I am only ever a reluctantly optimistic person, so I post this nervously. But I am seeing a real increase in the amount and sophistication of reporting on food-supply issues in the media. A year ago, I was not sure whether the Times or the Post had ever heard of sustainability. Today, in a special Small Business section of the Times Business section, there is a terrific and long piece, “Why Roots Matter More,” on the importance of “local” in people’s food purchasing decisions. There is an amusing bit about “food evangelists” which I sheepishly admit to being but if this is the result, I shall go on preaching!
According to the article, restaurants even low price-point ones are catching on to the idea that, at least on the East and West Coasts, folks are interested in sustainably raised foods. Apparently a recent Zagat’s survey found that 3/4 of West Coast respondents and over half of those on the East Coast said they’d pay more for sustainably raised foods. I thought Americans wouldn’t ever pay more for anything! Seriously, though, this is such a tired old saw used to support the idea that Walmart is a necessary evil, among other sins against humanity and I don’t think it’s true. Americans may not like paying more, but when we see what the truth is about the food we eat the food that makes us it starts to seem like food should be a little higher on the spending ladder than it is.
Patrick and I just spent some time in Michigan visiting my mom, and despite the fact that I was frustrated by a couple of restaurant experiences, I have to say that even in the great Mid-West, good food is getting more available. In Ann Arbor we had fabulous and largely sustainable and even regionally grown meats and other goodies at Zingerman’s. (A place so wonderful as to make Patrick want to take another long drive in a car!) And we also found succor at a pricey, but high-quality place called “Papa Joe’s,” that sells lots and lots of generally organic and sustainable prepared foods, as well as wine and fancy edibles.
Another important trend Patrick noted from the article is that even national or regional companies are finding ways to go local. Whole Foods is one example, in their positive response to prodding about their exclusion of local producers. Another mentioned is Bon Appétit, a company out of Palo Alto that runs cafeterias and cafés around the country for museums and corporate campuses. They have changed their business model from centralized planning to giving more control to chefs at each location, with an imperative to source at least 20% of the food locally. This is an amazing trend, and a critical one as we move forward. Most of the institutions we have in place to manage our food production and distribution as a society are regional, national, or international in scale. The companies in this article are forging a model for how these larger entities can re-localize.
Combined with the amazing efforts of truly local and small-scale producers it makes me start start to think we might find a way out of the mess we’re in.