Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Choosing Local, One Thing at a Time

An interview with Tim Schlitzer, Executive Director, Food Routes Network and Buy Fresh Buy Local.

Chances are if you live near one of its 50 chapters in 17 states, you've seen a "Buy Fresh Buy Local" sign. Sighting one of these is a great way to know you are near a source of an active local food network.

"It's not a brand," he says. "It's just continuity that can be identified." You see, brands, according to Tim, mean a label. A set definition. Rules. Eating local is for a person and a community to define for themselves. An example of such restriction, he said, is the hundred-mile diet. A hundred miles of choices is a lot different for someone in Kansas compared to someone in New Jersey. You can't have such fixed rules in a localized approach.

Thus, the Buy Fresh Buy Local program doesn't dictate, rather it exists to help insure that there are local choices, and that consumers can find them. The program includes everything from creating "feedability guides" that identify new opportunities for growers and producers based on an individual community's needs, to assisting with grant proposals, to helping raise awareness of endangered foods and the importance of seed banks. The program also provides marketing materials and the "continuity" of the Buy Fresh Buy Local program that can serve as a guide for consumers.

At the heart of all these different activities, the organization serves as a liaison for sharing information on what programs work and what kinds of solutions are working in other chapters. Each of the 50-plus chapters then determines its own needs and can use the support, marketing materials, and shared knowledge to succeed in recreating its local food system.

Tim uses the analogy of microbreweries to help people understand what has happened to local food systems. As he explains, small, quality-driven breweries used to be the norm. Larger breweries with a standardized, cheaper product then took over. People since realized that the beer just wasn't as good, Tim says, and now you see the rebirth of microbreweries. Local food needs to experience the same rebirth.

Tim also advocates the rebirth of dialog with regard to food. As individuals we need to stop being complacent and take an active role in learning more about where our food comes from, he says. And, while the journey for each of us to define our local food may be complex, starting that journey does not have to be.

"I would say [for a consumer] to start with one thing rather than trying to broadly replace it all," Tim advises. Try sourcing that one thing, and the rest will grow from there.

This is sound advice given that many local food systems can't offer all of the local items needed to sustain their surrounding communities. By starting small, demand and supply can grow together.

As the executive director for the program, it's likely Tim has seen his share of both successes and, well, not successes. Despite this, he remains optimistic when asked about the next ten years ahead for his organization and the long-overdue "consumer-driven food revolution."

"I'd like to see local food systems to be recreated in every state," he says. Currently about two percent of foods are sourced locally. Tim's goals include raising that percentage to ten or even twenty-five percent. "Communities will learn to feed themselves again."

Tim seemed less optimistic about the pending farm bill.

"Too much politics. We can't wait. The public has to stop looking to government for change." There is a certain irony in allowing a centralized government define "rules" for local food systems. These systems are unique and can only be understood by the people in them, Tim explains. "Local chooses local," he says.

Despite the optimism, Tim advises others not to take the fragility of our food systems for granted. It only took fifty years to get to the current state of a highly centralized and industrialized system. It's the goal of Buy Fresh Buy Local and Tim Schlitzer — as well as the responsibility of each of us — to guarantee that when we choose local, we will have that choice.

More information on Buy Fresh Buy Local can be found at foodroutes.org.

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