What does eating local mean? Well, it depends on who you ask.
For the Sustainable Food Center, the nonprofit that runs the Downtown, Triangle and Sunset Valley Farmers markets in Austin, it means that the food is being brought by the person who raised/grew it or created the product from within a 150 mile radius of Austin. According to Wikipedia, locavore means someone who eats locally produced food within 50, 100 or 150 miles of their home. Barbara Kingsolver and her family, in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, challenged themselves to a year of eating only things produced within 100 miles of home, thus inspiring the 100 mile diet.
For me, I lean toward SFC’s definition since I shop at their markets most often. I get a CSA basket from Farmhouse Delivery every other week and I supplement that with more produce and meat from the local markets. I’m growing a bunch of herbs and few vegetables on my patio. I buy staples from the grocery store, almost always H-E-B or Central Market as they are a Texas-based retailer that gives back to the community in a big way.
Whenever it’s an option, I buy an Austin or Texas brand because I like to support local businesses. About once a month, I treat myself and shop at Antonelli’s Cheese and buy lovely cheeses from Texas and around the world while visiting with one of the most charming couples in Austin. Whenever I eat out, I try to pick a place that sources some of their products locally. This works for me. It’s not “perfect,” but then I’m not perfect. It’s good and I feel good about it.
You need to decide what local means for you. I can’t tell you what is best for you, your life and your situation. And, I’m not going to tell you what you are doing is wrong. I admire my friend Carla for her Year with No Grocery Store Challenge, but I couldn’t do it. It’s right for her, but not for me.
So, why I am on this rant? Because I want to tell you what’s NOT local.
Recently, a friend asked me if I was going to cover the new farmers market in NW Austin. I told her I had already covered the Cedar Park market opening this weekend (March 27th), which is when she told me she meant the Sprouts Farmers Market near the Arboretum. Ugh!
It’s understandable that my friend was confused, after all the sign at Sprouts says Farmers Market on it. But let’s be clear – SPROUTS IS NOT A FARMERS MARKET. A farmers market has farmers at it. Those farmers are from the surrounding area. The only Texas produce that I could find at Sprouts were microgreens from Keller, TX and herbs from Rice, TX. None of the meat is local. None of the cheese is local. They don’t even carry Mozzarella Co. cheese from Dallas. I’m sure the dairy farmers in Wisconsin are lovely people, but they aren’t coming to our farmers markets and defining Wisconsin as our “surrounding area” would be stretch for anyone.
But I’m not just picking on Sprouts. Newflower Farmers Market on Manchaca isn’t a farmers market either, it’s a grocery store. I like grocery stores, I may even love my H-E-B, but I don’t like grocery stores that pretend to be farmers markets. As it turns out Walmart is probably carrying more local produce than the Sprouts or Newflower “farmers markets.”
Real farmers markets can be confusing as well. In addition to allowing vendors from different distances, some markets allow vendors to resell produce from other farms. The reselling at the Dallas Farmers Market was obvious (pineapples? really?), but it won’t always be that clear. Only producer or grower markets require that all the product be from the seller’s farm.
Restaurants bring their own set of problems. One local restaurant, who has recently changed at least their online menu, listed a Farmers Market salad for many months. That’s great except the salad had green peas and endive in it. In August. In Austin. It might have been a farmers market salad, but not from our farmers market. They also had salmon on the Farm to Table menu. Again, there’s no salmon swimming up stream in the Colorado. I’m fine with non-local items on a menu, but don’t call it farmers market or farm to table when it’s not.
Another family of restaurants bought from a local farm for years and advertised as such. The problem? When they stopped buying from the farm, they didn’t change their ads.
So, what’s a consumer to do? Ask questions. Ask lots and lots of questions.
If you are shopping at a new farmers market, go to the information booth and ask them about the type of vendors and the distances they travel. At the booths, ask the farmers where they are from and how the produce their food. At a new grocery store, ask if they carry local products in the produce and meat departments.
At a restaurant that says they work with local farms, ask which dishes include local ingredients. No restaurant in Austin uses 100% local products, but many are adding more and more local items to the menu because people are asking for them.
I recently visited 24 Diner for breakfast. When I walked in, I saw the sticker on the door saying they work with Farm to Table, a purveyor who connects restaurants with farms (they are not affiliated with this blog), and I saw the list of local produce on the blackboard. I reviewed the menu and found a dish that looked like it contained some of the items from the board, but, before I ordered, I asked the waitress if the frittata was made with local vegetables. She confirmed that it was.
It wasn’t hard to ask and the waitress didn’t seem to mind that I was asking. She actually seemed pleased that someone was bothering to read the board. It was worth “bothering” her.
Maybe if we let more restaurants, farmers markets and grocery stores know that we are paying attention, they’ll pay more attention too. It’s at least worth asking.