'Localwashing:' How local is locally sourced food?

One measure of the success of the local food movement is the marketing value now placed on the word “local,” but “local” is not always what it seems.

Localwashing – misrepresenting the word “local” – has become a trend that is disheartening to people like Fairfield resident Analiese Paik, a sustainable food advocate and the founder of the Fairfield Green Food Guide.
“It is disingenuous,” Paik said of people who misuse terms from the local food movement.

Discerning the local

Paik has been advocating for healthier food in the region for more than 10 years and said that there is one very easy way to tell if you are getting local food as advertised from a vendor.

“Talk to them,” she said.

If you are buying food directly from a farm stand you can ask questions to find out if the food they’re selling comes out of their fields. “You don’t have to hound them,” Paik said. “You can make it casual conversation.”

And you can get a Connecticut crop calendar showing when each vegetable grown in Connecticut is in season. For instance, Paik said, “tomatoes in May or June is really early.”

Another helpful approach is to ask questions about how the food is grown. Growing practices include USDA certified organic, the United States Department of Agriculture certification; Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which means the grower only sprays chemicals when all others methods have not worked; and Farmers Pledge – a document spelling out sustainable practices that farmers can attest to using.

You can also tell if something is truly local because locally grown produce will not typically be uniform in size and shape – and there will likely be some dirt. “There should be some dirt,” Paik said, but she warns consumers to try not to jump to conclusions even when the food is clean.

“Don’t assume that they’re cheating you,” Paik said. “Ask questions.”

People who grow what they sell are usually proud to discuss their hard work. “I encourage people to form a relationship with the farmer,” Paik said. She said that she consistently buys from the same handful of organic farmers that she knows and trusts.

Some farmers do, however, openly sell food they have not grown – as options for their customers. For instance, a farmer who grows vegetables but not fruit might buy fruit from someplace else if there is a need.

When done transparently, farmers will clearly mark what they have not grown themselves and where it came from. Paik said there is nothing wrong with selling food you didn’t grow – as long as you’re honest about it.
What Paik does object to, she says, is some farmers’ practice of getting food through a wholesaler and letting people think they’re getting it from the farmer.

“At the end of the day, [those farmers] are taking advantage of the demand,” Paik said. “This one is particularly painful for our farmers who work really, really hard to grow their food.”

Paik also said to not let a few bad industrial agriculture apples spoil the whole bunch of honest area farmers.
“Any consumer that buys local food should know that most farmers are not out to cheat them,” Paik said. In fact, she said that the ratio is probably about 80/20 – with 80% of food that is sold as local being truly grown by area farmers.

“The 20% ruin it for the rest,” Paik said.

‘Farm’-to-table

Another place where the consumer looking for local could be better informed is at restaurants.

Paik said restaurant menus are sometimes inaccurate about what food is local   because they’re printed in advance and used over an extended period of time.

Local food in Connecticut has seasons, some of which are very short – such as for garlic scapes and asparagus. “In and out and they’re gone,” Paik said.

So a restaurant might not have intended to be dishonest, but rather planned poorly or didn’t understand seasonality. While such mistakes can be honest ones,  Paik said, “It’s taking advantage of the farmer’s brand.”
Better practices include printing a separate menu for locally sourced food, and changing it throughout the growing season, or displaying a chalk board with local fare.

Selma Miriam and Noel Furie’s restaurant Bloodroot, in Bridgeport, is considered by some to be one of the area’s first contemporary “farm-to-table” restaurants. Miriam and Furie established the feminist vegetarian restaurant in 1977 at the height of the feminist movement as a place for people to gather over meals.

“I love food,” Miriam said.

And while Bloodroot openly uses non-local ingredients, there are some recipes that they will only make with local ingredients in season. For instance, Miriam has a recipe that calls for corn which she will only make when corn is in season, to get the optimal flavor.

“No way do I want to do it any other time of the year,” Miriam said.

They do look to what is in season to determine much of what they serve. “We say, we go to the farmers market every week, here’s what we got,” Miriam said.

She is aware of restaurants that try to capitalize on the local food movement but don’t care about authenticity. Some will even name area farms as sources but not buy from them.

“It’s about lying,” Miriam said.

It has become a trend for restaurants though, in her eyes. “Most restaurants imply they’re making from scratch, but they’re not,” Miriam said. “It’s part of the industry to pretend.”

Not for her.

“For me, I love to go to the market and see what the farmers are growing,” she said, pointing to a recent purchase.
“Here are these shiny eggplants and they’ve just been picked,” Miriam said. “It has that fresh flavor and that’s what matters.”

Recently, however, she was at a very expensive restaurant that was serving out-of-season food while claiming it was farm-to-table. “I wouldn’t be doing that,” Miriam said. But, she said, people believe the hype. “It’s what’s in style, farm-to-table,” Miriam said.

The farmer’s not in the market

Another growing trend as people recognize the benefits of local food is the appearance of jobbers, or vendors at farmers markets who buy wholesale and claim to grow it.

Stacia Monahan, of Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton, said when she first started the farm in 1998, she discovered there was a jobber at the Shelton Farmers Market.

She said that the state looks the other way because the more “farmers” there are, the better the state’s agriculture industry looks. “The state of Connecticut agriculture people have encouraged this for years,” she said.

Monahan said that jobbers will often have land with “token planting” for show.

“A row of this [crop] or that,” she said. “A lot don’t bother to take care of the plantings.”

Monahan, who was awarded Outstanding Young Farmer by the Connecticut Agricultural Information Council at the state capitol in March, said “no one is taking the steps to prove” that what is sold as “Connecticut grown” at markets is authentic. Monahan thinks this has led to people taking advantage.

Monahan said that one of the giveaways for a jobber she came across was that he was selling strawberries in late August and claiming he grew them. The season for strawberries is typically June and the beginning of July. “By July fourth, everybody is done with strawberries,” Monahan said.

She said that another giveaway was that the jobber’s cucumbers were waxed and all one size.

Stacia and her husband, Fred, have been working with people at the state level to advocate for better oversight.

Taking food from strangers

Fixing our food system requires, as a prerequisite, honesty and transparency, according to Dina Brewster, a farmer at The Hickories in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Her family’s certified organic fruit, vegetable, and livestock farm is committed to bringing community and farm together.

“Localwashing, greenwashing, false claims over what is “organic” and what isn’t – they all remind me of the old adage that one should not take food from strangers,” Brewster said.

So, she said, get to know the hand that feeds you.

“If the source of your food is so far removed from you that you couldn’t possibly figure out [how it was grown], then my feeling is you probably shouldn’t be eating it,” Brewster said.

Noel Furie and Selma Miriam outside their restaurant Bloodroot, in Bridgeport, with tomatoes from Fort Hill Farm, a certified organic farm in Milford.  Laura Modlin photo

Noel Furie and Selma Miriam outside their restaurant Bloodroot, in Bridgeport, with tomatoes from Fort Hill Farm, a certified organic farm in Milford. Laura Modlin photo

And while she realizes this is not always feasible, she remains hopeful and committed to doing her part.
“I grow food for the world the way I dream it could be,” she said.

 

Eating locally
Fairfield-area residents interested in learning about the local food movement and sustainable growing practices can consult the following resources.
Fairfield Green Food Guide is an award-winning website founded by Analiese Paik in January 2009. The guide provides Fairfield County consumers with resources and information on eating more locally and sustainably. Visit fairfieldgreenfoodguide.com.
Bloodroot restaurant is located at 85 Ferris Street in Bridgeport. Learn more at bloodroot.com or by calling 203-576-9168.
Stone Gardens Farm uses IPM methods and is located at 83 Saw Mill City Road in Shelton. They can be reached at 203-929-2003 or at stonegardensfarm.com.
Learn more about The Hickories by calling 203-894-1851 or visiting thehickories.org.

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