Eat Locally to Save Our Rural Ways
by Anne Pearson
Southern Anne Arundel County is where the farms are, where big estates have kept the land open and forested, where narrow winding roads are lined by respectable old trees whose big branches meet overhead, giving a gracious shade from summer heat. South County residents say they want it to stay this way.
It won't happen just by wanting.
When I inquired about the farms, a county planner told me they "weren't viable anymore. They're mostly horse farms," he said. "They just grow hay. It's only a matter of time farmers want to sell out for retirement."
We see the results when farmers do sell out: linear housing developments sprouting awkwardly on flat, treeless fields that once grew corn. Disturbed, I talked to Dean Johnson - now the mayor of Annapolis but then an alderman - who said he didn't see why we couldn't engage city restaurants in a buy-local program, whose patronage could then encourage a market for locally grown vegetables, fruits and meats that would preserve the rich farm fields into the future.
It won't happen without a champion. But it could. There are some vital, successful examples here and there. The ones I've read about were stimulated by just such a concern - coupled with a change in the way people think about food, with nutrition as the focus.
Beef from Texas feedlots doesn't taste as good as range-fed beef, nor is it as nutritious. Vegetables and fruits raised in California are developed to survive the long travel to market, not for taste, and many are frozen, canned, or packed in chemical preservatives to maintain shelf life. Tomatoes are picked green and artificially ripened using a gas process. Strawberries are developed with a high fiber content to look good. As taste and nutrition are sacrificed, so are local farms.
One success story is the Meadowcreek Project at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas.
The college had stopped buying food from local farmers, and the farmers had gotten used to the change. Food is big business on college campuses, a big money-maker that puts profit into other college programs, making low bids from agribusiness suppliers seem like a benefit to the college as a whole. At Hendrix, over 90 percent of the food served on campus had come from out of state.
Supported by grants, students at Hendrix College analyzed the situation, the problems and the possibilities. They hired an organizer to work with cafeteria food servers, purchasers, farmers and the student body. It took a while, and it wasn't easy to recreate a situation that once was the way it worked naturally.
Farmers didn't grow as many crops any more. They couldn't compete in price. Milk had to travel to a distant processor and back home. Students were used to junk food and foods that couldn't be grown in Arkansas year round. Food servers had to learn how to prepare new foods. Confidence had to be built, education for the change had to take place. Appreciation for the benefit of healthy food had to be created. And the whole thing had to be organized so that deliveries could be efficiently managed.
But they did it. Today Hendrix College buys 30 percent local food, and they plan to reach 50 percent in three years.
Successes like theirs take common sense and the will to make the right thing work. I'm told repeatedly, 'Oh, that won't work here.'
It won't work if we don't believe it will. Where there's a will, there's a way, right?
The secret to making a local economy work is the number of times a dollar recirculates in the local community. The secret to making a county budget work is leaving land in open space and farmland instead of letting fertile soil grow houses. Houses cost more for infrastructure than they bring in tax dollars. We could save our farmland by creating a productive relationship between our stomachs and the farmers. How about it?
Anne Pearson, of Edgewater, is the founder of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities.
| Issue 3 |
Volume VII Number 3
January 21-27, 1999
New Bay Times
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