By Jess Scott Wright, RDN
Consumers committed to eating local food, aka “locavores,” should know “local” has many different meanings and organic isn’t one of them.
The nearness of a food says nothing about how it was grown. Local food may very well be organic – but it isn’t always.
Food labeled as organic is held to clearly defined standards for production methods, e.g. prohibiting the use of GMOs and synthetic pesticides.
Although “local” implies food was grown within the vicinity, definitions for near and far are subject to interpretation. Therefore, consumers should clarify what “local” means to them and understand how it is defined within their community.
Food philosophy often parallels the complexity of religious or political beliefs, only it is more complicated because once food lingo enters the mainstream marketplace, definitions become diluted and confusing.
The USDA website confirms no geographical parameters exist to officially define what is “local” and suggests farmers markets fulfill the eat local concept. But what happens when local food is sold beyond the farmers market at bigger box stores?
Upon relocating to Washington a few months ago, I was immediately impressed by widespread support for the “eat local” movement throughout the northwest.
I began to wonder if local had its own meaning in Whatcom County: Does local mean the same thing at the co-op as it does at Haggen? What about Cost Cutter in Blaine or The Market at Birch Bay? How far is too far to be considered “local?” Where does the “northwest” start and stop on a map? Where is Cascadia?
As a not-yet-local Texan in transition, I wasn’t sure.
Actually, I discovered multiple meanings for “local” within the community itself:
Haggen, for example, elects to tell consumers where local items come from instead of defining a maximum radius for local products. The Markets and Cost Cutter, on the other hand, limit “local” to 35 miles.
“Everyone defines what it means for themselves,” said Adrienne Battis, outreach manager of the Community Food Co-op in Bellingham. “Some organizations define local to be within the continental U.S., so it is up to the consumer to do research.”
The Community Food Co-op is one of the many local businesses that acknowledged the loose boundaries for “local,” and wants customers to easily identify the Co-op’s criteria. “We have recently adjusted our logo to be more transparent about what local means to us,” Battis said.
Generally, locavores feel a smaller farm-to-table geographical area minimizes the carbon footprint, yields fresher and more nutritious food and keeps money circulating within the economy.
Organic advocates argue production methods are more threatening to the carbon footprint than any environmental detriment caused by transport. With all variables from seed to harvest being equal, purchasing the food grown closer to you seems most sensible to me. However, this is not always the case.
The biggest difference in local and organic is that organic has a firm definition and is held to the same expectations regardless of where it is sold.
Although supporters of both local and organic food producers share values for the environment, economy and health, the proximity of a food source says nothing about how it was produced.
As a supporter of both organic farmers and my community, when I can’t have both, I feel somewhat torn to choose one over the other. After talking with several local businesses, I realized I am not alone.
There is a definite line of separation for businesses prioritizing local and others who value production standards associated with organic above all else. Regardless, from the B.C. border to the edge of Bellingham, many options and resources are available.
The Whatcom Farm and Food Finder, a fantastic resource for anyone wanting to know about local food sources, was sort of my Holy Grail for how to eat local in Whatcom County.
In the case that your food philosophy goes beyond that of locality, this free guide also highlights which farms utilize organic and/or sustainable methods, making it easy to connect with farms sharing your values.
It is important to understand how others define food lingo if you want to be true to your food philosophy. Maybe you aren’t quite sure what your food philosophy is, but you want to explore what it might be. Here are some ideas for where to start:
Explore the resources available in your community and feed your life with what feels right to you. Sustainableconnections.org and the local co-op have phenomenal websites and printed materials.
Get to know your farmers as the markets start to open in April – the ability to meet them is a huge advantage for local foodies.
Test your taste buds: Conduct an experiment at home with your family to see if you can detect a difference in organic or local foods.
Choose a fruit or vegetable that is in season.
Purchase three varieties:
a. Organic, not local
b. Local, not organic
c. Both local and organic
Label three plates a, b, and c, so only you know which one is which. Let the games begin.