Fighting to Define "Local;" Learning to Sustain It

Foggy late afternoon on Salisbury Beach

Foggy late afternoon on Salisbury Beach

These waters that cool, refresh, entertain, and dazzle us also feed us. Royally. The favorite celebratory summer food here on the Atlantic North Shore is lobstah -- with buttah, please.

2009 lobster prices are stunningly low for consumers. What's not to like about that??

Maine-ly, it's bad for the lobster harvesters, the ones who make their living hauling our lobsters up and in from the Atlantic floor, according to Abby Goodnough's story in the New York Times about boundary battles around an island in Maine: In Maine, Tensions Over Ailing Lobster Industry.

This story offers a new angle on "local," raising a question about who deserves to benefit when a prized food has a limited locale. Fortunately these concerns apply to very few foods, since much of what we need to survive -- and savor -- can be grown just about anywhere. [If you want to travel down this particular topic trail, check out New York City-based Window Farms.]

Abby Goodnough's story underscores a point that stretches beyond the coast to apply to any community food supply. A local food system works only when it sustains the ones who produce the food. Those of us who buy food benefit in the short term when prices dip. We suffer along with the growers and processors, though, when prices fall so low that our food providers struggle, fail, and exit food production completely. I've been pondering this conundrum for some time.

Even though we do not mean to be complicit in the kinds of furious family financial stress that can fuel rivalries with guns and pitchforks, our food choices always affect a larger economic web. That's a prime message of this summer's scariest movie, Food, Inc., which closes with a reminder that we vote three times a day (or more, if we follow the small meals eating plan) for the food system in which we participate.

Increasingly, by growing some of our own food, buying shares in farms' Community Supported Agriculture offerings, and shopping at farmers' markets, we can shrink our family's food systems to a size we can understand and influence. We can choose to pay fair prices for our food, supporting the growers so they can continue supporting us. Coastal families have new options for Community Supported Fisheries', too, for groundfish, shrimp, and even lobstah.

In her story for the Boston Globe, Devra First points out that Community Supported Fisheries bring fishing families into a connected network with their customers, decreasing isolation and boosting the community of support for sound policies. In addition, Community Supported Fisheries are good for all of us, even those who live happily a thousand miles or so from an ocean, because it sustains our oceans' balance of species:

The CSF isn't just a win-win for fishermen and consumers. It's good for the environment. When fishermen get higher prices for their catch, they can afford to fish less aggressively. The cooperative requires members to use more sustainable fishing methods, and in advising fledgling CSFs, it encourages them to do the same.

"This thing was started as an incentive for fishermen to adopt more conservation-oriented fishing practices," Libby says. "It's tough to go out there and catch less without compensation. This gives average consumers a way to help. They're supporting fishermen doing things a different way. It means something. It's not just lip service."

I can vote for that, three times a day.