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Good Eats

For the professor emeritus of ecology and agriculture, diet soft drinks are the epitome of wastefulness. According to Pimentel, it takes 600 calories of energy to produce the drink itself and another 1,600 to make the aluminum can, not to mention the energy required to ship it from plant to supermarket. The local food movement […]


For the professor emeritus of ecology and agriculture, diet soft drinks are the epitome of wastefulness. According to Pimentel, it takes 600 calories of energy to produce the drink itself and another 1,600 to make the aluminum can, not to mention the energy required to ship it from plant to supermarket.

The local food movement is in vogue around the country—and a certain little city in Upstate New York was ahead of the curve

By Beth Saulnier

Don't offer David Pimentel a Diet Coke.

David Pimentel

For the professor emeritus of ecology and agriculture, diet soft drinks are the epitome of wastefulness. According to Pimentel, it takes 600 calories of energy to produce the drink itself and another 1,600 to make the aluminum can, not to mention the energy required to ship it from plant to supermarket. The product that comes out of the can has less than one calorie, which obviously appeals to dieters—but to Pimentel, PhD '51, it offers one of the most egregious examples of the problems with America's far-flung food-supply system. And don't even get him started on iceberg lettuce. "It's 95 percent water," he notes, "and shipping water around is inefficient." One head has 110 calories and few nutrients—but shipping it from California to New York takes 4,000 calories of energy. Lettuce, Pimentel says, is "a real loser."

Last summer, Pimentel and five students from his 2006-07 Environmental Policy seminar published a paper in the journal Human Ecology examining the energy costs of America's eating habits. The food system, they note, accounts for 19 percent of the nation's fossil fuel consumption—about the same as automobiles. Their conclusion: relatively straightforward changes in how foods are produced, processed, packaged, transported, and consumed could reduce energy use by 50 percent. Those changes include simply eating less—consuming the recommended average of 2,500 calories per person per day, rather than our present 3,800—and sharply reducing consumption of meat and dairy.

For many Americans, such shifts are a hard sell. But another of the team's recommendations dovetails with one of the most talked-about trends in the food world: eating locally. "On average, our food travels 1,500 miles before we get it," Pimentel says. "That's shocking. We also pointed out that it takes about four calories of transportation for each calorie that you consume. Four to one. Is that trip necessary?"

More and more people are asking the same question. Local food has become a hot topic, the subject of bestselling books (Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) and innumerable inches of newsprint. "If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country's oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week," writes Kingsolver, whose book chronicles the year her family spent as "locavores," eating almost exclusively homegrown or locally sourced food. "Becoming a less energy-dependent nation may just need to start with a good breakfast."


At Cornell, local food is fodder for both the mind and the stomach: as scientists in the Ag college do research on the subject, the University's own student farm grows vegetables sold on campus and served in dining halls. And for the community surrounding East Hill, local food is nothing new. Ithaca may not be a trendsetter in many areas, but it was ahead of the curve on this one. A mecca for back-to-the-landers in the early Seventies, Ithaca has nurtured local food for decades—from the collectively owned Moosewood Restaurant (which was cooking "slow food" long before the phrase was coined) to a thriving farmer's market that has become so popular, it creates a distinctly un-Ithacan traffic jam every summer Saturday. "It's pretty funny that we've gone from being hippie freaks to being mainstream," says Jen Bokaer-Smith, MS '97, who has owned West Haven Farm, one of the area's most popular community supported agriculture (CSA) operations, since 1992. "My mother-in-law from Las Vegas is sending us clippings about this 'local food movement.' It's a riot."

An Ithaca native, Bokaer-Smith was an undergraduate at Berkeley, where she started a community garden at a homeless shelter. She and her husband settled in Ithaca after college and started West Haven, their three-acre organic farm. It's located on West Hill adjacent to EcoVillage, one of the nation's first co-housing communities. "When we came back, we very much wanted to feed people," she says. "It's appealing to farmers like us, who aren't interested in growing food and putting it in a box and shipping it off, but in making that connection with the people who eat what we grow. So even though there wasn't anything called the local food movement when we started, we knew that we wanted to sell food we raised to people we knew. That was our passion from the beginning."

Jen Bokaer-Smith 

What started as an informal CSA—"We would call people and say, 'Hey, we have some veggies this week, do you want a bag?'"—has grown to 200 members and a waiting list. West Haven distributes half its wares to the CSA and sells the rest at the farmer's market, located on the edge of Cayuga Lake and featuring 150 vendors (of produce, cooked food, and crafts), all of whom live within thirty miles of Ithaca. "I really see the connection between what you eat and your place," says Bokaer-Smith, who did research on local food issues for her master's in community nutrition. "I've always felt that your place should be defined by the food that's available there. I'm not a strict locavore myself—I drink coffee, I eat grapefruit—but I think that, in general, letting the place were you live, and the seasons, guide your food makes for a rich eating experience."

Bokaer-Smith is a founder of the Center for Local Food and Farming, which aims to create a "campus without walls" on West Hill devoted to supporting sustainable agriculture, training new farmers, offering internships, and more. With a list of proposed partners that includes Cornell, Ithaca College, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and several local farms, the center plans to launch its first programs in 2009. "A lot of this has already been going on informally," says Joanna Green, MPS '98, coordinator for the center's planning team. "We want to ramp it up and formally tie it into the partner institutions—so, for example, Cornell and IC students can get academic credit for summer internships or week-long intensives, or faculty can have afternoon labs on a farm. We foresee creating a menu of educational opportunities that people in different stages of life can tap into."

Joanna Green 

Green is an Extension associate who runs the Cornell Small Farms Program, and for her it's hardly just a day job; she lives on two acres outside Ithaca in rural Newfield, and as she describes her work she's making cheese and yogurt from the cows she milked that morning. (She currently has two cows, a calf, ten chickens, and a plastic greenhouse for growing winter greens, plus a vegetable garden in season.) Begun in 2000 and run statewide, the Small Farms Program provides resources, research materials, and mini-grants to Extension educators who work with small farms and dairies. Although the USDA defines small farms as those with less than $250,000 in annual gross sales, Green says that the program uses more flexible criteria; all in all, more than 90 percent of the state's 34,000 farms qualify. "Small farms are the backbone of rural communities," Green says. "They have a huge environmental impact in terms of working landscapes, environmental protection, water-quality protection. Small farms control something like 50 percent of the state's arable land base, and they're independent small businesses in a rural community. They recirculate local dollars, so they're important to the economy. And culturally, they are incredibly important."

In Green's view, part of what's driving the current popularity of the local food movement is growing concern about mainstream food supplies—from salmonella outbreaks to adulterated milk products from China. "People perceive that local, smaller farms may be safer for them," she says. "I wish it were more positive. But I think that the understanding of the positive impacts of local food systems is also becoming more widespread." Buying locally, she says, not only provides consumers with fresher products and reduces the carbon footprint, it also builds community. "You take the depersonalized and sort of alienating structure of the grocery store, and substitute the more localized food system, where you actually know where everything is coming from," she says. "Perhaps you've even visited the farm."

Still, despite all the headlines, local food is a miniscule part of most people's diets. Duncan Hilchey, MRP '87, a senior Extension associate in Cornell's Department of Rural Sociology, notes that nationwide, it is on the order of $10 to $15 worth of food per person, per year. "In the Finger Lakes, which is where we have the greatest concentration of local food production in New York State, it's still probably under $20," he says. "When you have an average family grocery bill on the order of $3,000 a year, you can see we're not even off the ground much in terms of local food. So while there's a lot of recognition and a lot of talk, we have a long way to go before local food is a major piece."

But as Hilchey points out, Americans have never been totally self-sufficient in their alimentary habits. "Even the colonists were bringing things from other places—we've always been trading," says Hilchey, who has been doing research on local food systems since the Eighties. "I think our diets would be awfully dull if we were just eating what was local." As Hilchey talks, he's drinking a small bottle of one of his favorite apple ciders, Beak & Skiff; it's made in Lafayette, New York, forty-six miles from Ithaca. "For hardcore people, that's not local," he says. "That product had to be transported here." Some strict locavores pledge to eat only foods produced a certain number of miles from where they live, but Hilchey favors a more moderate approach. "I've drifted all over the place, but in my current thinking I believe we need not go extreme," he says. "The hundred-mile diet makes very little sense to me. It makes more sense to think in terms of large regions—sourcing local would be the Northeast—and to work with the seasons as much as possible rather than geographic areas."

Down on the Farm

Dilmun Hill lets student growers get their hands dirty

It doesn't get much more local than this. Every Tuesday afternoon in summer, at tables on the Ag Quad and Ho Plaza, Cornellians can buy fruits and vegetables grown practically within shouting distance of where they're sold. The produce—a rainbow of tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, squash, pumpkins, melons, garlic, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, chard, beets, radishes, peppers, eggplant, and more—comes from Dilmun Hill, Cornell's student-run farm. "We'd have all of the food spread out on long tables and I'd say, 'Look at all this! We grew all this!' and be really excited," says Suzy Konecky '09, one of the farm's two paid student managers. "Some people are still confused about Dilmun Hill. They'd say, 'Where did this come from? Who grew it?' And I'd be like, 'We grew it. I planted all those seeds.' It's an incredible feeling."

Located on twelve acres next to the Cornell Orchard, Dilmun Hill is staffed by dozens of student and community volunteers; last summer, says student manager Matt Ball '09, the farm recorded more than 650 volunteer hours. Konecky, an international agriculture and rural development major from Brooklyn, joined up after spending a summer on an organic farm in Central America; Ball was looking for something tangible within academia. "I wanted to get out of the classroom and have a hands-on, experiential learning place," says Ball, a natural resources major from suburban New Jersey whose hair is pulled back in a thick ginger ponytail.

In addition to the two weekly produce stands, Dilmun Hill sells its wares to Mann Library's Manndible Café and to Cornell Dining; it donates leftover produce to Ithaca's Loaves & Fishes soup kitchen. "There are a lot of ways in which awareness is being raised about food now, because it's in and a lot of people are talking about it," says Konecky, a brunette with dreadlocks and a nose ring. "But I think that many people don't have a sense of where food comes from, how it's grown, what time of year it can be grown. The on-campus farmer's market reminds people when they walk past it every week, 'Oh, this is what's in season this time of year.' "

The Paper Chase

Food publication is the latest success for a venerable research seminar

Professor emeritus of ecology and agriculture David Pimentel has been holding his Environmental Policy course since 1970. For an entire academic year, the students—mainly seniors, with a smattering of grad students—do in-depth research on a topic of current environmental concern; past subjects have included the competing demands of food versus biofuel and the threat of invasive species. They whittle hundreds of pages of research down to an academic paper, which Pimentel submits to scholarly journals. Their publication rate over the past four decades: 100 percent. "We've been very successful," he says. "We get top students, because they know this is not a Mickey Mouse course and they're going to have to work hard."

Enrollment is limited to twelve, and Pimentel screens candidates before admission. When the seminar convenes in the fall, he presents several potential topics, and the students vote. (For 2008-09, the winner was sustainable world population levels, under the assumption that the Earth will run out of fossil fuel in 100 years.) When the final paper is published—the most recent one, on potential energy savings in the food system, ran in Human Ecology last summer—the students get co-author credit, a plum for applying to jobs or grad school. "It was exciting," says Sean Williamson '07, a former biology and society major who worked on the Human Ecology paper and is currently a master's candidate in public policy at the University of Maryland. "I liked the fact that Professor Pimentel gave us a lot of freedom. The writing and editing were basically up to us. If we felt strongly about something, it would get into the paper. And it was nice to know that I could someday put that on my résumé."

Pimentel modeled the course on National Academy of Sciences panels—he has served on thirteen of them—which bring together experts from a dozen disciplines to produce reports on topics of current interest. Similarly, Environmental Policy draws not only future biologists (who comprise most of its students) but also majors in government, anthropology, law, and more. Once the reams of research have been condensed into a twenty-five-page paper, the students revise it some fifteen times and send it out to several dozen specialists worldwide for review—then revise it another few times after receiving feedback. The resulting papers have won awards, appeared in top-flight journals, and made headlines. The first, on energy and agriculture, remains Pimentel's most cited work. "Part of the reason is that that paper appeared at the peak of the energy crisis," he says. "We started work in 1970, but published it in Science in 1973, right when Nixon declared we had an energy crisis." Pimentel notes that their paper on invasive species, published in 2000, was cited by President Clinton when he issued an executive order for more research funds on the problem. Says Pimentel: "We've had an impact, the students and I."

For the past three years, the Empire State Poll (conducted by Cornell's Survey Research Institute) has included a section on local food. It asks respondents to put themselves into one of three categories: people who go out of their way to find local food, those for whom local food is important but not worth extra effort, and those who don't care at all. "The number of people putting themselves in the first and second categories is growing while the third category is shrinking, which is a good sign," Hilchey says. "I think it's an indicator that more people are trying to have a balanced lifestyle that slows them down a bit, keeps them more connected to the earth." With many people falling into the middle category, Hilchey says that it's essential to get supermarkets to stock local produce—and, he notes, "Wal-Mart's got a big push now to source local."

Among Hilchey's research projects is one, funded by the National Geographic Society, that studies foods linked to particular places: the citrus groves in Florida's Indian River, the wild blueberry barrens of Maine, the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts, the Sun-Maid raisin cooperative around Fresno, California, where fruit is dried in the sun on paper trays, just as it has been for centuries. He hopes that Americans will adopt a European understanding of terroir—the sense that "sun, soil, water, history, culture, tradition, blood, sweat, and tears" come together to link a food to a location. "I'm looking at these special places where food comes from and trying to figure out ways they can be celebrated, preserved, and protected, because they are in a class by themselves," he says, "It's similar to Champagne or Roquefort cheese, which have special labels because they have a provenance."

Meanwhile, Hilchey's colleague Christian Peters, PhD '07, has been studying the potential for New York State to feed itself. He was motivated, he says, by a desire to "partially temper some irrational exuberance" about the potential for providing food locally. "I think it's good to have some idea about what is possible," says Peters, a postdoc in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. "I knew going into this that since New York is a populous state we probably couldn't provide all our food, but that it would be useful to shape the discussion. For example, how much public effort is it worth to put into promoting local food? If we're trying to provide more food locally, then how much more? So in part it is an academic exercise, but it still has some relevance to policy questions."

The answer, he found, is that it depends on what you eat and where you live. In fall 2007, Peters published an article in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems concluding that if New Yorkers ate as they currently do, the state could feed only 22 percent of its population—but if they switched to a lowfat, mostly vegetarian diet, it could feed 32 percent. Then there's the issue of geography. "Buffalo and Rochester are located in areas of the state that have large amounts of agricultural land compared to Albany or Poughkeepsie," he says. "The answers that came out of my model said that if you're located in an area like that, there is enough land to provide almost all the food for all the people. But as you move east, you're meeting less and less of the food needs. And when you get to New York City, there isn't a whole lot of land left. So that is, in essence, a cautionary tale. Upstate, where people are well distributed relative to agricultural land, there's a lot of potential. But if you look at a big city, that may not be the case."

Duncan Hilchey 

Like Hilchey, Peters is no extremist; he's not suggesting that everyone in the continental U.S. give up bananas and coffee, not to mention everything else that doesn't grow here naturally. But by examining how well various regions of the state could feed themselves, he underscores our food system's dependence on long-range transportation—which can be vulnerable to fuel prices, labor strikes, natural disasters, terrorism, and other threats. "We are an urbanized society," he says. "We tend not to be located near agricultural areas. If there's any reason why that would be a problem, we should know about it, because there's not a whole lot of food on hand in the grocery stores. They're dependent on a continuous supply."

The researchers don't expect Americans to change their eating habits overnight, though they're heartened by the current vogue for local sourcing. Although most consumers are unlikely to give up the pleasure of grapes in midwinter, the researchers hope that the focus on local food will turn more people on to the joys of seasonality—the fact that even if tomatoes are available in the supermarket in February, they can't compare to ones harvested in season. "I raise mine, and I like them for the two or three months that I have them," Pimentel says. "But I don't eattomatoes the rest of the year, because they're terrible." The professor emeritus is a big fan of cabbage—a local crop that stores well over the winter and whose nutritional benefits he touts over that irksome iceberg lettuce.

Christian Peters 

The aim of the Human Ecology paper, Pimentel says, was to document and quantify energy consumption in the food system, then let consumers make their own decisions about, say, cutting back their meat consumption or forgoing Diet Coke. Similarly, for Hilchey, eating locally is about personal choice—about opting for a lifestyle that favors mindful eating and home cooking over processed foods and convenience meals. "Local food is an expression of people's desire to slow down, to tune into something that is emblematic of concern about the environment, quality of life, enjoying flavors—all of those things that we aspire to in the crazy rat race," Hilchey says. "Local food, cooked properly, takes time."

During an Upstate winter, eating local produce means a diet rich in root vegetables like beets, rutabagas, and celery root. Hilchey says he can even get his kids to eat them—as long as he chops the veggies into tiny matchsticks, sautés them in garlic, grapeseed oil, and rice vinegar, and serves them in little haystacks. "It's work," he says with a smile. "But that's part of the slow food process. Even getting the kids to help make that kind of thing is part of the new cultural swing. It's not just hippie stuff anymore."