I just returned from visiting my family in Sicily over the holidays. One of the highlights was a trip to a family friend’s farm to purchase some fresh ricotta cheese. We arrived early, said hello to sheep in the fields, and watched as friends made the ricotta in front of us. As we waited, several neighbors showed up to purchase their ricotta.
The small farm was successful because Italians love food – scratch that – they love good food. On the whole, the Italian culture appreciates and buys fresh, local produce and other food products from their local farmers and families. Besides the ricotta-making family, there was also a baker who made his rounds through the neighborhoods and sold fresh bread door to door to regular customers.
The lesson that needs to be imported from areas with thriving local food systems is not necessarily to start selling bread out of a trunk door to door, but rather to have a personal connection with our food sources. Farmers have an incentive to take good care of their land in order to produce optimal-tasting produce because their Italian customers aren’t going to be satisfied with the tomatoes that Americans put up with: tasteless, thick-skinned, waxy, nutrient-deficient ones that are grown for transport, not for taste. They’re living it up over there in the Mediterranean with plump, juicy, succulent, nutritious tomatoes grown in sustainably-managed, fertile soils because they support and demand high quality.
There are plenty of Americans who appreciate and purchase good food from local farmers. That’s why I’m writing about this right now. Shopping locally has become mainstream. Here in San Luis Obispo, where the biggest weekly event is a farmers’ market, we too have the good fortune of plump, juicy, succulent tomatoes as well as weekly CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) programs. The Cal Poly Organic Farm is a CSA program as well.
But we need to keep pushing forward. We can support our local farms even more by insisting that their products are sold in our grocery stores, restaurants and Campus Dining venues.
In order to demand better quality foods, we need to be seeking out not only organic, but also local and sustainably-farmed and grazed foods.
Organic certification is under the control of the USDA, which has its benefits and drawbacks. Organic foods cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sewage sludge, cannot be genetically modified and cannot be irradiated in order to use the word “organic” in their labeling. It also means that to receive certification a farmer must fill out lots of paperwork and pay lots of money. Just because a small farm complies with organic standards doesn’t mean their farm becomes certified. Remember this while browsing Farmers’ Market. Farms could technically be organic, but not certified organic. Ask the vendors.
Just as a farm can be sustainable but not certified organic, a farm can also be certified organic but unsustainable. The Sustainable Table Web site defines sustainable agriculture as “a way of raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities.” Industrial organic farms often plant monocultures, rather than rotating crops and improving biodiversity, which are sustainable farming techniques for improving soil health.
Did you know that Horizon is owned by Dean Foods, Cascadian Farms by General Mills, Naked Juice by Pepsi, Rice Dream by Heinz? Certified organic, yes, but not doing much to support family farms and rural economies. Most of the organic labels you see in chain stores are corporate. Sustainable agriculture practices produce more nutritious food as well because it is grown in healthy, living soils. Sustainability is not verified or certified by the government, so it is difficult to verify on products.
This is where local foods come into play. If you visit a given farm, you don’t have to wonder what its manufacturing process is. You know whether a free-range chicken plays hide and seek with his little chicken friends in a field of daisies, or whether he takes a five-minute cigarette break on a dirt mound (both are considered free-range by the USDA). It’s not about policing our local farmers, but about giving them an incentive to practice sustainable farming and giving them a market for doing the right thing.
And while you are eating tastier, more nutritious foods you can also recognize your contribution to the fight against global warming. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “in 2005, the transport of tomatoes from Mexico and the Netherlands into California by truck and airplane resulted in the release of an estimated 28 million pounds of pollutants.” Whether or not you believe in global warming (are there still some out there who don’t?) you can surely acknowledge that buying local foods can, at least, help reduce cancer and asthma-causing air pollutants.
You are what you eat, people. I don’t think any of you out there want to be an anemic, flavorless, jet-lagged tomato.
Lucia Castello is an architecture junior, the regional networking coordinator for the Empower Poly Coalition and a Mustang Daily columnist.