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New Segment On Fox
Highlights Local Eating

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 7, 2009

Fox & Friends has kicked off a new segment called “Keep it Local.” Meteorologist Rick Reichmuth stars in at least these first two segments.

The first shows Rick shopping at an urban farmer’s market buying ingredients to make brunch and builds around the concept that one should not decide what one likes to eat and go buy it; instead, one should find out what ingredients are available from local sources and then build a meal around these available ingredients:

At first, we were flabbergasted at the ease with which things that are certainly debatable were exclaimed without argument. For example, as soon as Rick hits the farmer’s market, he declares that “one of the ways that we can support our economies and have much healthier food for our families and for yourself is by eating locally.” Then later after the brunch has been cooked, Rick and a cohort have another discussion, in which Rick explains: “You can eat locally year ‘round. It does such great things for the environment. It is so much healthier and it kind of makes an adventure out of eating.” His associate echoes, “Yeah it helps the local economy.”

In another segment, Rick presents the brunch and sums it up this way:

“There is so much energy, really, gas energy and such, and all the environmental problems when we eat our food that comes from Chile or that comes from across the country. If you can eat food that is grown within about a hundred miles of your area, you are helping the environment, you are helping your local economies, you are helping your own dollar eventually because that gets back to you.”

You can see the second segment here:

For the record:

1) There is no evidence local is healthier.

There is no evidence that eating food grown within a hundred miles of one’s location is any healthier than eating food that has been produced far away. Nor for that matter, that a circle of 50 miles, 250 miles or 500 miles would make any difference as compared to the 100 miles this show references. In fact, if one should attempt to eat only food grown within 100 miles, it is quite likely that the lack of diversity in the diet may make it a less healthy diet overall than if one had simply eaten a diverse assortment of what is available from all climates and seasons.

2) The environmental argument is ambiguous.

If one’s concern is the maintenance of farmland within a set radius, supporting local farmers is a way to do it. Although it is notable that in this particular case, Rick Reichmuth made no discernable effort to make sure that the vendors were within the 100-mile radius he mentions. He was shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. From Buffalo to New York City is a 400-mile drive. Other vendors come from Vermont and Pennsylvania.

If the environmental issue is carbon output, being local just doesn’t tell you very much. If a local farmer brings a half empty truck down to the market, it can be less efficient than a fully packed over-the-road truck. More broadly, there are so many variables based on growing techniques, soil conditions, electricity sources, etc., that only a complete lifecycle analysis — an effort to study the carbon output at every stage of the process — can be helpful.

3) Support for the local economy depends on one’s definition of local.

The implication of the claim that buying locally grown food helps the local economy might be true if you believe that the Manhattan resident is focused on some kind of a greater northeastern US economy. More reasonably, however, if one thinks a New York City resident is focused on the economy of New York City, then buying from that Greenmarket may not be useful at all.

First it means the product did not go through the Hunts Point Market or the market in Brooklyn. These are big taxpayers and big employers of local people. Second, it means that Rick walked right past dozens of local stores to go to the Greenmarket. These local stores are big taxpayers, big rent payers, big employers, big supporters of everything from the little league to the Girl Scouts. Third, these vendors at the Greenmarket pay only a small fee, nothing like the rent and taxes a store will pay and, because these are farmers selling their own goods, they typically don’t employ locals at all. These vendors pack up and go back to upstate New York or Vermont or Pennsylvania taking their money with them, not spending it in New York City. It is not at all obvious that buying from the farmer’s market helps the New York City economy more than buying from a local store.

One senses the station doesn’t even believe all this stuff. After going through all this production about local, the show brings out the “Liquid Chef” and talks about the necessity for Moët & Chandon (that is from France!) Champagne Cocktails with brunch.

Although the first segment has some nice things to say about Honeycrisp apples, there is, in general, a lack of research and reason about what truly is local. In one segment, the host of the show assumes all kinds of things. Chicken sausage with pistachio suddenly becomes both not only local but organic, without any discussion of what, if any, certification says it is so. In fact this summer the Greenmarket threw out a farmer for selling items that he hadn’t actually produced or grown.

Of course, it took the Greenmarket some time to act on its suspicions:

But Nina Planck, a former director of Greenmarket, said that after visiting farms five years ago, she raised concerns about what she thought might have been violations of the producer-only rule by some farmers. She said she did not see enough animals on the upstate farm of Jay Dines to justify his level of sales.

“I had great doubts about Dines’s compliance with the producer-only rule,” said Ms. Planck, who was director of the Greenmarket for about six months in 2003. She was fired after many farmers objected to changes she tried to make in the program.

Ms. Planck said she faced resistance to enforcing the producer-only rule.

“When I found no corn on a farm that was selling corn, I went back to the office and said, ‘I think we have a problem here’,” she recalled. She said she was discouraged from following up.

Yet Rick Reichmuth issued not the slightest caution about taking what vendors say at face value.

It is enough to get one very upset. We thought about writing a letter to the producer upholding farmers from Chile and California, from Florida and Washington State, from Texas and South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Not to mention the many local growers far too large to bother selling through farmer’s markets. We thought we would offer a tour of Hunts Point and visit some local retailers.

Then, as one watches the videos, one realizes the other message of these shows: This is a dilettantes’ game. No significant portion of the population is going to do this as a day-to-day thing. Rick spent a half hour at the Greenmarket — not including travel time — to buy the ingredients for one brunch. He talks about making a Mushroom & Goat Cheese Egg Strata, which among other things must be allowed to set over night. They didn’t say how much this little excursion cost but sometimes what they don’t tell explains a lot.

We wish that reporters felt obliged to explain things rather than assert them, but, perhaps, this just adds to the stock of public fun. After all, many more gourmet cookbooks are sold than gourmet meals are cooked. Equally one suspects many more people will want to associate with the concept of eating local than will actually want to do it.

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