Eating Local—More than Ever—Is a Political Act

I came to local food years ago, in college, when I learned how unsustainable our industrial system was—how precariously it rested upon the back of fossil fuels, a broken immigration system, and ecologically harmful monoculture crops. I learned that what looked like food could be built from things other than food—that it could actually not be food at all. What looked like food might allow me to survive, but it would also deposit into my body chemical compounds that left me moody, vitamin-depleted, laced with pesticides.

More important, I learned that an industrial food system that stretched across the globe failed, by default, to be accountable to its communities. It could nourish neither individual nor place, because its priority lay so inherently in profit margins and efficiency, in the logic of working parts. What seemed to be a miracle at first—that we could grow so much and transport it so far—has revealed itself to be profoundly undernourishing for all but the stockholders at the top, and not a form of sustenance at all.

Here is a question, then: What does it mean for our eating to nourish us? If the word sustenance refers to food or drink regarded as a source of strength, how might our eating become a deeper and more powerful source of communal strength in this way, in a political moment when we need it?

For the tiny tomatoes I buy each week from the father with round glasses and his two kids are votes. In the act of purchasing—by consuming intentionally—I cast a vote for my community: that the money stays here in Tucson, where it can do so much more. That the money not go onward into the pockets of corporations with the money and power to bulldoze ecosystems, scatter pesticides, and influence policy in ways that benefit a powerful few, the way it does when we shop in the industrial economy.

As the strength of regulatory agencies weakens under the new administration, our strongest hand in protecting ourselves from the noxious chemicals so wedded to agriculture may be in extending that hand to our local farmer—not once but weekly, as a feature of our lives. It’s that farmer who’s helping hone our stocks of drought-resistant heirloom seeds in the face of climate change. It’s that farmer who’ll develop the sustainable water practices necessary for prospering in parched-earth Arizona.

That our consumer choices amount to votes has long since ceased to be a novel idea, but I want to offer one variation. When we eat local, we create the conditions under which people are able to live the lives they love. Statistics about the way dollars spent locally stay within a community fail to illuminate what this looks like for individual entrepreneurs and farmers, freelancers and artists, those with the itch to make beautiful things, those deeply invested in living lives wedded to the land.

To be a farmer, you understand, is to risk. It is an act of faith to plant the crop, to kid the goats, to bring your salsa to the stand. Yet for those of us filled with the creative impulse, to not do so is a betrayal of the self. Our communities are enriched when people are able to be their boldest, most vibrant selves.

And what we need more than anything right now is to be our biggest selves.

If we honor the fullest potential of our community members when we...