Introduction: Over the past decade the environmental movement has begun to include food. We constantly hear buzzwords such as eating sustainably, locally and organically. The pros and cons of local food has been debated heavily, as has their expense. This piece, broken into several sections, traces the production of farm-to-table food in Connecticut, its benefits and cons and provided thoughts on whether our the local food movement is scalable.
Too Much Green For Sustainable Food?
As the sun begins to set on a warm summer evening 150 people slowly make their way to past an old white farmhouse to four long communal wooden tables set under a tent in the middle of fields at White Gate Farm in East Lyme Conn.
While the guests find their seats on rough wooden benches, grills under another tent spring to life, and volunteers prepare to cook seven courses, including a watermelon cantaloupe tomato salad with feta cheese, a Thai vegetable curry with glazed pork belly and peanuts, and a grilled swordfish with tomato corn peach and tarragon salad all made from local ingredients.
Pauline Lord, the daughter of White Gate’s original owners, calls the dinner the guests are about to embark upon a delicious revolution.
“I’m proud to grow this food for you,” Lord said.
This is the sixth year White Gate Farm hosted a Dinners at the Farm dinner. Five years ago Dinners at the Farm established the benefit dinners that the organization says seeks to recreate, “a sense of connection to farming, cooking and eating.” Since 2007, Dinners at the Farm has hosted dinners throughout August at various Connecticut farms. Chefs are Thomas Petelik, formerly the Yale Culinary Director and Jonathan Rapp, chef at the River Tavern Connecticut, and creator and co-founder of the dinners. While Rapp is traveling to farms across the state sourcing food for the River Tavern he often chooses the farms to hold the dinners.
“All of this wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t delicious and fun,” Lord said.
These dinners are similar to other events held across the country during the summer celebrating local food. The most famous is the organization Outstanding in the Field, which hosts a series of more than 50 dinners at farms throughout North America. Almost a 100 percent of the meals come from locally produced ingredients.
Over the past decade the environmental food movement has grown rapidly as increased eco awareness and concerns about food safety have arisen. According to the USDA sales of local food grew from $4 billion in 2002 to $5 billion in 2007 and were expected to reach $7 billion in 2011. In 2007 the word locavore, referring to someone who eats foods within 100 miles of their home, was chosen as the word of year by the New Oxford American Dictionary word of the year. Jessica Prentice, a San Francisco chef and writer, first coined the now-popular term in 2005. Today the term locavore more commonly refers to someone committed to eating food grown and produced locally without harmful affects to the environment.
The term locavore is just one of a number of buzzwords that have sprouted up within the green food movement. When discussing green food, terms like sustainable, organic, local, and slow are just a few that seem to keep coming up. But what do they mean? Ingredients can be sustainable, local, slow, and organic, but they can also be local but not organic, organic but not local, sustainable but not local or organic, sustainable and organic but not local? It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.
With the exception of organic, which is monitored to varying degrees of successfulness by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the rest of the terms represent more of a philosophy than concrete definition.
Organic food has been regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program since 2002, and requires food labeled as organic to be free of chemicals, pesticides, sewage, sludge, and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). To be organic also comes with the requirement that the food be produced in a way that promotes ecological balance and conservation of biodiversity.
The USDA National Organic Program established four organic classifications:
- One hundred percent organic – food contains 100 percent organic certified ingredients
- Organic – food contains at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients
- Made With Organic Ingredients – food contains at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients
- Other – food made with less than 70 percent organic ingredients may list organic ingredients on packaging label but may not use the USDA organic label
The U.S. government defined sustainable agriculture in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trace Act of 1990 as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term, satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”
Congratulate yourself if after reading that you’re not more confused, but sustainable food is best defined by those who practice it everyday.
The Sustainable Food Laboratory is a Vermont-based organization and a leader in the field of sustainable food.
“We define a sustainable food and agriculture system as one in which the food we eat is affordable, safe and promotes our health; the fertility of our soil is maintained and improved; the availability and quality of water are protected and enhanced; our biodiversity is protected; farmers, farm workers, and all other actors in value chains have livable incomes; the food we eat is affordable and promotes our health; sustainable businesses can thrive; and the flow of energy and the discharge of waste, including greenhouse gas emissions, are within the capacity of the earth to absorb forever.”
Columbia University’s Food Sustainably Project is a student-run organization that aims to promote sustainable food systems for an urban environment.
“Sustainable food to us is food that is healthy for people, and for the environment, and is produced in such a way that it promotes the security of global food production abilities in the future by conserving nutrients, water, and bio diversity, and seeds—through harvesting—preventing erosion,” Kristina Gsell of Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center and the Former President of the Food Sustainably Project said.
In other words, sustainable food is a philosophy of growing, producing, and eating food in a way that respects the environment, animals, farmers and farmer workers, is healthy for consumers, and supports farmers and their local communities.