Buying and eating local foods—it’s a win-win strategy that supports the local economy and neighboring farmers, keeps land in agriculture, improves overall health and builds stronger communities. So why do we need a movement to restore a practice that used to be part of our everyday lives?
The issues were discussed during a session on “Lessons in Local Eating,” led by Jane Bollinger of the Wayne County group of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) on July 17 at the Hawley Silk Mill Complex in Hawley, PA.
Tackling the topic were food entrepreneur Marcia Dunsmore from Hawley; vegetable farmer Greg Swartz of Willow Wisp Farm in Abramsville, PA; and Julie Hudson, an advocate for sustainable agriculture and small-farm farmers from South Canaan, PA.
The conversation launched with a question about local versus organic choices. “Local food is great,” said Swartz. “Organic food is great. But what we have to be heading for is local organic. And there’s no reason we can’t get there.”
The panelists discussed the recent history of farming and food, noting the development of pesticides from the war industry roughly 60 years ago that became privatized and applied to agriculture. “Like many things, you have to look at who is saying what is being said, and look at why and how the government ends up adopting certain practices,” said Swartz. “Federal farm policy radically changed the landscape of the U.S. in a really short amount of time through subsidies and the land-grant university system.”
Bollinger offered a quote from whyhunger.org for consideration: “The global food system disenfranchises small scale farmers, destroys local food systems, increases inequality and reduces biodiversity.”
Hudson agreed. “Small farmers all over the world have been greatly impacted by the global food system,” she said. “Many were forced out of business. The biodiversity issue is clear, too. The agribusiness model is really harsh on the environment. It has a huge impact on waterways and air quality.”
Dunsmore advocated for decentralization of the food system. “The more you can get the food system into small units around the country, with each unit supplying the area around, the safer food will be,” she said. Dunsmore also said that consumers play a key role in the process. “With its purchasing power, the consumer ultimately decides what a corporation will sell.”
One participant asked, “How do you level the playing field when there are those who can’t afford to buy organic food or even to buy local because it’s not subsidized like the agribusiness model?”
Hudson responded, “The farmer needs to make a living, so they shouldn’t bear the brunt of this burden. But everyone should have access to healthy food. It’s a community and a government responsibility.”
“People have to get used to the idea that good food costs more,” said Dunsmore, who noted that food prices in many other countries are considerably higher.
“I have that conversation every week at the market,” said Swartz. “Fifty percent of what I do in terms of selling is that education piece. The only real systemic change is going to be on the federal level.”
Reaching consumers at a younger age and teaching the lost art of cooking healthy foods were identified as important strategies. School gardens, community gardens, farm share newsletters and information booths at farmers markets were seen as tools to advance understanding. “Knowing how to cook enables you to eat better,” said Dunsmore. “Lacking that skill puts you at a disadvantage.”
Reconnecting kids with the sources of local food was also considered. The PASA group has proposed school field trips to local farms to see and taste farm foods, but has encountered a lack of support. “Parents need to speak up about what they want their children exposed to,” said Bollinger.
Swartz noted that art is another way to reach children and that NACL theater is currently touring its all-ages production of “The Little Farm Show: The Greatest Show on Dirt.” Free shows are scheduled at 12:00 noon on July 28 at the Barryville Farmers Market in Barryville, NY and on July 29 at the Callicoon Farmers Market in Callicoon, NY (visit www.NACL.org ).
Swartz also noted the need for more farmers and access to land. “It’s the single largest potential for our regional economic development,” he said.
Hudson added, “There are a lot of people who want to farm, but access to land is difficult. We must find ways to make entry into farming easier.”
As for the future of local food, all three participants were optimistic. “I’ve seen a huge change in awareness about food and being conscious about what you eat,” said Dunmore.
“There’s a rising tide of more producers and opportunity all around us, as long as we, as a community, make decisions that do not pollute our natural resources,” said Swartz.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” added Hudson, “but a lot of these changes can’t just happen on their own. It takes community support.”
Participants were encouraged to engage others in the conversation and to eat one day a week as close to 100 percent locally-sourced foods as possible (visit www.ShopLocalSaveLand.com  for resources).
The session was preceded by a cooking workshop led by Dunsmore using local organic produce, along with a tour of the newly opened Mill Market, which features local food and goods sourced primarily within a 200-mile radius of the Lake Wallenpaupack region.(Visit www.millmarketpa.com  for upcoming local food events).
The public is invited to a discussion about Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” in approximately a month and is welcome to attend PASA group meetings on the first Thursday of the month at 7:30 p.m. at the Beach Grove Grange. For more information, contact Bollinger at 570/253-5700 or at firstname.lastname@example.org .