Organic Divide: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Local Food

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I am constantly thinking about food.

I might be thinking about a meal at a new restaurant, a recipe to try, or how not to spend a whole paycheck at Whole Foods.

I’m not (always) thinking about it because I’m hungry, or because I’m trying to count my calories, but because I can.

The other week I covered a food justice event at a synagogue on the South Side. The panelists highlighted the disparity between Hyde Park and its neighboring food deserts, places where there is little or no access to healthy food. The audience was highly involved and full of intelligent questions for the panel, which posed some intriguing solutions.

But as I sat there it occurred to me that everyone in the audience was already keenly aware of the problem. That buying organic or “natural” is now an inherently privileged thing, whereas for thousands of years it was the only thing. And now the people who most need access to healthy food don’t have the opportunity, either because they can’t afford it or because it’s not even an available option where they live. Worst of all, it’s unclear how to change it.

I can devote time contemplating where to eat. I can cook from scratch at home using produce I only had to walk 10 minutes to find. I can choose eggs enriched with Omega 3’s, or laid by chickens that have access to the outdoors and are “happy.” (Perhaps they have regular foot massages. I don’t know. But it seems like those eggs are priced that way sometimes…)

I can think about where or what I want to eat rather than “What can I eat?”

This choice illustrates the difference between me, a grad student and nutrition reporter for the Medill News Service, and most of the world, even a sizeable part of Chicago. And I am not proud of that.

What’s there to do besides feel terrible, and then feel terrible for feeling terrible?

I’m going to go out on a pesticide-free limb and say that local, in this case urban, agriculture is an answer. Maybe not the answer, but one of them.

And don’t just take my word for it. Ask Stephanie Izard. The Top Chef winner, owner of The Girl and the Goat and all-around Chicago foodie darling thinks that farming close to home, even in the city, will have a huge impact.

“We [at The Girl and the Goat] work with as many local products as we can and try to support small farms,” Izard said. “I think we will be seeing more and more farms IN the city as the ones just outside the city continue to grow.”

And it’s not for just hippies or the bourgeoisie. It’s for anyone who wants wholesome food that also happens to be inexpensive. With urban agriculture, the idea is to turn food deserts into food destinations, said Harry Rhodes, executive director of Growing Home, Inc.

Local food doesn’t have to travel as far to get to you. This not only lessens your carbon footprint (if you’re concerned about that kind of thing), but it’s cheaper to produce and cheaper for you to purchase.

Local food is fresher, and as logic dictates, tastier. It hasn’t sat on a truck for a week and been driven across the country to get to your face.

Local food is easier to access. Growing in or near the city increases availability to all members of a community, not just those who live near fancy grocery stores. Farms are springing up in unlikely places, in vacant lots in “food desert” neighborhoods. Many farmers' markets in Chicago also operate indoors in the winter, and now accept the LINK card, or food stamps.

Local food provides local jobs. When you buy local, your money stays local, stimulating the local economy and employing people from the neighborhood.

And if your farm is local and you want to know how they raise their products, you can go visit them or find them at the farmers' market and – quite a novel thing here – ask them yourself.

It’s like that orange juice commercial, where the shopper reaches through the display case to an orange grove on the other side. Except it’s not a commercial, it’s actually happening.

- blog by Jennifer Wholey, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

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