When I was a kid I didn’t care where my food was from as long as it wasn’t from off the floor. Food falling on the floor is one of the worst things that can happen to you in elementary school. In later years we would learn about the “five second rule,” which I once mixed up with the “five minute rule” and almost got left back for poor attendance. But in elementary school, if there had been a little more room on those menus magneted to every refrigerator in the land, the description of the lunches would say something like “Not Dropped On the Floor Sloppy Joe.”
At restaurants today it is taken for granted that food is not dropped on the floor, or that if it is, no one will tell you about it. Instead, the menus emphasize the geographic origin of the ingredients. Everyone wants to know if the vegetables are locally grown, or if the chickens were raised on local farms, enjoying the fresh local air and tasty local feed, taking in the local theater and shopping at the local boutiques, before their necks were wrung ever so humanely.
Wikipedia describes the local food movement as a “collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies—one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.” There is a Taco Bell five minutes from my home that I’ve often relied upon, parking my car behind the dumpster so that my wife wouldn’t see it while she shops for fresh vegetables and couscous. But I don’t think that’s what they mean.
My first exposure to the local food movement was when my wife and I attended a farmer’s market near our home. The vendors had set up tables with their wares, and offered so many free samples of local tomatoes, local cheese, local bread, and local meat, that it was not long before I was looking for the local bathroom.
One table was offering locally made gourmet peanut butter. The options were far beyond the traditional chunky and smooth. There was chocolate-pretzel peanut butter, cookie-dough fudge peanut butter, jalapeño peanut butter. We were impressed. Then I looked at the price tag, and realized why choosy moms choose Jif. Panko-crusted animal-cracker peanut butter mixed with goat cheese and leeks may be great for dinner parties, but I had to conserve my cash for the parking attendant.
Local food, however, is about much more than nutrition and economics. There is controversy about what constitutes “local.” The United States Congress, in the 2008 Farm Act, defined “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as less than 400 miles from its origin. That means that “local” covers an area of 502,655 square miles, or, as Tom Hanks’s character in “Cast Away” would have put it, “twice the size of Texas.” Under that definition, I could secure a lot more free time by telling my wife I’m going out to run a few local errands.
I’m no member of Congress, but, to me, “local” implies that a chicken could have its head cut off and still be running around in my shopping cart when I’m swiping my frequent shopper card. Politics is truly the art of compromise.
But these lofty concepts and global disputes rarely affect my daily life. I eat whatever food I can find in the refrigerator or cupboard, with no thought of the journey it took to my gullet, and whether it paid tolls with E-Z Pass. The only time the local movement enters my decision-making process is when I’m at a restaurant, and I am given the choice between meats raised on local farms or meats from origins unknown. It is such a hard decision to make, that I already know I’m going to be reaching for antacids later on that night…antacids that are, fortunately, the most local food of all—right on the nightstand, next to my bed.