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Think Global, Eat Local - sustainable food movement - reducing miles per food item

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  • Teresa Binstock
    Think Global, Eat Local The sustainable food movement that began with Berkeley chef Alice Waters has blossomed in Portland, Ore. Are its proponents just
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2005
      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,
      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

      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 App├ętit 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.



      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."


      Researcher Jessica Gelt contributed to this story.


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