Upside down food

When I was a child, almost all of what we ate was locally grown. The beef on our table was butchered at the local locker. The potatoes were stored in our cellar. Our freezer and pantry were filled with vegetables and fruits my mother had grown and preserved. Food raised nearby was the daily fare of most people.

Fifty years ago, the exotic, expensive and gourmet foods were the ones that had been shipped from somewhere else: oranges, coffee, chocolate, processed and prepackaged goods and pop. Eating in a restaurant was a rare and special occasion for most of the people I knew.

Eating in this country has been turned upside down. Americans in 2014 spent more on eating out than on groceries. Most food travels at least 1500 miles from the field to the plate. Most restaurants buy the majority of the food they serve from a food service truck. It is precooked, pre-portioned, prepackaged and often only needs to be heated before serving. Menus in franchised and chain restaurants are the same regardless of the location. Kiwi, strawberries, oranges, melons, fresh tomatoes and lettuce are on the menu year-round and across the country.

When the industrialized food model doesn’t work, food safety regulators tell consumers not to eat raw eggs or rare beef. Regulators don’t seem to question the wisdom of egg production and feedlot systems that house millions of identical birds or tens of thousands of cattle in one place.

What was once a special treat is now standard fare, inexpensive and available anytime.

When Alice Waters opened her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California in 1971, her dedication to serving locally produced in season foods was a novel idea. In 2015, restauranteurs around the country are not only buying herbs, vegetables and meats from local farmers, many are planting gardens and growing their own.

Ironically, these restaurants tend to be high end, expensive, exclusive and gourmet dining experiences. Dinner at Chez Panisse is by reservation only and cost from $60 to $95 per person. No wonder the local food movement is seen by many as being an elite marketing scheme.

The changes in how we eat seem illogical and upside down–local, fresh, grown-out-the-back-door is expensive. On the other hand, distant, out-of-season, ready-to-serve is cheap and common. Many of the costs of growing, processing and serving food have been externalized. They have been paid by society as a whole and not accounted for in the cost of the end product directly.

The current food system is a relatively new, changing, experiment in economics and food production and processing. The model which makes the shipping cheap food across the country is based on the availability of cheap fuel and subsidized roads. Chinese and Mexican vegetables can be shipped across the globe in the winter because the people picking, weeding and processing them are paid low wages. Environmental laws either don’t exist or are ignored.

Climate change, the end of cheap oil and the achievement of a higher standard of living by workers around the world will increase the cost of industrial, processed and distant food. The real costs of food production will have to be accounted for.

Local farmers markets, small scale processing, season extending technologies such as hoop houses and alternative heating sources for greenhouses will increase the availability of fresh food grown nearby. Local and regional cuisine is gaining in popularity even in fast food establishments, hospitals and schools. The benefits of fresher, tastier, less processed foods on our health and our environment is being better understood.

The food world is again being turned right side up.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains