MY previous column focused on the concept of food miles and some of the inherent complications when trying to eat foods from closer to home (Feedstuffs, Dec. 9).
It's easy to make proclamations about the merits of eating more simply, more locally, but if we're really honest about food miles, it's an entirely different matter.
That's even truer if you really go all in and make a serious commitment to buying local. At least that's the premise of Andrew Grace's documentary film, "Eating Alabama," which he describes as a "story about why food matters."
He and his wife Rashmi return to their home in Alabama and "set out to eat the way their grandparents did: locally and seasonally." The film tracks their various travails in transitioning "back to a simpler way of life" — a pledge to eat food sourced strictly from their state of residence for an entire year.
Grace explains the foundation for his journey within the film as follows:
"This is the image I've always had of Alabama: a rural place filled with farmers living a kind of hazy, pastoral ideal. And it didn't matter much that no one in my family worked the land anymore and that I didn't actually know any farmers. It was this picture I had. But Rashmi and I grew up in the suburbs, and all we knew about our food was that it came from the grocery store. ... With all those farmers populating our families' history, I started to wonder how we got so far away from the land. When our grandparents were young, they ate seasonally and locally and lived what seemed like a simpler life. So, coming home, we began to wonder, 'What would it be like if we ate that way too?' To eat only food grown by Alabama farmers, ... wouldn't that be a better way to live?"
Their yearlong adventure begins with a grocery shopping trip to procure only local food. The trip becomes more of a discovery of just how challenging a year of eating locally will really be. The trip ends up taking two days and covers 767 miles (thereby defeating the entire purpose of reducing food miles when eating locally). The point is to demonstrate how much time and work lay ahead if the couple is to stay true to their 365-day-long experiment.
So, right at the start, the reality of this idyllic perception of a "simpler life" hits. The couple quickly discovers that their new lifestyle will be an uphill climb with the potential to also be incredibly restrictive. There's an immediate realization that the food system's vastness and complexity eliminates a lot of work on our behalf.
Sure, there's some commentary about the "industrialized food system" and the plight of U.S. farmers within such a system (including an interview with Alabama seed merchant Michael White, notorious for his litigation with Monsanto.)
In the end, the documentary is a relatively fresh, honest look at the realities of food production and distribution.
Most telling is Grace's observation in the middle of the documentary when he says, "I'm starting to think that the year of local eating is one big gimmick. When this all started, we wanted to know if we could eat locally, seasonally, the way our grandparents did, and the answer was 'yes.' But how we did it was so vastly different than our grandparents' day. It feels like we've been making an unsustainable argument for sustainability, and that's what's bothering me. We wondered if we could go back to the way things used to be, and the answer seems to be (that) there's nothing left to go back to."
Some may proclaim that they want to "go back to the start" or implement a "simpler way of life," but much of that is far more gimmicky than they realize. How many of us really (REALLY) want to walk behind a plow to produce our own food like our grandparents did or not have running water or live in a home without heat or air conditioning or give up the flat-screen TV?
While we might reminisce about better days in the past, society has evolved. It's impossible to live in some imagined world of days past while hanging onto all the privileges of today.
Much of our luxury and security are directly attributable to agriculture; it has provided us with incredible, bountiful access to food of amazing variety throughout the year — wherever we might live. That's a reality we often overlook unless we embark on a journey of awareness like that of Andrew and Rashmi Grace.
The real story within "Eating Alabama" is the discovery of just how much we take for granted. That is, the food industry's advances over time have underpinned opportunities for people to specialize and be creative in all sorts of new ways. All of us are better off as a result — not just regarding food but in every aspect of our life.
*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.