Brian Halweil / San Francisco Chronicle – 2004-12-27 09:46:19
(December 23, 2004) — Earlier this month, outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson ruffled his bosses’ feathers when he admitted, “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.” Administration officials quickly disavowed and denied the concerns. But Thompson isn’t the only high-ranking politician to acknowledge this Achilles’ heel.
Over the last few years, the Department of Defense and the Department of Agriculture have run a series of war games to assess how our nation would fare against an act of agricultural terror. With code names like Silent Prairie and Crimson Sky, these exercises imagined what might happen if someone walked onto a western cattle ranch with a sample of foot-and-mouth disease, or dropped corn-leaf blight out of a plane over the Midwest, or dumped a deadly strain of E. coli into the mixer at a food-processing plant.
These simulations generally conclude with billions of dollars in economic losses, tens of millions of imaginary animals destroyed and more than a handful of farmers and civilians shot by the National Guard after trying to break quarantines.
From this perspective, the American food system, perhaps the most technologically advanced and economically competitive on the planet, resembles the proverbial sitting duck. In particular, the long-distance hauling of food that has come to define how Americans eat — the average food item now travels more than 1,500 miles from farm to plate, according to a Worldwatch Institute estimate based on a survey of wholesale food distribution centers around the nation — creates endless opportunities for unfortunate contamination and rapid spread of biological agents.
Yet, military and agricultural officials have ignored this reality and generally turned their attention to logistical remedies — more effective interstate communication between veterinarians; biological surveillance markers throughout the countryside; better quarantine procedures.
Natural Security Means National Security
Fortunately, millions of Americans are taking matters into their own hands. They are swarming farmers’ markets, asking about the origins of restaurant ingredients and demanding homegrown fare at their favorite grocer, declaring independence from the globe-trotting food chain.
Some large food companies are already embracing an allegiance to place, as the hunger for homegrown fare pushes beyond the culinary fringe. Leading food-service firms, such as Bon Appetit and Sodexho, have started offering meals based on regional produce to their university and corporate clients in the Pacific Northwest.
There isn’t a major school district in the country that shouldn’t consider a program to make its meals tastier and healthier by including more ingredients raised nearby. An experiment that started six years ago to put a “farmers market salad bar” in all of Santa Monica’s schools has grown to include more than 700 school districts in two dozen states, where a half million students regularly eat local food. The Edible Schoolyard program that started in Berkeley has inspired parents around the nation to ban junk-food vending machines, take back cafeteria contracts from fast-food providers and regain control over their children’s health.
Hospitals and Medical Care Facilities Take the Lead
Kaiser Permanente, the largest health-care provider in the United States, is hosting farmers markets at some of its facilities, and the hospital chain is exploring the possibility of using locally grown produce for its salad bars and serving only antibiotic-free meat in its cafeterias. The Sutter Maternity and Surgery Center in Santa Cruz is already buying nearly 20 percent of its fruits and vegetables from a 110-acre community farm about 15 miles from the clinic.
Local food can even accommodate the fast-food model. Burgerville, a chain of 39 fast-food restaurants in America’s Pacific Northwest, features a menu nearly identical to that of McDonald’s, but it buys the bulk of its ingredients from farmers in Oregon and Washington.
The Holy Grail for local cuisine seems to be the heavily guarded supermarket shelves, where Americans do 90 percent of their shopping. But some avant-garde stores, trying to distinguish themselves from Wal-Mart and Costco, have already shown how much can be done. On New York’s Long Island, King Kullen has committed to buying Long Island fruits and vegetables when in season for its 50 stores. Five years ago, it spent $100,000 on produce from Long Island farmers. In 2004, it spent $4 million.
Local Markets Are Stocking Local Produce
New Seasons Market, a chain of six stores in Portland, Ore., has introduced a Pacific Village label to denote foods from Northern California, Oregon, Washington or British Columbia, and right now, as we enter winter, about half of its produce and virtually everything in its meat case carries that label.
At a time when our food travels farther than ever before, this surging interest in “eating local” is the most significant and encouraging change in the American diet. Not simply because less food shipping makes the nation less vulnerable to oil shortages, transportation disruptions or large-scale food contamination. Buying local food means tastier and fresher fare, and could be part of the dietary solution to our obese nation’s addiction to processed foods loaded with fat and sugar. Eating local supports our neighbors and keeps cash in the local economy. Eating local combats sprawl and saves oil. (A typical meal put together from long-distance ingredients uses four times the energy of the same meal put together from local ingredients, and often much more.)
Which raises an interesting question: When Republicans, Democrats and people of all political persuasions can agree that it’s unwise to depend on foreign oil, why haven’t we come to the same realization about something we put in our mouths?
So the next time a cynic tells you that shopping at a farm stand or lobbying your child’s school cafeteria to serve local veggies or getting your supermarket to do the same is quaint or romantic or a waste of time, just tell them that you’re doing your part for homeland security.
Brian Halweil is a senior researcher with the Worldwatch Institute and author of Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket (W.W. Norton, 2004).
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.