized eating fest began back in 2009 when Andrea and Mike Heidinger took it upon themselves to rethink their eating habits: could they base their diets on food grown within a 250-mile radius? No coffee? No bananas? After their first attempt, they got friends to join them in the endeavor, hosting a series of potlucks and gatherings. Eventually the idea grew into a statewide week of raising awareness about the foods grown regionally in Utah.

Yet, as simple as the concept of eating local sounds, its definition has no hard line and its implications within the complex food system from which we all consume are often unclear. Over the past 10 years, the local and organic food movements have gained popularity through the efforts of food thinkers like Michael Pollan, grass roots efforts such as Salt Lake’s Eat Local Week, and, of course, local producers.

But is the decision to buy “local” just a feel-good consumer choice, isolated from the reality of factory farms and monocultures? Or is buying local voting with your checkbook and effecting slow but considerable change? If so, do we have to be purists to be localists?

I talked with three local leaders in the SLC food scene to demystify what eating local means for them and how they see its impact within the larger landscape of the United States’ industrial food system.

“Local food has different definitions. Some say it’s local within 100 miles. Others, up to, 500 miles. For me, it’s about getting to know what grows locally in your food shed—the geographic area between where food is produced and where it is consumed,” says Gwen Crist, the chair of the board of directors for Slow Food Utah. Slow Food Utah is a branch of the international organization, Slow Food, with the mission of “good, clean, fair food for everyone”.

Crist contends that the strength of the local food movement lies in its ability to create connections, to both food and people.

“When you buy local food, you form relationships with the people in your community; the community that is formed and strengthened is the most important part. And maybe the most important benefit of eating locally is taste! There’s nothing like buying a fresh tomato in season, still warm from the sun, and more nutritious because it’s not being transported from thousands of miles away,” says Crist.

For Crist, eating locally isn’t about being a purist, it’s more about the practice of gaining a deeper understanding of our food system and who is growing the food coming out of Utah.

Yet, while “local” food serves as a rallying cry for farmers and consumers trying to make connections to what grows near them, the term has also been co-opted as a branding tactic by large chain supermarkets who often use “local” to mean “grown in the U.S.A.”

“Where there is an appetite for a product, larger chains are going to want to get in on it,” says Kim Angeli, manager of the Downtown Alliance Farmer’s Market for 10 years.

Crist agrees that larger companies find their own way to define what is “local.”

“A lot of grocery stores want you to think they are supporting local growers, but maybe their definition of local is from a farm in California or even a smaller farm back East; because it’s small, it’s local in their minds.

“The bigger stores have big corporate contracts that they want to work out. A lot of small farmers really struggle to meet their requirements, and it’s better for them to sell directly to consumers through a farmers market. Unless a local farm is a big farm, they’re probably not going to have their supplies in the big stores.”

This kind of “local” promotion is one of the roadblocks for consumers to actually support the livelihoods of local farmers.

“The word local creates a lot of images in our minds. When we walk into a restaurant whose promotions say “local peaches,” we can feel better about ourselves. In reality, maybe the restaurant is buying only one crop from the producer and doesn’t want anything else from that farm. This isn’t a great way to support a local farm. If they can only grow one item for you, what are they doing with the rest of their food?” asks Crist.

Tyler Montague, an urban farmer with Keep It Real Vegetables runs the urban farming project with his business partner, Holiday Dalgleish. With nine gardens spread throughout the Salt Lake Valley, the land they farm is a cumulative one acre.

“Since we have such a [comparatively small] amount of produce to sell, we don’t have the problem that other farmers have trying to move their product,” says Montague.

The biggest barrier to selling food that Montague and Dalhleish come up against is restaurant buyers. Montague affirmed Crist’s comments regarding restaurants wanting to buy only one crop.

“Yes, it’s definitely an issue.” For Montague, who sells 50% of his produce to restaurants, it’s important to find restaurants and chefs who understand that he can’t sell his produce for the same price as industrial produce. They are going to need to pay a little bit more.

It helps when chefs express interest in the farming practices, too. “Dan Barber is an influential chef in New York. He was getting the most coveted crops from his local farmer. But in order to grow these crops, the farmer needed to plant cover crops and let the land lie fallow. He was then composting the cover crops. Barber decided to find ways to integrate those auxiliary crops [into his recipes]. For chefs to support farmers, they need to go to the farmer and get an idea of the system of the farm and how it is working,” says Montague.

“Local-washing” doesn’t just happen in stores and restaurants. For Kim Angeli at the Downtown Farmers Market, a large part of her job was to ensure the integrity of produce marketed as “local.“ Even the farmers market has these issues. “If it’s cherry season in Oregon, and they haven’t come on in Utah yet, it might be tempting to some growers to pick up a few flats and sell them at their stand,” says Angeli.

Beyond the misuse of the “local” food label, Angeli, Crist and Montague are optimists.

“Most growers are within 30 miles of Salt Lake City,” says Angeli. “Orchard lands are further out, so fruit often comes from places like Brigham City. Vegetable producers are growing thousands of pounds of food on a few acres because they’ve perfected intensive growing practices for this climate.”

Small producers like Montague are at the heart of the effort to bring eating back into our backyards.

“The agriculture system is a huge monolithic thing. But the local food movement isn’t a drop in the bucket. The way that we’re growing is how people have been growing food for thousands of years. Seeing the small scale way as insignificant is shortsighted. Where industrial agriculture has abused soils and water, small-scale agriculture is going to pick up the pieces. We just need a lot more of it. Every community should have a lot of small food producers. The demand and excitement has only been increasing since I started farming eight years ago.”

Montague took gardening classes in college and then slowly invested more time and money into growing food, until he wanted to make a living from it.

“We’ve found a pretty good equilibrium. My business partner and I do almost everything, and we hire people to help with harvest. We are able to make a livable wage. I don’t have plans to expand much more. My goal is to make the gardens healthier and more productive, to get more out of what we have. I like being a city farmer.”

Now he sees the role of small-scale urban farmer as a model for the future of food in cities.

“The more time you spend in the kitchen preparing food, the more you’ll understand the benefit of local food,” says Angeli. “Also, because our harvest season is so short, it’s helpful to learn more about food preservation. Through canning and other methods, you can enjoy local food year-round.”

EAT LOCAL WEEK September 10-17, 2016

Celebrate Utah’s amazing local food culture.

Learn more about where and how your food is grown!

Take the Eat Local pledge here.

Recipe Contest: Eat Local Week is looking for your original recipes using local food. Prizes will be awarded and the top recipes will be published in the October 2016 issue of CATALYST Magazine!

Facebook: /eatlocalweekutah)   Instagram: @eatlocalutah

This article was originally published on September 1, 2016.