While “local” may be a relative term depending on your point of view, understanding where your food comes from and who is growing it may be even more important, according to a panel of experts at Wednesday’s Big Tent Public Debate, “The Locavore’s Dilemma: Eating Locally, Does It Matter?”
“I’m going to go back to what my grandmother said; ‘You are what you eat,’” said panelist Tim McGreevy, CEO of the U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Association and a small farm operator. “Know where your food comes from. Know who grows it. And, remember, we still have to feed about 6.5 billion people on the planet.”
Professor Kim Kidwell, associate dean for academic programs in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, moderated the noon discussion, which was held in conjunction with WSU’s Common Reading Program. This year’s program focuses on Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. The debate was sponsored by Compton Union, WSU Libraries and the Common Reading Committee.
Panelists included McGreevy; Shawn Hoch, associate director of WSU Dining Services; and Jason Parsley, a WSU student majoring in organic agriculture who runs a small farm outside Moscow. A key question all three addressed dealt with what exactly constitutes “eating locally.”
“What is local?” Hoch said. “Is a 240 mile zone better than 2,400? In dining services, as part of our business plan, we have to define what’s reasonable for us.”
WSU Dining Services has made a conscious effort to buy Washington products such as potatoes, wheat, lentils and garbanzos. All of their baked goods are made with Shepherd’s Grain flour, which is produced in Spokane and made from a wheat variety bred at WSU. “We helped to build that company,” Hoch said. “One of the best parts of working with local companies is being able to create something customized for your needs; there’s a lot more flexibility.”
Parsley, who with his wife raises vegetables and grass-fed sheep, said buying locally raises a number of questions and issues consumers should consider before making a choice. And, sometimes, he said, the answers aren’t clear.
“For example, is it better for the environment for everyone to drive their pick-up to the farmers market or to ship food cross-country in bulk?” he asked. “Local or not, we need to be more attentive of where our food is coming from, how it’s getting here and who’s growing it.”
McGreevy, who travels extensively as part of his job, pulled his example of “local food” from India.
“I’ve been to India many times and met with farmers throughout that country,” he said. “I know the guy who produces the 100-pound sack of Basmati rice I order every year.”
The three panelists also acknowledged the difficulty of providing fresh, local food to some populations.
“The image is this about elite people with lots of money buying organic produce,” Parsley said, “And there is some truth to that.” But, he said, there are a growing number of programs aimed at improving access to fresh produce across a range of socio-economic groups, including those using food stamps.
“Price-wise, fresh vegetables grown locally may be even cheaper than they are in the grocery store because the farmer is making the sale directly rather than through a middle man,” he said.”In a lot of ways, the access issue is bigger than the price issue.”
The panelists agreed that only consumer demand will create meaningful change in the U.S. food industry.
“People’s attitudes about food are changing…and big food corporations are starting to pay attention,” he said.
“It’s going to take a collective awareness and shift in consumer demand to move the system,” added Parsley.
Washington State University’s Common Reading Program for the year has the entire campus and much of the state and nation talking about food and agriculture. What better way to highlight the cutting-edge science, research, teaching and outreach of Washington’s land-grant university and, at the same time, help to educate our students about what they eat and where it comes from?