Eating Local in a Global Economy

Over the past 20 years, my family has had to continually edit our address books due to my numerous relocations. Since I can remember, I’ve always had this primal urge to migrate. Call it wanderlust, call it ADHD, maybe it’s the call of the wild, who knows? I’ve lived on both coasts and a few places in the middle, but wherever I am, I make it a point to practice what I call urban foraging: experiencing the area through its local food and art.

The concept of eating local has gained enough traction in our country now that most restaurants and markets are eager to help us on our quest to support local growers, pointing out which of their offerings were harvested nearby. We have a collective desire to support local family, friends and farmers, leading to the blossoming of a robust farmers market scene in many states.

I love the idea of eating fresh veggies that were raised in the soil that I am standing on. I love cracking open fresh eggs from the chickens down the road and being delighted by that vibrantly orange yolk. A part of me knows on a deep intuitive level that this food will be not only more flavorful, but also more nutritious. I dig it!

When I was living in Tucson, Ariz., I was inspired by Gary Nabhan’s book “Coming Home to Eat.” He chronicled his yearlong mission to eat only foods grown, fished or gathered within 220 miles of his Arizona home.

To follow suit, I planted gardens, ran my graywater out to them, picked apples from local orchards and made the first applesauce I fed my son when he was a baby. I shopped at the local food co-op.

And now, residing in Hollis, I am surrounded by vineyards, orchards and farm stands, which makes it easy for me to get my produce within a 10-mile radius of my stove.

Even so, I got to wondering the other day, in our global economy, how do we truly define eating local?

For example, a girlfriend of mine just returned from a two-week stay in Costa Rica and graciously brought me back some “local” coffee beans and chocolate. Now, they certainly were “local” when she was there, but now they are imports. Are we still supporting a local economy or have we shifted into experiencing the global market once again?

Marketing tends to make defining eating local nearly impossible.

I started to look around my kitchen. The packaging on those organic Mexican chia seeds, the Mekong flower rice from Cambodia, the bottle of organic cabernet from California and my Costa Rican chocolate bar all claim that I am “preserving local biodiversity, supporting family farms, fair trade practices and sustainable agriculture.”

As I continued to gaze around, I realized that my organic kukicha tea was from Japan and packaged in Canada, although I guess I may have been supporting my local economy by buying it at my local health food store – where I also purchased some raw kombucha tea that was brewed in Vermont.

But wait, it was brewed in Vermont with Vermont spring water, but the green and black tea that it was made from certainly wasn’t grown in Vermont. Tea comes from Asia.

The issue started to get confusing, so I asked for clarity from my good friend Sean McKee, executive chef at the Equinox Resort in Manchester Village, Vt.

Sean told me, “If you want to go 100 percent local, kiss some of your favorite foods goodbye. Chocolate, coffee, sugar, salt and pepper to name a few. If I tried to do this as a chef, my restaurants would go out of business!

“In the modern era of reducing our carbon footprint, we forget where some of our favorite things to eat actually come from, and it’s usually very far away from home. The 100-mile diet in some areas of the country would leave very few options. That said, I applaud people’s effort to supplement what they dine on with local, seasonal ingredients. Don’t worry about running a “save the world” marathon; just take a few steps in the right direction.”

As someone who has actually run a few marathons, I was relieved to hear Sean say I could quit trying so hard to go the full distance.

At the end of the day, I am content to practice my urban foraging; experiencing my surroundings via the local fare. I strive to support honest people who live with integrity, and if they happen to be farmers, all the better.

In a world where a product can be “local” one day and on the other side of the globe the next, our definition of eating local might be challenged, but enjoying your meal never has to be.