EVERYBODY’S A “LOCAVORE” around here this time of year. In case you’ve missed it, this new word locavore describes you if you eat food that’s raised within a short distance from where you live. But wait, they needed a word for that? At harvest time we beg neighbors to haul away those squash the size of baseball bats that choke our garden.
This week the term took on a higher local profile, when Joe Gilbert, owner of the Berry Farm market on Route 203 at the Kinderhook-Chatham line, won the first Victoria A. Simons Locavore Award, receiving a $1,000 check in a contest with 11 nominees. At first glance it sounded like he was getting paid to eat, though not in a contest where you have to swallow too much pie way too fast. That’s a good deal.
Actually, Joe got the prize because he makes it easy for others to eat local produce, something he’s been doing for nearly three decades. I’m a customer of his, and I’m thrilled he won. But the news makes me want to examine what it means to encourage locavore-ish eating habits, even here, in the middle of an agricultural community.
I’m not a locavore. Blame clementines, those little tangerine-like citrus fruits that come in thin wooden crates at Christmastime. As far as I know, nobody grows them here. Perhaps I should give them up for the good of our species, because 10% of their cost allegedly comes from the fossil fuels burned to haul them here from California, Africa, South America or, soon enough, China. And I suspect that even those passionate locavores who set strict limits on how far their food should travel – 100 or 150 miles at most – bend their self-imposed rules now and then. Were the cocoa beans used to make that chocolate bar really grown in Germantown?
There’s some push-back developing now about the locavore movement from people who say the facts don’t support claims that eating locally is a reasonable alternative to the current industrial food system, at least not on a global scale. But however that debate plays out, it’s easy to see the benefits here, not just on the stands of our burgeoning farmers’ markets, but on the landscape. The views here are of open land, not pavement; what passes for housing density folds into villages and neighborhoods. An isolated sea of rooftops is a rarity. Even in far better economic times development pressures didn’t overwhelm fields plowed for crops or left for grazing. Preserving that farm landscape has helped create opportunities for new farms.
When food comes from people and places you know, by definition it gets personal. You can follow a threat to the land right into your kitchen. Think about water. Most people have heard about the lingering contamination of the Hudson River from toxic chemicals called PCBs dumped upriver years ago by GE. Dredging those toxins out of the river will take decades and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The state has warned that adults can safely eat only a handful of fish species and only in limited amounts because the fish are riddled with these manmade poisons. Women under 50 and children younger than 15 years old should not eat any fish from the Hudson.
That same restriction for women and children now applies to all fish from Kinderhook Lake and the Valatie Kill, the stream that feeds the lake. The source of the pollution comes from a huge toxic waste dump in Rensselaer County called the Dewey Loeffel Landfill, which has leaked PCBs and other noxious materials into surrounding water sources. In the past, officials cast the threat to Columbia County in speculative terms, saying it could migrate south. The current advisories are not tentative.
The state advisories do not reflect a new disaster for Kinderhook Lake residents. They simply alert us to an unavoidable reality: There’s no escaping the messes we humans make. Our behavior has consequences on our food and water supplies that can’t easily be sidestepped or repaired no matter how virtuously we try to eat.
It seems to me that’s one of the great promises of the locavore movement. By helping us appreciate where our food comes from, locavore thinking reminds us that our responsibility doesn’t end when we stuff our local produce into a reusable bag or take our leftovers home. So congratulations Joe Gilbert and the Locavore Award candidates. It’s rare that such strong medicine tastes so good.