Local Food Sacred Cow

Can we eat locally? What does it mean anyway?

Last spring Illahee’s President, Peter Schoonmaker, and HotLips Pizza owner, David Yudkin, explored the topic of local food in an op-ed piece for the Oregonian, The Local Food Movement – We have a long way to go to get local.

Here in Portland, when it comes to local food, we talk a good game, but is it realistic? Is local food one of Portland’s biggest sacred cows? As a follow-up to these questions and to bring more local issues into our Sacred Cows lecture season, Illahee and PNCA’s Collaborative Design department are hosting a talk with Kimberlee Chambers and Katy Giombolini, local food experts on the Willamette Valley. Tomorrow night (7pm @ 1241 NW Johnson St), they will explore the opportunities and challenges of the local food movement here in the Portland metro region. For full details on the talk, visit Illahee’s website.

For those of you who didn’t get a chance to read the op-ed piece from last spring:

The Local Food Movement: We have a long way to go to get local (April 2011)

Portland and the Willamette Valley are one of the country’s leading local food laboratories. Yet local food is a problematic concept and movement. Not because local, organic, sustainable food is bad — just the opposite — but because we’re not facing up to reality.

Here’s the reality:

The percentage of food that Portland gets from farms within 100 miles is in the mid single digits. Even if we could triple our current local food consumption, we’d be up to 15 percent, at most. What about the other 85 percent? That other 85 percent still comes from the big granaries on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, from California’s central valley or from abroad. Eating local vegetables and fruits doesn’t deal with this issue.

Willamette Valley agricultural production doesn’t currently meet the dietary needs of its own population for any of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s six food groups: grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, meat and beans, and oils. Even with significant re-purposing of land, the Willamette Valley’s 1.8 million agricultural acres would be hard-pressed to feed its 2.6 million inhabitants. Here’s why:

First, it takes about an acre of productive land to feed an omnivorous person (it’s possible to feed more people per acre, but it isn’t easy). Do the math. We’re about 800,000 acres short, and losing farmland every year while our population grows.

Second, much of the Willamette Valley is devoted to non-edible crops like grass seed, nursery stock and Christmas trees. Much of the remaining edible crops are geared to export markets.

On the upside, the Willamette Valley is especially fertile. We could reverse farmland loss, residents could adapt their diet to use fewer acres and farmers could alter their crop mixture and methods (as they have in the past and are still doing now to some degree). That’s why we say hard-pressed rather than impossible.

But here’s the final and perhaps most difficult hurdle: Mass-produced food is (artificially) cheap, and locally grown food is (relatively) expensive. This equation could change with a better farm bill, the end of cheap oil and of course a bigger market share for local food. But right now local farmers aren’t getting rich selling to restaurants, farmers markets, stores and local processors. And Oregon’s local food processors find it challenging to compete with large national outfits, with their lower labor costs, proximity to higher-yielding agricultural land, and scale/risk advantages. The catch-22 is that small-volume growers, processors and retailers lack the market to raise capital, and lack the capital to expand their market.

The reality is that local food comprises a small portion of our diet, and despite various map-based theoretical scenarios, most large cities — including Portland — are unlikely to feed themselves with locally produced food without radical social, economic and land-use transformations, including a completely re-designed federal farm bill.

Which raises a couple of questions:

What’s the mix of local, regional and long-distance food that we’re after, anyway? Numbers anyone? And how are we going to get there, given the challenges that growers, processors, retailers and consumers face now and are likely to face in the future? We understand that local food provides dietary options, but at its current calorie percentage, those options are still limited. The various food system policy plans out there have begun to increase those options, and innovative programs have begun to connect producers to buyers and farms to schools. Most promising, perhaps, is the nascent movement to grow grains and legumes in the Willamette Valley. But let’s not fool ourselves. We have a long way to go.

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