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By Thea Klein-Mayer

LOCAL. What a jam-packed word!

I consult the dictionary —

“belonging or relating to a particular area or neighborhood, typically exclusively so.”

But what in this modern globalized world is exclusive to one place? And what does this mean for food?

I turn to the USDA—

While there is no consensus about how to define ‘local food systems’ in terms of the geographic distance between production and consumption, defining ‘local’ based on marketing arrangements—such as farmers selling directly to consumers at regional farmers’ markets or to schools—is well recognized.

Hmm. There is something intriguing about removing distance from the concept of local, so that rather than focusing on miles travelled, it’s about the directness of a sale.

Defining local may seem unnecessary but it underlies all that I do. You see, my AMI Senior Fellowship placement is as the “Local Foods Coordinator” at the Highland Center in Highland County, Virginia. Advocating for local producers is my job. I use the word about fifty times a day. It’s also relevant after work—Monterey, the town I live in, has no grocery store, with many residents relying on a dollar store, a small pantry and deli, the food they’ve saved from their own gardens, and trips out of the county to “stock-up.”  

Coming out of the AMI Farm Fellowship, I was overtaken with how important eating locally has become to me. For produce there is nothing better—snapping peas off a vine to consume that night or nibbling kale as you harvest it for a hearty lunchtime salad. Quality, however, is only one reason. Growing our own food, or buying it from farmers we know, can have a huge impact on our environment, health, community, and conscience. While local is not synonymous with sustainable, small scale agriculture is generally less harmful, requiring less chemical fertilization and pest-control, less heavy machinery, less packaging, and fewer miles traveled to our plates, equating to less fossil fuel burned. We can be confident that our meat was raised humanely. We can name every ingredient. We can support our communities by keeping our money cycling locally.

There’s something so human about it too. It enables a dialogue about food. As Monterey Farmers’ Market Manager, Scott Smith puts it, “[It] gives us the opportunity to not only talk to the person who grew it before we buy it, but after. If something isn't good you can have that conversation. If something is great you can deliver the praise yourself.” Local allows for feedback. It allows for relationships. Not to mention, we can know the quality of life our farmers have, something so distant (out of sight and out of mind?) when we choose a product grown far away.

In Monterey, a lot is happening to build a robust local food economy. Local businesses already feature some local products and new businesses are in the works. Small scale meat producers are benefiting from access to the in-county meat processing plant, Allegheny Meats. Allegheny Mountain Institute is playing an important role bringing future farmers to the area and teaching skills, from canning to gardening, of which many have lost sight.

The Ellingtons, of Ginseng Mountain Store are renovating a space at the intersection of 220 and 250 that plans to open this year and will feature products from Highland County.

Here at The Highland Center, despite imminent renovation, our programs are in full swing. We’ve begun planning the eighteenth season of the farmers’ market that will be hosted at the Center’s pavilion even through construction. We’re working to expand the reach of the Faces of Farmers project, School Garden Project, and our local food offerings at the meals we host here at the center, including the upcoming Maple Fest Dinners.

And that brings me to my working definition of local. Defining it like the USDA doesn’t quite do it. After all, I could buy avocados directly from a farmer in California, but that certainly doesn’t feel local. Distance does matter.

I called up a regional bright spot on the topic, Friendly City Co-op in Harrisonburg, and asked how they define local. Simply put, “anything from Virginia,” said staff member Brian Ripley, “with a couple exceptions for producers right over the West Virginia or Maryland borders… Everyone has their own definition but that is one we use.”

Here it goes:

Buying locally means supporting local businesses and individuals. It means shortening the distance between producer and consumer for the health of every part of the chain. The closer, the better.

I’ll continue to build on this definition and hope you will join me. And next time you’re in a grocery store, I challenge you to fill your cart according to the definition you come up with.  

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