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The Discomfort Zone

April 9, 2012

It’s interesting when we use the term “out of your comfort zone”, because by doing so we’re describing an uncomfortable situation but still clinging to a positive sounding phrase, ‘comfort zone’. Sounds all cozy, doesn’t it? Thing is, leaving your comfort zone is, duh, not comfortable. I hereby proclaim I’m not leaving anything, but rather, stepping into my “discomfort zone”.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited, along with four other local food writers/bloggers/activists to a breakfast hosted by a large PR firm, Ketchum, where we were introduced to a room full of folks from the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. The USFRA is promoting ‘food dialogues’ in an effort to break down miscommunication and misinformation regarding the work farmers and ranchers do bringing food to your table.

If you do a little quick digging, you find that the USFRA is mostly large-scale farmers and it is supported by Monsanto, DuPont, Pfizer and John Deere – all components of “big ag” that I rail against regularly. At this breakfast, my good friend Ellen Malloy also railed against these folks. It was a little nasty and so was her follow up blog post, but the fascinating thing is that good will come out of it. Despite the rocky start, Ellen and I both realize there is a brilliant opportunity here to have constructive, respectful discussions with, well, the “enemy”. Read the comments on her blog and you will see there is dialog emerging, there is a yearning from both sides to understand each other better.

That’s the part about being in my discomfort zone. I don’t much care for conflict and Ellen and I have hatched a plan, the One Hundred Meals project, that calls for regularly placing my ideals in harms’ way. Up to now, I mostly sit around with like-minded local food advocates and “rage against the machine”. Now I’m going to sit down to a meal with “the machine” and see what I can learn, see what obstacles our large-scale farmers face in trying to feed us. And I will likely find there are hypocrisies in my own precious food system – are all the small farms we love really raising pastured animals, for example? Hmmm…

We’ll launch a website soon that will fully explain how the One Hundred Meals project works, but essentially we’re going to seek out farmers of all stripes and have a meal with them. And ask them tough questions. And get grilled ourselves. We are doing this for your benefit too, so if you have questions you want addressed, send them my way!

[For Ellen’s description of the One Hundred Meals project, read here: One Hundred Meals.]

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So my first homework assignment as a One Hundred Meals person is to read:

Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly by James E. McWilliams.

I’ve just read the intro so far, but as the title suggests, McWilliams is going to question locavorism. Being a pretty staunch locavore in practice, I thought it might be important for me to clarify my current reasons for locavore eating and I’ll see how they hold up as I read further, so here goes:

Why eat locally?

I think it boils down to trust. My conscious eating means I want my food to contain as few additives, sprays, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and GMOs as possible. The best way currently to achieve that is to buy from small, local farms that do not use such things. And although I know a lot of farmers personally and have visited their farms, I am also able to expand my shopping options by choosing from some local farms that I don’t know personally but who are part of my community. I know people who know them. They are part of a circle of connected people and I’m in that circle, so there is a high level of trust about their product. I cannot get that from large grocery store produce and meats yet – I hope we get there somehow. Locavorism produces this circle of trust.

Remember too that eating locally means, by definition, that you are supporting a small business in your community. It means you can have a direct connection to the grower if you want it. It means you can make new produce requests – they’ll be interested to know if there’s something you wish they’d grow and they can respond quickly. It also means you may see their name on local restaurant menus. I like to eat out and I like to see that my circle of trust extends more and more now to my dining options.

Eating locally simply means that I can know where my food comes from. Eating from packages and nameless produce bins at the large grocery stores means total ignorance about my food.

I agree there are flaws with eating locally:

  • For one: chocolate, salt, olive oil, coffee.
  • Secondly, it goes “poof” the minute you leave your locality. Travel and you’re sunk.

And I agree we could have grocery store labeling that would tell me more about my food, but right now, we don’t have that. I am not hung up on “local” per se, I am hung up on its current advantages:

  • trust
  • transparency – what’s in it and what’s been sprayed on it
  • I’m investing in my community
  • seasonality – Yes, it’s ok and totally possible not to eat fresh tomatoes in the winter. They taste terrible anyway.
  • flavor and heirloom diversity – The opposite of locavorism is food that travels across the country, which by definition will be durable goods. An heirloom tomato, picked ripe, is not a durable good.
  • education – I learn nothing from a grocery store. I have learned mountains about my food from local farmers because they are local, standing in front of me, and love to talk!

Am I suggesting locavorism is THE food system model we should implement, no. I think I’m suggesting it should be a bigger part of our food system, recognized as an asset and supported by our farm bill food policy so that it thrives. What if we inverted the proportions – instead of most food being non-local and a tiny percentage of what we eat being local, we had it the other way around. We’d ship things that ship well, like frozen foods, canned goods and chocolate. And not ship whole tomatoes. We would source fresh produce seasonally and locally. In the winter, the system might bend a little and ship in some produce for those who don’t eat squash, sweet potatoes and carrots.

So those are my thoughts on the maligned term “locavorism”. I will now read more of McWilliams’ book to see where he takes it!

And now, a gratuitous garden photo because, well, it’s beautiful and this blog post has a lot of words in it for a photographer!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2012 11:07 am

    This is a great post and a great idea. I think on one extreme are people that insist you can only “feed the world” with industrial, fossil-fuel driven agriculture, and on the other people with somewhat idyllic notions of farms and gardens that can never really scale. Most of us are in between – and meeting real people with different ideas is the best way to find common ground, and practical solutions. Things can’t change until there is a workable path to change.


  1. The Local Beet: Chicago » The Weekly Harvest 4/12/12: Blogs Here and Yonder

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