From Michele Payn-Knoper: Local Food, Locavores & Hungry People

October 20, 2010 at 9:52 am 4 comments

Looking Beyond Your Own Food Plate

Our family happily picked apples last week in an orchard 20 miles away, where we managed to taste Fuji, Yellow Delicious, Roma and Red Delicious on a bright Autumn day. We do the same with blueberries in July. We purchase eggs from our neighbor. We grow our own herbs, raspberries and vegetables – our family spends many hours in the garden to grow our own food. We also purchase beef from a local farm, enjoy pork burgers from the next county over and would love to find a lamb to buy.  We enjoy local foods, once sold our goods at the farmer’s market and teach children about how to grow food.

Does that make me a locavore? I hope not – I’m not into being labeled and feel really strongly about freedom of food choices. Simply put, I don’t buy into the label of the day, “local.” I don’t believe one food plate is superior because it claims all the food is local (a claim to be seriously questioned if your zip code is in a cold climate and it’s February). I also refuse to give into the food guilt trips that food labeled local is worth 30% more or that we should only buy items grown within 90 miles because of carbon footprint. I’d suggest you do the math of a greenhouse tomato grown in New York in March, including all of the fuel needed to heat that greenhouse during snowfalls and 10-degree days, then compare it the footprint of a tomato trucked in from California. Take a look at this NY Times piece if you want more.

Don’t get me wrong, my first preference is tomatoes from our garden, but those are only available 25% of the year. As a mom, nutrition for my family is a top priority. Yes, I preserve food, but there’s nothing quite like fresh fruits and vegetables (not to mention the time constraints of a working mother).  Call me selfish, but we like bananas – and believe it’s our choice to eat those bananas, even when grown thousands of miles away. I also feed our family strawberries trucked in from Florida in February.  That’s our choice – just as I believe it should be your choice to buy the food that best fits your family’s needs and budget.

local food & hunger 

Millions around the world can’t afford to worry about local food, like these squatter’s camps in South Africa.

Pundits say we should keep the big picture in mind. I agree – let’s look at the really big picture of food insecurity, not just the trendy topics like carbon footprint. I’d encourage you to consider more that just your own food needs; it’s impossible to feed a world of 9 billion on small local operations. I had an interesting discussion with a national food editor last weekend at BlogWorld Expo about the challenge of food insecurity in a country where obesity is so prevalent.  In a land filled with excess, it’s really hard for us to remember that there are people who live in fear of not being able to feed their children today – a number that’s increasing both in the U.S. and abroad. However, if you’ve ever laid eyes on the conditions that our fellow humans live in developing and Third World nations, you don’t soon forget the need to look beyond your own food plate.

Local food? Consider food needs beyond your own plate 

Farmer in Egypt working land – is this what we want to return to?

Local food is the pièce de résistance, but I’m not going to play into that  movement if it compromises an agrifood system that’s designed to meet growing needs. I’m not so naive as to claim that there’s nothing broken in our food system; there are inequities, poor practices and marketing misinformation in the pursuit of higher margins at every level.  However, an efficient agrifood system affords North Americans the luxury to clamor about issues that are relatively minor in the face of hunger, malnourishment and food insecurity.

World Food Day was October 16. Isn’t it far more important to make hunger awareness a movement than spending time labeling and judging what’s local and what’s not? Seek local food, grow your own if you wish, enjoy cooking as a locavore – but please don’t lose sight of the bigger picture – the need to feed an increasingly hungry world.


The opinions expressed in the above post represent the thoughts and feelings of the blogger, and not necessarily NYFEA as a whole.


Entry filed under: Featured Farmers.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ed Nicholson and NYFEA, NYFEA. NYFEA said: New Blog Post: From Michelle Payn-Knoper: Local Food, Locavores & Hungry People […]

  • 2. Ed Nicholson  |  October 20, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Great post, Michele. I think you covered it all quite well. You don’t see a groundswell movement in sub-Saharan Africa bemoaning the “high cost of cheap food.”
    I grow my own tomatoes, beans, and squash, too. I can and freeze quite a bit. But I’d dread April if it’s all I had. I’ll gladly eat the zuchinni from my local big evil empire retailer in February.

  • 3. nyfea  |  October 22, 2010 at 9:48 am

    You can see more of Michele’s posts at!

  • 4. Jon  |  November 9, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    Thanks for this post, Michele. It raises some good points and good conversation.

    Here are a couple of things that come to mind for me:

    You’re certainly right to be leery of chasing labels for the sake of chasing labels, though to be fair I think there is a large segment of people who would happily “label” themselves “locavores” because they find value and meaning in what they see as some basic underlying principles -economic, environmental, ethical and community centric to name a few of the most common that get bandied about – of sourcing their food as locally as possible. It is, as you say, a choice and one that for most folks along the entire spectrum of choice is guided by a wide variety of principles and factors.

    Yet, as you again rightly point out, we do well to look at the big picture. Part of that big picture for those of us interested in issues surrounding agriculture, food and hunger is realizing that we do not make our choices in a vacuum. Our choices can and do have significant repercussions for our neighbors in both the local and global sense – especially when we are talking about a system as globally interconnected as our “efficient agrifood system.”

    That system may be the most “efficient” means of producing mass quantities of food (and you certainly know that convincing arguments against even that point can be made if you factor in all of the externalities involved) but it is certainly not benign nor does it care about hungry people any more than a “local food system” cares about hungry people. (Aside: there are certainly wonderful people within both of those systems that do care about hunger, Ed N. above being one of the best of that bunch!, who find ways, often in direct opposition to the daily business practices of the systems they function within, to make those systems more humane and caring.) For starters on a very long list witness the massive amounts of waste within the agrifood system domestically and the devastating practice of dumping surpluses in the name of aid internationally. True, in most places where hunger is both chronic and persistent you won’t find many advocating for a local food movement as we understand it in the US but you will find that the majority of these agricultural populations would love to experience the life changing prosperity that might occur if they were allowed access to markets and a level playing field in trade that our own agrifood system denies them – to its own great profit.

    My point being that the dichotomy worth talking about here isn’t between being a locavore and fighting hunger or supporting the “agrifood system” and fighting hunger. No, the dichotomy is helping hungry people or not helping hungry people. Sadly, from my experience, a person’s involvement in either food system doesn’t make them more prone to do so.

    Hunger is too big a problem for any one solution. There is no silver bullet. There are great injustices entrenched within our food systems -on the locavore side they tend to be characterized by willful ignorance and neglect and on the “agrifood” side they tend to be exploitive and callous – and we allow them to continue through the daily accumulation of a thousand little choices driven by our own comfort and our own selfishness. Sadly, when it comes to hunger there are some labels that none of us can escape.


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