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Taking Stock of Successes with Local Foods

It was a wild way to break in the New Year, sharing local game and fish with hunters who donated their venison, pronghorn antelope backstrap and javelina “pork roasts” to their friends at the Cattle Baron in Flagstaff, Arizona. As we were sitting waiting for the first meat to come out of the roasting pit, I began to daydream about whether such an event would have even been “on my screen” some twenty years ago, as the local foods movement was first taking root.

Back before the founding of Chefs Collaborative, there were only 60 CSAs in the entire country, and some 1755 farmers markets; today there are more than 1700 CSAs and nearly 4400 farmers markets blessing our cities, towns, and rural landscapes. Over the last few years, there has been a 22% annual increase in local food sales in or near the communities where it was produced. Local food sales in the U.S. now top $5 billion a year, up from $2 billion/year in 2000. The many “local food challenges” are tangibly helping family farmers stay on the land, and attracting others to take up farming. In Oregon alone, the number of farms has grown from 26,700 in 1974, to more than 40,000 today. Books like Joan Gussow’s This Organic Life, Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors, Brian Halweil’s Eat Here, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Barbara Kingsolver and Steve Hopp’s Animal, Vegetable and Miracle, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s Plenty, and my own Coming Home to Eat have certainly helped inspire more folks to eat locally. However, the real work has been done on the farm and in the kitchen.

When Chefs Collaborative was founded in the early 1990, it took on the tasks of getting Americans “to celebrate local foods” and to work for “a more sustainable food supply that supports local economies.” On both counts, I believe we can firmly conclude its chefs have played the pivotal role in seeing that both of these tasks have been accomplished. This last year, not only did local foods hit the cover of Time magazine, but “locavore” was honored as the new word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary. There is still much to be done to deepen what is meant by eating locally, to revive locally-unique heritage foods that currently at risk, and to ensure “fair trade” among those unique products (such as wild salmon, maple syrup, wild rice, Buckeye chickens, heirloom apples and ramps) that move between regions, but Chefs Collaborative involvement in the Renewing America’s Food Traditions initiative has also been essential to moving these efforts along as well.

It is no time to rest on our laurels, since Walmart and McDonalds, like rust, never sleep. Nevertheless, it is a fitting time to congratulate the many that have played a role in bringing local foods back from a marginalized place in our society to a more secure and esteemed place. If we never stop to assess our progress and celebrate our successes, we may never see just how much can be done by dedicated individuals and communities taking modest but persistent steps toward our shared dreams.

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