The Hypocrisy in Cleveland’s Local Food System

I have been closely involved in the local food system in Cleveland for the last three or more years and I can’t help but continuously noticing the hypocrisy in it.  I’ve brought some of these topics up before at Brews + Prose local food panels in Ohio City and been backed up by the experts, so I don’t feel at all out of place for calling it “hypocrisy”.  I’ll just break down some of my observations to give you an idea of what I’m seeing:

1. LOCAL FOOD AS A LUXURY:
This is my favorite point at panel discussions.  I’ve written several locavore restaurant reviews on my Cleveland blog and always conclude the same thing: Local food is presented as a privilege, not as a way of life.  Why is it that I can visit these “local” ingredient restaurants and spend exorbitant amounts of money on tiny, decorated dishes of vegetables?  Why do fancy chefs have to run these “locavore” joints?  Why is the trend in Cleveland to make eating local a showy, classy, exclusive trend for those with money?  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  The one explanation I got was simple: perhaps the demand is much higher than the resources due to population density.  So isn’t the next logical step to educate the public and make serious strides in adding green spaces and gardens to Cleveland?  Some co-workers just this week commented on Cleveland’s lack of attractive parks within the downtown area.  If these concepts weren’t so foreign, maybe people wouldn’t be so in awe by them and remember that local eating is not a newfangled trend but rather a way of life – the only way there should be!

2. WASTEFULNESS:
I worked on a farm on the outskirts of Cleveland as an intern where we grew organic food to deliver to our clients within the city.  Sometimes these deliveries were whole plants, but it was usually produce.  We grew ridiculous quantities of squash and cabbage as the weather started to cool – so much, in fact, that we started giving it away —— and NO ONE WOULD TAKE IT.   Does that make any sense???

3. ENERGY CONSUMPTION:
On the same farm, we also used greenhouses to start nearly every plant and to grow a lot of our basil and winter our plants.  We were looking at getting a solar panel array to supply the operation.  It was a lot of energy to grow local food.  I thought about this again at the North Union Farmer’s Market at Shaker Square.  My mom and I were walking around looking at produce and she asked me what they could possibly sell in quantity during the winter months.  She’s accustomed to canning and not fighting the Pennsylvania snow once the first frost threatens our orchard.  She made the point that a lot of the farmers at the market would probably use green houses to grow crops for profit.  I started to think about these two situations – my farm and the farmers at the market – and began questioning how this was a better solution.  How is asking all of this produce to be grown in a green house outside of the city then driven to the public in personal cars any better than just bringing a large shipment to an urban store?  It’s not like you can buy all of your needs at a farmer’s market like you can buy your food, clothes, and supplies at one Wal-Mart.  It’s like how it’s more energy efficient and green for England to import its tomatoes from Spain than to grow them in English green houses…

4. PLASTIC BAGS:
If you try to buy something at the market, the vendors don’t even ask but try to shove your produce into a plastic bag.  You have to stop them and tell them you brought a bag.  They sometimes seem surprised…but why?

5. DRIVING:
For all of the cars that are parked around the market each Saturday, I have to wonder how many people actually walk to the Square on market day.  That makes me wonder how many people here don’t take advantage of the market and why they don’t.  Then I start to wonder where the other people must be coming from…and I wonder if they come from the same towns as the farmers who drive here weekly.  I would love to do a statistical analysis on the gas consumption caused by market day for this reason.

6. PROMOTION:
Why eat local?  The idea is it’s better for the environment.  My mom points out it’s also better for the farmers, thinking about the dairy farms in our area that are broke because the milk prices are kept at statewide lows.  However, I investigated what the promoted reasons for attending are.  They consist primarily as “educational experiences” or as ways to get the “freshest” food.  How is it educational?  Because apparently people don’t realize that apples don’t grow in Region 6 Decembers.  It’s been hard for me to realize how little people really know about growing – and cooking – food, especially in urban areas.  Even so, I would be promoting how it benefits the environment and the local farmers…because it does, right?

7. FARM SHARE:
The market at Shaker also promotes a “farm share” program…which I absolutely think is hypocritical.  Can you believe there are people who live within a block of the market who will not leave the house to buy produce on Saturday mornings?  What better things do you have to do on a Saturday morning?  No, instead they sign up for “farm shares” so they can have someone do the shopping for them, then deliver a PLASTIC bag of goods each week to their DOOR.  Imagine all of the driving that must be done for these personal deliveries.  I told my mom this as we walked around the Square and she was absolutely disgusted.  Then she looked up to see a woman teetering on a bike whose baskets were overflowing with produce.  “Look at that lady in the dress – on a bike!”  I thought my mom was going to insult her for wearing a dress, but instead she was making a point.  “Even a classy lady like her, at her age, is real enough to take her bike to the market each week to buy her produce.  Anyone who could live here and get a farm share… it must just be for show.  Those people don’t really care about what they’re doing at all, just what other people think about them doing it.”

That is why I have vowed to do my shopping every week at the market.  I’m going to start buying extra and canning it for the winter.  I only walk to the market, I only buy on Saturdays, I only use my reusable bags, I freeze extra food that isn’t canned or dried, and I keep as many live plants as I can to grow my own food.  I try to pick from the stands that have the most honest practices.  In one case, I bought peaches from a stand of senior citizens because I witnessed them breaking their backs to lift, sort, and sell their produce and I knew that they were hard workers.

Is there any hope for the local food “scene”?  Is it not full of hypocrisy?

I like local, but local sometimes local is the wrong answer.

Yup.  That’s pretty much all there is to it.  For all of you “go local!” buffs, the ones totally obsessed with this new trend, first of all, WOAH.  Going “local” is NOT some new trend, people!  Local is the way we evolved!!  Do you think cavemen imported food?  How about frontiersmen?  Yeah, local is a way of life, so get over yourselves…

But local isn’t always good.  In fact, sometimes it’s bad for the environment.  Ever thought of that?  It’s a pretty simple concept.  The first step in realizing the fault in locavore lifestyle is acknowledging the unrealistic demands today’s food industry.  Back when we were a naturally locavore society and didn’t have the option of importing goods, we ate what was available when it was available.  That means eating melons in the summer, roots in the winter, and there’s nothing wrong with that…we still do that.  The problem is, now, we also expect other crops to be there.  Crops that aren’t supposed to be there.  But now that we have the technological ability to grow them, we will.  And we’ll do it locally.  So it’s locavore food…or is it??

I vote, NO.  Just because a food is grown locally, that doesn’t mean it’s locavore.  Although “locavore” is supposed to include locally grown foods, I think classifying it as such misses the point.  LOCAVORE means LOCAL because LOCAL is SUSTAINABLE.  So locavore is really sustainable.  Nothing else.  Locality is just a vehicle of this sustainability.  So what’s my point?  Well, do you really think growing a non-winter crop in a greenhouse during the winter is sustainable?  Maybe it’s being grown on a local farm, but does that mean its energy expenditure is valid??   No way!

Here’s an example:  A study has shown that “it can be more sustainable (at least in energy efficiency terms) to import tomatoes from Spain than to produce them in heated greenhouses in the UK outside the summer months”, according to a food mile study.  I think this sums up my point well.  Truly eating sustainably means getting rid of fresh fruits in the winter, and in fact ditching a lot of the crops that we eat out of season.  Thinking about this, I realize how unsustainable a lot of Farmer’s Markets crops are if they’re not actually produced in fields and are instead closely monitored in greenhouses and watered frequently.  I now realize that scrutinizing a company for importing goods is not necessarily worse.  Maybe those pineapples came from Hawai’i, but just imagine the energy expenditures had we grown them here?

vegetannual

What’s my point?  Just this: If you want to eat sustainably, don’t focus so much on “local” as being a matter of “distance”.  Realize that “local” really means being locally available.  Eat seasonally.  That’s what makes the real difference.  Think about that the next time you make a grocery list, and consider growing your own food.  Cheers.