Hi. My name is Jim, and I’m a locavore.
Last week, we had dinner at my Mom’s house. She made asparagus.
Last night, we had dinner at my in-laws. They made a salad. With lettuce.
A decade ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about either of those meals. Both were good, but not great. This month, they both seemed wrong. Because neither asparagus, nor lettuce, is in season right now where we live.
Today, a friend sent me a link to this article, about the challenge of eating locally. Not to spoil it for you, but the author concludes that eating well locally is becoming more difficult because consumers are demanding cheap food, and industrial food is cheaper food, a theory that used to resonate with me. (After 5 years of operating an artisan food business, I now think most consumers are just stupid – at least a little – when it comes to food, which is not exactly at odds with the article, just a little more cynical. We agree that whatever the root cause is precisely, stupidity or cheapness or both, that our shitty industrial food supply our own Goddamned fault).
I was also inspired by an opinion piece in Lucky Peach on what constitutes “authentic” food.
This series of events caused me to think a little harder about WHY I eat the way I eat.
So first, how do I eat? Well, I haven’t purchased fresh food at a traditional store (e.g., a grocery store) in many years. Whole Foods gives me the heebie jeebies. Trader Joes is an utter fucking mystery to me, with their shitty, over-packaged, over-processed food they try to pass off as “gourmet”. When it comes to meat, I’ve started buying whole animals from farmers who will allow me to dispatch them myself, because even farmers’ market meats come without offal, and the mediocrity of the butchering makes me insane. Our vegetables come from purchase or barter at farmers’ markets and CSAs where we sell our coffee. I obtain raw milk whenever I can, conveniently, and when I can’t, I don’t drink milk. It’s safe to say that I should be a poster boy for the local food movement, and on some days, I am.
Usually, when I encounter a locavore, it’s a person who has a cause, a mission, to convert others to their way of thinking. “Don’t you get it, man? Industrial food is ruining everything!” is the usual refrain. I suppose that, in the beginning, I bought into that, to some extent (and I still believe it’s true). But as I come to accept, and even embrace my particular style of obtaining and eating food, I realize that “the Cause” is not what motivates me.
Selfishness motivates me. There, I’ve said it.
I eat the way I eat because it’s in my own self-interest. I really do believe it’s better for the planet, it’s better for small farms, and it’s better for communities. But at the end of the day, it’s better for my family, and for me. That’s why I do it. I feel better (physically), and it’s less expensive (really, it is). But perhaps most importantly, it tastes better. People like to eat things that taste good, and locally produced fresh food almost always tastes better than industrial alternatives transported from far away.
Why do I promote local eating? Because in order to serve me, producers need some critical mass of customers. So it’s in my best interest to be sure they have them.
Does this make me a bad person? Maybe, in some circles. But I’m guessing that if the cause-oriented locavores abandoned their missionary work for the sake of missionary work, and acknowledged their self-interest, the Cause would advance more rapidly, too. Because all of those esoteric arguments about local economies, healthier planets, etc, etc , while likely true, are not as effective as SHOWING somebody that by eating locally, they will feel better, have more money, and oh by the way, enjoy the taste of their food more.
That’s probably the most alarmist description I’ve heard to describe Genetically Modified Organisms. GMOs, for the benefit of those who don’t know, are organisms (food plants are the subject of most of the current debate around this topic) whose genome has been specifically modified to result in some desired characteristics. For example, Monsanto has developed GMO crops whose genome prevents them from being killed by their herbicide, RoundUp, thus allowing fields to be sprayed with RoundUp, killing weeds while the crop survives. There are many other motivations for GMOs, too.
People around the world have expressed concerns that GMOs may result in the law of unintended consequences, with downstream damage outweighing the benefit years from now. Everything from environmental damage from herbicide overuse, to the dilution of the gene pool of native species are very reasonable concerns.
Accordingly, consumers around the world have either prohibited the sale of GMO food (Europe), or are pushing for specific labeling of GMO foods (USA). In any case, GMOs are a source of very vocal debates.
I’m not advocating one way or the other on GMOs. As a technical person myself, I have mixed emotions on the topic. My intention here is not to lobby one way or the other. My intention here is to advise you that if you are in favor of bans, or labels, be careful what you wish for. Because the Law of Unintended Consequences may just jump up and bite you in the behind.
As a small food manufacturer myself, I can tell you that bans and increased labeling requirements WILL have a negative impact on small manufacturers. The only way for me, as a manufacturer, to say definitively whether a product is, or is not, a GMO is to have it tested. The GMO test is a central lab test (you have to send a sample out to a lab), which takes a week or two and costs about $250.
Now that may not sound like a big deal, and for General Mills, making Cheerios, it’s not, really. But for a company like ours, it is. Because we deal in micro-lots of things. We may buy a two-bag lot of coffee (about 250 pounds). We may obtain just a ton of corn for our artisan corn products (that’s actually a small amount for most mills). We buy these small lots because they are unique and tasty. Customers like them. And usually, they are not accompanied by any substantial pedigree, other than perhaps an oral history from the grower. And a testing requirement would add about two dollars per pound (or more) – about 18% – to many of the products we sell. The number is that high because not only do we have to get the testing done (that’s the easy part), but we also have to maintain the records… for years.
If GMO labeling becomes required, I can predict one thing with certainty: your food choices will diminish.
Because it between the two extremes of “yes, it is GMO”, and “no, it’s not GMO”, is the middle ground that much of the food from small producers will occupy: “I don’t think it is, but I’m not sure”. And getting from there to either of the other alternatives will destroy the economic viability of the enterprise. I know this as surely as the sun rises in the East.
What I’m proposing is an alternative to the current label proposals. The current proposals are essentially one proposal: GMOs must be labeled as such. By default, then, things not labeled as GMO are not GMO. Very tidy, but unrealistic if you want small producers to survive. Because a proposal that all GMOs be labeled inherently requires that all products be tested – because the only way to know whether somethings is, or is not, GMO, is to test it.
What I propose then are three labels:
- Tested, found to be non-GMO
- Tested, found to be GMO
In practice, you will only ever find labels 1 and 3, because there is really no contingent of customers I know of who go around saying “I’d rather eat GMOs”. But I suspect there are an awful lot of people who don’t care much one way or the other, and don’t want to incur the expense of testing (because ultimately it is passed on to the consumer), and/or don’t want their favorite small suppliers going out of business over it.
So if you’re one of those people advocating for GMO labeling, make sure you think through the consequences of what you’re wishing for.
How popular are food trucks? Google the term, and you’ll get just over 27 MILLION results. In 0.16 seconds. The Food Network had a contest, and show about them. Durham has Only Burger, the first place I had a fried green tomato and pimento cheese burger (brilliant, in case you were wondering). Yeah, any reasonable person will tell you they are wildly popular, the new new thing, as evidenced by the selection of the shiny and earnest Tyler Florence as host of the Food Network show.
But food trucks are not popular everywhere, with everyone.
Today in Raleigh, there was a “hearing” of sorts on the advisability of food trucks downtown; apparently they are currently verboten. I read about it over at spoonfedraleigh, where there was a nice summary of the positions of people on both side of the issue. Since there didn’t appear to be an opportunity to comment over at spoonfed, I figured I would use my own blog to comment on the debate.
Because most of it is bullshit.
Here’s what’s legitimate: safety concerns. Pedestrian safety, diner safety, worker safety. But here’s the thing – we already have laws about all of those things. Trucks are currently not allowed to run over pedestrians. Food purveyors must comply with established standards that assure food safety, today. And last time I looked, OSHA still mandates conditions for workers. It doesn’t matter whether the restaurant is on wheels. Or not. If there is some aspect of current safety regulations that is inadequate because it did not anticipate mobile operators, then update it. But once again, this looks like a case, by and large, where existing regulation is up to the task.
What’s not legitimate are calls for protectionism.
Things change. All the time, in every industry. New products supersede old ones. Business models evolve to suit consumer preferences and leverage technology. If these weren’t facts, we would still be buying our music on wax cylinders instead of renting it for our Zune players. Change in business is as inevitable as the change of seasons.
And so is the resistance of the incumbents.
Cries of “Foul!” dominate the airwaves. “I have so much investment”, “The new guys aren’t following the old rules”, and “Somebody’s gonna get hurt if we let this newfangled stuff gain a toehold” are the same tired refrain heard from every dying entrenched operator, in every industry vertical, since the dawn of time. Scribes said it of printing press operators, I’m sure. Horse sellers used it to frighten early adopters of the automobile. And we all know the story of music, video and telecommunications in the last decade. Go see how crowded your local Blockbuster is these days, so you aren’t too surprised when you see the “For Lease” sign in the window (maybe we should ban streaming video?).
Food trucks are the new Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.
But make no mistake: in no case does the government have any business determining which products, operators, or business models succeed, try as they might. That’s the job of consumers.
At this point, you may be tempted to think I am a huge fan of food trucks. Or worse, an enemy of brick-and-mortar restaurants.
The truth is I’m neither. As a small business owner myself, I understand probably better than most the issues and emotions around this debate. But as John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things”. And the facts are that both models in this debate are here to stay, even while some restaurants will fail, regardless of their mobility. And that the people who are deciding this issue are not the people who should be deciding this issue.
Most food trucks are bad restaurants on wheels. Most restaurants are bad restaurants on concrete. I generally favor a good meal of simple ingredients prepared with care in a mom-and-pop bistro setting. But I’m not opposed to a great taquito obtained on the side of the road. There is room for both in my world.
The choice is not (or should not be) up to politicians. It’s up to consumers.
It’s simple, really. If you don’t want food trucks, don’t buy food from them. If you want more bricks-n-sticks restaurants, patronize them. And in either case, persuade your friends to behave in the same way. Because the ones that stay will be the ones with customers, and vice versa.
But don’t let some pointy-headed bureaucrat decide what your options are, as a consumer or a business owner. Tell them to stick to their mandate, and assure the public safety. And then they are to get the hell out of the way.
The author is an owner of Muddy Dog Roasting Company, a boutique coffee roastery in Morrisville, NC. We are a brick-and-mortar establishment. We also sell our wares on the road. We compete with mega-corporations, and micro-operators in low-rent garage shops. Our customers can go many, many places to obtain substitute products. They choose us because the want to, and they can. I fear the day when that choice is removed from them. If you like great coffee from independent operators, and want to Stick it to the Man, please check us out:
There was an interesting essay – whose title I stole shamelessly for this post – in today’s Washington Post that made its way to me via Twitter (thanks @chanlea). If you care about local food, it’s an interesting read. But for those who want the Cliff Note version, I’ll sum it up in a sentence:
Not everyone cares as much as you.
This essay put into words the sentiment that’s been building in me for the last year or two. I’ve come to realize not only the truth that Cunningham and Black point on in their essay, but a more profound truth, as well – I don’t really care if you care.
Because the fact of the matter is, I eat the way I do because it tastes great and makes me feel physically better. If you want to eat Big Macs three meals a day, I don’t care. Truly, I don’t. I don’t want to convert you. The disdain I have for food missionaries matches my disdain for religious missionaries.
The little bit of proselytizing I do on behalf of my food friends is self-serving. I want them to do well so they can continue to feed me. For that to happen, a certain critical mass of customers is required. So I do my part to help them achieve that critical mass. And, for the record, I really, genuinely do enjoy the company and conversation of like-minded people when it come to enjoying artisan foods. But at the end of the day, it’s all about me.
Why bother to say all that here?
Because I think there’s an issue that most people can agree on that’s being lost in the noise of the debate on both sides of this argument: freedom.
I’ll bet that you Big Mac lovers want to be free to buy Big Macs. Just like I want to be free to buy raw milk.
We are all under siege. At both ends of the spectrum, extremists are pushing for exclusionary agendas based on their own politics, preferences and beliefs. Each side would shut down the other if they could.
How about we leave our agendas at door and focus on making sure we all have the right to enjoy the food we want to enjoy?
We hear from a lot of our roasting business customers that eating locally from small producers is expensive. The Western Wake Farmer’s Market did a customer survey, the results of which they shared with vendors, and one of the main bits of feedback was that many customers felt market food is too expensive, comparing it to grocery store food, or produce from the NC State Farmer’s Market, which in my opinion is the WalMart of farmer’s markets. In thinking about how to explain the price differentials, it occurred to me there is a perfect analogy for the food system in America, a good way to explain what’s broken about eating in the USA, and by inference, what the alternatives are: the analogy is the public school system.
Most people understand that no matter who they are, they pay for schools in the US. If you’re a homeowner, and parent of students in public schools, it’s clear to you that you pay taxes so your kids can attend the public school. Even if you’re a homeowner with grown chidren, or without children at all, you realize you pay for schools. The idea is that having good schools is in your best interest, so you pay. Even renters understand that landlords pass along the taxes in the rent, so renters pay for schools, too. And if you opt out, by sending your kids to private school, or home-schooling, you don’t get out of paying. Like it or not, you pay no matter what.
It’s less obvious, but make no mistake, we also have a public food system in the US. And that no matter how you eat, you pay for the food in the grocery store. You pay because your taxes are put toward agricultural subsidies. For many commodity crops, most notably corn, farmers are paid a fee for every bushel they grow. Obviously the net effect of this system is the production of more commodity crops, which can be sold at or below the cost of production. For example (I’m going to make up the numbers but the idea is correct), let’s say that it costs $7 per bushel to produce corn. And let’s say that a farmer receives a $2 subsidy for every bushel. If they sell the corn for $5.50, they actually net $0.50 per bushel. And that corn is then gobbled up by processed food makers and turned into, well, just about everything in the grocery store. When you buy something made from corn in the grocery store (which again, is just about everything from Pop Tarts to farm-raised salmon), it can be sold for a low price, because part of the cost – the subsidy you already paid – doesn’t need to be passed along in the form of higher prices.
When you decide to opt out of the public food system by buying locally from small producers, you pay the actual cost of production. It appears to be more expensive than grocery store food because nothing is hidden. You pay what it cost, plus the producer’s margin. That’s the long and the short of it. You can opt out, but sadly you’re still paying for the food in the grocery store.
So you need to ask yourself – in which system do you want to participate? Small, local producers aren’t trying to gouge you, nor is it likely that they’re making a ton of money. They’re just being honest with you about what it costs. So regardless of which way you lean, please try to be intellectually honest about the cost of the food you eat and how it was paid.
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My unnatural infatuation with raw dairy issues was fed tonight by an email from a friend. He sent me a link to the USDA’s goals for their “Developing Healthy People 2020” campaign. Sounds good, right?
Their explicit goal:
Increase the number of States that have prohibited sale or distribution of unpasteurized dairy products.
I can’t make this stuff up, folks. That’s right, your government’s goal to make you healthier is to use your tax dollars to restrict your food choices. Never mind that millions (literally, about 3 million) US consumers feel that raw dairy is the right choice for them, their health and their families. No mention that consumption of raw dairy, done properly, is completely safe.
Nope, they just want to take away your choice. And they are so proud of it, they post it on their web site as a “developmental” goal.
We need to get rid of these people.
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When we moved to North Carolina in 1999, you couldn’t buy wine by mail. That changed about 5 years ago, in response to a supreme court ruling. Fast forward to 2010, and we’re threatened with Back to the Future by our freedom-hating government.
H.R. 5034 was brought to my attention first by my friend who makes BBQ sauce (which is awesome), then in a Facebook post by Noble Pig Vineyards. They provided lots of good links, including this one to more detail in Wine Spectator, and this one, which allows you to easily convey your protests to your elected representatives.
Even if you don’t buy wine by mail, or drink wine at all, I hope you’ll take a minute to register your dissatisfaction with your congresspeople and senators.