What makes ‘Local’ food local?

Graphic by Natalie Allinger | Washtenaw Voice

Graphic by Natalie Allinger | Washtenaw Voice

By Suni Jo Roberts
Contributor

The validity of the local food movement is up for speculation, as consumers and businesses have varying definitions of just what “local” really means.

“This is local?” Fred Armisen’s character asks in the sketch comedy show Portlandia. “I’m gonna ask you just one more time. It’s local?” Armisen continues, “Is that USDA organic or Oregon organic or Portland organic?”

Playing it out to the absurd—the show’s particular brand of comedy—this scene takes on the local food movement; a movement characterized by food and products that are produced within an area close to the point they are sold or consumed.

Local means “existing in a particular place or region,” according to the English Oxford Dictionary. A simple definition but, some businesses aren’t clear about what about them is “local.” Some even capitalizing off this buzzword by bending and expanding what local means.

Chef Derek Anders, a professor in the Culinary Arts at Washtenaw Community College, has also taken notice of what he calls the “local food trend.”

“What is it about local food that is attractive?” Anders asks himself, “To make ourselves healthier, not only as an individual, but as a whole, regarding the planet.”

On WCC’s campus Cottage Inn Pizza and the Java Spot both advertise that they sell local products.

“Try a slice of our local fresh baked, deep dish pizza,” says a sign at the Cottage Inn Pizza spot on campus.
Holley Stillman, a shift runner at Cottage Inn on University of Michigan’s north campus, explains what the local label means to Cottage Inn.

“It’s localized to this area. This is where we got started,” Stillman said.

Cottage Inn began in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1948 and its corporate office is still in Ann Arbor. But Stillman said that local doesn’t necessarily apply to the ingredients that make the pizza.

“The dough is made on site and the other products go through Gordon Food Service,” Stillman said. Gordon Food Service is a large food supplier with distribution centers throughout eastern United States and Canada.

At Cottage Inn Pizza, local applies to the local economy. By buying local someone is paying a company located in their own town, keeping their money within their community. However, local doesn’t apply to where the ingredients were grown.

On the menu at the Java Spot in WCC’s student center, a Washtenaw Dairy logo, is in the right hand corner. A staff member working at the cash register said the bagels are from Washtenaw Dairy. That is the only menu item from Washtenaw Dairy.

Liz Rosales, a physical therapy student at WCC, was eating at the Java Spot on WCC’s campus.

She has some ideas about what local meant.

“Local to me means fresh, not frozen. I think it should be about location,” Rosales said, “I didn’t notice the Washtenaw Dairy logo on the sign, but now I will.”

“These things have become buzzwords for marketing purposes which then will create situations where are we bending the morality and ethics behind the way we advertise food to people,” Chef Anders said.

Chef Anders believes in the principle of truth in menu writing; something he teaches at WCC.

“Truth in menu can get folks in trouble if you’re not following the level of truth that is necessary based on law,” Anders said.

“For instance, if we are advertising something as simple as butter to margarine, are people going to go to jail because they are advertising butter but serving margarine? No. But, at the end of the day does the customer feel cheated if they find out and realize that ‘I’m getting something inferior even though I paid a particular price for it?’ Yes.”

“We have this gray area in which you do have some folks that are bending what is ethically sound and what isn’t ethically sound,” Chef Anders said. “So, if we are talking about what is actually local and what isn’t, I think part of it is first developing that definition”

The local food supplier Eat Local Eat Natural says on their website they scout and build relationships within 150 miles from their Ann Arbor warehouse.

Going the route of truth telling, Eat Local Eat Natural gives the names and locations of farms they buy from and have relationships with; they give the consumer information needed for customers to do their own research.

This practice is not as common as Anders would hope, and without it leads to companies hiding their food sources and being untruthful.

“It is up to, unfortunately, the consumer—at this point—to do the extra work, to continue to ask more about their food,” Chef Anders said.

Did Fred Armisen’s character have a point by asking those questions in that scene? The fight for knowledge and the funding for local farmers may finally quash that question sparked by dishonest business practices.

The United States Department of Agriculture has several grant programs available for supporting local farmers to grow.

The USDA grant programs “expand access to affordable fresh and local food; stimulates agricultural economic development; and demonstrates the connection between food, agriculture, community, and the environment,” according to their website.

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