Coming to Terms with our Food

by Rob Jackson | June 27th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments

Rob Jackson’s family are locavores. Here, his wife Sally and son David spin honey from combs.

“Buy food from local farmers.” That was how President Bush answered a recent question about energy demand and soaring food prices around the world. Surprisingly, he channeled the home food movement.

Local food is hot right now. It’s being touted as better tasting and more sustainable (something that is often, though not universally, true). A local apple is usually fresher and takes a lot less energy to reach your table than a New Zealand one does. A recent Iowa State study [PDF] estimated that onions, strawberries, carrots, and lettuce in the U.S. travel about 1,800 miles on average to reach our plates.

Because local food is so “in,” a smorgasbord of terms has sprung up around the movement. Want to be a locavore (the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2007 word of the year)? Then eat food that comes from as close to your home as possible. How about adopting the 100-mile diet — eating only food grown or produced within a hundred miles of where you live. Inspired consumers choose slow food over fast, a movement that highlights healthy, fresh, and locally produced food over the mass-produced and waistline-enhancing fare we eat from our favorite burger chain or supermarket. I don’t care about trendy terms; I do care about the quality of food.

A Natural Food Obsession

My family spends a lot of time thinking about meals. One reason for our food obsession is that we have three sons who stop eating only when they sleep. We also think a lot about how our food was produced and where it came from.

When I joined the Duke faculty nine years ago we decided to raise as much of our food as possible. We don’t farm, so we’re not close to feeding ourselves, but we do have a large vegetable garden. We planted an orchard with a grape arbor and heirloom apples, pears, and plums. We raise chickens for eggs, pheasants for tying flies, and goats for milk and cheese. Local food really does taste better, and we wanted our sons to understand that, well, food does just grow on trees and in the ground and comes from sentient animals.

Before going too far, let me assure you that I’m not a paragon of simple living. I’ll happily drive to the coast with friends and burn 50 gallons of gas for the chance to catch a few stripers or mackerel once in a while. There’s nothing green about that, unless it’s the color my eldest son turns when the seas are up.

When we do eat meat, we try to have venison or fish instead of store-bought beef or pork. This weekend we even re-enacted an ancient ritual: we sacrificed a goat. We don’t have space for our ever-growing herd, and dairy goats need to kid each year to produce milk.

To keep from surprising our seven-year old, I told him we were going to eat one of the goats.

“Which one?” he asked.

“A kid,” I said, “Shivers or Oreo. Do you have a preference?”

He thought for a moment and said, “Take Oreo. He butts everyone.”

DIY Locavore

If you don’t have a decent plot of land to grow your own food, think about joining a community garden or ask your friends for a patch of their garden. Shop at one of the 5,000 farmers’ markets around the country, a number that has doubled in the last decade. Some food may be slightly more expensive, but the extra taste will be worth it.

Next time you sit down to dinner, remember the president’s words. Think globally, eat locally.

Duke biology professor Dr. Robert B. Jackson is the Nicholas Chair of Global Environmental Change. His research examines how people affect the earth.

filed under: faculty, guest


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  1. Daniel Wedgewood
    Jul 16, 2008

    Food is one of those necessities that can also be transformed into a luxury – either through food choices, cooking choices, and/or perspective changes. Wouldn’t it be nice if those billions of dollars in farm subsidies (that the US spends) could spare a little for local market farmers, to help bring down their prices, so everyone could help the environment and more easily add a little more luxury into their lives? I think so.” title=”Luxuries

    • Erica Rowell
      Jul 18, 2008

      Rob Jackson responds – Although grain prices are currently high, farmers have had a rough time of it over the last few decades. There’s no question in my mind that many of our agricultural incentives (or subsidies, take your pick) favor large agri-business over small farmers. As a taxpayer, I can’t say I’d love to see small farmers get subsidies. What I would like instead is for the playing field to be more level than it is today for our small farmers.” title=”A Level Playing Field

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