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Think Global, Eat Local

Jim Robbins is a freelance writer based in Helena, Mont. He last wrote for the magazine about Butte, Mont.

Greg Higgins, chef and owner of the tony downtown Portland restaurant Higgins, walks to the back of his bustling kitchen and opens a door into the heart of the latest environmental movement. The walk-in refrigerator is crammed with sides of beef covered with blankets of fat, glassy-eyed fish, rows of restaurant-made sausage and ham, trays of fresh vegetables in plastic tubs and assorted comestibles, nearly all of it originating within 100 miles of here, in what Higgins calls the Portland “foodshed.” Virtually every item is brought in and dropped off by the farmer who raised it. “There’s nothing more threatened than the American farmer,” says the tall, burly Higgins a little later, as he swirls and sips a glass of Oregon white wine. “The goal is to keep them in business.”

A personal connection between a restaurant chef and the people who grow his beef or broccoli rabe might not sound radical, but it’s a major element of a burgeoning movement. It’s called “sustainable food"--a chain of supply and demand that theoretically could continue in perpetuity. A shorter food chain cuts down on oil consumption, puts money in the pockets of disappearing farmers, is more humane, helps protect soil and water and, best of all, usually delivers food that tastes better. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley is credited with starting the movement in the U.S. Now, from the ivy-covered dorms at Yale to the public schools at Berkeley to the grocery stores, white-tablecloth restaurants and fast-food joints of Portland, a grass-roots movement is sprouting that emphasizes food with a local pedigree.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 14, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 14, 2005 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
The July 31 cover photograph of a pear on a toy truck should have been credited to Bill Boch/PictureArts, not NONSTOCK/PictureArts.

That this kind of relationship is even news is an indication of how crazy the food production and distribution system has become. Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization, estimates that just 1% or 2% of America’s food is locally grown. He thinks the locally grown share could easily reach 40% or 50%, “and there’s no reason why we couldn’t grow all of our food.”

The produce in the average American dinner is trucked about 1,500 miles to get to the plate, according to a 2001 study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, up an estimated 22% during the past two decades. And growing food is no longer an artisanal process, but a commodity. Large food producers focus on supplying products as cheaply as possible, and consumers are waking up to the fact that something’s wrong. Things are getting weird out there in Hooterville: cloned cattle and sheep, genetically modified “Frankenfoods,” schools of pen-raised and chemically dyed salmon, E. coli in beef, mercury and PCBs in fish, chickens crammed into cages the size of a sheet of paper, and giant hog farms that pollute watersheds and raise a stink for miles. Acres of topsoil get washed away by large-scale farming and pesticides wind up in human breast milk. Small farm and ranch families are disappearing, while large corporate farms reap huge federal subsidies, sometimes for growing nothing.

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Peter de Garmo is the owner of Pastaworks, a sustainable grocery store in Portland, and the founder of the Portland chapter of Slow Food, a group that seeks sustainability in food. “Large-scale farming comes at an incredible cost,” he says. “It’s subsidized by the public at large without the public knowing it subsidizes it.”

Some consumers are rebelling against the global marketplace and seeking out food whose history is known and friendly. While there are alternatives to mainstream food--organic, biodynamic, fair trade and others--the idea of a sustainable food system is generating the most interest.

The granola-and-Birkenstock types aren’t the only ones behind the movement. The rock-rib Republican governor of South Dakota, Mike Rounds, supports a state program that requires animals to be tracked from birth, fed high-quality feed, treated humanely and otherwise remain well-cared for, under penalty of felony charges. Sustainable food is served in the restaurants of Yellowstone, Yosemite and other national parks. In Italy last year, 4,300 small farmers, chefs and other small-scale producers from around the world gathered for a conference called Terra Madre, or Mother Earth, to consider alternatives to the present food supply system.

Sustainable food “is growing beyond the culinary fringe,” says Worldwatch’s Halweil, who also is the author of “Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket.” “It’s showing up in restaurants, supermarkets, even Wal-Mart.”

A cascade of factors are driving this new attitude toward food. In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General released a “Call to Action” that found more than 60% of Americans are overweight or obese, which is a major contributor to Type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes. Food scares also have raised awareness. In the 1980s, it was Alar, a chemical sprayed on apples that was shown to cause cancer, especially in children. In the 1990s, it was genetically modified organisms--the high-tech swapping of genes between disparate species to, for example, increase the output of milk in dairy cows.

But more than any single factor, mad cow disease in Europe has made people rethink what they put in their bodies. Mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is believed to be caused by an abnormal protein that leads to brain damage and eventually kills the infected cow. In humans, it’s believed to cause a variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which leads to a slow and agonizing death as the disease attacks the brain.

But it’s in the food-savvy city of Portland that the new food economy has taken root, and where the future may be taking shape.

One of the first groups to respond to the decline in food quality was an organization called the Chefs Collaborative, which has some 1,000 chef members, including current Oregon chapter chair Greg Higgins. Higgins grew up on a truck farm near Buffalo, N.Y., one of six children in a single-parent family. He wandered west to cook, and opened his Portland restaurant with a partner in 1994. About that time, he says, he noticed that both the taste and the look of food were changing. “The cauliflower I was getting didn’t look or taste like the cauliflower I picked as a kid,” he says. “It lacked flavor, intensity, character and depth.” But the revelation came when a salesman talked him into trying farm-raised salmon. “I didn’t like the way it smelled, I didn’t like the way it felt, and it smeared orange on my cutting board” from the coloring dye, he says.

Higgins is the godfather of sustainable food in Portland, a movement that started in earnest in the mid- to late-1990s. This progressive, environmentally aware town with European sensibilities is filled with savvy gourmets and food activists. With its embarrassment of gastronomic riches--wild mushrooms and salmon, an array of berries and fruit, organic dairy farms, rustic bakeries, coffee roasters, vineyards and a crop of top chefs--Portland has become a destination for serious eaters. The city was quick to grasp the idea that changing food choices made sense on every level and would ripple out into the natural, cultural and economic systems. Sustainable food has crept into nearly every culinary crevice.

It’s nearly impossible to find white-tablecloth restaurants here, for instance, that would dare serve farm-raised salmon. There were two farmers’ markets in the 1980s; now there are more than 20. Community Supported Agriculture, a movement in which people buy shares of produce from a farm family before it is grown, is booming. Higgins and other chefs meet regularly with fishermen and farmers.

Sustainability would not mean much if it were relegated to the world of elite restaurants or expensive organic grocery stores. In Portland the goal of food activists is to permeate even the culinary demimonde with local and sustainable alternatives. Burgerville, for example, a 39-store fast-food restaurant chain based in nearby Vancouver, Wash., buys all of its beef from the sustainable ranchers at a co-op called Country Natural Beef and local dairy products that are not genetically modified, and it’s trying to work out a way to buy no-till sustainable wheat from eastern Washington. It also offers a special milkshake based on Oregon’s hazelnut season. “Food safety is the No. 1 issue in our business,” says Jack Graves, Burgerville’s chief cultural officer. “And the way to ensure that is to know where the food is coming from.”

New Seasons Market is a sustainable grocery store chain that has thrived in Portland, a fusion of Whole Foods and Safeway, with twists of its own. “Our goal is to try and change the food system,” says Brian Rohter, chief executive of New Seasons Market. “People want to buy locally. We give them the opportunity.”

The five New Seasons markets are as large, cheery and well-lighted as any modern grocery store. You can buy organic chickens and tofu, but also Doritos and Diet Pepsi. Things are most obviously different in the produce section. The provenance of apples from China and Chile is conspicuous on their labels. Apples from Oregon are labeled with the name and location of the farms where they were grown. So much of the produce is bought locally, one greengrocer’s sole job is to make contact with Portland-area farmers and arrange to buy their wares for New Seasons markets.

In the fish department, the fish are graded with green, red and yellow signs, a system developed by Monterey Bay Aquarium called Seafood Watch, which publishes a list of seafood that’s caught or farmed sustainably. Red means they are not sustainably caught; green means they meet the sustainable criteria. Virtually all of the meat is locally and sustainably raised. New Seasons just started a program to mark with a special sticker all of its 35,000 products that originate or have value added in Oregon, Northern California and Washington.

Sustainability obviously makes some things more complicated. It’s much more work to find vendors and manage 20 sources for produce rather than deal with one institutional provider. And small outfits have trouble providing quantity. Restaurants have to bend--they don’t serve salmon all year, and only serve vegetables in season. That’s why even proponents say this is not an effort to replace the big food companies, but only to replace what they can.

Price also is one of the drawbacks to buying food from small-scale producers. Pork in the grocery store is less than $3 a pound; the pork Higgins buys is $9. But proponents of sustainable food say that the price of goods on the grocery store shelf is deceptive. Large-scale operations can sell goods cheaply because of cheap labor, or by “borrowing” against the future by causing soil erosion or groundwater depletion, or because they get the lion’s share of the federal subsidies. Often the global food supply is filled with hormones or pesticides, or is otherwise not as healthy.

“You can pay your farmer,” says Higgins of the Chefs Collaborative, “or you can pay your doctor.”

Rohter says that when most things are near equal, but people know food is local or sustainably raised, consumers overwhelmingly will buy local products. “We’re not going to guilt-trip anybody or make judgments about what they buy,” he says. “But we share as much information as possible. Eaters should be able to make informed choices.”

At Clint Krebs’ spread in the middle of the sun-baked eastern Oregon desert, he points out the wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail that passed through here. His grandparents opened a store in what they called Cecil, but it closed as the homesteaders drifted away from this harsh, dry land. The store still stands, a monument to the ghost towns that now dot the rural landscape. As he drives through sheds filled with hundreds of sheep milling about with their rickety newborn lambs and points out grazing cattle, he describes the changes brought about after he joined forces with the Hatfields.

Doc and Connie Hatfield, the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans of the sustainable beef movement, founded Country Natural Beef with 13 other ranch families in 1986 at their High Desert Ranch near Brothers, an hour or so out of Bend. “We were going broke,” Connie says. She decided to talk to a guy at the local gym to find out why eating beef was so roundly condemned. “He was a big Jack LaLanne type with muscles,” she says. To her surprise, he told her he loved beef, but he couldn’t get it without antibiotics, hormones and excess fat.

A market was born. During the last two decades a new ranching philosophy has evolved on the high desert of Oregon, moving ranchers out of the anonymous commodity business and toward a higher-quality branded product. “De-commodify or die,” Connie says. While the co-op has grown to 70 families, it cannot keep up with the demand, and the Hatfields and other co-op families are teaching fellow ranchers the same approach, from Texas to Montana. “We turn someone who wants to buy beef down every week,” Doc says. “Supply is our problem, not the market.” As Connie puts it: “If you’re truthful, you don’t have to advertise it.”

Krebs says his life, and the lives of other ranchers, has changed on every level. They stopped using hormones and antibiotics and started feeding minerals and handling the animals in less stressful ways. Sensitive riparian areas were fenced off, and cattle are moved more often. And he and other ranchers now try harder to understand their customers. The hardest part for some, Krebs says, is the “meet and greet.” “Every rancher in the co-op spends two days a year in front of a meat counter meeting customers,” he says. “For a lot of these ranchers, the thought of going to Portland is difficult. But everyone has enjoyed it.”

They fetch a premium for their efforts. On average during the past decade, ranchers in the Country Natural Beef co-op got $120 more for each cow they sold over the price of traditional commodity beef. And their land is healthier because their operations better meet environmental standards and are verified by an independent third party, the Food Alliance. Young ranch families are coming back to work a ranch they thought they might have to leave forever. As a result, some Western towns may survive--or even thrive.

While Portland may be the capital, the push for a sustainable food system is a fledgling national movement. Catering institutions that run the kitchens on corporate and college campuses have rallied around the idea, in large measure because they have been pressured by college students, but for other reasons as well. “We were losing flavor on the plate,” says Maisie Ganzler, director of communications and strategic initiatives for Bon Appetit Management Co., a Palo Alto-based corporation that serves 55 million meals a year at institutions such as Oracle Corp., Cisco Systems and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Tomatoes didn’t taste like tomatoes anymore. We realized we had lost contact with our food supply--it’s bred and grown to travel, not for flavor.” They launched a “Farm to Fork” initiative that allows all of their chefs to buy ingredients grown within 150 miles of their kitchen--a tenth of the travel distance of the produce in an average American meal.

The true test, of course, will be the large corporations that dominate the global food system. Five supermarket chains account for 42% of U.S. retail food sales, according to a 2001 University of Missouri study, but they’re apparently paying closer attention to growing consumer awareness about food.

Even Wal-Mart, one of those five corporations and widely considered hostile to local economies, has participated in “buy local” produce programs. Beyond food retailing, Anheuser-Busch recently announced that it would stop buying rice to brew beer in its home state of Missouri if the state allowed the planting of genetically modified rice. McDonald’s website proclaims the company’s commitment to the humane treatment of animals, and McDonald’s and Burger King are discouraging beef producers from routinely using antibiotics in beef, which some studies suggest may lead to reduced effectiveness of antibiotics in humans.

The impact of these gestures is not yet clear. And mainstream food producers see locally grown food as a fad. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. in Denver says that while it supports Country Natural Beef, its safeguards are unnecessary but appeal to “people who might not otherwise eat beef,” says Dr. Gary Weber, an animal scientist who is the director of regulatory affairs for the beef association. Of the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection and certification process, he says: “We’re very confident with all of the levels of protection in place. We have the safest beef supply in the world.” While antibiotics and hormones are used in cattle, Weber says they are carefully monitored. “We’re dedicated to making decisions based on science.”

Food activists say it’s time to look at the big picture. Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute argues that a highly centralized food supply imported from around the world and controlled by a handful of companies leaves us much more vulnerable to disruption in the oil supply or climate warming. “Because agriculture depends on stable and predictable weather, it will be most affected by climate change,” he says. “Anything we can do to make the global food source more diverse or more decentralized will help us cope with that shock.” Terrorism also has given the movement a boost--"food security” is a term that wasn’t heard much before Sept. 11, 2001.

In his best-selling book, “Collapse,” UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond argues that what has brought down past civilizations, from the Norse settlers in Greenland to the inhabitants of Easter Island, was that they created ways of life that simply couldn’t be sustained over the long haul. Many food activists say that locally raised food may never completely replace corporate farming, but it could grow to play much more of a complementary role.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the sustainable food movement is how quickly a community can create a local food economy. It doesn’t take global agreements, and it doesn’t require new legislation. Every locally grown tomato or hamburger from a nearby cow, the foodies say, is a vote for a less-polluting, safer--and more delicious--way of life.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Understanding sustainable food

Unlike the term “organic,” “sustainable” has no official government definition, and other definitions can be slippery. And because customers will pay a premium, many businesses claim that their food is sustainable when it isn’t.

A recent study by the New York Times of eight New York City stores offering wild salmon, for example, found that six were really selling farm-raised fish. A Wall Street Journal article found that the organic grocery chain Whole Foods was misleading consumers by implying that 5% of the retail price of fair trade coffee was going to growers, when it was 5% of the wholesale price.

Understanding sustainable food means understanding three types of labels. “First party” means the producer is making the claims. “Second party” means an industry group has evaluated the product. Urvashi Rangan, an environmental health scientist at the Yonkers, N.Y.-based Consumers Union, says the best labels are “third party” labels, in which an independent organization evaluates the claims being made.

One of the largest third party labels--and rated as accurate by Consumers Union--is Portland-based Food Alliance, which certifies 225 farms and ranches in 16 states and tries to bring some order to the chaos of “sustainable.” Growers pay a minimum of $400 in annual fees to the Food Alliance, which dispatches an inspector to assess such things as the reduction or elimination of pesticides, whether working conditions for laborers are safe and fair, how well soil and water resources are conserved, and whether animals are treated humanely. Farms are inspected every three years and are required to file annual reports. Occasionally there are spot audits.

“For all this they expect market advantage,” says Scott Exo, executive director of Food Alliance. “Access to new markets, greater market share, price premium.”

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Researcher Jessica Gelt contributed to this story.


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