Eating Local = Thinking Global

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So that’s where pineapples come from! Spotted on a spring break well-spent in El Salvador.

Academic institutions do a lot of things. They educate the future leaders of our country, wreak havoc on the lives of high school students when acceptance letters start (or don’t start) rolling in, take our parent’s hard-earned money…you get the picture. But universities nationwide are actually some of the biggest supporters and funders of sustainability projects and the “farm-to-college” model that brings local produce to dining halls and campus farmer’s markets.

At Tufts, the administration tries to encourage a “think global, buy local” attitude when it comes to the quality of foods offered on meal plans and accessible nearby. Locally and regionally grown food is used when possible to cut down on transportation and environmental costs and a seasonal farmer’s market brings community members right to campus to share their produce with students (for more information, go here). I can honestly say that one of the things I like most about my university is its commitment to food-centered and nutrition-based initiatives. When friends would visit and I would take them to eat, I was proud knowing that my dining hall was better – because it certainly wasn’t bigger – than theirs. (Yes, I know, I’m a little competitive, but hey! Have you ever tried to eat at UConn? For a school with the nation’s first agricultural program, they really need to step up their dining halls.)

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Some healthy (and maybe even locally produced!) options at Dewick Dining Hall, Tufts University. My plates certainly never looked like this…but they could have!

Anthropology is one discipline that is giving students, administrators, and community organizers the framework to engage in these local and sustainable initiatives. For a comprehensive look at which colleges around the country are making the effort and how they’re doing it, check out this article about campus food projects. The author, a professor of anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta, relates one student’s surprised reaction upon walking past a small food garden on campus: “Oh…so that’s how broccoli grows!” I think this anecdote really captures the important work sustainable food projects are doing and must continue to do on campuses across the country. Many college students, especially those at top-tier universities, are a privileged bunch compared to, say, the millions of Americans identified as “the working poor.” And local produce and sustainability projects like pesticide-free CSAs and organic urban farming are frequently criticized for only catering to the “elite” and not to the people who actually need their efforts. But, as I think this story makes clear, the average college student might not even know where broccoli comes from! And in order for these movements to be successful among any demographic in our society, we all need to be a bit more knowledgeable about the origins of our food.

Homemade Urban Cheese

DSCN2019Artisanal cheese for sale at a street fair in Alcalá de Henares, outside of Madrid.

If you read it in the Style Watch edition of People magazine, it must be true. Don’t be fooled by Hayden Panettiere’s smiling face and perfectly mussed hair on the cover. This month’s issue is hiding some serious anthropological evidence. There it is, right on page 121. What’s hot for 2013? Please tell us! Biking with your dog instead of carrying him, apparently. For drinks, sparkling liquor is the new prosecco! And for food, “homemade” is the new “artisanal.” The Williams-Sonoma DIY Goat Cheese Kit is featured, which promises light, tangy chevre in under an hour, made by YOU – a curious, environmentally-conscious organic shopper and farmer’s market devotee who has never milked a goat or thought about making cheese before, but hey, how hard could it be? It seems approachable, slightly exotic (you imagine those overall-clad, cheese-making farmers to be quite different from you), and oh-so-local. In other words, very, very marketable.

2013-02-04_09-20-54_974Trend alert! Homemade is the “new” artisanal for 2013, according to People Style Watch.

The DIY cheese kit idea got started by Claudia Lucero of Portland, Oregon when she wanted to get closer to her her food. She drove 15 miles to the nearest goat farm, bought fresh milk, experimented in her kitchen, and brought her cheesy homemade masterpieces to friends’ dinner parties. And just like that, the urban cheesemaking movement had a new follower. (Visit her at UrbanCheesecraft.) In his article “Betting the Farm: Is there an Urban Agriculture Bubble?” (the more scholarly companion to my magazine research), journalist David Lepeska nicely summarizes the larger trends at play here. “Over the past decade,” he writes, “a confluence of factors — a food movement calling for healthful, local produce over the troubling output of industrial farms; a vogue for DIY and back-to-the-land-ism, as well as for green, progressive urbanism; and a desperate search for new job-creation tools — has reanimated the green thumbs of urbanites.”

So if you want to be extra trendy this year (besides being a local farm supporter, urban activist, or someone who just likes specialty dairy products), head on over to your nearest farm stand, farmer’s market, dairy farm, or neighborhood goat, and buy yourself some local milk. Then head on back to your housemates, roommate, significant other, or beloved pet (who you should be biking with, not carrying, don’t forget) and make yourselves some nice, homemade cheese.

Growing Up Glocal

ImageA “local” apple at Honey Pot Hill Orchards during peak picking season last fall in Stow, Mass.

Our increasingly globalized world is undergoing some decidedly local changes. Many suburban towns sport their fair share of Chinese, Indian, and Thai restaurants alongside a seasonal offering of farmstand fruits and vegetables. We want the option of an international experience close to home, but we also want to be intimately acquainted with where our produce comes from when the mood strikes. Whole Foods (or Whole Paycheck, as we call it in my family) provides an astonishing variety of organic items, from pomegranates to cashew butter to Bulgar wheat. But eating organic is not eating local. Your weekly Thai take-out place might make the best green curry in town, but you’re not exactly having an “authentic” or “exotic” culinary experience as you scarf it down out of a plastic container while watching this week’s episode of Girls.

We’re all familiar with the term globalization as it applies, for example, to the international connections of production, trade, and media communication that link rural communities in Third World countries with the financial and cultural centers of the Global North. But glocalization is a little different. According to my trusty friend Wikipedia (inappropriate for research papers but not for blog posts!), the word was adapted from the Japanese dochakuka (global localization) as a business marketing strategy in the 1980s. Originally, and quite fittingly, it referred to how farmers would adjust agriculture techniques to be successful in new areas. When McDonald’s alters its menu in Hong Kong to appeal to local tastes, that’s glocalization. To me, glocalization refers to any cultural exchange that takes place in the processes involving our food and its consumption. Glocalization is everywhere, and many of us grew up “glocal” depending on who produced our food, how it was prepared, and the rituals surrounding its consumption.

Every bite of food we take distinguishes us socially and culturally, just as it marks a decision about production and consumption. Where does the food we eat come from? Who grows it, harvests its, packages it, transports it, and stocks it at the grocery store? Are we comfortable with the complicated journey an out-of-season tomato undergoes to reach our New England mouths? And, more importantly, what are we going to do about it if we’re not? Urban farmers across the country are attempting to answer this question with rooftop gardens and inner city farmer’s markets.

I want to ask a bigger question: When we consume food, what are we actually eating? An orange picked by a migratory worker in Florida. Pupusas made from a family recipe that taste completely different in Somerville than they do in El Salvador. A typical American cheeseburger made with South American beef. Eating is both a very private and public act, and in doing it we experience family recipes, colonial histories, racial stereotypes, and cultural values.

What is our food telling us? This blog will attempt to find out.