Eating at home

Food travels thousands of miles before ending up on our plate. While travelling, the taste doesn’t get any better. This globalization of the food supply has serious consequences for the environment, our health, our communities and our tastebuds. A new movement is emerging to bring home the bacon, the bread and the vegetables–and to connect land, food and people.


Brian Halweil | May 2005 issue

John Ellis, a farmer in the U.S. state of Nebraska, is smiling. Actually, he is ecstatic—which is puzzling, since most of his fellow farmers are just one poor harvest away from bankruptcy. Indeed, Ellis just sold most of his farm equipment and land to invest in a business that is so bold there’s no guarantee it will work.

Soft-spoken with greying hair, strong shoulders, and deep creases in his face, he stands at the door of the new grocery store he has opened with some fellow farmers in the revitalized Haymarket district of downtown Lincoln, Nebraska—the state capital and home of the University of Nebraska. “Good morning. Let me know if you need any help,” he says to two young women entering the store.

Look closely at the bottles in the coolers and the jars on the shelves of Centerville Market, and you’ll quickly see that this isn’t your ordinary grocer. At a time when the food on our plates travels farther than ever before, this grocery stocks its shelves almost exclusively with food grown and made in Nebraska. You’ll find jars of corncob jelly and blueberry jam organic flax flakes and assorted cereals, marinated soybean and wheat berry salads, native plants and cut flowers, dried herbs, Uncle Slappy’s BBQ sauce, rhubarb and asparagus. The coolers are filled with ground beef, bacon, chicken legs, lamb and other butcher standards, not to mention ostrich meat and duck eggs—a selection that would rival the finest big-city delicatessen. And all of it is raised by Nebraska family farmers. For things like coffee and olive oil and oranges, which can’t be grown in the Midwest, Centerville stocks items bought directly from farmers around the world.

This new venture, which has so many hopes and lives riding on it, wasn’t completely voluntary. Like many of the other farmers selling in the store, Ellis is a drop-out from conventional agriculture. For decades, his family raised corn and soybeans in nearby York County, but made less and less each year. Expenses went up, crop prices went down. The farm got bigger and deeper in debt, Ellis said. “We were really worn thin,” Ellis recalls, explaining that he had to sell the family farm.

But even as Nebraska farmers were going bankrupt, residents of the state spend hundreds of millions on food grown out-of-state. The result is that food travels much farther than ever before, and little of what farmers produce there is eaten there. The apparent abundance in the fields of the U.S. breadbasket conceals economic hardship on the ground. Drive along any stretch of Interstate-80, the highway that cuts through the heart of America, and you’ll see dozens of abandoned corn silos, dairies, barns, canneries and farmhouses.

And that’s the point of the Centerville Farmers Market. “The huge margins in the food biz aren’t in growing crops, they are in marketing,” says Larry Swain, an agricultural economist who has advised Ellis on the Centerville Market. “We’ve got to take control of that,” according to Swain, a maverick among economists, most of whom still tell American farmers to “get big or get out,” who has helped farmers throughout the Midwest set up “micro-dairies” to sell their cheese, ice cream, and chocolate milk directly to their neighbours. He points to surveys showing that 80–90 percent of American consumers would prefer to buy products grown, processed, and marketed from small, local operations.

On this particular day, the patrons at the Centerville Market include a young couple buying organic milk for their children, a college student searching for vine-ripened tomatoes for a pasta sauce and a chef buying assorted ingredients for a nearby restaurant. Many farmers have been lingering at the store after making deliveries, handing out samples and speaking with customers.

“We were looking for a market and John really helped us out,” says Kay Emrich of Emrich Family Creamery from the neighbouring state of Kansas, who sells milk and ice cream from her 30-cow dairy at Centerville. Jim Knopik of North Star Neighbors, a cooperative of seven families raising meat near Fullerton, Nebraska, tells me that sales from Centerville could easily double or triple their current income. Rich and Lila Brock of Bumblebee Farms in Platte Center sell tomatoes and cucumbers raised in greenhouses pollinated by bees.

Ellis has also been shopping around the store’s wares to restaurants, gourmet shops, and even supermarkets. Even the Hy-Vee’s supermarket on the outskirts of Lincoln, part of a large chain, now carries the Nebraska-grown organic cereals, and they have shown interest in the Emrichs’ milk.
“We want to be able to feed our own local people,” Ellis declares, noting that people in Lincoln alone (population: 225,000) spend a half-billion dollars on food each year. “Farmers around here could do fine on a percentage of that,” he says.

“We can provide hope for all the small-town rural markets going out of business, because they can’t compete with Wal-Mart supercenters,” he adds. In contrast to Wal-Mart, which sells more food than any other supermarket in the country, Ellis says, “we can come in with heart, with the original food, not some replica.”

But heart doesn’t guarantee success. Ellis has invested more than money, time, and sweat in Centerville. His wife and daughter are working here, and many farmers have donated goods in anticipation of a payoff when the store gets its footing. Like a pioneer settler, the store survived its first winter, but it still feels a bit like a half-filled pantry. It has no reliable source of bread, frozen vegetables and other key food categories. Apart from tomatoes and cucumbers, the shelves hold little produce in the winter. Advertising is a cost the market still cannot bear; most people living and working downtown still don’t know about the market, so foot traffic is slow at times. One of the sad ironies of the American breadbasket is that it has gone so far in one direction that it has largely lost the capacity to feed itself. And you don’t have to go very far from Lincoln to see what the Centerville Market is up against.

On the west side of Lincoln, there’s a super Wal-Mart store with 28 aisles of food. (It probably does more business in a few hours than Centerville will do in a year.) Among the tens of thousands of different items in this store, or any other Wal-Mart, it is nearly impossible to find anything grown or made nearby. Look at one of the store’s more popular items, a Salisbury Steak TV dinner from Banquet on sale for $ 0.79 U.S. (0.60 euro). The company that makes the Banquet brand, ConAgra Foods, may be headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. But with an ingredient list on the frozen dinner 165 words long, it’s hard to tell where any of it originated. (It’s hard to tell if some are even food.)

Still, you need to go a few hundred miles farther west to glimpse how long this anonymous food chain stretches. In a sprawling series of airplane hangar-sized warehouses in North Platte, Nebraska, fruit, vegetables, meat, milk and other foods destined for kitchen tables throughout the Midwest sit in mammoth refrigerators, ripening rooms and packing sheds. This regional distribution center for Wal-Mart covers 80,000 square metres (860,000 square feet). Think of this place as a rest stop for travel-weary foods from around the world.

“Essentially, all produce that is distributed in the Great Plains must go through here for quality control, taste and appearance inspection inventory,” explains Larry Swain, the economist who has studied the history of food distribution in the United States. “So if a lettuce farmer outside Lincoln wants to sell lettuce to a Wal-Mart in Lincoln, it must first be shipped 225 miles (360 kilometres) to North Platte for inspection, then be shipped back up to Lincoln,” all the while consuming fuel and taking up extra road space—not to mention becoming less fresh.

Despite the apparent absurdity of this arrangement, this mammoth distribution center is considered a state-of-the-art innovation in efficiency from the point of view of a supermarket executive or produce wholesaler. But add in the subsidies for gasoline and roads, the effects of air pollution and global warming, the ecological problems caused by the industrial farms that supply the distribution centre and a range of other hidden costs, and the “efficiency” of long-distance food begins to fade away. Because these costs are mostly unaccounted for—not paid directly by the consumer, farmer, or supermarket—the resulting food is artificially cheap.

Our food has not always been such a moveable feast. As recently as the 1950s, virtually all of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Lincoln, and most other American cities, were grown on nearby farms. Long-distance shipping was impractical and expensive. But a chain of related events over the next few decades changed that. Refrigerated long-haul trucks were developed, and gasoline prices fell. A federally subsidized interstate highway system spread from coast to coast. Advances in food processing made long-term storage possible. Before long, the American breadbasket began to depend on food from all over. Statistics from one wholesale market in Chicago show that the average produce item travelled more than 2,400 kilometres (1500 miles) from farm to plate, nearly 25 percent farther today than in 1980.

As local farmland declined in importance and profitability, thousands of farmers in Nebraska and surrounding states went under and small towns went into a spiral of decline. The remaining farms specialized in one or two crops to serve distant markets rather than provide a range of foods for local folks. The economic landscape also declined in diversity as many food businesses —from local grocers and bakers to local canneries and caterers—were replaced by a handful of national conglomerates.

Far-flung food has now become the norm in much of the United States and the rest of the world. Apples in Midwestern supermarkets come from China and New Zealand, even though there are apple orchards across the region; potatoes in Peru’s supermarkets come from the United States, even though Peru boasts more varieties of potato than any other country in the world. The tonnage of food shipped between countries has grown fourfold since 1961.

But, as with many economic trends that spawn serious social and ecological consequences, the long-distance food habit has provoked a response: a movement advocating and embracing a return to local foods in many places across the planet. And in Lincoln, which is a long ways from the trendy domain of foodies on the coasts, the Centerville Market is only part of this story.

Shadowbrook Farm, a 36-hectare certified organic farm located within Lincoln city limits produces and delivers food weekly to 70 families (and has started a waiting list because demand is so great). This sort of project, called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), is becoming increasingly popular across North America as a way not only to get fresh food but to build solidarity between farmers and their urban neighbours.

In the warm months, thousands of Lincoln residents flock to the Haymarket Farmers Market, staged weekly on a street adjacent to Lincoln’s train depot and hosting about 50 growers from within 250 kilometres (150 miles) of the city. The open air market buzzes with conversation, laughter, music and talk of food—the social and aesthetic antithesis of the food system symbolized by the Wal-Mart distribution centre in North Platte. (Sociologists estimate that people have 10 times as many conversations at farmers markets than at supermarkets.) Apart from the tasty fare and friendly faces, the biggest reason for shopping here, according to Knopnik of Northstar Neighbors, is that “a farmers market allows you to have some firsthand sense of where your food comes from.”

Such a connection means more to Americans as news reports discuss the possible risks of mad cow disease, genetically modified organisms and bacterial contamination (this last of which recently prompted the largest meat recall in national history).

“Farmers markets are springing up in small towns throughout the state for the first time in 30 or 40 years,” says Paul Rohrbaugh, a farmer who sells at the Haymarket and executive director of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, a coalition of farmers, gardeners, educators and city folk.

In poorer neighbourhoods of Lincoln, where fast food joints flourish but producer sellers are scarce, local farmers might offer the best hope for many residents to get fresh fruit and vegetables. Lincoln Action Program, a community group that helps low-income residents, raised money to get Centerville off the ground in exchange for fruits, vegetables and other perishable foods, which it distributes to about 2,000 families four times a week and uses in its community soup kitchen.

Several community gardens have also emerged around town in the last few years with the help of Lincoln Action and the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society. These gardens have been particularly popular among Lincoln’s Arabic, Sudanese, Vietnamese, Bosnian and Russian immigrants, who often cannot find spices and vegetables central to their cuisine in local stores.

This interest in local food is catching on. As more farmers raise a variety of crops for local markets, it can quickly become easier and cheaper for school cafeterias, restaurants, government offices and households to incorporate local foods into their cuisine. The presence of a farmers market or community garden often inspires people to start-up other food businesses, including bakeries, butchers, produce stands, canneries and caterers—which multiply with the growing availability of local foods.

This is what it looks like to rebuild a local “foodshed”—which similar to a watershed is a sphere of land, people and businesses that provides a community or region with its food.

But the long-distance transport of food has become such a defining characteristic of modern life that most people accept it as the only way for us to be well fed. For those who can afford it, the wonder of eating exotic produce grown halfway around the globe emerges as one of the clearest benefits of the industrialized food system. Cheap and fast transportation enables cross-cultural experiences, fusion cuisine, and dietary exploration, especially for those living in large metropolitan centres.

But there is an unavoidable tension between the human enjoyment of variety and the global homogenization of food. The long-distance food system offers unprecedented and unparalleled choice to paying consumers—any food, anytime, anywhere. At the same time, this astounding choice is laden with contradictions. Ecologist and writer Gary Nabhan wonders “what culinary melodies are being drowned out by the noise of that transnational vending machine,” which often runs roughshod over local cuisines, food varieties and agriculture traditions. The choice offered by the global vending machine is often illusory, defined by infinite flavouring, packaging and marketing reformulations of largely the same raw ingredients. And as we all know, the taste of products that are always available, but usually out of season, often leaves something to be desired.

Long-distance travel requires more packaging, refrigeration and fuel and generates huge amounts of waste and pollution. Instead of dealing directly with their neighbours, farmers sell into a remote and complex food chain of which they are a tiny part—and are paid accordingly. Farmers in the developing world producing cash crops for export often find themselves hungry as they sacrifice the output of their land to feed foreign mouths. The supposed efficiencies of the long-distance chain of food production leave many people malnourished at both ends.

Eating food out of season, in fact, can also be hazardous to your health. Products enduring long-distance transport and long-term storage depend on preservatives and additives, and encounter all sorts of opportunities for contamination on their journey from farm to plate. In September of 2003, 600 people in Pennsylvania came home from Chi-Chi’s, a chain of Mexican restaurants, and got sick. Three people died. The food poisoning, and several outbreaks of the same illness just months before, was tied to green onions coming from a few large farms in Mexico.

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” goes the advice that was once offered by farmers, but has now become common currency among Wall Street investors and venture capitalists, admonishing people to diversify their investments. Even economists and politicians who might be staunch free traders—and who may have never collected a warm egg from under a chicken—would likely agree that raising all the world’s food in a declining number of places, planted with a dwindling number of crop varieties and controlled by a shrinking number of companies, is simply foolish. They might even call it a recipe for disaster.

The changing nature of our food in many ways signals what the changing world economy means for the environment, our health and the tenor of our lives. The quality, taste and vitality of our foods are profoundly affected by how and where they are produced, and how they arrive at our tables. Food touches us so deeply that threats to local food traditions have sometimes provoked strong, even violent, responses. José Bové, the French shepherd who drove his tractor smack into a McDonald’s to fight what he called “culinary imperialism,” is the best-known symbol in an emerging global movement to protect and invigorate local food systems and traditions. It is a movement to restore rural areas, enrich poor nations, return wholesome foods to cities and reconnect suburbanites with the land by reclaiming lawns, vacant lots and former industrial sites to use as local gardens, orchards, and farms.

John Ellis and his farmer-partners in Lincoln occasionally refer to each other as “troops” and the Centerville Market as their “mission.” The military analogy may seem a little disconcerting, but in a way, it fits. Ellis really is talking about revolution—about taking power away from an oligarchy and returning it to the public. But in Ellis’s case, the oligarchies aren’t corrupt regimes, they’re corporations. In the modern food landscape, the Krafts, Cargills, Monsantos and Archer Daniels Midlands are standing in the way of food democracy.

At first blush, “food democracy” may seem a little grandiose—a strange combination of words. But if you doubt the existence of power struggles in the realm of food, consider a point made by Frances and Anna Lappé in their book Hope’s Edge. The typical supermarket contains no fewer than 30,000 items. About half of those items are produced by 10 multinational food and beverage companies. And roughly 140 people—117 men and 21 women—form the boards of directors of those 10 companies. In other words, although the seeming cornucopia of products you see at a typical supermarket give the appearance of abundant choice, much of the variety is more a matter of branding than of true agricultural diversity. Rather than coming to us from thousands of different farmers producing different local varieties, these food products have been globally standardized and selected for maximum profit by just a few powerful executives.

But now we are beginning to see declarations of independence from this imperialistic food landscape. Some of them may seem merely quixotic, like José Bové. In Oaxaca, Mexico, a group of citizens motivated by the same concerns succeeded in keeping a new McDonald’s from being built in the historic city centre of their city. A year later, when French activists took a Ronald McDonald statue hostage and appeared on television wearing facemasks and holding rifle-like baguettes to a blindfolded Ronald, their light-hearted demonstration raised profoundly serious concerns.

In Canada, a large number of people rallied against the pesticide and genetic engineering (GMO) giant Monsanto, after they sought prosecution of a Saskatchewan farmer for growing their patented GMO crops on his farm without paying a fee. The farmer had not planted the Monsanto seeds; they had blown onto his land in the wind, but he was convicted anyway. In Europe, even larger numbers of people—enough to move governments—have been resisting the importation of genetically engineered foods from the United States.

In one way or another, these are all acts in defence of local food supplies and culinary traditions. But the local food movement is not just about protests. The Slow Food movement, devoted to celebrating the world’s distinctive food cultures, is growing explosively and now has over 80,000 members in 104 nations. It is the largest organized movement against culinary imperialism, but draws its energy not so much from what it is against as what it is for—preservation of the social value of good food in connecting people with each other, their communities and their land. Slow Food summarizes its vision in the phrase “the right to taste.” The Centerville Market shares the Slow Food movement’s interest in not having what you eat be dictated by fast-food or mass-food marketing executives.

And this is what makes the Centerville grocery, despite its small size, so revolutionary to the agricultural status quo. It is built around certain distinctions—geographic characteristics—that global trade agreements are trying so hard to eliminate. These trade agreements, whether the European Union trade zone or the North American Free Trade Agreement, depend on erasing borders and geographic labels. (Inspiring howls of opposition from German carmakers and Italian olive oil producers alike, in early 2004 the European Union proposed that goods produced anywhere within its borders, including food, should say “Made in EU,” rather than a specific country.) Multinational food companies that source the cheapest ingredients they can find from anywhere on the planet also depend on erasing these distinctions. Centerville depends on restoring them.

Eating local allows people to reclaim the pleasures of face-to-face interactions around food and the security that comes from knowing what one is eating. In this sense, it might be the best defence against hazards introduced intentionally or unintentionally in the food supply, including E. coli bacteria, pesticide residues, biowarfare agents and untested genetically engineered ingredients. In an era of climate change and water shortages, having farmers nearby might be the best hedge against other unexpected shocks. On a more sensual level, locally grown food served fresh and in season has a definite taste advantage—one of the reasons this movement has attracted the attention of chefs, food critics and discriminating grocery shoppers around the globe.

The local alternative also offers huge economic opportunities. In every country, money spent on local produce at farmers markets and locally owned shops stays in the community, cycling through to create jobs and raise incomes. Developing nations that emphasize greater food self-reliance can avoid the whims of international markets. Depending on sources outside your borders for basic food needs seems a very risky proposition in these volatile times.

Despite the many advantages of a shorter food chain, change will not come easily. Control of the food system has been largely lost to a dwindling number of companies; most farming regions have abandoned crop diversity; and most shoppers have forgotten what to do with food that is not already prepared, packaged and ready to serve. But look around the world, and you can glimpse the change. Farmers in Hawaii are uprooting their pineapple plantations to sow vegetables in hopes of replacing the imported ingredients in salads at resorts and hotels. In Zimbabwe, the wives of peanut farmers grew tired of buying expensive peanut butter and have invested in peanut mills to make and sell their own. School districts throughout Italy have launched an impressive effort to make sure cafeterias are serving a healthy Mediterranean diet by contracting with nearby farmers. At the rarefied levels of the World Trade Organization, officials are beginning to make room for nations to feed themselves, realizing that this might be the best hope for poor nations that cannot afford to import needed food.

Even some of the world’s biggest food companies are starting to embrace these values, a reality that raises some unsettling questions and awesome opportunities for local food advocates. Recently, officials at both Sysco, the world’s largest foodservice Provider, declared its dependence on small, local farmers for certain products they can’t get anywhere else. These changes will unfold in a million different ways, thanks to inventive and daring farmers, shoppers and entrepreneurs. The explosion of farmers markets and Slow Food points to the growing numbers of consumers, farmers and food businesses that have already shifted their role in the food chain, detaching themselves from long-distance cuisine to live within their foodsheds. It is the fact that communities around the world all possess the capacity to regain this control that makes the simple idea of eating local so powerful.

The global food vending machine might inspire awe with its size, selection, and bargains. But it also leaves many people feeling dissatisfied and disappointed. These people have a choice. And increasing numbers of them are choosing instead to eat locally.

Excerpted from the book Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket (W.W. Norton, 2004). Eat Here can be purchased for $13.95 U.S. (plus shipping and handling) through the Worldwatch website at: www.worldwatch.org; or call toll-free in the U.S.: 1-888-544-2303 or 570-320-2076.

Brian Halweil is a research associate at Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization that works for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society, in which the needs of all people are met without threatening the health of the natural environment or the well-being of future generations. Contact them at: www.worldwatch.org.

Solution News Source

Eating at home

Food travels thousands of miles before ending up on our plate. While travelling, the taste doesn’t get any better. This globalization of the food supply has serious consequences for the environment, our health, our communities and our tastebuds. A new movement is emerging to bring home the bacon, the bread and the vegetables–and to connect land, food and people.


Brian Halweil | May 2005 issue

John Ellis, a farmer in the U.S. state of Nebraska, is smiling. Actually, he is ecstatic—which is puzzling, since most of his fellow farmers are just one poor harvest away from bankruptcy. Indeed, Ellis just sold most of his farm equipment and land to invest in a business that is so bold there’s no guarantee it will work.

Soft-spoken with greying hair, strong shoulders, and deep creases in his face, he stands at the door of the new grocery store he has opened with some fellow farmers in the revitalized Haymarket district of downtown Lincoln, Nebraska—the state capital and home of the University of Nebraska. “Good morning. Let me know if you need any help,” he says to two young women entering the store.

Look closely at the bottles in the coolers and the jars on the shelves of Centerville Market, and you’ll quickly see that this isn’t your ordinary grocer. At a time when the food on our plates travels farther than ever before, this grocery stocks its shelves almost exclusively with food grown and made in Nebraska. You’ll find jars of corncob jelly and blueberry jam organic flax flakes and assorted cereals, marinated soybean and wheat berry salads, native plants and cut flowers, dried herbs, Uncle Slappy’s BBQ sauce, rhubarb and asparagus. The coolers are filled with ground beef, bacon, chicken legs, lamb and other butcher standards, not to mention ostrich meat and duck eggs—a selection that would rival the finest big-city delicatessen. And all of it is raised by Nebraska family farmers. For things like coffee and olive oil and oranges, which can’t be grown in the Midwest, Centerville stocks items bought directly from farmers around the world.

This new venture, which has so many hopes and lives riding on it, wasn’t completely voluntary. Like many of the other farmers selling in the store, Ellis is a drop-out from conventional agriculture. For decades, his family raised corn and soybeans in nearby York County, but made less and less each year. Expenses went up, crop prices went down. The farm got bigger and deeper in debt, Ellis said. “We were really worn thin,” Ellis recalls, explaining that he had to sell the family farm.

But even as Nebraska farmers were going bankrupt, residents of the state spend hundreds of millions on food grown out-of-state. The result is that food travels much farther than ever before, and little of what farmers produce there is eaten there. The apparent abundance in the fields of the U.S. breadbasket conceals economic hardship on the ground. Drive along any stretch of Interstate-80, the highway that cuts through the heart of America, and you’ll see dozens of abandoned corn silos, dairies, barns, canneries and farmhouses.

And that’s the point of the Centerville Farmers Market. “The huge margins in the food biz aren’t in growing crops, they are in marketing,” says Larry Swain, an agricultural economist who has advised Ellis on the Centerville Market. “We’ve got to take control of that,” according to Swain, a maverick among economists, most of whom still tell American farmers to “get big or get out,” who has helped farmers throughout the Midwest set up “micro-dairies” to sell their cheese, ice cream, and chocolate milk directly to their neighbours. He points to surveys showing that 80–90 percent of American consumers would prefer to buy products grown, processed, and marketed from small, local operations.

On this particular day, the patrons at the Centerville Market include a young couple buying organic milk for their children, a college student searching for vine-ripened tomatoes for a pasta sauce and a chef buying assorted ingredients for a nearby restaurant. Many farmers have been lingering at the store after making deliveries, handing out samples and speaking with customers.

“We were looking for a market and John really helped us out,” says Kay Emrich of Emrich Family Creamery from the neighbouring state of Kansas, who sells milk and ice cream from her 30-cow dairy at Centerville. Jim Knopik of North Star Neighbors, a cooperative of seven families raising meat near Fullerton, Nebraska, tells me that sales from Centerville could easily double or triple their current income. Rich and Lila Brock of Bumblebee Farms in Platte Center sell tomatoes and cucumbers raised in greenhouses pollinated by bees.

Ellis has also been shopping around the store’s wares to restaurants, gourmet shops, and even supermarkets. Even the Hy-Vee’s supermarket on the outskirts of Lincoln, part of a large chain, now carries the Nebraska-grown organic cereals, and they have shown interest in the Emrichs’ milk.
“We want to be able to feed our own local people,” Ellis declares, noting that people in Lincoln alone (population: 225,000) spend a half-billion dollars on food each year. “Farmers around here could do fine on a percentage of that,” he says.

“We can provide hope for all the small-town rural markets going out of business, because they can’t compete with Wal-Mart supercenters,” he adds. In contrast to Wal-Mart, which sells more food than any other supermarket in the country, Ellis says, “we can come in with heart, with the original food, not some replica.”

But heart doesn’t guarantee success. Ellis has invested more than money, time, and sweat in Centerville. His wife and daughter are working here, and many farmers have donated goods in anticipation of a payoff when the store gets its footing. Like a pioneer settler, the store survived its first winter, but it still feels a bit like a half-filled pantry. It has no reliable source of bread, frozen vegetables and other key food categories. Apart from tomatoes and cucumbers, the shelves hold little produce in the winter. Advertising is a cost the market still cannot bear; most people living and working downtown still don’t know about the market, so foot traffic is slow at times. One of the sad ironies of the American breadbasket is that it has gone so far in one direction that it has largely lost the capacity to feed itself. And you don’t have to go very far from Lincoln to see what the Centerville Market is up against.

On the west side of Lincoln, there’s a super Wal-Mart store with 28 aisles of food. (It probably does more business in a few hours than Centerville will do in a year.) Among the tens of thousands of different items in this store, or any other Wal-Mart, it is nearly impossible to find anything grown or made nearby. Look at one of the store’s more popular items, a Salisbury Steak TV dinner from Banquet on sale for $ 0.79 U.S. (0.60 euro). The company that makes the Banquet brand, ConAgra Foods, may be headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. But with an ingredient list on the frozen dinner 165 words long, it’s hard to tell where any of it originated. (It’s hard to tell if some are even food.)

Still, you need to go a few hundred miles farther west to glimpse how long this anonymous food chain stretches. In a sprawling series of airplane hangar-sized warehouses in North Platte, Nebraska, fruit, vegetables, meat, milk and other foods destined for kitchen tables throughout the Midwest sit in mammoth refrigerators, ripening rooms and packing sheds. This regional distribution center for Wal-Mart covers 80,000 square metres (860,000 square feet). Think of this place as a rest stop for travel-weary foods from around the world.

“Essentially, all produce that is distributed in the Great Plains must go through here for quality control, taste and appearance inspection inventory,” explains Larry Swain, the economist who has studied the history of food distribution in the United States. “So if a lettuce farmer outside Lincoln wants to sell lettuce to a Wal-Mart in Lincoln, it must first be shipped 225 miles (360 kilometres) to North Platte for inspection, then be shipped back up to Lincoln,” all the while consuming fuel and taking up extra road space—not to mention becoming less fresh.

Despite the apparent absurdity of this arrangement, this mammoth distribution center is considered a state-of-the-art innovation in efficiency from the point of view of a supermarket executive or produce wholesaler. But add in the subsidies for gasoline and roads, the effects of air pollution and global warming, the ecological problems caused by the industrial farms that supply the distribution centre and a range of other hidden costs, and the “efficiency” of long-distance food begins to fade away. Because these costs are mostly unaccounted for—not paid directly by the consumer, farmer, or supermarket—the resulting food is artificially cheap.

Our food has not always been such a moveable feast. As recently as the 1950s, virtually all of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Lincoln, and most other American cities, were grown on nearby farms. Long-distance shipping was impractical and expensive. But a chain of related events over the next few decades changed that. Refrigerated long-haul trucks were developed, and gasoline prices fell. A federally subsidized interstate highway system spread from coast to coast. Advances in food processing made long-term storage possible. Before long, the American breadbasket began to depend on food from all over. Statistics from one wholesale market in Chicago show that the average produce item travelled more than 2,400 kilometres (1500 miles) from farm to plate, nearly 25 percent farther today than in 1980.

As local farmland declined in importance and profitability, thousands of farmers in Nebraska and surrounding states went under and small towns went into a spiral of decline. The remaining farms specialized in one or two crops to serve distant markets rather than provide a range of foods for local folks. The economic landscape also declined in diversity as many food businesses —from local grocers and bakers to local canneries and caterers—were replaced by a handful of national conglomerates.

Far-flung food has now become the norm in much of the United States and the rest of the world. Apples in Midwestern supermarkets come from China and New Zealand, even though there are apple orchards across the region; potatoes in Peru’s supermarkets come from the United States, even though Peru boasts more varieties of potato than any other country in the world. The tonnage of food shipped between countries has grown fourfold since 1961.

But, as with many economic trends that spawn serious social and ecological consequences, the long-distance food habit has provoked a response: a movement advocating and embracing a return to local foods in many places across the planet. And in Lincoln, which is a long ways from the trendy domain of foodies on the coasts, the Centerville Market is only part of this story.

Shadowbrook Farm, a 36-hectare certified organic farm located within Lincoln city limits produces and delivers food weekly to 70 families (and has started a waiting list because demand is so great). This sort of project, called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), is becoming increasingly popular across North America as a way not only to get fresh food but to build solidarity between farmers and their urban neighbours.

In the warm months, thousands of Lincoln residents flock to the Haymarket Farmers Market, staged weekly on a street adjacent to Lincoln’s train depot and hosting about 50 growers from within 250 kilometres (150 miles) of the city. The open air market buzzes with conversation, laughter, music and talk of food—the social and aesthetic antithesis of the food system symbolized by the Wal-Mart distribution centre in North Platte. (Sociologists estimate that people have 10 times as many conversations at farmers markets than at supermarkets.) Apart from the tasty fare and friendly faces, the biggest reason for shopping here, according to Knopnik of Northstar Neighbors, is that “a farmers market allows you to have some firsthand sense of where your food comes from.”

Such a connection means more to Americans as news reports discuss the possible risks of mad cow disease, genetically modified organisms and bacterial contamination (this last of which recently prompted the largest meat recall in national history).

“Farmers markets are springing up in small towns throughout the state for the first time in 30 or 40 years,” says Paul Rohrbaugh, a farmer who sells at the Haymarket and executive director of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, a coalition of farmers, gardeners, educators and city folk.

In poorer neighbourhoods of Lincoln, where fast food joints flourish but producer sellers are scarce, local farmers might offer the best hope for many residents to get fresh fruit and vegetables. Lincoln Action Program, a community group that helps low-income residents, raised money to get Centerville off the ground in exchange for fruits, vegetables and other perishable foods, which it distributes to about 2,000 families four times a week and uses in its community soup kitchen.

Several community gardens have also emerged around town in the last few years with the help of Lincoln Action and the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society. These gardens have been particularly popular among Lincoln’s Arabic, Sudanese, Vietnamese, Bosnian and Russian immigrants, who often cannot find spices and vegetables central to their cuisine in local stores.

This interest in local food is catching on. As more farmers raise a variety of crops for local markets, it can quickly become easier and cheaper for school cafeterias, restaurants, government offices and households to incorporate local foods into their cuisine. The presence of a farmers market or community garden often inspires people to start-up other food businesses, including bakeries, butchers, produce stands, canneries and caterers—which multiply with the growing availability of local foods.

This is what it looks like to rebuild a local “foodshed”—which similar to a watershed is a sphere of land, people and businesses that provides a community or region with its food.

But the long-distance transport of food has become such a defining characteristic of modern life that most people accept it as the only way for us to be well fed. For those who can afford it, the wonder of eating exotic produce grown halfway around the globe emerges as one of the clearest benefits of the industrialized food system. Cheap and fast transportation enables cross-cultural experiences, fusion cuisine, and dietary exploration, especially for those living in large metropolitan centres.

But there is an unavoidable tension between the human enjoyment of variety and the global homogenization of food. The long-distance food system offers unprecedented and unparalleled choice to paying consumers—any food, anytime, anywhere. At the same time, this astounding choice is laden with contradictions. Ecologist and writer Gary Nabhan wonders “what culinary melodies are being drowned out by the noise of that transnational vending machine,” which often runs roughshod over local cuisines, food varieties and agriculture traditions. The choice offered by the global vending machine is often illusory, defined by infinite flavouring, packaging and marketing reformulations of largely the same raw ingredients. And as we all know, the taste of products that are always available, but usually out of season, often leaves something to be desired.

Long-distance travel requires more packaging, refrigeration and fuel and generates huge amounts of waste and pollution. Instead of dealing directly with their neighbours, farmers sell into a remote and complex food chain of which they are a tiny part—and are paid accordingly. Farmers in the developing world producing cash crops for export often find themselves hungry as they sacrifice the output of their land to feed foreign mouths. The supposed efficiencies of the long-distance chain of food production leave many people malnourished at both ends.

Eating food out of season, in fact, can also be hazardous to your health. Products enduring long-distance transport and long-term storage depend on preservatives and additives, and encounter all sorts of opportunities for contamination on their journey from farm to plate. In September of 2003, 600 people in Pennsylvania came home from Chi-Chi’s, a chain of Mexican restaurants, and got sick. Three people died. The food poisoning, and several outbreaks of the same illness just months before, was tied to green onions coming from a few large farms in Mexico.

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” goes the advice that was once offered by farmers, but has now become common currency among Wall Street investors and venture capitalists, admonishing people to diversify their investments. Even economists and politicians who might be staunch free traders—and who may have never collected a warm egg from under a chicken—would likely agree that raising all the world’s food in a declining number of places, planted with a dwindling number of crop varieties and controlled by a shrinking number of companies, is simply foolish. They might even call it a recipe for disaster.

The changing nature of our food in many ways signals what the changing world economy means for the environment, our health and the tenor of our lives. The quality, taste and vitality of our foods are profoundly affected by how and where they are produced, and how they arrive at our tables. Food touches us so deeply that threats to local food traditions have sometimes provoked strong, even violent, responses. José Bové, the French shepherd who drove his tractor smack into a McDonald’s to fight what he called “culinary imperialism,” is the best-known symbol in an emerging global movement to protect and invigorate local food systems and traditions. It is a movement to restore rural areas, enrich poor nations, return wholesome foods to cities and reconnect suburbanites with the land by reclaiming lawns, vacant lots and former industrial sites to use as local gardens, orchards, and farms.

John Ellis and his farmer-partners in Lincoln occasionally refer to each other as “troops” and the Centerville Market as their “mission.” The military analogy may seem a little disconcerting, but in a way, it fits. Ellis really is talking about revolution—about taking power away from an oligarchy and returning it to the public. But in Ellis’s case, the oligarchies aren’t corrupt regimes, they’re corporations. In the modern food landscape, the Krafts, Cargills, Monsantos and Archer Daniels Midlands are standing in the way of food democracy.

At first blush, “food democracy” may seem a little grandiose—a strange combination of words. But if you doubt the existence of power struggles in the realm of food, consider a point made by Frances and Anna Lappé in their book Hope’s Edge. The typical supermarket contains no fewer than 30,000 items. About half of those items are produced by 10 multinational food and beverage companies. And roughly 140 people—117 men and 21 women—form the boards of directors of those 10 companies. In other words, although the seeming cornucopia of products you see at a typical supermarket give the appearance of abundant choice, much of the variety is more a matter of branding than of true agricultural diversity. Rather than coming to us from thousands of different farmers producing different local varieties, these food products have been globally standardized and selected for maximum profit by just a few powerful executives.

But now we are beginning to see declarations of independence from this imperialistic food landscape. Some of them may seem merely quixotic, like José Bové. In Oaxaca, Mexico, a group of citizens motivated by the same concerns succeeded in keeping a new McDonald’s from being built in the historic city centre of their city. A year later, when French activists took a Ronald McDonald statue hostage and appeared on television wearing facemasks and holding rifle-like baguettes to a blindfolded Ronald, their light-hearted demonstration raised profoundly serious concerns.

In Canada, a large number of people rallied against the pesticide and genetic engineering (GMO) giant Monsanto, after they sought prosecution of a Saskatchewan farmer for growing their patented GMO crops on his farm without paying a fee. The farmer had not planted the Monsanto seeds; they had blown onto his land in the wind, but he was convicted anyway. In Europe, even larger numbers of people—enough to move governments—have been resisting the importation of genetically engineered foods from the United States.

In one way or another, these are all acts in defence of local food supplies and culinary traditions. But the local food movement is not just about protests. The Slow Food movement, devoted to celebrating the world’s distinctive food cultures, is growing explosively and now has over 80,000 members in 104 nations. It is the largest organized movement against culinary imperialism, but draws its energy not so much from what it is against as what it is for—preservation of the social value of good food in connecting people with each other, their communities and their land. Slow Food summarizes its vision in the phrase “the right to taste.” The Centerville Market shares the Slow Food movement’s interest in not having what you eat be dictated by fast-food or mass-food marketing executives.

And this is what makes the Centerville grocery, despite its small size, so revolutionary to the agricultural status quo. It is built around certain distinctions—geographic characteristics—that global trade agreements are trying so hard to eliminate. These trade agreements, whether the European Union trade zone or the North American Free Trade Agreement, depend on erasing borders and geographic labels. (Inspiring howls of opposition from German carmakers and Italian olive oil producers alike, in early 2004 the European Union proposed that goods produced anywhere within its borders, including food, should say “Made in EU,” rather than a specific country.) Multinational food companies that source the cheapest ingredients they can find from anywhere on the planet also depend on erasing these distinctions. Centerville depends on restoring them.

Eating local allows people to reclaim the pleasures of face-to-face interactions around food and the security that comes from knowing what one is eating. In this sense, it might be the best defence against hazards introduced intentionally or unintentionally in the food supply, including E. coli bacteria, pesticide residues, biowarfare agents and untested genetically engineered ingredients. In an era of climate change and water shortages, having farmers nearby might be the best hedge against other unexpected shocks. On a more sensual level, locally grown food served fresh and in season has a definite taste advantage—one of the reasons this movement has attracted the attention of chefs, food critics and discriminating grocery shoppers around the globe.

The local alternative also offers huge economic opportunities. In every country, money spent on local produce at farmers markets and locally owned shops stays in the community, cycling through to create jobs and raise incomes. Developing nations that emphasize greater food self-reliance can avoid the whims of international markets. Depending on sources outside your borders for basic food needs seems a very risky proposition in these volatile times.

Despite the many advantages of a shorter food chain, change will not come easily. Control of the food system has been largely lost to a dwindling number of companies; most farming regions have abandoned crop diversity; and most shoppers have forgotten what to do with food that is not already prepared, packaged and ready to serve. But look around the world, and you can glimpse the change. Farmers in Hawaii are uprooting their pineapple plantations to sow vegetables in hopes of replacing the imported ingredients in salads at resorts and hotels. In Zimbabwe, the wives of peanut farmers grew tired of buying expensive peanut butter and have invested in peanut mills to make and sell their own. School districts throughout Italy have launched an impressive effort to make sure cafeterias are serving a healthy Mediterranean diet by contracting with nearby farmers. At the rarefied levels of the World Trade Organization, officials are beginning to make room for nations to feed themselves, realizing that this might be the best hope for poor nations that cannot afford to import needed food.

Even some of the world’s biggest food companies are starting to embrace these values, a reality that raises some unsettling questions and awesome opportunities for local food advocates. Recently, officials at both Sysco, the world’s largest foodservice Provider, declared its dependence on small, local farmers for certain products they can’t get anywhere else. These changes will unfold in a million different ways, thanks to inventive and daring farmers, shoppers and entrepreneurs. The explosion of farmers markets and Slow Food points to the growing numbers of consumers, farmers and food businesses that have already shifted their role in the food chain, detaching themselves from long-distance cuisine to live within their foodsheds. It is the fact that communities around the world all possess the capacity to regain this control that makes the simple idea of eating local so powerful.

The global food vending machine might inspire awe with its size, selection, and bargains. But it also leaves many people feeling dissatisfied and disappointed. These people have a choice. And increasing numbers of them are choosing instead to eat locally.

Excerpted from the book Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket (W.W. Norton, 2004). Eat Here can be purchased for $13.95 U.S. (plus shipping and handling) through the Worldwatch website at: www.worldwatch.org; or call toll-free in the U.S.: 1-888-544-2303 or 570-320-2076.

Brian Halweil is a research associate at Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization that works for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society, in which the needs of all people are met without threatening the health of the natural environment or the well-being of future generations. Contact them at: www.worldwatch.org.

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