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Think Global, Eat Local

The sustainable food movement that began with Berkeley chef Alice Waters has blossomed in Portland, Ore. Are its proponents just dreaming? Or is a real revolution underway?

July 31, 2005|Jim Robbins | Jim Robbins is a freelance writer based in Helena, Mont. He last wrote for the magazine about Butte, Mont.

Greg Higgins, chef and owner of the tony downtown Portland restaurant Higgins, walks to the back of his bustling kitchen and opens a door into the heart of the latest environmental movement. The walk-in refrigerator is crammed with sides of beef covered with blankets of fat, glassy-eyed fish, rows of restaurant-made sausage and ham, trays of fresh vegetables in plastic tubs and assorted comestibles, nearly all of it originating within 100 miles of here, in what Higgins calls the Portland "foodshed." Virtually every item is brought in and dropped off by the farmer who raised it. "There's nothing more threatened than the American farmer," says the tall, burly Higgins a little later, as he swirls and sips a glass of Oregon white wine. "The goal is to keep them in business."

A personal connection between a restaurant chef and the people who grow his beef or broccoli rabe might not sound radical, but it's a major element of a burgeoning movement. It's called "sustainable food"--a chain of supply and demand that theoretically could continue in perpetuity. A shorter food chain cuts down on oil consumption, puts money in the pockets of disappearing farmers, is more humane, helps protect soil and water and, best of all, usually delivers food that tastes better. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley is credited with starting the movement in the U.S. Now, from the ivy-covered dorms at Yale to the public schools at Berkeley to the grocery stores, white-tablecloth restaurants and fast-food joints of Portland, a grass-roots movement is sprouting that emphasizes food with a local pedigree.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 14, 2005 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
The July 31 cover photograph of a pear on a toy truck should have been credited to Bill Boch/PictureArts, not NONSTOCK/PictureArts.

That this kind of relationship is even news is an indication of how crazy the food production and distribution system has become. Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization, estimates that just 1% or 2% of America's food is locally grown. He thinks the locally grown share could easily reach 40% or 50%, "and there's no reason why we couldn't grow all of our food."

The produce in the average American dinner is trucked about 1,500 miles to get to the plate, according to a 2001 study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, up an estimated 22% during the past two decades. And growing food is no longer an artisanal process, but a commodity. Large food producers focus on supplying products as cheaply as possible, and consumers are waking up to the fact that something's wrong. Things are getting weird out there in Hooterville: cloned cattle and sheep, genetically modified "Frankenfoods," schools of pen-raised and chemically dyed salmon, E. coli in beef, mercury and PCBs in fish, chickens crammed into cages the size of a sheet of paper, and giant hog farms that pollute watersheds and raise a stink for miles. Acres of topsoil get washed away by large-scale farming and pesticides wind up in human breast milk. Small farm and ranch families are disappearing, while large corporate farms reap huge federal subsidies, sometimes for growing nothing.

Peter de Garmo is the owner of Pastaworks, a sustainable grocery store in Portland, and the founder of the Portland chapter of Slow Food, a group that seeks sustainability in food. "Large-scale farming comes at an incredible cost," he says. "It's subsidized by the public at large without the public knowing it subsidizes it."

Some consumers are rebelling against the global marketplace and seeking out food whose history is known and friendly. While there are alternatives to mainstream food--organic, biodynamic, fair trade and others--the idea of a sustainable food system is generating the most interest.

The granola-and-Birkenstock types aren't the only ones behind the movement. The rock-rib Republican governor of South Dakota, Mike Rounds, supports a state program that requires animals to be tracked from birth, fed high-quality feed, treated humanely and otherwise remain well-cared for, under penalty of felony charges. Sustainable food is served in the restaurants of Yellowstone, Yosemite and other national parks. In Italy last year, 4,300 small farmers, chefs and other small-scale producers from around the world gathered for a conference called Terra Madre, or Mother Earth, to consider alternatives to the present food supply system.

Sustainable food "is growing beyond the culinary fringe," says Worldwatch's Halweil, who also is the author of "Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket." "It's showing up in restaurants, supermarkets, even Wal-Mart."

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