For this month’s Kitchen Reader book club (get more info here if you’d like to join!) we had a choice of two books: either Eat Where You Live: How to Find and Enjoy Fantastic Local and Sustainable Food No Matter Where You Live by Lou Bendrick or Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly by James E McWilliams (chosen by Julie of Savvy Eats). Although I was leaning at first towards Just Food, after reading the reviews on Amazon it seemed like this book might frustrate more than enlighten me so I opted for the much shorter, lighter read, Eat Where You Live. If you are brand new to the concept of eating local and interested but intimidated by the concept, then this is a good primer. But it’s just that: a very basic primer.
It seems that the ideal reader of this book is a homeowner in a suburban or rural area with access to a car and a back yard who is used to grocery shopping at Wal-Mart and has only just learned about the concept of eating local. I am none of those things and so didn’t find this to be the helpful resource I was hoping it would be. Although there are useful tidbits woven in with painfully obvious generalizations (oh, I should wear weather-appropriate clothing to the farmer’s market and keep my dog on a leash? Thanks.) they are few and far between. Although she does include tips on eating local for city-dwellers, most of her advice (drive around looking for farm stands! Plant a garden!) is not relevant to much of the population that really needs help figuring out how to eat local. For city folks her big suggestions are to check out farmer’s markets, health food stores, co-ops, and Whole Foods. She does also mention CSAs (community supported agriculture) but the implication is that you have to go to the farm to pick up your share, while there are plenty available in most major US cities at this point.*
I was happy that Bendrick brought the local conversation beyond just meat and produce to fish, beverages, and eating out in restaurants. She rightly predicted that local spirits would be the next big thing, and sure enough they are popping up everywhere. Same with local microbrews. Bendrick suggests being mindful of eating at restaurants that support local farms and use local produce. Even the most die hard locavores may let down their guard outside the house.
Bendrick is quite adamant about organic as well, and implies it’s the next best thing to local. As someone who is somewhat skeptical of organic (I think it’s great but I do believe it’s been watered down so much that only a small percentage of a product needs to be organic for it to be labeled organic) I found her blind acceptance of organic a bit naive. While she says that consumers should be weary of labels like “natural” and “free-range” she seems to believe wholeheartedly in organic. Of course, there are worse things to believe in! (And again, I’m not anti-organic, just cautious.)
Although I was pleased that Bendrick addressed the fact that eating local can be a challenge for many, her coverage of the topic ultimately disappointed me. Her assumption is that those are not the people who are reading this book. Rather, she assumes her audience is made up of privileged people who can help those poor folks out there who don’t know any better and can’t afford to eat local (or eat at all). She suggests making a donation of time or money to a food pantry or soup kitchen, donating a csa share to a hungry family, starting a community garden, and eating less meat (which she argues will help solve world hunger because meat uses up so many resources). These are all wonderful ideas but there are no suggestions here for people living in food deserts (areas where healthy, affordable food options are unavailable) or who might think that eating local and healthy is more expensive than eating junk food. For a really fabulous article on this topic, read mark Bittman’s NY Times editorial “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?” So again, I found that Bendrick’s book did not come to the rescue of those who truly need help and resources to eat local.
I don’t want to be all negative. Bendrick has compiled a great list of resources that are sprinkled throughout and offers a wonderful glossary of food terms in the back. Her tone is realistic and approachable, urging people to be more mindful while acknowledging that “Sometimes I just want a Snickers bar.” But at just two years old, this book is already a little behind the times. Her biggest piece of advise is basically to use the internet to find resources, and the truth is that mainstream food media has really picked up on the whole local/sustainable thing and most food savvy people are aware of the choices she lays out. So if you really and truly don’t know where to begin with this whole eating local business, pick up Eat Where You Live: How to Find and Enjoy Fantastic Local and Sustainable Food No Matter Where You Live. Otherwise I would recommend a more in-depth book.