By Greg Bowman
Originally posted on September 14, 2006
Word of mouth is still the most effective promotion—even for changing big, complex things like food systems. If you can help lead one person into the richly textured web of local, well-farmed food contacts in your community, they’ll most likely lead someone else into the beauty and the bounty.
With the current blitz of media attention on the benefits of eating closer to home and fresher from the farm, more people than ever are saying, “So just tell me how to plug in.”
If you have the heart for public speaking, you can be an effective advocate. Simply articulate the generalized “why to” and the local “how to” of buying food more directly from farmers with real names in real places. Tailor your benefits pitch to the audience, choosing from the broad array of good reasons to seek out local, organic food, from energy savings to local economics to food varieties and vitality.
What can one person do? You can do a lot to help farmers by preparing new buy-local fans for a bit of an adventure. Help them get excited about adjusting their buying habits to food that is authentic, full of flavor, seasonal and known by the people who grow it. Let them see that convenience—for all our craving for it—is really an expensive and alienating aspect of our food system.
Do enough homework to give them several farm directories in several formats that let them—and their cousins five states away who they will call this weekend—locate farmers and venues with food truly worth buying. Describe the farmers’ markets, farmstands, on-farm meat and dairy options, local-food restaurants and even the independent and regional chain groceries where they can already find food with a story that impacts their watershed.
To get you started, here’s a version of a presentation I made recently in the Ag Expo Building at the Allentown Fair. Use it as a place to start, altering whatever you must to make it fit where you are. I’ve left in some of the regionally-specific foods and places to provoke you to think of what will sound more natural where you live.
Gather the visual props that make sense for your time and place. Tomatoes work so well I can’t really imagine using anything else, but apples, sweet corn and plums might be as visually successful in comparing a food variety engineered for shelf life with a variety selected for flavor, color and wonder.
Let me know if anything in here works with your audiences, and how you made the presentation better. I’ll be happy to share your choicest “good food sound bites” with everybody else. If you put any of these words to music, or find they make a good rap with the right delivery, let me know that, too.
I left in my prompts, in bold type, that help me with emphasis and inflection. They are just to remind you that you need to think about how you sound, not just what you want to say. Words [in brackets] remind me what to do at the right moment.
Note: I’m a journalist, not a speechifier. You’re much better off with just an outline so you aren’t tempted to just read what’s on the page. You don’t need to write out nearly this many words. In fact, look at this presentation in chunks and just use the ones you like.
Jot down just enough to get you through whatever might distract you. Like tomatoes that are a little too juicy and that the guy who insists that all food is local to somewhere, so what’s the big deal?
Buy local, buy organic, by all means
[Place the two tomatoes on the podium so everybody can see them.]
What a great time, and great place, to be talking about great food.
I eat. I buy food. I think. Therefore I’m part of the food system.
If you eat, you are part of the food system, too—a system that touches people in our neighborhood, region, state, across the United States and around the world. We’re in this together, and there’s a lot of good to be done.
“Food system” means everything connected to food—cornfields, pizza, McDonalds snack wraps, milk, soup companies, Slim-Fast, tractors, cows, whole wheat, supermarkets, school lunch, funnelcakes, and pumpkin pie. It’s all those things and what everybody does with all that stuff.
While we’re the most fed nation in the history of the world, we’re far from the best fed. Food that is fast, fried and from factories is not meant for your health—but we’re buying it because it’s handy and affordable when we’re hungry.
The food system we have now is good at producing lots of food at a fairly low price—we like that. Our food system is not so good at producing healthy people, healthy rural communities or healthy connections between eaters and growers. If we stop to think about it, we don’t like that.
We have a food system that works in some ways—but we can do so much better.
We can have a food system that fixes problems instead of making our problems worse.
We can have a food system that works. Local and organic sources are two positive changes.
Here’s why you are important. Every food dollar you spend is a vote. Your food vote rewards the people at each step in the food chain that brings you what you put into your mouth, from the farm to the processor (or not) to the place where you buy it.
Your votes elect food winners and losers a little at a time. Unlike politics, you have lots of options. Your can even vote for things that don’t yet exist once you find farmers who care enough about what you eat to try to grow it for you.
Here’s the campaign themes I want to explain today: Buy local. Buy organic. By all means.
Local and organic are two great ways to get to a food system that works. They can move our food system toward harmony and balance with Nature and her processes where we live.
They are two key ingredients of a recipe for cooking up the Good Food Movement.
I will define each term, then talk about the benefits.
Local is the WHERE and WHO part. For a surprising amount of food, closer to home can be better. In Vermont, state law defines local as being within 30 miles of the place of sale. It also allows the term “local to someplace,” say local to the Lehigh Valley, so that the specific place is given equal billing.
The WHERE is the important part, not the number. When a food is clearly tied to a place, each of us can make our choice of how local is local enough.
Organic is the HOW. For almost all of the food that we eat, the organic way of farming can produce high-quality products grown in cooperation with natural cycles.
In general, around the world, organic farming means farming in cooperation with nature, rather than trying to change nature by force. It requires a decision by the farmer that she will do everything she can to grow healthy and productive crops and livestock within the limits of the land, water, weather and biological resources that come with the land—and that she can create using natural means.
In the United States, we’ve had a national set of guidelines since 2002. These spell out the natural and allowed man-made products a farmer may use. The regulations call for a careful farm plan showing how soil will be cared for, how crops will receive fertility and protection from pests, and how manure and compost will be used.
Some parts of the regulations are still in process. Some will be challenged in the years ahead. But there is a clear foundation for all farmers who put the green USDA ORGANIC circle on their label.
I believe organic farming is better for the health of farm families, better for the land and water and biological life around farms, and better for consumers who want to understand how their food is grown.
Local and organic are two ways of thinking more carefully about food. Both have great strengths and some limitations compared to the mainstream way of eating. Either one is good—combined you get more than the sum of the parts.
How well they will work for you and for farmers depends what you decide is most important.
• These approaches can deliver great-tasting food—particularly fresh produce raised close to home.
• Local and place-based organic food give you better connections with farmers and with specific locations.
Local food can restore our appreciation of the yearly cycle of food offerings where we live. This is the part of local eating where we need to embrace lots of change in what we expect to eat, and tie it more carefully to the season in which we are eating.
I’m talking about what you can do today to change the way you eat and the choices you and everyone else has. I’m talking about creating and demanding new choices that are better for you, your health, your environment and the whole region where you live.
Plus, local food is more fun. My assistant is passing around heirloom tomatoes from local farmers. See if you can guess which are the Green Zebra, Zig-Zag Striped Roma and the Blushing Hugh. Think about how different these are from what your supermarket offers. These represent the food freedom you have when farmers are free to raise great-tasting crops that their customers want.
And handle them gently. These tomatoes are meant for eating, not traveling.
Simply put, we know too much to keep doing what we are doing now. We have too many manufactured food products, too many family farms dying and sold for houses, and too many low-income urban communities with virtually no fresh food to buy.
Big food is big business causing us big trouble. We are losing topsoil, suffering from water pollution from legal agricultural chemicals and fertilizers, and losing forever some of the best farmland around our cities that we need for national food security. That’s only some of the bad news, but it should be more than enough to get us working for something much, much better.
We need change. The good news is we can eat our way to a new place.
I say farming that really works is always growing more native to the place where it is. Farmers are working more to harness better what is there, and less to change a place to do something that isn’t.
[HOLD UP Looking for a bargain? CARD]
This is a “truth in packaging” score card.
While two round, red tomatoes may look the same on the outside, a local tomato and an industrial food system tomato shipped across the country are not much at all alike once you look under the hood to learn about their histories—or just taste them.
The staff at NewFarm.org created the card to explain some of the ways these round, red packages bring you very different products. I’ll list seven of them.
[Hold up supermarket super-shelf life tomato.] Compared to a typical tomato produced for lots of travel to a state far away—[hold up local tomato] local, organic tomatoes have:
1. FEWER MILES – MORE SMILES
“Food miles” is a measurement of how far food travels to get from field to plate, from the farm to your arms. Fewer miles means less gasoline used up, more gasoline left for school buses and less exhaust to cause global warming.
2. MORE TASTE, LESS WASTE
Instead of tomato varieties bred to be solid enough to bounce from coast to coast, [Drop store tomato 12-18 inches on visible flat surface] for the glorious summer season you can enjoy honest tomatoes grown for flavor, color, shape and story. Just handle them gently. [Drop local tomato 1 inch, pick up, inspect, and furrow your eyebrows at the damage.]
3. MORE HARMONY WITH NATURE
These crops and livestock are grown in cooperation with natural cycles, using biodiversity to reduce damage from pests.
4. MORE POWER TO SAVE FARMERS you care the most about.
Buying local is a true economic vote that really matters for local farmers. These are the farmers who farm your watershed, who determine the rural landscape of your region AND who in turn spend their dollars in your community.
5. MORE COMFORT
Organic farming significantly reduces the risk of pesticide exposure to everybody involved—farmers, farm workers, handlers, you and your children, who are the most sensitive.
6. MORE SECURITY
Food produced closer to home, with much less dependence on purchased chemicals, provides a more secure food supply.
7. More ability to BUILD SOMETHING NEW
As you add your vote, the volume, quality and reliability of local, seasonal and organic food increases and becomes more mainstream. This makes it easier for schools, hospitals, retirement centers and restaurants to add their big votes to the Good Food Movement.
Here are five good ways to help grow organic and local farmers.
NUMBER ONE is finding farmers ready to sell you things you want.
Some directories include:
Buy Fresh, Buy Local – Pennsylvania http://www.buylocalpa.org/
• From PASA, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, covering its farm and business members by region.
Pennsylvania Ag Map http://agmap.psu.edu/
• Farms and ag businesses in a listing supported by The Pennsylvania State University, Penn State Extension and the PA Department of Agriculture.
Local Harvest http://www.localharvest.org/
• A national listing with thousands of farms and businesses.
NUMBER TWO, learn what’s available when by eating seasonally. Talk to farmers about what they have now, and will have the rest of the season.
When a farmer has a moment—when they aren’t busily collecting money at the farmers’ market or picking the last tomatoes before the coming frost—ask how you can learn more about their farm. Inquire about how they farm and why they farm.
NUMBER THREE, explore intensive local eating with set boundaries.
This can be as challenging as you want to make it. Some folks are trying to eat only from within a 100-mile food shed for a month or a season. They eat only what grows within the geographical radius they choose, forcing them to find what’s available.
You could do this for all meals, some meals, or a meal a week. Or just commit to two recipes of local-only food per season—just eight a year, for a start.
Make this as much of an adventure as you can, looking to discover the good things in your neighborhood—going to a farm, naming varieties, counting food miles not traveled or learning how to prepare whole vegetables in new ways. Think of something that will interest the people in your family, especially your kids.
NUMBER FOUR, check out seasonal cooking.
This means finding recipes designed to use several crops ready at the same time of year. Seasonal cookbooks are a tremendous help because they arrange recipes to follow the annual cycle. You can see at a glance the crops that are likely to be ready at about the same time, and several ways to use each one.
My favorites are Simply in Season and Asparagus to Zucchini.
NUMBER FIVE, look for organically produced food.
Keep asking “How was this raised?” In this day and age, that question instantly alerts your produce manager or farmstand clerk that you are shopping for health, hope, taste or valuessomething beyond the lowest price. Farms that are open about their processes—to customers and organic inspectors—are farms interested about more than lowest-cost production.
These are your allies in building a new food system.
It will take time to straighten things out between farmers, eaters, stores and policy, but now is the time to start. This a movement based on good things with great taste for a better future.