‘Localwashing’: How local is locally sourced food?
One measure of the success of the local food movement is the marketing value now placed on the word “local” — but local is not always what it seems.
“Localwashing” — or misrepresenting the word “local” — has become a trend that is disheartening to people like Analiese Paik, a sustainable food advocate and the founder of the Fairfield Green Food Guide.
“It is disingenuous,” Paik said of people who misuse terms from the local food movement.
Paik has been advocating for healthier food in the region for more than 10 years and said that there is one very easy way to tell if you are getting local food as advertised from a vendor. “Talk to them,” the Fairfield resident said.
If you are buying food directly from a farm stand you can ask questions to find out if the food they’re selling comes out of their fields. “You don’t have to hound them,” Paik said. “You can make it casual conversation.”
And you can get a Connecticut crop calendar showing when each vegetable grown in Connecticut is in season. For instance, Paik said, “tomatoes in May or June is really early.”
You can also tell if something is truly local because locally grown produce will not typically be uniform in size and shape — and there will likely be some dirt.
“There should be some dirt,” Paik said, but she warns consumers to try not to jump to conclusions even when the food is clean. “Don’t assume that they’re cheating you,” she said. “Ask questions.”
People who grow what they sell are usually proud to discuss their hard work.
“I encourage people to form a relationship with the farmer,” Paik said. She said that she consistently buys from the same handful of organic farmers that she knows and trusts.
Some farmers do, however, openly sell food they have not grown — as options for their customers. For instance, a farmer who grows vegetables but not fruit might buy fruit from someplace else if there is a need.
When done transparently, farmers will clearly mark what they have not grown themselves and where it came from.
Another place where the consumer looking for local could be better informed is at restaurants.
Paik said restaurant menus are sometimes inaccurate about what food is local because they’re printed in advance and used over an extended period of time.
Local food in Connecticut has seasons, some of which are very short — such as for garlic scapes and asparagus. “In and out and they’re gone,” Paik said.
So a restaurant might not have intended to be dishonest, but rather planned poorly or didn’t understand seasonality.
Better practices include printing a separate menu for locally sourced food, and changing it throughout the growing season, or displaying a chalk board with local fare.
Noel Furie and Selma Miriam’s restaurant, Bloodroot in Bridgeport, is considered by some to be one of the area’s first contemporary “farm-to-table” restaurants.
Furie and Miriam established the feminist vegetarian restaurant in 1977 at the height of the feminist movement as a place for people to gather over meals. “I love food,” Miriam said.
And while Bloodroot openly uses non-local ingredients, there are some recipes that they will only make with local ingredients in season. For instance, Miriam has a recipe that calls for corn which she will only make when corn is in season, to get the optimal flavor.
“No way do I want to do it any other time of the year,” Miriam said.
She is aware of restaurants that try to capitalize on the local food movement but don’t care about authenticity. “It’s about lying,” Miriam said.
Another growing trend as people recognize the benefits of local food is the appearance of jobbers — or vendors — at farmers markets who buy wholesale and claim to grow it.
Stacia Monahan, of Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton, said when she first started the farm in 1998, she discovered there was a jobber at the Shelton Farmers Market.
She said that the state looks the other way because the more “farmers” there are the better it makes the state’s agriculture industry look.
“The state of Connecticut agriculture people have encouraged this for years,” she said.
Monahan said that jobbers will often have land with “token planting” for show. “A row of this [crop] or that,” Monahan said. “A lot don’t bother to take care of the plantings.”
Monahan, who was named the state’s Outstanding Young Farmer by the Connecticut Agricultural Information Council earlier this year, said “no one is taking the steps to prove” that what is sold as “Connecticut grown” at markets is authentic. She thinks this has led to people taking advantage.
Monahan said that one of the giveaways for a jobber she came across was that he was selling strawberries in late August and claiming he grew them.
The season for strawberries is typically June and the beginning of July. “By July Fourth, everybody is done with strawberries,” Monahan said.
She said that another giveaway was that the jobber’s cucumbers were waxed and all one size.
Stacia and her husband, Fred, have been working with people at the state level to advocate for better oversight.
Food from strangers
Fixing the food system requires, as a prerequisite, honesty and transparency, said Dina Brewster, a farmer at the Hickories in Ridgefield.
Her family’s certified organic fruit, vegetable and livestock farm is committed to bringing community and farm together.
“Localwashing, greenwashing, false claims over what is “organic” and what isn’t — they all remind me of the old adage that one should not take food from strangers,” Brewster said.
So, she said, get to know the hand that feeds you. "If the source of your food is so far removed from you that you couldn’t possibly figure out [how it was grown], then my feeling is you probably shouldn’t be eating it,” Brewster said.