Monday, May 19, 2008

Eating local on a global scale

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot lately about buying locally grown food, and making a conscious effort to eat more of it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how easy it’s been to adapt some of my “tried and true” recipes to the ingredients coming into the house via our CSA box rather than going to the store to purchase the produce Betty Crocker deems necessary.

The quality of the food arriving each week is unparalleled in my culinary experience. The potatoes we ate for dinner yesterday were unbelievable. Picked about twenty-four hours earlier, they were so creamy and delicious that it actually led to a bit of inter-plate thievery when I got up for a glass of water.

This is not to say that I haven’t supplemented our farm share with non-local produce as I get used to this new way of feeding my household, but I’ve noticed how vastly inferior these items are in comparison, and they really are supplemental items more than the staple of my meals these days.

The quality of the food notwithstanding, I originally began making this switch for mainly environmental reasons. I wanted to support local small businesses that operated using sustainable methods. I wanted to decrease my carbon footprint by eating foods that had traveled fewer miles, therefore requiring less fossil fuel to reach my table.

These reasons are why I was totally irritated, but unfortunately not at all surprised, to read this editorial in the Washington Post. What was most upsetting to me were the following facts:

U.S. donations of food must be purchased from U.S. suppliers
U.S. donations of food must be shipped in U.S. ships
The U.S. spends 65% of its food donation budget on transportation & overhead

This is probably old news to everybody else, as the editorial is about two months old, but I’m really irritated. What this means, as far as I can tell, is that our already scant foreign aid is further eroded by these policies designed as much to continue the growth of our own economy as they are to feed the truly hungry around the world.

I visited a Habitat for Humanity project in Zimbabwe about ten years ago. They were building homes that resembled other homes in the area. They weren’t putting up pre-fab homes shipped in from the U.S., because that would make no sense. It would be a waste of valuable limited resources, and the aid would be ill-suited to the target population. In the same way, shipping food halfway across the world is a terribly wasteful way to use the embarrassingly small number of food donation dollars we have allocated.

I believe in the value of a strong domestic economy. I believe just as strongly in the right of every person on this planet to be well nourished – and I believe that we currently have the resources to accomplish this. What we lack is the willingness, as a nation, to “sacrifice” a bit of our current lifestyle or standard of living.

If we claim to give aid, we should give aid. There should be no questions of “what am I going to get out of this?” when we are supposedly being charitable. As an episode of Friends once pointed out, there is perhaps no truly selfless act, but we could aim for a bit of selflessness – even if that means giving our dollars to a farmer a little closer to the destination of the aid. My guess is that it’s not the small family owned farms in this country that benefit from our current protectionist policies anyhow.

It also seems that if we did purchase our food donations abroad, we could be doubling the power of our donating dollars. We’d be providing more much needed nutrition, but we’d also be supporting potentially struggling economies in these regions by supporting their farms.

Maybe I’m missing something…maybe there’s a good reason for doing things this way. The growing cynic in me seriously doubts it though. I think it’s just another way for us to continue doing business as usual, letting the rich get richer, with no substantial effort at changing the status quo, while patting ourselves on the back for a job well done.


Green Bean said...

I couldn't agree more with you on the quality of the produce that is locally grown. It is a million times better - who want want to eat mealy, old apples and tomatoes shipped from half way around the world after eating the freshest grown at home.

As to the global aid, I remember reading that somewhere too. It truly boggles the mind. What they heck are we doing wasting our pathetically small amount of aid dollars shipping a bunch of Doritos around the world. It would be far wiser, better environmentally and for the country we are claiming to help to buy local food. It just doesn't make sense but, then again, after reading Common Wealth, I find that alot of American foreign policy doesn't make sense.

arduous said...

Melissa, fantastic post. If, instead of sending food around the world, we instead sent money so that farmers in impoverished areas could grow their own and make a decent living in the process, we would be contributing to the economy not just in food, but we would create jobs as well. Too bad we're too busy looking out for number one.

Melissa said...

the thing you both touched on that makes me so sad and scared is that common sense seems to be so lacking in so many areas of our government's decision making. it boggles the mind...

kale for sale said...

This is a great post (thanks to Arduous for pointing me here). Bush is currently wanting to purchase food aid from communities near the area of need, which on the surface looks really good. And which worries the hell out of me. What we have to watch for is if this is another way to subsidize industrial agriculture with food aid dollars in areas where there are less rules governing the environment than we have here. Is it another place for Monsanto to own the seed market and control the food that's available. I'm sorry for being pessimistic but our President is not altruistic and I have a hard time believing that if he's pushing for something it doesn't have a tie in a big way to petroleum products or big business. In any event, thank you for waking us up to some of the realities of food aid.