Real food, as Michael Pollan would say

What is "local food" really? Just ask the expert: Michael Pollan...

Credit: Flickr / The Kitchen Gardener

Local food. For many, it’s a concept that’s value supersedes “organic” and its pursuit is something of a cause. For others, it’s a pastoral fantasy, unsuited to the task of feeding the 6.5 billion-plus in our ranks. Still others point to current inefficiencies in its infrastructure—e.g., transport, capacity, etc.—or lack therof, as cause for increased carbon emissions.

This week’s Local Harvest Newsletter (May 29, 2009) offers a great anecdote relating the inherent value of “local food” beyond it’s strict definition (emphasis added): 



Michael Pollan fundraiser at the UBC Farm

June 6, 2009


Don’t miss his only Canadian stop along his In Defense of Food book tour!

Get details and tickets through Barbara Jo’s Books to Cooks

Win a copy of the book here

Learn about the UBC Farm here

Michael Pollan primers


VIDEO: Michael Pollan on Bill Moyer’s PBS show

VIDEO: Michael Pollan TED talk

VIDEO: Michael Pollan on CBC’s The Hour

READ: “Farmer In Chief,” NYTimes Magazine

READ: A full list of books and links to articles by Michael Pollan

READ: Michael Pollan, Garden Fresh, by David Beers,


The story goes that this cheesemaker used to travel around, introducing his wares at new cheese shops. One day, he was offering samples at a store in Vermont, and talking with a customer who asked where he was from. “Minnesota,” he told her. They chatted for a minute more, and as she left she put a big piece of cheese in her cart, saying, “I just love to support local farmers!”

Steven had to shake his head for a minute. Vermont and Minnesota aren’t exactly in the same neighborhood. But he knew what the woman meant. She appreciates the real thing. She recognizes it when she sees it, and Steven and his cheeses were it.

For a while now, many of us have used the word ‘local’ as shorthand for food that meets a certain, somewhat ineffable quality standard. In this context, ‘local’ means something like this: This food is grown near here, on a human scale, by people who care deeply about the land and make thoughtful, conscientious choices for its stewardship. It is nutritionally intact and fantastic tasting. It thrives here, unpropped by excessive resources or technology. Its history is knowable and unsullied.


This is one of the best definitions I’ve seen, as it encapsulates all the romantic notions I attach to my food—with phrases like “human scale,” “conscientious choices,” “stewardship” and ascertainable “history”—as well as the very practical value such foods offer—full nutrition, deliciousness, safety and resource budgeting.


In other words, local goes way beyond geography. It is food we know in our bellies we can trust. Michael Pollan calls it “real food.”


Thank you, Michael Pollan, for offering the simplest, most elegant interpretation.

“Real food”—how odd that such an easy concept should be so rife with political implications. Indeed, seeking real food that meets all the specs mentioned above is a radical endeavor, one that many of the world’s most profitable businesses would have you forgo. The Cargills, the Monsantos and the rest in their motley class lobby hard to keep real food off our plates—working overtime to keep the current food system architecture in place, regardless of its inefficiencies, insecurities and unsustainable overproduction.


The “local food” event of the year


If food is something you care about—seriously, I get it, not everyone truly “cares” about food, but if you do—then I highly recommend attending Michael Pollan’s presentation and book signing at the UBC Farm in Vancouver on Saturday, June 6. The ticket price for this fundraising event is a bit steep ($45) but a signed copy of his new book is included.

He’ll be discussing his new book, In Defense of Food, to a doting crowd of local food devotees and food security fans. Bring a picnic and a blanket and expect some lively discussion. I’ll be there—will you?