by John Hulls
Point Reyes Light 2006-04-20

Sometimes, two pieces of information just creep up on each other, and when I notice them, they just kind of stick in my mind. Every so often, I go and look at the US Department of Agriculture’s “Amber Waves” web site, which is kind of a gateway to all of the statistical information about agriculture, as well as many interesting articles. And, I go and look at, which is the home page for an interesting food project started by Sage vanWing, host of KWMR’s Book Salon, culinary anthropologist, and a mainstay of Pt. Reyes Books.

The two facts? I was shocked to find, according to USDA, this may well be the first year that America imports more food products than it exports. And May is the Locavore’s challenge month, in which participants sign up to see how much of their diet can come from foods produced within 100 miles of their homes. Considering these two points made me realize how shockingly unaware we all are of the nature of the food supplies on which we depend. Like most folks in West Marin, I’m aware that food gets shipped long distances, but I had always thought that agriculture was a saving grace on our all-too-negative trade balance.

For instance, the really nice tomatoes that we get during the summer may well have come, handpicked, from a greenhouse in Canada. USDA tells us that there are over a quarter of a million metric tons imported every year for those people who don’t like the industrial strength skins and lack of flavor of the machine picked US field varieties.

So, in many ways, the Locavore challenge is a way of looking at just how much of a compromise it takes to avoid the high priced imported stuff and industrial foods. It also gives us a chance to take a real look at the greater implications of how we get to eat. The results are somewhat surprising.

It’s interesting to read the comments from last year’s Locavore challenge. In spite of many jokes about the high price of organics and “Whole Paycheck Organic Markets” most people found that it didn’t make a whole lot of difference in costs, but they did spend a little more time shopping and preparing but got a whole lot better tasting food in return. Many found the farmer’s markets and communal cooking a huge plus….the entertainment value of food? Some of the people who really, really tried to be purists bemoaned the loss of coffee and seasonings under the Locavore edicts, which ties into the comment of many Locavores that they really learned a lot about how and what they eat, who grows it and where it comes from.

On the industrial food front, after NAFTA, low cost, highly subsidized American corn drove many small Mexican farmers out of business, depriving their communities of all the varied produce they grew alongside the corn. It’s what has already happened in America. Anthropologists at the University of Southampton in England, studying areas where locals can’t buy the food they produce, or where markets are so removed from population that people can’t buy natural produce, coined the expression, “food deserts” According to Sage, there are many metropolitan areas in the US where there is no fresh produce within a 20 mile drive in any direction, just high priced processed foods in small convenience stores.

We’re lucky with our abundance of farmer’s markets and organizations in the Bay area that make it easy to get good local food. So, is insisting on local food elitist or is it the way most people in the world have to live? Maybe our representatives in Washington should take the Locavore challenge. If they did, there might be some hope of a rational agricultural policy that is good not just for heavy-duty industrial farming, but good for people, communities and even the balance of payments.