Local Food? Tasty And A Good Source Of Stories

November 15, 2006

 By CHERYL DORSCHNER

Attendees at SEJ's 16th Annual Conference in Burlington, Vt., Oct. 25-29, will have a chance to witness a basic, but littleexplored issue for most environment writers: food.

A number of other issues will be explored, of course. But in Vermont, SEJ conference attendees will be able to grapple with the environmental issues of food.

SEJers will address "Eating as an Environmental Act" in a panel discussion Friday, Oct. 27 from 11:15 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

Also, food issues will come to life during a Saturday, Oct. 28 "Farm to Fork Diversified Agriculture" mini-tour.

And 'fresh,' 'local,' and 'seasonal' will be watchwords during SEJ's traditional Saturday evening reception as guests enjoy walk-around tasting with a chance to talk to Vermont food producers and leaders of organizations including the Vermont Fresh Network. An "all- Vermont" dinner and desserts will follow.

When the topic is food, too often legitimate environmental stories end up getting the "lifestyle" treatment. For example when environmental author Bill McKibben became a "localvore" for seven months, he sold the tale to Gourmet and feature writers interviewed him with me-too versions.

As Marion Nestle, food-politics and safety author, publicizes her latest book, "What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating," articles appeared in The Washington Post living section and on CNN's American Morning show. But nowadays food is also about science, economics and politics.

"Feeding first-world countries is inextricably intertwined with environmental issues because these countries have globalized food production and distribution systems," says Rachel K. Johnson, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Vermont and a registered dietician.

That wasn't always so.

"It is only since World War II that the U.S. saw centralizing food systems as a way to feed its burgeoning population. Americans believed that use of emerging technology would make food better, safer and more nutritious," says Johnson, who also is the principle investigator with the Food Systems Leadership Institute, a consortium of universities funded by the Kellogg Foundation, which trains leaders in the interconnected economic, social, cultural and technological aspects surrounding food.

"My own parents are typical of that generation – they couldn't be happier to get off the farm. My dad believed technology was going to save us," says Megan Sheridan who is now director of Vermont Fresh Network, a nonprofit organization networking farmers, food producers and restaurants. "He's changed his thinking on that, but one thing hasn't changed. He has always believed in local food."

Sheridan and Vermont Fresh Network embody efforts worldwide to turn the food system around. Organic farmer organizations abound, the Slow Food and Oldways movements and the number of nonprofits working toward repairing the food system are legion – and usually regional. Many have the words "green," "sustainable" or "local" in their names.

"Local speaks to everyone," Sheridan asserts.

Cheryl Dorschner directs the University of Vermont's (UVM's) effort to bring SEJ's 16th annual conference to Vermont, Oct. 25-29. UVM will co-host the conference with Vermont Law School.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall, 2006 issue.

CHERYL DORSCHNER