Think Global, Eat Local - sustainable food movement - reducing miles per food item
- Think Global, Eat Local
The sustainable food movement that began with Berkeley chef Alice Waters
has blossomed in Portland, Ore. Are its proponents just dreaming? Or is
a real revolution underway?
By Jim Robbins
Jim Robbins is a freelance writer based in Helena, Mont. He last wrote
for the magazine about Butte, Mont.
July 31, 2005
[foto] Doc and Connie Hatfield helped found the Country Natural Beef
co-op of ranch families in 1986.
(John Clark / For The Times)
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
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.
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
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,
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
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
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 Appétit 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
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
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.
(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,
Researcher Jessica Gelt contributed to this story.
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