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'Local': the new 'fresh' 

What does "local" mean exactly?

As Americans have become increasingly suspect of the food supply, knowing the origin of food has become law. On Sept. 30, a federal law will require food manufacturers and grocery stores to label beef, pork, chicken and lamb with "Country of Origin Labeling," or COOL. COOL labels will also be required on fruits, vegetables and a variety of nuts.

But having a U.S. designation may not be enough for an increasing number of people committed to eating locally. Recently, I have become more aware of the lack of conformity of the word "local."

What does "local" mean? Is it food grown in Mecklenburg County? The Piedmont region? Or a political line such as a state? Is all of North Carolina one region? Or should South Carolina be added as well? Is it a range in miles? Or is it topographical? Ecological? Large area grocers, such as Harris Teeter, feature "locally grown" produce sections. How is local defined?

California chef/restaurateur, writer, and localvore advocate Alice Waters says in the Chez Panisse sustainability statement: "A good kitchen respects its sources, chooses ingredients that are sound, seasonal, local when possible, and appropriate to the event." A cynic might respond that eating locally is a bit easier in Berkeley, Calif., than in Charlotte, N.C. After all, the ocean, major agricultural regions, and Napa/Sonoma are reasonably close to Waters' restaurant.

But local is not defined by Waters' statement either. So I asked Thom Duncan, president of Slow Foods Charlotte. He notes, "Unfortunately there is no defined 'local.' Several of our grocery stores believe local is North America, others the planet. I personally am comfortable with 100 miles for veggies and 250 for meats and cheeses, though I also think a North Carolina designation is worthy. Slow Food takes no official position."

Regional grocer Earth Fare uses time in its definition: "Produce grown in any of the current four states we operate in with the caveat that it [produce] can't travel more than a day to get to the local store." At Matthews-headquartered Harris Teeter, time is also the defining factor: "Items must take six or fewer hours (via car) from the farm to our stores."

Distance is how the Matthews Community Farmers' Market defines local. Produce must be grown within 50 miles of Matthews. Manager Pauline Woods says, "To drive the point home for our customers, we have a map at the market that pinpoints the location of all of our farms so folks can see how truly local our farms are and how short a distance their food travels. Our customers know that by buying at our farmers market they are encouraging local agriculture because they are supporting local farmers as a viable part of the community."

Sammy Koenigsberg of New Town Farms in Waxhaw agrees that the definition of local is ambiguous. "Local is becoming the new 'fresh,' and will soon be on the scrap heap with other meaningless words. My personal take is not a mileage limit, but one based on relationships; if you can have a relationship with the farmer, i.e. shake his hand and walk his ground, you can call it local." Chef Tim Groody of Sonoma Modern American states: "Local is the ability to have interaction with the person who produces the product. I consider Yellow Branch cheese in Robbinsonville and Chapel Hill Creamery local. I know them."

This definition is what the Japanese call putting a face on the food. Lynn Caldwell of the Charlotte Tailgate Market, another market exclusively selling local products, also agrees. She says "local" implies a relationship, but goes further to include the growing region. Produce sold at her market, she says, must be "indigenous to the region -- the Piedmont -- to this climate and this soil. I would be suspect if someone brought in avocados."

Other chefs who feature local foods on their menus cite physical boundaries. Chef Bruce Moffett of Barrington's uses 50 miles; Chef Jim Noble of Noble's and Rooster's defines local as "grown 50 to 75 miles" but also considers North Carolina and regionally (including Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia) grown to be local.

But at times even 50 miles may not be local. Lynne Ross of Little Indian Creek Farm in Vale, 45 miles northwest of Charlotte, sells honey at area farmers markets. She commented, "We have had less than a handful of customers, that in about 12 years of selling, who were seeking 'local' honey decide we were not 'local' enough for their needs. Customers with allergies consider local, at least in regards to honey, to be related to an ecosystem that shares all the relative plants and bloom seasons of their own surrounds. Our elevation is less than two hundred feet higher than Charlotte and our spring blooms about two weeks behind Charlotte's. We are still in the same planting zone, however."

Gordon Whitted of Weatherbury Station in Burke's Garden, Va., sells his meat in Charlotte and agrees that "local" is more than distance relationship: "The term 'local' should also take into account the species. Are you talking about beef, pork, lamb, chicken or eggs? It is my contention that 'properly' raised grass-fed beef and lamb can not be raised within nearly 100 miles of downtown Charlotte due to climate, soil conditions and types of grass available. Pork, maybe, and chicken and eggs no problem. So do you have separate local criteria depending on what animal is involved?"

Evidently, the word "local" has no universally accepted space or time boundaries.

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