Guest columnist Craig Goodwin chafes at criticisms that the local-food movement is a distraction from the real challenges of world hunger. He argues that sustainable, small-scale, organic farming methods promoted by "locavores" are exactly the methods needed to help the world's hungry.
AS Congress gears up to debate the issue of hunger in the 2012 Farm Bill, some have come to the surprising conclusion that the real problem with the food system is those idealistic, asparagus-hugging, slow-food-savoring locavores. Don’t believe it. The local-food movement is a hopeful development in the battle against hunger, both at home and abroad.
In a recent Foreign Policy article, Charles Kenny derides government support for local-food initiatives like the 104 farmers markets in Washington state. He acknowledges such funding represents a measly 0.00025 percent of the total, but is concerned about the growing cultural clout of what he characterizes as “misguided, parochial Luddism.” He writes, “… these First-World food fetishes are positively terrible for the world’s poorest people,” because they supposedly push up the price of food.
Judith Warner at Time followed suit a few weeks ago with an article titled, “The Locavore’s Illusions: As charming as it sounds, growing kale in your backyard won’t solve the nation’s food ills.” She dismisses community-gardener activists as misguided and argues they don’t sufficiently appreciate the importance of government nutrition programs.
Though they take different routes, both arrive at the same conclusion: The local-food trend is bad for the poor and hungry.
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As a self-professed locavore who spent a year without sugar and chocolate in pursuit of a local-food life, and as pastor of a church that hosts a farmers market and feeds the hungry, these critics make me feel like a child told to quit complaining and eat my genetically modified vegetables: “Don’t you know there are children starving in Africa?” That ploy has never worked well at family dinner tables, and it’s not a helpful posture in today’s food debates. In fact, local-food initiatives are emerging as an important part of efforts to end hunger.
Our church’s experience with the local-food movement has led us to take practical steps to feed the hungry. We host a monthly food distribution with Second Harvest and started a community garden that benefits the food bank. Far from getting lost in some utopian vision of rainbow chard on every corner, our experience with the weekly rhythms of hosting a farmers market has grounded us in the real problems of food insecurity in our own neighborhood.
Beyond encouraging local activism, the proliferation of CSA (community-supported agriculture) subscribers and Food Inc. fans in foodie meccas like Seattle is helping raise awareness of problems with our ailing food system. While Kenny and Warner make locavores out to be kale-obsessed simpletons, these are the folks who appreciate just how complicated our current food landscape is: for people, for land and for animals. The simpletons are the ones like Kenny who see hunger as a math problem of acres and prices.
As Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman point out in the book “Enough,” “For decades, the world has grown enough food to nourish everyone adequately … . In the modern world, like never before, famine is by and large preventable. When it occurs, it represents civilization’s collective failure.”
Locavores are suspicious of plans to impose our industrial food machine on the world in the name of hunger relief, and such concerns are warranted.
By some estimates the rural poor make up 80 percent of the 840 million chronically hungry people in the world. They are subsistence farmers, working small tracts of depleted and deforested land. They don’t have the resources to buy expensive genetically modified seed and petroleum-based fertilizers. The sustainable, small-scale, organic farming methods promoted by local-food aficionados are exactly the methods needed to help this majority of the world’s hungry. Backyard farming may not be the cure-all for America’s food ills, but it will actually go a long way toward solving hunger in small villages around the world.
And perhaps locavores will lead the way.
A Kent native, the Rev. Craig Goodwin is pastor at Millwood Presbyterian Church in Spokane. He is the author of “Year of Plenty” and writes on food, faith and hunger at www.yearofplenty.org