By Lynn Ashby 11 April 2011
THE GROCERY STORE – These days we can buy almost any fruit or vegetable we wish, year ‘round. Here are big tomatoes and little tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, apples from Virginia and Chile. Some odd looking berries from New Zealand. Garlic from — no, it can’t be — China! Must they furnish everything? We’ve got mangos and bananas you can pick right off the tree.
A few years ago organic food was hot. We still see signs proclaiming “organically grown,” although recent studies have shown there is not a fig’s worth, or lettuce’s worth, of difference in organic and non-organic foods – except price. Today, however, those living off the fad of the land offer us everything “locally grown.” Be it fruit, milk, flowers, calves’ livers, if it’s locally grown it’s better.
The reasoning is obvious: if the cucumbers come from down the street, it means they are fresher, fewer chemicals, and grown on smaller farms. Also, by buying locally grown, we are not only sticking it to the plantation owner in Florida paying his hired help a dollar a day, but we are supporting the local economy. Not mentioned is the other side of the locality – the cabbage grower in California or the poor peon in Mexico who is trying to make a living, pay his taxes, and is local to his economy, school district and church. Too bad. Our local is better than your local.
This brings us to Kathleen Merrigan, who recently was shopping for groceries in Washington and saw a beautiful display of plump strawberries and a sign that said they were “local produce.” But she then noticed the package itself, which said the strawberries were grown in California, well over 2,000 miles away. But Kathleen Merrigan was not just any shopper. She is the Number 2 official in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and goes around the country preaching “locally grown.”
There wasn’t much she could do about the misleading proclamation, as there is no official “locally grown” law. On the other hand, if the label says “orange juice” the product has to be just that. This container of OJ in my fridge has an entire side full of information, with lists of potassium, sodium, etc. It tells me more than I really want to know. Who produces it? Coca-Cola. But is it locally grown? Not exactly. The juice comes from the U.S., Costa Rica and Brazil.
Texas has a buy-locally program, Texas Grown. Its website proclaims: “The Texas Grown program was designed by the Texas Department of Agriculture and strongly supported by Commissioner Rick Perry.” Perry left that job 13 bloody years ago! Here’s another flash from our state government for a locally-grown fiesta, “Saturday, March 27, 2010.” Huh? That event may be over by now. We are not competing very well in this regard.
Vermont defines “local” as grown within the state or within 30 miles of where it is sold. Massachusetts has similar regulations for what it calls “native.” Maryland recently proposed requiring retailers to disclose what state a food is from if they advertise it as locally grown.
The U.S. Ag Dept. has no generally accepted definition of local food, thus retailers can use their own standards. Whole Foods Market, based in Austin but now all over the place, says a food cannot be labeled as local unless it traveled to the store in seven or fewer hours by car or truck. Supervalu, which operates some Albertsons stores, defines local as within regions that can encompass four or five states. Safeway, which owns Randall’s, defines local as coming from the same state or a one-day drive from field to store. Wal-Mart labels produce as local if it is from the same state where it is sold.
These criteria may be fine for some states, but complicate shopping for Texans. If you buy an orange from a Wal-Mart in Orange, for example, it could not be labeled local if it came from a mile east, in Louisiana, but could have a local label coming from El Paso, 847 miles away. You go to Randall’s in Amarillo and want to buy a locally grown tomato, which would be accurately labeled if, according to the store’s regulations,
it comes from Texas, maybe Brownsville. But Amarillo is closer to Salt Lake City; Pierre, South Dakota; Des Moines, Iowa; St. Louis, Mo. and Natchez, Miss., than it is to that tomato sprig in Brownsville.
OK, you are in Brownsville and want to purchase some Texas avocadoes from, say, Dalhart. But Dalhart doesn’t grow avocadoes. Fortunately, in Brownsville you are closer to Guatemala than to Dalhart, and Guatemala grows avocadoes. I am in a Whole Foods Market in Houston, and the only fruit that merits a “locally grown” label must have travelled no more than seven hours by car or truck. If the fruit came from 730 miles to the west, it originated in El Paso. Traveling that same distance east, it would have come from near Jacksonville, Fla. Finally, you shop at any Albertsons in Texas, knowing that the store’s criteria for locally grown is any place within four or five states. If “within” means contiguous, or touching, we are talking elk’s tongue from Winnipeg and clams from Delaware. All “locally grown.”
Now here’s the oddity in this. For generations around Texas, all food was locally grown. It came from the garden in the backyard or was shot from the front porch. Not that along ago, the only semi-fresh seafood you could get in Dallas was at Jay’s Marine Grill. Fishermen probably loaded their catch on a truck in Galveston which was driven at 45 mph up Highway 75 and got to Dallas the next day. And tasted like it. For years, if you wanted lobster in Texas, you got frozen lobster tails from South Africa. Recently I saw live lobsters floating in a tank at a grocery store in Kerrville.
If you want locally grown, better pick it yourself.
Ashby is locally grown at firstname.lastname@example.org