Food Preservation, Food Storage and the Locavore

Sharon July 8th, 2008

I knew the idea of local eating had penetrated when I quickly ran into a grocery store while visiting my Mom, and this older couple came up to me and asked “Honey, could you read where it says where the plums came from?  We’re trying to eat local but neither of us brought our glasses.”  If I can’t get in and out of a supermarket in 3 minutes without running into someone trying to eat local, I know we’ve gone mainstream. 

 And how wonderful is that?  It is great for the small farmers, great for people eating better food, great for the environment – and people who have begun to think about where their food comes from can start to think about wider issues. 

There is, I think, a typical order of things for people who discover local eating – it doesn’t apply to everyone, but I think it begins this way.  They start with a CSA share, the farmer’s market or maybe a home garden.  The first venture is to find local produce during the growing season to use in day to day meals.  Next they start thinking about eggs, dairy and meat, if they eat them. 

And if people do these things, they begin not just a shift in where their food comes from, but in how they eat.  Instead of thinking “Wednesday is spaghetti night” they are looking into their CSA baskets and thinking “What can I make with peas?”  This means also a shift from a kind of cooking that assumes that you can always get everything you want to one that is genuinely seasonal.  

Often people are enticed by the food and serious about it – and sorry when the season ends.  And thus, the question begins to arise in peoples’ minds – what do we do when the CSA season ends?  Sometimes the CSA itself raises these questions, when it sends large quantities of some exuberant producer - and eaters are forced to ask “why would they send me six months worth of garlic – and what do I do with it?”

Then, if they eat meat or eggs or dairy products, many people seek these foods out locally as well.  And they begin to be aware that even animal products have seasons – that milk is flush when grass is lush and that eggs naturally proliferate and are cheap in spring, and pricey in winter.  Even meat has a season – autumn, when it is time to use precious reserves of hay is a good time for butchering, and of course, the time when hunting is permissable.

And if they take it seriously, the next step is to start looking for grains and beans – particularly for the budget conscious, who can’t afford large quantities of local meats, and for vegetarians.  This is easy in some grain producing areas, and harder for many of us that aren’t close to them.  Finding producers of staple foods can be as easy as buying a 50lb sack of potatoes in the fall, or as difficult as mail ordering from far away.  And as part of this shift in priorities comes the awareness that it is less expensive, more efficient and more environmentally sound to get all one’s bread flour or cornmeal or rice in one fell swoop, directly from a farmer.

In short, Food Preservation and Food Storage are logical steps in locavore life.  Many new local eaters haven’t made them yet – and some people haven’t quite made the intellectual leap required.  But the truth is that if we want to eat sustainably, and build the kinds of food systems that we’re going to need in the future, one step is getting the idea of eating locally while in season, but the season ends and either we’re back to eating mealy, oil-drenched supermarket tomatoes, or we’ve begun to think about how to keep the links going all year around. 

Food Preservation and Food Storage are two slightly different things.  Food Preservation is home or community level preservation of locally produced foods – it includes freezing, canning, pickling, lactofermenting, dehydration, root cellaring, preservation in salt, wine and sugar, smoking.  The idea is to preserve at home or at local food processing facilities the foods you will need during the season in which they are not available.

Food Storage involves the bulk purchase of staples (and also sometimes purchase in smaller quantities of an additional reserve), ideally from local or distant farmers, and bought direct.  To minimize energy costs, it is easiest to buy larger quantities – a bushel, 50 lbs, 25lbs at a time.  Right now we use an increasingly costly, environmentally destructive and unsustainable just-in-time delivery system to get food to our store shelves, and then private cars to get it to us as we need it.  That can’t last – our (now large) homes have to take the place of the supermarket in many cases for a host of reasons.  The best way to ensure that you have food that is safe, available and secure is to preserve your own (and support community food preservation efforts and local small producers and preservers) and to buy staple food direct from farmers or through coops whenever possible.

It is possible to eat mostly local all year round, even in the harshest of climates – but eating that way is fundamentally different than eating out of the supermarket.  Eating a mostly local diet, based on staple foods and local sources, with preserved foods added is really, deeply different than the way the average American eats.  Not only different, but radically better in a host of ways – nutritionally, flavor wise, environmentally, and depending on how and what you eat, often cheaper than processed diet – almost certainly cheaper when health costs are calculated in. 

But local eating and CSA support is just a start – we have to begin to think in terms of this fundamental change in diet, and in terms of food storage and preservation as fundamentally integrated into local eating.

35 Responses to “Food Preservation, Food Storage and the Locavore”

  1. lisah says:

    Hi there,
    As a part of lessons learned and passing on advice: As part of Sharon’s first Food Preservation
    class, I made a list of items to buy in bulk. I purchased 20 pounds each of organic garbanzo and
    black beans from my local bulk food store, Berkeley Bowl. I was stunned to discover, after I
    had lugged the bags home, that these beans were grown in and shipped from China !!! So not
    only were they not even close to being local but I question the fact that they are truly organic.
    Please check the source of your bulk order BEFORE you order. Duh!

    Lisa

  2. Lewru says:

    I worry about my sister and her family trying to eat at all in times of trouble – they live in Las Vegas and while it may be possible to eat local even in that harsh climate – can the whole city do it on a dime? I guess my next logical thought is – can any city do it on a dime? Still, though, I worry.

  3. Lisa Z says:

    To continue with what Lisa H said, I work as a Buyer at a food co-op here in Minnesota. My first venture into food storage earlier this year was to special order from the co-op a 25# bag of oats and a 25# bag of black beans. I was dismayed to find that the oats were from Canada and the black beans were from Bolivia. I mentioned this dismay to our Bulk Foods Buyer, and I did some background work online of where we could get these items from local growers. He was right on it and has now started ordering a lot more local bulk items, mostly from a local co-op of farmers that we have here in MN. I can now get black, kidney and garbanzo beans, as well as oats, brown rice, and many other grains from Minnesota farms–often at a cheaper price.

    For many co-ops and small stores, the easiest way for them to order is from the large distributors. Ours, UNFI (United Foods International), is unfortunately a large corporation and they don’t always have the highest or latest ethics in their business plan. Our co-op has had buyers who don’t want to bother with ordering from smaller accounts or distributors. However, consumers are really asking for these things and buyers are waking up to these issues. We realize that to keep customers coming in to the store, we need to work a little harder these days.

    If your local store isn’t currently stocking many local products, start asking! Maybe even do some researching of what’s available and talk to the buyers directly. Make suggestions. Be nice, but let them know you’re really interested in this issue.

    Lisa in MN

  4. Sarah says:

    For people in the New England area (or I suppose anyone else who can’t find things any closer), I recommend Wood Prairie Farm in Maine for bulk stuff. They have grains, beans (which aren’t sold in bulk on their website, but I’m going to find out if I can special-order some), root veggies, and various other stuff, and have excellent customer service.

  5. Sarah says:

    On another note, “Wednesday is spaghetti night” still isn’t a bad idea so long as you are fine with “spaghetti” becoming “noodles with stuff on them”. Practically anything can be chopped up and combined with pasta for a good automatic-pilot dinner. Same thing with pizza or tacos (aka “flatbread with stuff on it” and “tortillas with stuff in them”). I eat rather a lot of Noodles With Stuff On Them for lunch.

    In exciting news from Waltham, our CSA is now offering a honey share! There’s a startup local bee farm whose bees are partly responsible for the glut of squash we’ve been getting, and they’re taking orders for shares of any honey they get.

  6. homebrewlibrarian says:

    Eating locally in Alaska can be challenging. Eating locally AND seasonally takes a lot of mental fortitude especially since I only started a garden this year. What is seasonal here will be very different than what’s seasonal down south. Also what’s local can be very different as well. For instance, if you’re an omnivore, Alaska offers a lot of opportunities for subsistence hunting and fishing for residents. If you partner up with other hunters and fishers, you can have quite a bit of meat and fish that can get you through until summer when the vegies start showing up again. Potatoes grow like gangbusters but forget grains. There is a very small, mostly experimental barley growing operation in the central part of the state that goes towards animal feed but nothing towards human consumption.

    It has been a mission of mine to eat local and seasonal and I’ve gotten pretty good at tracking it down. It’s when I talk with someone about foods that I run up against a kind of shock about my eating habits. Once while working with a personal trainer and discussing food and nutrition, he recommended that I eat raw vegies and salads and I balked. It was January. I’m sorry, there are no seasonal vegetables in January in Alaska (unless you’ve got a root cellar). He looked at me like I had just grown another head even though I explained the whole local and seasonal thing. It may have gone mainstream in New York someplace but we here in the last frontier are a bit behind the curve. But lots of people visit the summer farmers markets and the waiting lists for the few CSAs grow longer every year. We’re coming around to it, just really, really slowly.

    Kerri in AK

  7. jadelennox says:

    I can’t figure out how to make bulk eating locally (Eastern MA) not hideously expensive. Sure, CSA and farmer’s markets are awesome for produce. But beans? Grains? I ordered some dried beans from Wood Prairie Farm in Maine and the price made me cringe. I can get oatmeal from them, too, and cornmeal from Rhode Island. I know there are soybeans grown in Vermont but I can’t find anyone who sells them.

    For me, the cheapest way to buy bulk grains and beans is either from the bulk bins at the co-op, or from the grocery store which caters to the local Brazilian community, and neither of those is remotely local produce.

    Any ideas? Northern NY isn’t far from here…

  8. Sarah says:

    The beans from Wood Prairie seem more expensive than the grains, but I haven’t done an extensive comparison of other grain sources. You could try Kennebeck for beans if you don’t mind them not being organic — they’re based in Maine and seem to be pretty widespread in New England grocery stores. I have some delicious canned baked beans from them for quick protein in my stores.

  9. Bess says:

    Sarah — Have you joined the honey co-op? A very good friend of mine is involved in running it. I really need to talk to her about joining. :-)

  10. Sarah says:

    Bess — nifty! I haven’t joined yet — we just got the announcement yesterday. But I’ll fill out the form and give them their money soon :-)

  11. jadelennox says:

    @Sarah — Thanks for the Kennebec pointer; I’ll check them out. Organic is important to me, but not as important as local, and Wood Prairie Farm’s beans came to $4.50 a pound, which I just can’t buy sustainably. $11 for 5/lbs of whole oat groats is much more competitive.

    @Bess and @Sarah, where’s the honey co-op? My favorite farmer’s market honey guy seems not to be doing honey this year.

  12. Matriarchy says:

    I saw this FROZEN food CSA, which sounds like a great idea to extend the CSA year.
    http://locavorious.com/2.html
    This one is in Ann Arbor, but hopefully more food enterpeneurs will run with that idea.

    I’m pretty good with finding local meat, honey, eggs, milk, veg, and u-pick fruit. But finding grain and beans is hard, even in an area that grows them. Most grain is shipped someplace else for processing.

    I have managed to find local spelt, but no beans, yet. I plan to hit the local agricultural fair in September, when farmers enter produce to win prizes. I will be able to SEE who grows what, and see if I can negotiate a purchase directly.

  13. Just after reading about Sharon’s “locavore-in-the-supermarket” encounter, I picked up the glossy food magazine that has begun appearing inexplicably in my mailbox. I despise it for its consumerism – all those luxury hotels, cars and jewels for sale, all those super-rich restaurants and enormous kitchens. Ugh.

    Anyway – this is the green issue! Locavore vegetable recipes for when your CSA’s produce overwhelms, and the eco-Ocean award for sustainable fishing, and hybrid Cadillacs, and luxury “locally sourced” eco-lodges in the back jungles of Panama! Prather Ranch, with the happiest cows on the planet, and the richest cowboys! Good looking Americans drinking wine and lounging on Italian yachts or sustainable picnic benches and smiling smugly at the camera. Green, green, green!

    Being a locavore is now a fashion for the rich.

    I should give this magazine away as soon as it comes in my mailbox. They’ve been dunning me to subscribe (the gall, when I never asked for their rag in the first place). I’m hoping they’ll give up and quit sending me the thing. Reading it pisses me off.

  14. Becky says:

    Locavore, I like that term!

    Bizarre anyway, why should our food travel around the globe, while most humans hardly will ever have the means to do so? Maybe the tomatoes, oranges, and beans should come with “Greetings from my hometown, I had a great journey, and thank you for making this possible”.

    Yes, I did go to a grocery store today, may have messed up my thinking.

  15. Re: frozen food CSA – twenty years ago I worked for a NY State agency that tried to rescue manufacturing companies by lending them money on good terms. We fought hard to keep several frozen-food processors from closing up shop in upstate NY. Didn’t work.

    I forget if the factories moved to the South, went directly off-shore, or just closed for good.

    Sharon reminds us that in post-peak oil world, we aren’t going to be eating much frozen food. Still, I wonder about all the shuttered canning factories of California and the rest of the country, and the frozen food producers that no longer exist. Our food system changed so radically just in my lifetime. My husband’s childhood favorite artichoke heart brand, formerly of Cali, is now processed in Spain…

  16. Lisa Z says:

    It’s interesting, the prices for locally grown grains and beans are generally lower here than for the stuff shipped. I wonder why for others it’s more expensive. We do have a co-op of local farmers, http://www.wholefarmcoop.com. Maybe by joining together for advertising, shipping, etc. they can keep the prices lower.

    Lisa in MN

  17. Sarah says:

    Jadelennox — the honey CSA is in Waltham, MA. The Waltham farmer’s market also has a honey guy.

  18. Rosa says:

    Lisa, I expect we just have a lot more grain farmers than they have in Vermont or New York. We have all the good soil (or we did, before we started fast-shipping it down to the Gulf of Mexico).

    They, on the other hand, have a lot more apples. Or cranberries. Or whatever grows well on rocks.

  19. Ginny in WI says:

    This progression from eating locally and seasonally, to food preservation and storage, to moving to a grain-based diet brings up issues that I’ve been struggling with ever since I first became aware of peak oil 3-4 years ago. What do you do when you have a spouse who thinks you’re being alarmist and resists change?

    I’ve gone through my own progression from oblivious to full panic mode to settling down to do what I can on my own. Whenever I read about couples who are working on this together, I’m envious. When in full panic mode, I even flirted briefly with the idea of divorce, but quickly realized that was only going to leave me with fewer emotional, physical, and financial resources than I have now.

    I was a vegetarian for many years, so he’s been exposed to a lot of food that’s outside the mainstream and some of it he actually likes. He loves it when I cook and his uncharacteristically diplomatic response when I ask him about some meal that he didn’t like is, “I wouldn’t care if you never made it again.” ;-) But he likes to cook too and he’s predominately a meat and potatoes kind of guy, and we have way more processed convenience food in the house than I like.

    While I’ve resorted to being sneaky about some of the expenditures I’ve made in preparation for what’s coming, I can’t hide lots of stored food, and a whole scale revision of our diets isn’t going to happen soon.

    I know it’s the same question that gets asked about much of mainstream American, but how can you get people to see the handwriting that’s so obviously written on the wall? My husband and I have made some slow progress, but–man oh man–we sure seem to be running out of time! I’d really welcome any suggestions, especially from those who have (or had) the same problem.

  20. Sarah says:

    Rosa — Apples. Lots and lots of apples from Western, MA. And potatoes. And apparently oats grow quite well, for the same reason that they grow well in Scotland.

  21. shoshana says:

    @Ginny,
    Thank G-d someone else has this problem! My husband, who’s quite progressive in a few areas, does not see the bigger picture either. I also thought about divorce and came to similar conclusions. I, too, hide some of my activities and don’t feel good about it. We, too, creep along at a painfully slow pace- it actually took him having a heart attack recently to make some progress in the food area. Thankfully these issues are taken up more and more by the conventional media and that helps him see that I’m not a freak. I wish I had some great ideas for you, but I need support too! -Shosh

  22. NM says:

    Yep, my own dear spouse thinks I’m a bit nuts, too. (He may have a point, at that, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong … :P )
    Anyway, I’m semi-resigned to creeping slowly along. The news sometimes helps (and sometimes contradicts me). Repetition helps, too. Sometimes after I say something 42 times over six months, he thinks he thought of it. ;}.
    My current worry is pet food. Dry food isn’t good for them, readily goes rancid and presumably won’t be around forever. And you don’t really want to think about the treatment of the livestock that goes into it. The cats are eating grain-free canned food, and both the resource-intensiveness and the cost are hideous to contemplate. The dogs are eating dry food because they’re large and there’s no way I can afford to feed them all canned food. I’d like to make all our own pet food (though when I’d find the time I cannot imagine), but that would require 1. Bringing raw meat into a vegetarian household and 2. Using a whole lot of bleach for disinfecting. DH is vehemently opposed to both, even though he also doesn’t like the resource-intensive cans. And I can’t afford (and don’t trust) the raw foods available commercially. So I feel frustrated and stuck in a quandary. Perhaps when the cost of pet food goes too high for us to afford, I can convince him to let me make it. Assuming that the local meat isn’t all sold out then, and is affordable. But that solution, unfortunately, relies on the freezer to store the food … augh!

  23. At the risk of getting flamed by pet owners, may I suggest that cats and dogs survived as human companions for tens of thousands of years without commercially produced pet food?

    There are two feral cats in my back yard who keep the rat population down nicely.

    My uncle kept hunting dogs under the house in Lebanon – it was a full sized carport beneath the veranda- they were not chained and didn’t have collars – they were free to come and go but they mostly stuck around the carport when they weren’t out hunting. My cousin fed them table scraps. I remembered being puzzled that dogs would eat tough bread rinds and bits of vegetable beef stew. They were skinny dogs but they sure did hunt.

    Really. If things change as much as Sharon is predicting, then dogs and cats will need to go back to their original functions as shepherds, hunters and vermin catchers. It doesn’t make sense for us to put so much effort into feeding them when they are biologically programmed to feed themselves (or share our food).

  24. homebrewlibrarian says:

    Leila,

    If my cats hadn’t spent their entire lives indoors, I’d be all for letting them forage locally. But, frankly, they don’t have the skills to do that. Since they are about nine years old, my plan is to care for them until their lives are over but not get house cats again. I do worry about taking care of them in a reduced resource world but for now it’s doable.

    I find it fascinating that cheap energy has allowed middle class people the opportunity to own pets. My issue is one of sustainability. I have two cats, one of which is diabetic and requires insulin injections twice a day. I can afford to have the medication on hand for now. But for how long? I spend a lot of brain energy thinking about this. No easy answers no matter what I come up with.

    Kerri in AK

  25. Kerri – I understand about your cats. I believe personally that if your cats are nine years old, they will have a decent life to the end of their natural days. I don’t really believe we’re going to be fighting each other for meat next year. Sharon thinks the timeline is going to go pretty fast, whereas I think we will bump along for quite some time, with adjustments and changes. I really doubt that you won’t be able to afford cat food in three or five years.

    I could be wrong.

    My bigger question: where’s the balance between preparing for what might happen, and staying in the moment with what IS happening? Living in fear about possible future scenarios is not healthy. Today the SF Chronicle wrote about Zen monks facing the forest fires in Big Sur, at Tassajara Zen Center. One said – we aren’t running away from the fire, but we aren’t jumping into it, either. We are prepared and we’re waiting for it peacefully. (blogged today at Dove’s Eye View)

    At the risk of repeating myself – I am living with a really scary medical diagnosis and getting all kinds of ongoing treatment for it. If I wanted to read dire things about my life span, I could, and then I could start freaking out about suffering and early death. However, today I am alive, breathing, ambulatory, eating, pooping (don’t laugh, my acupuncturist says we ought to be really grateful for the proper functioning of bowels), laughing, writing, reading, walking. Yesterday I cleaned fallen plums off my deck, made food for my writing group and hosted a little party. Friday after chemo I tended the compost pile. I’ve written fifteen pages on my novel this week, five of them while waiting around between doctor visit and chemo infusion.

    I prepare for possible futures the best I can, but… if I worried too much about The End of The World As We Know It, or My Tragic Early Demise, I wouldn’t enjoy this day, which is the only day I have. I love this life and I want to appreciate it while I’m in it. Whenever I die I want to go feeling that I didn’t miss a chance to breathe and love what is.

    The cats are alive now. You take measures to assure their health and wellbeing as best you can, for today. No point in worrying about next year’s problems, because you do not know what next year will bring. And it’s bad for your own health to worry too much. So you aren’t helping yourself or the cats by fretting about possible futures that are not here yet. Just my $.02, for what it’s worth…

  26. Chris says:

    Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a wonderful non-fiction book that explores eating local year-round.

  27. Lisa Z says:

    Leila A-S: Well said! Thank you, Lisa in MN

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  29. [...] Comment on Food Preservation, Food Storage and the Locavore by …At the risk of getting flamed by pet owners, may I suggest that cats and dogs survived as human companions for tens of thousands of years without commercially produced pet food? There are two feral cats in my back yard who keep the rat … [...]

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