Earlier this month while at a family reunion in Green Bay, I got into a stimulating discussion about contemporary food matters. (Yes, believe it or not, Brett the Jet wasn't the sole topic of conversation in Packerland this summer.) A young relative was knocking the popularity of sustainable foods with comments like, "You know the word 'organic' starts with the same letter as 'overpriced'" and "Buying local foods is a double standard. Do you buy clothes from local sources?" And the corker: "Eating local is just a fad."
The views were familiar, but they startled me because it's been a while since I've heard them. Granted, I live on that island-surrounded-by-reality called Madison, where folks deliberate over the pitfalls of "cheap" food, and the attitude is generally "You can't do it all, but do what you can." Still, evidence that local, sustainable eating is a widespread social movement is now pervasive. To be sure, here in Wisconsin even government has gotten behind it, with something called the Wisconsin Eat Local Challenge.
Developed by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) along with a team of community food group volunteers, organizations and University of Wisconsin staff, the initiative aims to educate consumers in every corner of the state about the whys and hows of buying locally raised foods. Participants pledge to spend at least 10% of their food budget on food grown in the state, or within a hundred miles of their home, during a 10-day period, Sept. 5-14.
The program is in its second year, after a somewhat last-minute but successful launch in 2007 that garnered some 540 participants. Lois Federman, senior agriculture marketing specialist for DATCP, says the greatest involvement was "in the lower third of the state, especially in Madison and Milwaukee, because that's the region where people were already into eating locally."
But since then, Federman has seen "a tremendous grassroots push from all over the state, too, especially the northwest." She cites the River Country Resource Conservation and Development Council, the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development and the Northwest Regional Food Network as three groups that are "extremely active." They're among nearly 20 entities statewide that collaborated on this year's event.
The challenge is intentionally unstructured, says Federman. People sign up at www.eatlocalwisconsin.com, where there are links to resources for locating local foods and a scorecard to help track purchases. It provides "an outline and tools and lets participants know what's happening in their region, but then each person or group can do their own thing." It might be a family project, a 4-H endeavor, or a theme for a church picnic or a neighborhood potluck.
Federman emphasizes that "the 10% is a minimum only. [It's for] beginners, so as not to be an insurmountable challenge. But the point is, you can step into this anywhere - at 1, 10 or 90% - and then take it to the next level."
As for people skeptical about the local foods movement, she adds, "If you're involved in this, you can't help but be excited." Funny, that's exactly what I said to my relative.