Thursday, September 2, 2010

Oh, Urbanites and Local Food, how fun!

I am not a country boy, or a farm boy or anything like that, and I don't pretend to be. I grew up in Chicago (albeit nearly suburban, but my address was Chicago!), took the train, the bus. I didn't get my drivers license until I was 19. I ate at many different restaurants of varying quality and ethnic origin. And then I went to college in rural Minnesota, got into local foods, married a farm girl, and live in a town of 65,000, for now.

I still read the Chicago Tribune, and occasionally it has articles on local foods that interest me, like this one:,0,3015712.story?page=2 . This article today though got me thinking: What on earth are we doing listening to Urbanites to much about our "Local, farm fresh food". Apart from a few urban CSAs and City Farm type operations, this food isn't really all that local. Yes, it's as local as it can possibly be, and I commend city people for shopping at Farmer's Markets and getting out to the country once a year for a Harvest Festival. All that is really great. But I agree with the naysayers who say that Local Food may not be the most environmentally beneficial thing for city dwellers to eat. If you live in LA, that kiwi shipped across the Pacific in a mega-ship might have a lower per-bite carbon footprint than the apple driven in a pick-up from NorCal.

But, believe it or not, not all Americans live in Urban Areas. The US Census says that about 79% of Americans live in Urban areas. Urban being defined as - get this - 2500 people or more. Here's a little chart to help you decide how many Americans live in Urban Areas, by category percent and (the cumulative percent):

Urban Areas over 200,000 : 58.274%
Urban Areas 50,000 to 199,999: 10.372% (68.619%)
Urban Clusters 5,000 to 49,999: 8.918% (77.537%)
Urban Clusters 2,500 to 4,999: 1.654% (79.191%)

Sorry about not knowing how to make a chart, but back to the topic at hand. Having lived in or spent time in many different places, I can say that for most cultural purposes, Urban Areas, with real amenities, culture and markets don't start until 50,000 at best, and there are plenty of wastelands that approach 200,000. But for our purposes, we're going to look at the 31.5% of the population that lives in Urban Clusters of 49,999 people and less. And by look at them I mean: These are the people for whom Local Foods really make sense. Towns in Rural Iowa, Montana, Georgia. This is where we should be developing our local food cultures, helping to start Farmers' Markets and Business to Business food networks.

These are the places it makes Economic, Environmental and Social sense to develop a local food industry because can be cheaper than mega-agriculture, non-elitist, and help form community in places that are bleeding population. I'm sorry, but Queens, NY doesn't need much help with it's "sense of place" and "community identity," but Algona, IA might be a different story.

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