“Local” food — food that comes from near where you live — isn’t a recent idea. Though the intertwining of the words “local,” “organic” and “green” certainly has been pushed heavily in the dining scene over the last five years, the notion of local foods has been around since ... well ... forever. And after the arrival of European settlers, entire communities grew up and ate what was available around them since transportation was limited. This also meant they ate seasonally.
Much of the European culinary tradition fell along the path of seasonality and locality of ingredients, too. Different regions of Italy, for instance, use native ingredients in cuisine because that’s what was available to them. The trend was the same in America — until the early to mid-1900s, when communities began to homogenize.
Ultimately, eating local in the United States fell victim to commerce, convenience and cost. Starting first with the railroad infrastructure gradually put in place in the mid-1800s to the advancements of refrigerated trucks, ships and cargo planes, every corner of the globe is now reachable within just a few days. While this is great because we can now experience cuisine from every culture in the world, it also means that Ohio peaches grown by a small, local farmer are competing with peaches from Mexico or Brazil that are cheaper to grow, pick, process and ship.
Eating local started gaining popularity again in the United States — in part — when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971 in Berkeley, Calif. Waters championed the cause of serving produce when it was at its best, prepared simply to highlight the natural flavors, and developed a network of local farmers, ranchers and dairy farms — gaining the attention of both diners and other chefs and inspiring the “California cuisine” movement.
The local food movement also resurfaced as a reaction to U.S. agricultural policy changes in the early ‘70s. Corn farmers were no longer paid to not plant all of their fields and were encouraged to “get big or get out” — which many did, as the rise of industrial agri-business began edging smaller family farms. As a result, the remaining farmers began to grow massive quantities of crops that would be subsidized: corn and soy. It literally changed our diets, ushering in the era of processed, fast foods.
During this time, it was mostly hippies and environmentalists promoting local food. Fast forward a few decades, and the correlation between our food supply and many of our societal problems (economic, health, environmental) has catapulted the local food movement into the mainstream. As a society, we’re finally realizing that if we don’t demand better, healthier options, we aren’t going to get them.