, 'opacity': false, 'speedIn': , 'speedOut': , 'changeSpeed': , 'overlayShow': false, 'overlayOpacity': "", 'overlayColor': "", 'titleShow': false, 'titlePosition': '', 'enableEscapeButton': false, 'showCloseButton': false, 'showNavArrows': false, 'hideOnOverlayClick': false, 'hideOnContentClick': false, 'width': , 'height': , 'transitionIn': "", 'transitionOut': "", 'centerOnScroll': false }); })

Just started a new column for the Hometown Gazette.  Hope that you enjoy.

What is it about “local food”?

A lot of ink gets spilled on food these days, from reconstructing the American food pyramid to the importance of bringing Farm-to-School;  about the prevalence of farmers markets and benefits of pasture-raised meats;  from phyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants to omega fatty acids and pro-biotics; about mineral content of fresh vegetables and how heritage pork is the “sacred cow” in our quest for a more authentic American cuisine.    Chefs have emerged as authors and full-blown T.V. stars.  New restaurant openings are at all-time highs.  And young people — the real heroes — are returning to farms in droves, working 100 hour weeks in rugged weather for meagre income because…. well, because they love growing food and their customers want it fresh, local and as often as possible.

To what extent the American public is conscious that a food revolution is happening is unclear.   American consumers are a fickle bunch, not known for keen abilities when it comes to smart shopping:  was it H.L. Mencken who observed — “Nobody every went broke underestimating the taste of the American Public”?

But in the Age of Information,  America’s spending habits are closely monitored, and in this case, stark indicators of the burgeoning change.  Sales of USDA organic products continue to grow at more than 10% a year, as they have since 1991, through recessions, bubbles and crashes, now over $40 billion in total — and at a time when conventional grocery sales are flat.  Whole Foods, the most vocal and visible purveyor of “value based” food products now has 1,000 stores nation-wide.   And Wal-Mart is, confoundingly, the single largest retailer of organic food in the United States.  It’s an obvious point:  If it’s doing well in the Fortune 500, organic has hit the big-time.

Include also small town America, where the shift looks different, but nonetheless sturdy and prevalent.  Almost every grocery store, no matter how tiny, has an organic food section, even if marked “Specialty Foods” or “Gourmet”.   Or displays that call out “Local” when it comes to Wisconsin honey, maple syrup, cheese — even butter and milk.   Farmers markets set up in parking lots and town centers, featuring the best seasonal products available in any store, anywhere.   And, to fully disclose my own connection to this issue, a place I own and love, Amery’s Farm Table Restaurant does a brisk business buying mostly local organic ingredients and serving them fresh to customers.

It is my thesis that America’s Food Revolution is in full-swing.  That it’s a long-term secular trend which will continue to grow, deepen and intensify, and that its driving causes and important impacts run to the core of this country’s most intractable problems:  health care, pollution, fossil fuels, habitat degradation, economic disparities, and labor equity.  There are few issues currently on America’s plate not implicated by the local food revolution if only because, by voting three times a day in choosing what to eat, the consumer has ultimate say over of a very large portion of America’s economy.  “Local” sounds innocuous, even transitive, but, if you add it all up, each place someone refers to as local, it literally means everywhere.

LaMoine, the intrepid editor of this journal, asked if I would write about the dimensions of this story, get to the heart of what’s propelling it.  I agreed.  But it’s a complicated story, with tiny, highly scientific players hard to identify, even under magnification.  And big players, like the Farm Bill, some 50,000 pages long, impossible to read in one’s lifetime.  “All the better” says LaMoine. “Make it a series.” — delivered with an editor’s sense on the primacy of content.

My qualifications to write about farming, food quality, enzymes and minerals, market trends, demographics and retailing are slim.  And so is my background in biology, ecology, history, chemistry, medicine, agronomy, animal science and horticulture.  I have an advanced degree but in the nebulous, out-of-fashion field called “teaching”.  And I have written a book, Becoming Mr. Henry, a worst-seller which makes me a good candidate for head boor.

Mind you, these are not topics that sell themselves.  Food, and especially farming, aren’t sexy, nor glamorous, nor lead the news.  In the Midwest, they are both ubiquitous and implacable: endless fields of corn and beans, the town cafe and grocery.  It’s how this country looks, a kind of drab wallpaper, and so obvious that they rarely get discussed to any depth — certainly not at the level of revolution.

So a column about intersections of food and personal health, farming and ecology, rooted in west Wisconsin, is not only unlikely, and not in demand by the reading public — as author, I am also professionally unqualified to write it.

Which, thinking it through, encapsulates everything I want to say about America’s food revolution in this first column.

Because in the end, with food, farming and personal health (less for ecology) the relevant qualifications are not professional degrees, corporate experience or having grown up on the farm (though each might be nice). The clarifying engines for understanding what is going on?  You love to eat.  You care to do it well.  You are curious about learning more.

On that score I qualify and have long experience.  I grew up one of eleven around the dinner table and, if you weren’t handy with knife and fork, nighttime prayers were garbled by growls of the stomach.  And a mother who did grow up on a farm — turkey raising — who loved to garden, snatched fresh herbs before dinner, picked wild berries on roadsides and bought peaches by the crate in summer, canning them off as winter desserts.  She ran a small restaurant called our family and did it well.

And my point is this: each has our personal history with food, our own narrative filled with fond memories, regular staples, holiday delights, exotic adventures, hair-raising trials, and, if we are lucky, eventually, arrive at that perfect table of home — the Goldilocks place of “just right”.  That story is our own and can’t be stolen by science, or experts, or corporate sloganeering.

In the end, food is intensely personal, to the point of defining a religion or cementing ethnic identity.  The adage, “you are what you eat” is an endless Buddhist koan that reverberates not only off the dinner plate and into our bodies, but also back to the source of food’s creation, our farms — and beyond, to the original Garden of Eden, our lovely planet Earth.  Food on our plates has the transformative power embodied in the ceremony of Catholic Communion;  the food revolution transforming America is about recognizing that with every delicious bite, every meal, every purchase, a person can transform their health while simultaneously creating a positive impact on our economy, our social structure, our politics and our environment.   Like the Eurcharist, in eating we transcend, and in the process, exert a little goodness on every place our food has been.

That’s a lot to chew on for now.  Another helping next month.