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OPINION: Fresh, But Local? 

Many consumers still don’t ask the most important questions when buying food.

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A little fruit stand just opened at the Henrico-Goochland line, and it brings back a world of memories for me.

I do not eat strawberries, tomatoes or melons out of season. We have a large garden and preserve gallons of canned food, but I cannot grow everything. Until this year, half of my gardening space went to raise a market crop of Thai hot peppers. Now some of that space has been used as a pasture for chickens. To fill the gaps in the menu, I pop by our farmers market or the fruit stand.

Except for people in poverty who live in food deserts, ours appears to be a time of unprecedented abundance for fresh food. Even big grocers in our supermarket-wars town have prominent displays of locally grown produce.

This looks good, at first blush. But is it?

Farmers markets can provide us with the freshest vegetables possible, some of the bounty only hours out of the ground. Much of it is organic, and the small-scale farmers I know are good stewards of the land. They follow some of the same practices I do. My food crops never see pesticides or herbicides, beyond a few homemade brews of soap, alcohol, water and hot-pepper oil.

At market, those who care about such matters often ask vendors if they sell produce without toxins. Most consumers I know do not, however, ask vendors two even more important questions: "Did you grow that yourself?" and if the answer is "no," then "Where are you getting that?"

In their rush to meet demand, too many markets do not hold to the rule of being for growers only. At some smaller markets, I have watched as resellers come in and pile tables high with produce they may have purchased from a produce house. This hurts local growers. I am fine with that practice at my fruit stand, because nothing comes from farther away than the Carolinas or Maryland.

I grew up around agribusiness. My father purchased tomatoes in Florida and on the Mexico-Arizona border. He had them shipped green from packing houses to his repackaging plant in Chesapeake. The tomatoes went into walk-in coolers until they were ripened by ethylene gas, hastening the process tomatoes use naturally. Then the produce shipped out to Burger King, the Navy base and other locations. My dad, a 20th century modernist, would have considered farmers markets highbrow anachronisms, though he was fond of buying from fruit stands and truck farmers. It took him back to the 1930s, helping his brother at a stand on Belvidere Street.

I think about him when I order a Whopper, something I do a few times annually. Burger King and the Navy put me through the University of Virginia, and I get nostalgic for an honest man who built a thriving business one handshake at a time.

Pop admitted that locally grown food was simply better, but in the late 20th century, who had time for that?

Me. You. It's a new century. We need to make time. Today's market is very different from what my dad knew. Many affluent consumers want to know the story of their food, and the pressure to provide the freshest ingredients is great. Yet even in a good year the future for producers can be dicey: A friend who became a farmer full-time after a layoff during the Great Recession tells me that while restaurant sales are good, his market business among younger buyers is flat or falling. For all their foodie ways, those shoppers do not cook but come to market to socialize and look for artisanal soaps or prepared foods. That makes it even more important for the rest of us to buy our vegetables there and to teach our kids how to cook. Most national chains only nod to local producers, and their farm-to-table routes stretch across thousands of miles, even oceans.

Mine is not a call to be a purist 24/7. The more we buy organic and — even more importantly to me — local, the more we encourage two key measures of food security. We do not know the long-term effects of trace pesticides and herbicides in our food. They accumulate slowly in our bodies. Companies like Ortho and Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland would rather we not ask such questions or conduct multiyear, longitudinal studies of exposure to chemicals in herbicides and pesticides. Conventional corn is dosed with Roundup to kill weeds. Agribusiness multinationals certainly are not funding research in a way that appears in the news.

Even if one buys conventionally farmed, genetically modified organism food, known as GMO food, from a local farmer, as I sometimes do, we help preserve farmland and our future. Grocery stores hold about three days' worth of stock. I'm not a doomsday prepper, but I support building a resilient network of local growers to feed our cities in times of crisis. That is Joel Salatin's vision, at Polyface Farm, of national hubs of local producers and distributors that gradually supplant agribusiness.

I tell friends who care about their food this: To ensure your family's food future, ask two simple and polite questions.

"Did you grow that yourself?" and, "No? Where are you getting that?" S

Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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