Portlandia, Ordering the Chicken

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein question Dana Millican (center) in a "Portlandia" sketch about the origins of a chicken named Colin. 

While reporting my recent story about eating local in Wisconsin, I acted like a globavore, using sources from "Portlandia" to "The Guardian" in the UK. I thought they were worth sharing with Cap Times readers interested in further reading on the local food movement.

I learned that locavores don't necessarily work harder than supermarket shoppers, but they might have more money. A 2008 story in the New York Times profiles wealthy people who hire gardeners and personal chefs to serve them beef raised down the road. 

Eating local as a trend is not slowing down. According to the National Restaurant Association's annual survey of more than 1,800 chefs, many of whom work for chains or large food companies, "locally grown meats and seafood" and "locally grown produce" were the first and second biggest trends predicted for 2013.

I ran across another article by John Ikerd, a University of Missouri professor emeritus of agricultural economics, via California Magazine in Berkeley

According to Ikerd, "73 percent of Americans want to know if food is produced locally; 75 percent of consumers in Seattle, Boston, and seven Midwestern states prefer food produced by local family farmers; and 70 percent of households in Wisconsin, Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa consider the consumption of local foods and the support of local farms 'extremely important.'"

That has led to businesses like Madison's Local Dirt, which connects small farmers to restaurants wanting to feature local food, and its related smart phone app, Get Locavore. Also in Madison, there are new loans for people doing sustainable agriculture in Wisconsin and government programs to support them

Though I'm obviously thrilled the farmers' markets are opening again, it became increasingly clear through my reading that there are problems with the locavore mantra.

One "rule" I no longer put much stock in is food miles. 

"It is not that the concept of food miles is wrong; it is just too simplistic," according to Robin McKie, writing for The Observer. According to one scientist, "the concept of food miles is unhelpful and stupid. It doesn't inform about anything except the distance traveled."

Hearing that news, Ethan Book did some soul-searching in a Epicurious.com blog post, "Is Being a Locavore a Bad Thing?" He acknowledged the global food system is very efficient — big trucks, central distribution, etc. — compared to a dozen small farmers trucking the same amount of food to market.

Ultimately, though, Book ended up dismissing the story's economic and environmental arguments. 

"I believe the greatest arguments for being a locavore are the great tasting food, the freshness of the food, the support of the local economy, and the joy of building a relationship with your farming neighbors," he wrote. "I'm not really arguing any of the points from the research ... but I do believe that isn't the only way to think about it.

I wrote a sidebar on those who take an anti-local approach after reading "The Locavore's Dilemma." Canadian authors Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu make a compelling case for different regions focusing on what they do best — whether that's strawberries in California or orange juice in Florida — and shipping their goods.

But the book has come under fire from several sources.

The environmentally conscious website Grist called the book "haterade." 

"A dogmatic approach is rarely a good idea, and questions about where food should be grown and why are indeed complex," Claire Thompson wrote. 

"Maybe it is unrealistic to believe small, local producers can literally feed the world — but does that mean we shouldn’t support their efforts at all?" 

AlterNet, too, argued that the "bogus economic arguments" the pair use to attack locavorism don't apply because the players (us) aren't rational; monocultures can be risky both environmentally and financially; and food is not an interchangeable commodity.

And even Desrochers and Shimizu aren't as anti-local as they might at first seem. They're globavores, which includes Ontario peaches.

"As with everything, you need to spread the risk," Desrochers told The Toronto Star. "Local food activists want us to put all our agricultural security eggs in one regional basket. Historically this has been a recipe for disaster. You have floods, hail storms, diseases. It’s better to rely on multiple supplies, including local."

Personally, I'm no more (or less) a locavore than when I started researching what "eating local" means. I'll still buy ground cherries from the near east side market, but I'm not about to give up French wine or California lemons. 

Maybe strict locavorism has jumped the shark anyway. In a "Portlandia" sketch that quickly spirals out of control, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein quiz the server in a farm-to-table restaurant about the health, roaming space and friendships of the chicken on the menu.

"The chicken is a heritage breed, woodland-raised chicken that's been fed a diet of sheep's milk, soy and hazelnuts," the server (Dana Millican) reassures them. "His name was Colin. Here are his papers."

Brownstein is only partly assuaged.

"Who are these people raising Colin?" she asks. "It just tears at the core of my being, the idea of someone just cashing in on a trend like organic."

Sign up for Cap Times newsletters:


Lindsay Christians covers Madison life for The Capital Times.