Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Make it a locavore Thanksgiving

We Americans are used to cheap and plentiful food.

This painting, by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, is called "The First Thanksgiving." Puritans and Wampanoag feasted together on seasonal local foods, such as eel, swan, eagle, onions, squash and, yes, turkey. The first Thanksgiving was a far cry from our modern meal, and it shows how far away from seasonal, local eating our country has strayed.


Creators Syndicate

Right now, many of us are planning our Thanksgiving dinners. You have a big decision: to sit in front of a meal of imported ingredients grown around the world, in places the Pilgrims never set foot, or skip the supermarket and source all the ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner from local farms, mills and growers.

Eating local embodies the spirit of the first Thanksgiving, when Puritans and Wampanoag sat down together to share a meal that consisted mainly of shellfish, eels, wild fowl (including swans and eagles) and other local foods that they could gather or grow. When we source our foods locally, we eat in season and celebrate what's available near us. Absent from the first Thanksgiving feast were modern traditional dishes, such as corn on the cob (all corn was dried by that time of year), pumpkin pie (they had no sugar), cranberry sauce (maple syrup was their only sweetener) and stuffing (they served pudding).

We have altered the menu through the years, to the point that we rehash and serve the exact same dishes over and over. This year, have a real Thanksgiving by celebrating the local harvest and the hardworking hands that grew it. Buy your dinner ingredients from local farms, and prepare what is seasonally available in your area. Your food dollars will stay local, nourishing the farm family, farmhands and local community. This is an act of gratitude that bolsters your local economy during tight times.

Right now, you can find turkeys that live the way nature intended, chasing bugs, scratching in the grass and frolicking in the fall leaves, instead of penned up one on top of another in factory farms. These turkeys will cost a little more than their supermarket counterparts because they are not mass-produced or government-subsidized.

As a matter of fact, none of our small local farms is government-subsidized, so when you pay a little more for local produce, it is because you are paying the full cost to grow the food at a fair rate. Large farms that wholesale to chain grocers are subsidized by our tax dollars, which lowers the cost of goods on the supermarkets' shelves. This makes nonlocal grocery items appear cheaper than locally grown foods, but there are hidden costs that must be paid in the long run by someone else. These hidden costs include the loss of soil fertility, the social costs of cheap labor, and the environmental devastation of shipping food thousands of miles.

We Americans are used to cheap and plentiful food; we spend less on food than any other developed nation in the world. On average, Americans spend only 2 percent of their disposable income on meat and poultry, compared with 4.1 percent in 1970. This quest for cheap and plentiful has seen the average size of a farm bloat, while the number of farms and farmers has decreased. In the 1960s, one farmer supplied food for 25.8 people in the U.S. and abroad. Today that same farmer feeds 144 people.

This policy has led to a decline in farming. Farming even was removed as an occupation from the census. The average age of an American farmer is about 55. When these folks retire, few young people wish to take their places in the cheap food chain. Our national hope for food security lies with small-scale agriculture. Younger farmers are opting for organic and smaller-scale farms that retail directly to the public through farmers markets and specialty shops. Eighteen percent of organic farmers are younger than 35, compared with 5.8 percent in conventional agriculture.

For farming to be an economically viable profession, we must make it more profitable for the farmers by eliminating the middleman. Right now, farmers get about 8 cents of every dollar we spend on food in chain groceries. When you buy directly from the farm, the farmer gets the whole dollar, and that dollar has the economic impact of $2 in the farmer's community.

This year, as you and your family gather around the Thanksgiving feast, offer a prayer of gratitude for our small farmers and farmworkers. Give thanks that we still have people in our country willing to grow quality food in a market flooded with cheap imports. Support these hardworking folks by eating locally grown foods, at the holiday table and year-round. Let's reject our national food system—which makes "cheap" the highest priority, at a deep cost to the environment, the farmers and future generations—and spend a little more on quality local food and farms.

To find local Thanksgiving dinner ingredients:;;

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