Join 3,416 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Consider the Source
August 5, 2009 12:49 PM   Subscribe

"It's a different way of thinking about 'local' that's not quite as literal," says a consumer research consultant in an article running this week in alternative newspapers nationwide. The piece (by Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance) describes the response of global and national companies to the reality that consumers are moving more of their dollars into purchasing at locally owned businesses, representing both a threat, and an opportunity for companies that can successfully rebrand themselves as 'local'. As with greenwashing before it, 'localwashing' seeks to lure customers based on perception of values alone, resulting in such phenomena as Frito-Lay highlighting farmers from 27 states as the "local" growers for its potato chips and Hellman's Mayonnaise piloting a campaign in Canada to present its product as 'local' because most of the ingredients are from North America.
posted by Miko (58 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'd just like to say that banking locally means having to collect all your ATM receipts and mail them in for the refund because a small local bank will not have ATMs in every - or any - airport you visit. So in a small way I applaud this fudging.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:55 PM on August 5, 2009


I strongly suspect that faux-localizing is a big motivation behind Starbucks' experimentation with debranding stores.
posted by gurple at 12:59 PM on August 5, 2009


The "find the plant where this bag of chips was made" is pretty good, glad that the locally-grown movement has achieved such a milestone. Even though everything else appears to be horseshit.
posted by breath at 1:00 PM on August 5, 2009


Here in SF there are farmer's markets and such that have food with actual flavor.

In a much less relevant way, the Gap, Sketchers, Gamma-go, Apple and Google are all local.
posted by poe at 1:00 PM on August 5, 2009


As far as I can see, shopping locally only goes so far. I don't know of any mayonaise makers in town, nor any Frito makers. But having moved to a small town 2 years ago, and having my income tied directly to the fluctuations of the economy, I do try to shop from smaller, independent stores when I can.
posted by efalk at 1:00 PM on August 5, 2009


mayo is about the simplest thing to make yourself, man.
posted by boo_radley at 1:01 PM on August 5, 2009


a small local bank will not have ATMs in every - or any - airport you visit

I bank at my local credit union, and I get totally free ATM use, globally. I also get 4.25% checking interest.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 1:01 PM on August 5, 2009


Their marketers know what they're doing. They *have* to know what they're doing! They're lying to consumers. The various articles that define this as a form of astroturfing are on the mark. It's unethical and wrong.
posted by zarq at 1:03 PM on August 5, 2009


Note: This article has appeared in more than twenty news weeklies, sometimes with additional local reporting incorporated into the article, so we have included multiple links below in case you want to read a version published in your region.

That's fucking hilarious.
posted by rtha at 1:06 PM on August 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


From the first link:

Note: This article has appeared in more than twenty news weeklies, sometimes with additional local reporting incorporated into the article, so we have included multiple links below in case you want to read a version published in your region.

I guess newspapers are doing it too.
posted by neroli at 1:07 PM on August 5, 2009


p.s. Miko, I see what you did there! Nice title, too.
posted by rtha at 1:07 PM on August 5, 2009


(People who live closer to me than to rtha can choose to read my comment.)
posted by neroli at 1:09 PM on August 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


The only thing I've gotten really particular about buying locally is produce. And it isn't because of any environmental-impact or local-economy thinking -- it's because all of the produce just plain tastes better and keeps longer if you get it at the farmer's market or the CSA.

I mean, I'm pleased that my locavore habits have a community benefit, but if I have to be honest, I'm being entirely self-serving.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:10 PM on August 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think really highly of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance - they produce a lot of the research and whitepapers that end up being used by hundreds of truly local economic development groups. There's definitely a certain irony that they sent it out from a central think tank to lots of local newsweeklies around the country, but it was by design.
posted by Miko at 1:15 PM on August 5, 2009


It's unethical and wrong.

It's not wrong, exactly. I mean, who doesn't enjoy a tiny hint of wronginess, to keep you on your toes and add a spicy complexity to your shopping experience?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:15 PM on August 5, 2009


it's because all of the produce just plain tastes better ... if you get it at the farmer's market or the CSA

Everybody always says this, but I can't taste a difference. Of course, I'm not an especially vegetable-loving person, so nothing should be generalized from me. But I wonder if anyone has ever done a blind taste test like the one they did where they found that most people who claim they can, can't actually tell expensive vodka from cheaper brands? Could people really tell the locally-grown produce in a blind taste test?
posted by not that girl at 1:16 PM on August 5, 2009


It's a different way to think about local. Basically, it's the insincere marketing asshole's version of the word where it's been twisted and extended beyond all reason.
posted by autodidact at 1:20 PM on August 5, 2009


Starting to disect and question the external and interval values that consumer marketing attempts to create/resonate with/create a sense of entitlement for
posted by infini at 1:20 PM on August 5, 2009


er, that's internal values
posted by infini at 1:21 PM on August 5, 2009


Buying locally is more than just supporting the local economy and local businesses. It means your products haven't traveled as far, which is nice for fresh produce, and is good to reduce your carbon footprint. Buying potato chips that are made from potatoes grown by local folks is nice for those farmers, but I'm assuming they're all large scale farms who ship their produce to many different packing plants and whatnot. I doubt many family farms produce enough to supply a major brand like Frito-Lays, and the transportation of local materials elsewhere to be processed, packaged, and finally distributed rather ruins the function of "local growers."

If you really want local potato chips and mayonnaise: make your own with local ingredients. Recipes: microwave potato chips, mayonnaise (Note: I haven't tested these, they were the handiest basic recipes).

Could people really tell the locally-grown produce in a blind taste test?

Certain things last better in longer trips. The most amazing difference I tasted was a carrot that was picked hours earlier from the University growing grounds. I like carrots, but this was amazingly juicy, for lack of better word. Store-bought carrots wouldn't necessarily be considered to be dry, but compared to fresh carrots they are. Other anecdote: citrus is often juicier and more flavorful from local sources, as it doesn't need to be picked far in advance to ensure ripe fruit.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:22 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Everybody always says this, but I can't taste a difference.

Go buy an industrial strawberry. Then a local, organic one.

There is NO comparison. They are hardly even identifiable as the same type of fruit. Real strawberries are red all the way through (not all white inside) and they melt in your mouth.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:24 PM on August 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Lesser Shrew: "I'd just like to say that banking locally means having to collect all your ATM receipts and mail them in for the refund" (Emph. mine)

Really? That's pretty obnoxious. The ATM network breaks out terminal fees from the actual withdrawn amount; it's totally possible for a bank to refund ATM fees without requiring you to send in receipts. (My bank does this; if the terminal fee is $1, I get a $1 credit a few days after the withdrawal; if it's $2.50 like it is for some rapacious airport ATMs, I get $2.50.)

I don't think you have a local bank problem, you have a crappy [local] bank problem. I like supporting local businesses as much as anyone, but I'm not sure I'd stand for that level of service, whether it's a result of malice (hoping you won't bother to send in the receipts) or incompetence (not knowing they can get the terminal fee amount automatically).
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:27 PM on August 5, 2009


Strawberries are the best illustration for sure. Like rabbit says, you'd be hard pressed to identify it as the same fruit in a blind taste test.

I've basically stopped eating oranges and clementines because unless you get a freak case, there is absolutely no flavour in those things any more. An orange these days just tastes like a moutful of pulpy, stringy cardboard to me. Hardly the explosion of tangy flavour I remember from the soccer practices of my youth.
posted by autodidact at 1:29 PM on August 5, 2009


Could people really tell the locally-grown produce in a blind taste test?

I can with no hesitation assert that I can, in a blind taste test, tell apart, 100% of the time, local from industrial squash blossoms, sunchokes, broccoli rabe, dandelion greens, garlic scapes, and kohlrabi. The industrial version has the not-so-subtle hint of nonexistence.

(OK, maybe you can get industrial versions of some of those things, but I haven't seen 'em)
posted by gurple at 1:30 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Could people really tell the locally-grown produce in a blind taste test?

Definitely. I do this all the time for Slow Food events - comparison tasting of peppers, honey, herbs, tomatoes, milk and cream, etc. etc. The difference is usually extremely obvious. Some people still prefer the industrially grown item, though - especially kids, who reliably like industrial green pepper and broccoli better than locally grown. It's probably to do with both being milder and just more familiar in texture and color.
posted by Miko at 1:30 PM on August 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


Fresh arugula makes it hard to ever eat bagged again. Worlds apart in terms of flavor.

Great post, Miko.
posted by SpiffyRob at 1:32 PM on August 5, 2009


I strongly suspect that faux-localizing is a big motivation behind Starbucks' experimentation with debranding stores.

I called this in like 1999 and everyone called me a cynical wide-eyed loony.

Granted, I was yelling on the street corner in my hot pink underoos then, but I had a point!
posted by The Whelk at 1:36 PM on August 5, 2009


Could people really tell the locally-grown produce in a blind taste test?
We switched over to a local CSA a few years ago, and switched to a grass-fed beef CSA at the same time. The difference is glaringly obvious to us. However, the real evidence comes from my parents, who live in Pennsylvania and visit us in California a few times a year. They say that the only things they eat that are comparable to our produce is the stuff they grow in their own garden.

In terms of the beef, again, the difference is glaring. The grassfed stuff we get tastes like, well, beef, whereas the mass-marketed stuff seems to most closely resemble tofu to us: a flavorless substance that takes on the flavors of whatever it's cooked with. Filler, if you will.
posted by scrump at 1:40 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I strongly suspect that faux-localizing is a big motivation behind Starbucks' experimentation with debranding stores.


The supplemental reporting that appeared in my local newsweekly definitely mentioned this, and it's definitely connected:
The new names are meant to give the stores "a community personality," said Tim Pfeiffer, senior vice president of global design. Starbucks' logo will be absent, with bags of the company's coffee and other products rebranded with the 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea name.

The changes come at a time when retailers, including Starbucks, are suffering from slower foot traffic and lower profits.

Those who can capture a sense of community and offer consumers a compelling experience will win in the long run, said Michelle Barry, senior vice president of the market-research firm Hartman Group in Bellevue. [same person quoted in linked article].

...Some local coffee-shop owners say Starbucks is appropriating their environments.

Sebastian Simsch, co-owner of Seattle Coffee Works near Pike Place Market, became frustrated last year after large groups of Starbucks employees kept crowding into his 300-square-foot store to look around.

"I thought it was funny," he said. "We're this little store, and I thought Starbucks didn't need to learn from me."

During the third group's visit, Simsch let them know what he thought.

"I said, 'If you want to buy something that's great, but just to look, that's not cool,' " he recounted. "I called the PR department and said, 'Never again.' "

They did not come back, even after he moved into a much larger store next door.

Victrola Coffee Roasters saw the Starbucks people a lot more often.

"They spent the last 12 months in our store up on 15th [Avenue] with these obnoxious folders that said, 'Observation,' " said Victrola owner Dan Ollis.
I heard some NPR reporting about how Starbucks people scoured the country visiting local coffee shops and wine bars and making notes about things that made them feel 'authentic.'

It would be funny if it weren't so...not funny.
posted by Miko at 1:48 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Everybody always says this, but I can't taste a difference. Of course, I'm not an especially vegetable-loving person, so nothing should be generalized from me.

This is most obvious with green peas, for me. Take a bite of a raw snap pea from a supermarket. Make sure it's a sugar snap pea. Then, take a bite of one from a farmer's market.

The key there is that, the second you pick a sugar snap pea, the sugars in the pea start converting to starches. So the longer you wait to eat that snap pea after you pick it, the less sweet it's going to be.

And if you get that pea at a farmer's market, it's only been a couple hours since it was picked -- whereas if you get it in the supermarket, it may be a couple DAYS since it was picked -- maybe even a couple WEEKS. So by the time you eat the pea in the supermarket, it's had all that time to convert all the sugars into starches, and you can't taste the sweetness any more. Whereas, the farmer's market pea still has a lot of sugars in it, so it's much sweeter.

I could taste the difference in peas when I was just a child. (My brother and I used to sneak out into our grandfather's garden and decimate entire pea crops simply by snacking. And yes, I realize how much that makes it sound like I grew up in Mayberry, but hey.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:51 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I live right behind a grocery store that I use as my pantry. When I've planned poorly and need produce now, I have to go there to pick something up. Jewel labels the country that your produce comes from, which is certainly a start, but when I'm buying my apples from the US, are they coming from MI, or WA? Jewel doesn't seem to think it matters, as long as it's the US.
posted by garlic at 1:56 PM on August 5, 2009


garlic, that's Country of Origin labelling, which became mandatory last year. Retailers didn't want to do it on their own, which is why it had to be done through legislation. I would love to see state labelling come next. In the meantime, let your grocer know you're interested in buying local produce whenever possible. One of our local greengrocer places responded very well to that kind of customer request, and they now highlight things grown here and in the surrounding states with a special color placard.
posted by Miko at 2:06 PM on August 5, 2009


Type in the first three digits of the product code on the bag and your ZIP code and out pops the location of the plant.

I see.
posted by applemeat at 2:13 PM on August 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm sort of amazed that anyone could ask whether locally grown food tastes better than supermarket foot. The stuff that I've gotten from a CSA or the farmer's market are so different that it's hard to even compare them, both veggies and meat. Not only is it for the age reasons that Empress C states but that since they can get you the food so quickly, they can grow varieties that don't ship or age well. The varieties of vegetables that are shipped around the world to your supermarket have been bred to be tough and long-lasting but not to be very tasty. My dad, who grew up in rural PA with chickens running around the yard, called supermarket tomatoes, "red tennis balls" because they they're all structure and no flavor.
posted by octothorpe at 2:19 PM on August 5, 2009


I heard some NPR reporting about how Starbucks people scoured the country visiting local coffee shops and wine bars and making notes about things that made them feel 'authentic.'

I worked for Starbucks a long time ago, before they exploded nationally. They used to be the scrappy local phenom, and to hell with you if you didn't like tits on your mermaid. The coffee was roasted in a single plant in Seattle (where I acquired my taste for the nonfat latte sweetened with honey). The limited food was made locally.

Man, how times change. I was at the company when they announced their expansion into the South [of the United States]. Then came the iced drinks, and eventually (after I left) the blended drinks and the all-things-to-all-people foodstuffs. The mermaid had a mastectomy. When she grew new ones, people complained.

I actually like Starbucks and their corporate-y environment... it's comfortable and I'm able to work in there. The tables are big enough for my laptop, a scanner, and books or papers. The chairs are comfortable and don't destroy my back. By comparison, none of the local coffee joints are at all inviting or comfortable, and their drinks are worse.

That said, I predict failure for the feaux-localized Starbucks... the required mindless adherence to corporate policies will only highlight the fake nature of the joint, and the mass-produced product won't be able to compete on quality with high-quality small-batch product.
posted by Hylas at 2:25 PM on August 5, 2009


I've always thought it'd be kind of cool if the town and country something(not just food) was produced in was printed on the wrapper or container.
It'd kind of neat to see that your bag o' chips came all the way from Missouri or your chicken was raised just up the road in the next state.
I'd like to look on the map to see where in China the new camera I purchased was made, or where in Indonesia this shirt was sewn.

Not sure it would change my habits as I buy as local as I can, but it'd sure be neat.
posted by madajb at 2:35 PM on August 5, 2009


Have any of you seen photos from the new 'de-branded' Starbucks ? No way would anyone actually think that was a local coffee shop. It tries way too hard, looks way too clean and sits right in the nadir of the uncanny valley.
posted by lucasks at 3:21 PM on August 5, 2009


I'd love to hear some of the conceptualizing that goes on in these marketing meetings where "local" could mean something in the same hemisphere.

"How can we pitch the idea that something manufactured in Mexico could be 'local' to upstate New York?"

"Hmm, tough one. How about this; 'Everything is local when you are thinking at a galactic scale...'"?

"Genius. Run with that shit!"
posted by quin at 3:23 PM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Could people really tell the locally-grown produce in a blind taste test?

I could! And I don't even like vegetables that much (love the fruits!), but the ones I eat are usually minimally processed and so you can really taste the difference. A lot of supermarket veggies are bred for hardiness in shipping and so they have this hardness to them that you don't find as much from local foods, also a homogeneity about them. So you can often tell local food just by looking at it [I know, weird right?] and then by the variety [as gurple says] since my local foods market has more types of apples than my local Shaw's and then lastly by the taste. I'm lucky to live somewhere where it's pretty simple to buy local food -- we have a lot of local milk and eggs and veggies and fruits this time of year -- and pretty simple not to buy anything else at all. Thanks for the links Miko, food for thought.

And yeah, Hylas, me too on the old Starbucks.
posted by jessamyn at 3:43 PM on August 5, 2009


weapons-grade pandemonium: who doesn't enjoy a tiny hint of wronginess, to keep you on your toes and add a spicy complexity to your shopping experience?

And it tastes so good when cooked up with with truthiness!
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:11 PM on August 5, 2009


Having eaten some amazing strawberries this evening, which were so red I had to wash my face afterwards as I looked like the Joker from all the juice around my mouth, I can absolutely concur with the fact that local produce is, almost always, better.

Here in Poland, there isn't really that much industrial agriculture to begin with, especially for things designed for local consumption, and especially especially for seasonal fruits and vegetables. I can walk for ten minutes in pretty much any direction in my city of 400,000 people and hit ten fruit and vegetable shops, butcher shops, bakeries and cake shops (these are different places - piekarnia and cukiernia - in Poland!), plus at least one convenience store, a few liquor stores, a bigger supermarket, and if I'm feeling spry, I can push myself five more minutes (or take the bus) and get to a hypermarket like Tesco. As a non-driver, I take my little shopping trolley/granny cart ($10!) with me on my weekly trips and buses are designed to accommodate them. As a wannabe gourmand and very very amateur cook, it's awesome.

Please note that this isn't a holier-than-thou thing, a "look at me, I'm sooooooo connected to my community and ethical and helping heal our planet and yadda yadda" deal. I go to the little old ladies selling a small pile of sad, dirty carrots on the corner, but I go to Tesco, too, because for some things, like muesli or toothbrushes or plain yogurt, or other more portable, commodity-ish, long-life products, I can save money, or the price is identical to that in the aforementioned smaller shops, and the trip is free with my monthly bus pass. But in essence, my shopping experience here is that you actually need to visit shops, plural, to get good deals on good-quality things, and that comparison shopping and buying local, seasonal food is not only cheaper, but healthier.

Demographically, too, people here in Poland are just older, and move less, so if you get a bad reputation as being a butcher who charges a little too much for what you get, you aren't going to be forgotten, and you certainly aren't going to be full of newcomers all the time who don't know better. So it's in a shopkeeper's interest to get the very best of a few things and hope that trickles down to sales of non-premium-quality produce, to bake the best cakes and hope people also buy some candles, or offer free samples of everything to your patrons and hope they get an extra 200 grams of the ham from the new smokehouse a few towns over. Local customers in these little shops are respected here, too, partly because many people are regulars, but also, I think, because people are very socially conscious of the food they prepare here in a way that a more multicultural place like America isn't.

For example: While Christmas dinner in America means turkey in some houses, goose in others, perhaps a ham or even capons, in Poland, the main dish is carp, for a variety of traditional reasons. I was lucky enough to attend a Polish Christmas dinner this past year...and I had to confirm my attendance 10 weeks in advance, because people order their Christmas carp in October. They've been going to the same carp guy for 20 years. The fishmonger's Uncle Jacek, you know, has a little cottage by a lake in Masuria where he catches his own, and he'll get you a really nice one. Live. Which you keep in your bathtub. On Youtube. If your cat doesn't attack it first. And which you then kill on your kitchen counter. (Warning: a fish is killed in this video. The blood-averse should probably not click.)

After we returned from the Christmas break, I told my Polish friends that I'd had Christmas dinner here, and the first question, universally, was about the carp. Did I see it killed? How big was it? Was it good? Do we eat carp in America? And on and on. Talk about deeply-rooted!

I mean, really, do we keep any live animals in the house in America for a week - basically hoping it, uh, excretes whatever was hanging out in its body in the few days before we execute it? In a city or a suburb, for the vast majority of people - no way. But here's a whole food tradition adapted to modern times in a way which is inherently local. It would be nearly impossible for any supermarket to keep a family's carp in its own little tank for a few days while it gets over its farmed life and adapts to a new, if short, life of contemplating the infinite on Carp Death Row next to a loofah sponge. Could you buy a pre-killed carp? Of course. But the loofah and the cat attack and the novelty of keeping a huge live fish in your tub keeps this tradition alive. "Local" isn't always about geography; it's the traditions your family brings to the table, too - remember the time when Aunt Janina overstuffed the pierogi and they exploded? That's incredibly local, and that's also really, really hard to produce and market and sell.

So overall, it's really easy to see and taste differences in food quality here because there's a whole social/historical context that goes with food here, from a national-cuisine perspective all the way down through regional specialties, neighborhood shops, and you passing along the name of the fishmonger's Uncle Jacek to the new neighbors. It's apolitical and incredibly political at the same time, because even though it's "just a beet", food traditions are central to local identity here, given how many Poles moved, have moved, or were moved around this part of Europe over the last century.

Even if I up and left Poland tomorrow and had to live with doing all my shopping at my old local supermarket, farmer's market, and Whole Foods/Trader Joe's back in America for the rest of my life, I'd still be richer for the experience I've had - I'll be able to teach my kids when a peach is at the peak of its ripeness, or how to cook with fresh veggies in the winter when it's potatoes and beets up to your eyeballs and you would KILL for a tomato from your garden.

If you're still curious about how much of the rest of the world eats, check out a great comment from Dee Extrovert over here on AskMe. More carp commentary here.
posted by mdonley at 5:01 PM on August 5, 2009 [68 favorites]


And if you get that pea at a farmer's market, it's only been a couple hours since it was picked

I'm really not trying to be difficult, but at our local farmer's market, the sellers end the day with loads and loads of stuff left. I have always supposed they must do something with it, including selling it the next day someplace else. If the farmer's market opens at 8, and the logo on the farm truck names a town 45 minutes to an hour away, I'm skeptical that they got up that morning, picked (and washed?) enough produce to fill two 8- or 10-foot tables, loaded the truck, and then drove there to set up by 8. I should ask sometime when we're there again, but I have never assumed I was looking at produce that was picked the same day, and if someone claimed I was, I'd be frankly skeptical.

I also, sometimes, wonder what the effect is of being loaded in a non-refrigerated truck, hauled 45 minutes for an hour, and then put on display in 80-degree weather for six hours.

That said, I'd be interested to hear more from a farmer who participates in farmers' markets what the process looks like.
posted by not that girl at 6:02 PM on August 5, 2009


pick your fish, shrimp, crab, lobster, etc adn we'll kill and cook it for you (not local ;p)

but mdonley, your comment resonates - when we moved to india, the first thing that struck me were the lumpy misshapen vegetables, and the nasty stuff in summer while only winter were cauliflowers, carrots and beans available. now, i know the difference in flavour and taste. something to be said for the third world ;p
posted by infini at 7:23 PM on August 5, 2009


at our local farmer's market, the sellers end the day with loads and loads of stuff left. I have always supposed they must do something with it, including selling it the next day someplace else. If the farmer's market opens at 8, and the logo on the farm truck names a town 45 minutes to an hour away, I'm skeptical that they got up that morning, picked (and washed?) enough produce to fill two 8- or 10-foot tables, loaded the truck, and then drove there to set up by 8. I should ask sometime when we're there again, but I have never assumed I was looking at produce that was picked the same day, and if someone claimed I was, I'd be frankly skeptical.

I think a lot of it gets donated to soup kitchens, as I've understood it. I'm VERY sure, though, that it doesn't get loaded back on the truck and brought back to the farm to sit and wait for the following sale date; a lot of the varieties of produce grown at farmer's markets don't stand up to that kind of treatment (that's the tradeoff of tastiness, as someone mentioned above -- the varieties of food that store best are often ones that don't taste as good).

Some varieties of things like onions, apples and winter squash may have been placed in storage for later sales, but so far as I know, that's about it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:26 PM on August 5, 2009


I love the idea of something from North America being local. That's like like living in the UK or France and saying that something grown near Delhi in India is local (London - Delhi is approx the same distance as Miami - Fairbanks). For local to be meaningful in the US and Canada, it needs to be done on a state / province basis - Delaware and Rhode Island don't have to play if they don't want to; Hawaii, enjoy the pineapples; Alaska, salmon and venison is good for you.
posted by rhymer at 1:53 AM on August 6, 2009


Have any of you seen photos from the new 'de-branded' Starbucks ? No way would anyone actually think that was a local coffee shop. It tries way too hard, looks way too clean and sits right in the nadir of the uncanny valley.

That's what I thought from the photos.

Everything is too clean. It all matches too well. The staff is too happy-looking. It's too full of expensive woodwork.

It doesn't look at all like any of the local coffee shops I've loved. Well, maybe, if you're the sort of person who gets offended at bathroom graffiti.

And for precisely that reason, yuppies will flock to it like flies on shit. It looks quirky, it's clean, and has no soul. Yuppie bait.
posted by Netzapper at 1:55 AM on August 6, 2009


Miko, thanks for the post. As depressing as it is, it's vital that people know this kind of crap is going on. Any real movement at this point will be co-opted by the corporations. Taking shortcuts and buying industrial food that claims to be "local" is an easy way to feel smug while not really doing anything to help.

I'm grateful every day for my chickens and our garden and the CSA membership, and I realize I'm in a very small percentage of people to eat as well as we do. The thing that I can't emphasize enough? It may seem hard and expensive and like a lot of trouble to eat locally and in season (squash AGAIN?), and you may think, I've got to give up those Fritos and my Chick-fil-A habit?, but I can honestly say I have never eaten so many delicious things in my life. Every meal is in season and tastes good. No more fake, placeholder, filler food. I am exceedingly lucky and I appreciate it and I can taste it.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:09 AM on August 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm lucky enough to live in a rural area where many people grow their own veggies. I tried, but I apparently have black thumbs. But I still get lots of garden-fresh treats from family and professional contacts. This year, I got my first fresh-from-the-garden head of broccoli. It was AMAZING. Best broccoli EVER. I never knew broccoli could taste like that. I'm drooling right now just thinking about it. And now I have to wait A YEAR to get broccoli like that again.

Tonight I get to break into a homegrown watermelon!
posted by threeturtles at 7:32 AM on August 6, 2009


I'm really not trying to be difficult, but at our local farmer's market, the sellers end the day with loads and loads of stuff left. I have always supposed they must do something with it, including selling it the next day someplace else. If the farmer's market opens at 8, and the logo on the farm truck names a town 45 minutes to an hour away, I'm skeptical that they got up that morning, picked (and washed?) enough produce to fill two 8- or 10-foot tables, loaded the truck, and then drove there to set up by 8.

the farmers i know in my area definitely do get up crackadawn early to harvest & prep food for the market - and they work their asses off, let me tell you - some of the hardest workers i've ever encountered

great post, Miko - thanks much

... goes to find old cassette of "Dancing on the Ruins of Multinational Corporations" to hum along to ...
posted by jammy at 7:47 AM on August 6, 2009


... goes to find old cassette of "Dancing on the Ruins of Multinational Corporations" to hum along to ...

ooooh me too, maybe I'll try to record that next.

I have friends who run Old Shaw Farm who had a good post a long time back which talked about how they prep for Farmer's Markets and what happens before/during/after the actual market. The Farmer's Markets here are a little different than some of the truck farm stuff you see in bigger cities, but there's still usually some serious rules about what's allowed and what they're allowed to claim about what they are selling.
posted by jessamyn at 7:54 AM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have always supposed they must do something with it, including selling it the next day someplace else. If the farmer's market opens at 8, and the logo on the farm truck names a town 45 minutes to an hour away, I'm skeptical that they got up that morning, picked (and washed?) enough produce to fill two 8- or 10-foot tables, loaded the truck, and then drove there to set up by 8. I should ask sometime when we're there again, but I have never assumed I was looking at produce that was picked the same day, and if someone claimed I was, I'd be frankly skeptical.

I do a lot of work with our local market, which occurs on Saturdays. Most of the farmers begin picking Thursday and Friday into the night for Saturday's market, and they do indeed get up at dawn on Saturday to pick very fragile things like lettuce.

At the end of the market, we (volunteers) go around and collect unsold produce and bring it to a homeless shelter. The farmers evaluate their produce at that time. Most of them participate in more than one market - within an hour radius of us there are several weekday farmer's markets. So they may take the remaining produce to a Monday or Tuesday market, but if they think it's not going to make it, they may donate it through us. OTher things they do include donate it themselves, eat it themselves (often blanched to freeze for later), call up a chef they know and offer it at a low rate, or - last resort - compost it. Old produce really doesn't sell well at farmer's markets. In the summer, the farmers I know are just picking like crazy all the time. They use a lot of work-for-food and intern help and just madly pick prior to all the markets. Even if it's two days or three days old, the produce is generally quite a bit fresher than what's in the store. One interesting experiment is a direct comparison - we were talking about this in AskMe. if you buy a clamshell of mesclun lettuce at the store, and then buy a baggie of lettuce mix at the market on the same day, leave them in your fridge for a week. At the end of the week, the market lettuce is likely still crisp, while the store lettuce is slime. The difference is in the age of the product by the time it reaches you.
posted by Miko at 8:26 AM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, and other things they can do with perishable produce is turn it into "value-added." For instance, unsold tomatoes (like that ever happens) can be given or sold to someone who cans sauce. Zucchini and yellow squash can be made into bread or muffins. Cukes and herbs can go into relishes or chutneys. Shell beans can be split and dried. Herbs can be dried and made into herb mixes. Strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and rhubarb can go into jam or pie. A lot of the farmers in our growers association cut these side deals with one another, so substandard produce can be handed off to someone who can feature it in a preparation that doesn't require optimum freshness or nice appearance.

Like Empress Callipygos said, a lot of farm produce has a really long storage life: potatoes, onions, hard-rind squash, garlic, apples, pumpkins, root vegetables, beans, leeks, etc. So not everything is as time sensitive.

I think there is still some waste in the system, as not everyone can find an ideally absorptive market for all their products, which vary as they do with weather and season. But farmers are highly motivated not to have waste, and they can be very creative about ways to turn potential waste into market opportunities. Ditto what Jessamyn said about big-market truck farms, though - that scale makes things a little different because of how much time and attention is available for finessing these details.
posted by Miko at 8:35 AM on August 6, 2009


This is what I don't get though. For many things, freshness is the issue, but as a counter-example, my farmer's market has apples year round, and many of those are months old when they're sold. Yet, they're still a few thousand times better than any apple variety I've ever seen at the supermarket.
posted by Caviar at 4:20 PM on August 6, 2009


Yet, they're still a few thousand times better than any apple variety I've ever seen at the supermarket.

Too bad. My supermarket in CT gets local apples in the fall, although only for a short while. They're much better than the year-round apples.
posted by smackfu at 5:56 PM on August 6, 2009


It's not really too bad, since I do have the farmer's market and I vastly prefer shopping there anyway.
posted by Caviar at 6:24 PM on August 6, 2009


I got my food schooling not from a alt-weekly but from living in China for a while. It's a whole different food culture there. I was admonished for using canned tomatoes (ingredients: tomatoes) in a stew. The big super markets emulate the local wet markets and not the other way around as it is here. In Hong Kong, everyone shops at the wet markets, even if you've got millions in the bank.

Even the poor there eat food of much higher quality than we typically do. It's the first complaint of immigrants who come here -- the food sucks.

And it all sunk in, in the end. Though I'll never give up my corn flakes, everything else changed when I moved back. I simply can't eat iceberg lettuce with pre-shredded carrots in it as it tastes like nothing.
posted by sleslie at 11:05 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is what I don't get though. For many things, freshness is the issue, but as a counter-example, my farmer's market has apples year round, and many of those are months old when they're sold. Yet, they're still a few thousand times better than any apple variety I've ever seen at the supermarket.

So, there are two other factors: one is plant variety, the other is growing practice.

With apples, in particular, there are hundreds and hundreds of varieties that have been grown in the US and there's been continual variety development since Colonial times.Apples have been bred to fill a number of separate niches: taste eaten out of hand (the 'eating apples'), cooking (baking/stewing), storage, long storage, cider making, vinegar making, resistance to disease, ripening date (ideally with a diverse orchard you can be harvesting apples from midsummer through late fall), etc. Each apple is good at something specific.

But our contemporary industrial system has selected only a very narrow few of those for sale. The criteria on which they've selected those varieties are not always (or even often) about best taste or best storage quality or any of the other many specializations that have been developed. The most important criteria include: appealing visual appearance, toughness to withstand shipping, high crop yield, and ease of harvest.

The apples at your farmer's market may represent some varieties that don't reward commercial growers and distributors, but are excellent on their own. Apples generally do store very well and can be delicious and fresh tasting for months if stored properly.

But the other issue may be growing practice - the apples from your market may be from lower-spray orchards where they use more natural methods of pest and fungus control. They may fertilize differently than commercial growers. The taste of your own terroir - the weather and climate and season that year - may be detectable in your apples, as differentiated from the bulk-grown apples from China, New Zealand, or Washington. And one final difference may lie in the processing - a quick wash and pack (probably at air temp) for local apples which are then sold at your market, as opposed to an industrial wash and pack process, followed by long shipping and a bunch of other handling and maybe temperature variations and stuff like that.

The above can be true for any storage crop. Variety and growing practice are both powerful determinants of quality.

Three fantastic sources on apples, which are especially interesting, are the chapter on apples in Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, Slow Food's Ark of Taste page on American heirloom apples, and Ben Watson's book on cider apples.
posted by Miko at 6:54 AM on August 7, 2009


I'm skeptical that they got up that morning, picked (and washed?) enough produce to fill two 8- or 10-foot tables, loaded the truck, and then drove there to set up by 8.

I'm not a farmer, but a friend of mine worked on an organic farm last summer, and I learned a little about the process.

(I don't think they harvested stuff immediately prior to the morning market, but I wouldn't have been at all surprised if they had. Farmers work harder than most people can imagine.)

Basically, they had a small cinder-block building in a relatively central location on the farm, where they'd store stuff between harvest and market. There was a regular window-type air conditioner to keep the place cool, and it was heavily padded with foam insulation. The various vegetables were sorted into foam coolers.

I don't know how long stuff sat there before it was taken to market, but I got the impression it didn't stay there long. It was just a temporary holding area to get the picked vegetables out of the heat—the hot sun wilts produce quickly once it comes off the vine. I don't think it was uncommon for stuff to stay there overnight, but it all depended on the timing of the harvests and the markets. Sometimes you just have to get stuff out of the fields when the crop is ready, the weather is agreeable, and the labor is available, whether there's a market tomorrow or not.

Of course, I have no idea how typical this farm's operations are.

Pro Tip: ask about "seconds" at your local farmer's market. These are vegetables with cosmetic defects which yuppies won't buy—they may be strangely shaped, or have a scar from an insect bite, or a few discolorations. Farmers usually don't display these with their main offerings, because Americans are delicate little snowflakes and freak out at the slightest reminder that their food comes from a living thing that lives in the dirt!

And that's nonsense, of course—seconds are often just as good as the regular stuff, and they're much cheaper, and you're just going to chop them up anyway, right?

(This is generally true. I have seen seconds which simply weren't ready for harvest, or weren't a good crop. But I've also gotten some great deals on tasty veggies.)
posted by ixohoxi at 11:04 AM on August 16, 2009


« Older Where I Write 'Fantasy & Science Fiction authors i...  |  The guys at Penny Arcade often... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments