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Localvore leaders

08/09/07 7:55AM By

(HOST) Each summer, groups around Vermont sponsor "challenges" where participants eat only local foods for a day, week or month. One recent challenge has commentator Helen Labun Jordan thinking about the importance of each individual experience.

(LABUN JORDAN) At the end of July, a dozen leaders in Vermont’s government pledged to spend one week eating only foods grown within 100 miles of home. There were exceptions for things like spices, and a wildcard for coffee. . . but there were also several breakfasts of plain cheddar cheese when pledge takers forgot to leave enough time to make cornbread or scrambled eggs before dashing out the door.

This exercise in local eating yielded many interesting disclosures.

For example, Governor Douglas enjoys a morning bowl of oatmeal with maple syrup. The Speaker of the House is skilled at baking bread; and the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture is skilled at rationing a loaf of bread over a week if the Speaker gives him one. And, in a surprising revelation, the Secretary of Transportation will happily experiment with unusual local products like elk sausage.

By taking the challenge to eat 100% local for a week, these leaders joined hundreds of Vermonters who have tried the same experiment. It may not have been the most consequential work they’ve done in agriculture, but it took the issue out of the realm of public policy and brought it down to a personal level - a place where we have a lot of common ground.

Both research and logic show that people generally share certain attitudes towards food. Obviously, we all need to eat. We also all use the core issues of taste and price to decide what to buy. . . even those consumers who start with different constraints, anything from vegetarianism to the Atkins Diet. Plus, we all make taste and price trade-offs within our given budget. Like snacking on a bag of Doritos instead of the cheaper saltines.

When we look at foods on this individual scale, it’s good news for Vermont farms. While we hear the message that supporting our farms can support the local economy, environment and health, few people really plan their dinner around such Big Ideas. But we already have an ingrained equation of taste and price that increasingly works in local foods’ favor.

Fresh, local food tastes great. The trend of chefs using local ingredients helps it taste even better. Many people find that the great tasting local foods can also fit into their budget, and not just because we’re deciding that some premium products are worth the premium. For example, working with whole ingredients instead of pre-prepared packaged food almost always saves money. CSA's offer a savings on fresh produce. Local buying lets us access, at a discount, products with minor blemishes that would never make
it to a conventional store’s shelves. And programs like Farm to Table or gleaning projects bring local foods to low-income households.

We need our leaders, as leaders, to push the envelope with major policy issues like making local foods more accessible. But they’re also consumers, just like the rest of us. And with their "eat local" pledge they reminded us that in all the discussion over local agricultural policies, we can't afford to forget the importance of our personal taste and habits.

Helen Labun Jordan works at the Vermont Council on Rural Development.
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