Investing in Your (Food) Economy

13 Jun

As I begin my preparations for yet another move (this will be my seventh in as many years), and begin the process of integrating myself into yet another new community, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of investment. The various paths to community.

The very first thing I do now when I know my new location is search out the good food options — is there a co-op? What’s the farmer’s market situation? What kind of CSA options might exist in my price range? My favorite resource to start looking (as I tend to also move great distances, and so must take the first steps remotely) is the great website Local Harvest, with a complex searchable database.

My new location appears to have a lot to offer by way of good food opportunities — no co-op, but lots of markets in the area, all of which run into the fall and offer links to local producers who offer shares into the winter months as well. I’m excited by the prospects and availability. I’m thrilled to get to buy meat directly from producers, to once again have my choices of leafy greens, to taste what the grass of Pennsylvania tastes like (via the cheeses!).

And I’m feeling somewhere in my chest the best and least tangible of all the benefits of local food — the ways in which participating in a local food economy makes you feel a part of the community.

Some of it is simple and direct, in that you meet more people at a farmer’s market than in a grocery store. And of course, you feel safer knowing and seeing where your food came from. You feel you’ve made less of an environmental impact. But there is a pride to handing your money over to another member of the community that immediately draws you into that intricate web of people and place.

There is a very real economic benefit to spending your food dollars locally. Local spending boosts a community’s overall income level, as it helps create local jobs, and as local producers will tend to spend their profits locally, too. And this time, I’m finding that my tendency to support local food markets is drawing me further into the community overall.

I research local food options in advance of a move so that  I don’t become complacent — so that I don’t just make that first grocery trip, quick and easy, to the mega-chain in town. And now, this time, I don’t want to let myself do that anywhere. It’s so easy, when you move, to stick to the familiar. To run to Target for those basics, instead of checking out the local Main Street general store (yes, those places do still exist!), or to swing by Best Buy or Barnes & Noble instead of finding the local — even if used! — book or record store. To open your new bank account at the national for-profit institution that played a crucial role in the current global recession rather than joining a credit union.

Nowhere do we fall more prey to this than food. On road trips, we stop at rest area McDonald’s, rather than drive off the beaten path to find a local diner. We eat at Applebee’s and call it “the neighborhood bar and grill.” But we rob ourselves of the opportunity to discover the wonderful specificity of our place by directing our investments to the branded, the familiar.

The financial rewards of a local investment — in food or music, books or banking — pay emotional dividends. The joy of discovering the character of your community, the taste of the soil, the personalities of zip codes. I know it all sounds very old-world romantic, very Little House on the Prairie, but it’s true. You may never become friends with the people of your co-op, but you leave that store with a purchase knowing you have invested in more than a profit. You have invested in a place, and that makes it  yours.

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