Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The question burning a hole in my mind

So here's the dilemma I've been wrestling with the past few days:

I realized that I have held off on making some of my favorite homemade treats because the ingredients are not locally produced- For example, our co-op's masa harina is not local and I use it for tamales and corn tortillas. In lieu of making my own, I've purchased corn tortillas that are made at a local business.

Now, is it really all that different to buy from a business that gets the corn shipped from somewhere else in the country and makes the tortillas in MN than to buy my own corn shipped from elsewhere and make them myself?

The answer I've come up with is that it depends on why you want to eat local.

If it's about supporting local businesses, it's great to buy the local business's tortillas from the neighborhood co-op (double local business points) rather than just buying the corn from the co-op.

If I'm eating local to reduce carbon emissions and conserve resources, I'd have to know exactly how far away their corn was grown and how far away my corn was grown and what form of transportation each used to arrive in Minnesota. Plus, I'd have to know how each type of corn was grown and what kind of petroleum input that took (pesticides, chemical fertilizers, etc.).

If it's about freshness and taste, I'd much prefer to make my own tortillas and eat them hot off the skillet with Earth Balance and salt dripping down my face. I'm a spoiled Texas girl who likes her tortillas fresh. As far as I'm concerned, they're practically ruined after being refrigerated.

So, basically, there's no easy answer.

I think this dilemma is one that has been at the back of my mind for a while and it's rooted in the debate of how we should define local. While it makes our Eat Local Challenge more accessible to folks and supports local businesses (undoubtedly a great thing), it just doesn't sit well with me to count locally made goods as equal to locally grown/produced goods.

One thing I loved in Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is that she ate locally without using processed, packaged goods (mostly). So she didn't just find salsa that was made at a factory the next state over, she actually grew (or met the person who grew) the tomatoes, peppers, onions, etc. While her experience is definitely outside the realm of what most people can achieve while working full time and having hobbies other than canning, I like the simplicity of it and the purity of her definition of local. It feels authentic and trustworthy.

There's something just a little weird about my Sunbutter (which I love dearly, mind you) counting as local when it comes from the processing plant in North Dakota to the distribution warehouse in Iowa and then to our co-op in Minnesota on big trucks. Dave and I have been wrestling with this in our conversations lately and I think we agree that this one is pushing the limits, despite the fact that all the stops on this 841 mile journey (yes, I tracked the path on google maps) are within the 5 state area. Keep in mind that this doesn't actually include the miles from where it was grown to the processing plant. I'm not sure of that information.

So what's a girl to do?

I think my focus on this challenge needs to be using products grown as close to home as possible, with locally made foods filling in the gaps or helping me out when I'm short on time. When I look at my food values, I feel most passionate about eating sustainably grown, organic, minimally processed and vegan foods. Coming in at a close second are eating locally grown and homemade foods. While it might not be popular (considering I'm writing this on an Eat Local Blog), eating locally at the expense of sustainable/organic production just doesn't jive well with me. In the same way, supporting a local business doesn't win out over homemade food for me. But I think I'll hold off on making the corn tortillas and just be happy with the flour ones that ARE from locally grown flour!

One thing I love about this challenge (that Emily pointed out already) is that I'm forced to stop and become more aware of my food. Despite what you might think, I wouldn't normally get this introspective about my food at 5pm on a Wednesday night. Thanks to the local challenge, I'm sitting at this computer, thinking about where my food comes from and trying to figure out how I'm going to prepare those garden snap peas tonight.

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