I just returned from a week in Switzerland during asparagus and ramp season (the European variety of ramps are known as Bärlauch, or “Bear’s Leek” over there) The respect that they have for eating locally grown food is amazing - something that many of us working in good food businesses in the US aspire to elicit from the American public. When these fresh, local ingredients are available and plentiful, you will find them as the centerpiece of almost every restaurant, from fine dining to casual corner spots. The idea of seasonal eating is so front-of-mind for people, if you tell someone from the area that you are heading there during this time of year, one of the first things they will say is that it’s Asparagus season. Ask a random American what foods are locally harvested where they live during any particular time of year and chances are good that you won’t get an answer unless they happen to work in food or agriculture (and even then, it’s still 50/50).
That said, respect for locally grown food is common not only in Switzerland of course, but also throughout Europe, most famously in Italy and Southern France where this elevation of locally grown food seems to reach some kind of near sacred status. But what I’ve recently come to realize is that this perception is not the reality. It is just our very American need to dramatize and exoticize “the other” The reality in Europe is that while locals do get excited about the prospects of seasonal Bärlauch soup or Asparagus ravioli from the local restaurants, it’s not overly romanticized. There isn’t the almost religious significance that it’s often presented with in the US.
Eating local foods that you hardly ever get to eat is exciting, and a hugely important part of ensuring that our agriculture is sustainable. But I wonder if we shouldn’t aspire to make it a little more boring? Food activists and entrepreneurs are understandably passionate about changing the way people eat, and many times people do go through a kind of mental transformation when they become more aware of what they are eating. And of course, we are making progress in our efforts to change things! A trip down almost any grocery store aisle makes it obvious that consumers are demanding more transparency than they were before, but exotic packaging, greenwashing and “localwashing” marketing efforts are still driving sales, and the good food economy is still a niche part of the total market, and driven by trends. Perhaps too much romanticism is planting the idea in our collective subconscious that eating locally and sustainably is an act for religious foodies or health nuts. There is still a strong undercurrent in the mass market that is resistant to this change, and actively rejects the ideas that we (activists and entrepreneurs) are promoting simply because they are rejecting the religiosity of the message.
The act of buying and eating food is a majorly personal, social, and sometimes even political thing. Sure there are cultural and historical reasons driving our attitudes towards food, and perhaps we can say that the density of population and the lack of large tracts of undeveloped farmland has given European culture a leg up in the long run by forcing them to be conscious about agricultural sustainability, where the abundance of cheap land allowed us in the US to relegate the production part of the food industry to the back corners of our collective mind. Even in large, cosmopolitan European cities, it is difficult to avoid seeing and thinking about the farms that press up to the urban borders. Urban and suburban dwellers in the US on the other hand are shielded by miles and miles of exurban bedroom towns. I am not trying to debate the importance of bringing farming and food production back into the collective consciousness … I believe that most would agree this is something that would benefit us as a people and help us to adopt more sustainable practices, and the large variety of urban agriculture initiatives taking place in cities (in the US and globally) over the past decade attest to this. That said, a big part of Nextdoorganics' vision has always been to find a path to cross the chasm and bring a true understanding of local and sustainable food to the mass market. I don’t have the answers, only more questions. We love our customers over the years, but the good food community shouldn’t be an echo chamber. How do we get the message to those people who defiantly post instagram photos of fast food meals simply because they think that those of us promoting local food are either elitists, anarchists trying to dismantle capitalism, or members of a new-age cult that doesn’t believe in science? How do we promote the social and community aspect of food that on some level humans naturally yearn for, while making everyone across political and social aisles feel at home? How can we make the act of eating locally and sustainably grown food boring, while preserving the inherent excitement and pleasure of trying new things and eating well?
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