It’s a pretty crazy world that we live in, where competitors must band together for the greater good. Can you imagine Nike, Reebok and Adidas joining together to try to get more people off their butts? Me neither. 

But when you’re battling against the big guns, and your only ammunition is each-other, there is strength to be found in numbers. Producers have associations, Farmers’ Markets unite under a common umbrella, and, even the major markets of Melbourne band together, like planeteers, by their powers combined towards the greater good of getting people eating better.

 

“Local” and “Seasonal” are buzzwords that seem to get bandied about willy-nilly these days. Some see this as a backlash against the industrialisation of even our most basic needs, and a desire to regain agency over anything in an ever-changing world; to control something as simple, or as difficult, as the food we choose to buy.

 

So then why, in a world that has “an abundance of choice”, do many still continue to choose convenience foods and cheaply outsourced “fresh” produce, over food that is, indeed, sourced locally, and planted and picked when it’s supposed to be?

 

Why, moreso, are our farmers finding themselves being increasingly bullied into cutting costs, being “the price takers, not the price makers”, with some having to make the difficult choice of moving off the land, when we’re supposed to be in a new age of enlightenment about our “ecological footprint”?

 

According to the voices of those present (as both guests and audience members) at this morning’s Can we Afford not to Eat Local forum, moderated by Richard Cornish, the unanimous answer seems to be education. Or, to be more specific, a lack-thereof.

 

And it’s not for want of trying. Some schools have incredible kitchen gardens(several of which I’ve been lucky enough to visit) that have only come about through the tireless work and campaigning of the passionate few, with many finding it difficult to secure a steady stream of volunteers or “treasures”, let alone further funding for expansion.

 

Thankfully, through newly announced Federal Government funding, 400 more schools can begin works on their own KGPs. However, this is still only half the battle. Many schools simply don’t have the resources, or the time, to continue to educate students in a meaningful way about the importance of eating seasonal, locally produced foods, let alone to engage these students with how that food is produced.

 

As a middle-school teacher, I felt the ever-present pressure to pummel through the curriculum, sneaking in a conversation about such topics whenever a moment of calm arrived. But between NAPLAN, National Curriculum and never-ending admin… it was always going to be a case of “next time”.

 

“Next time” needs to be “now”.

 

There must be a re-engagement with the produce and with the producer. There are only so many ways to tell grown-ups to make better choices at the supermarket… Or, better still, to encourage them to choose a farmers’ market instead.

 

In order for large-scale change to occur, the message needs to filter down into the consciousness of the everyday Australian home in a way that is personal rather than prescriptive. Victorians must see why they should put Victoria on their Table. And the best way to spur such a shift, is to inspire the next generation to instigate the discussion and debate.

 

Why am I eating asparagus in winter, when we’ve only just started planting it in class? How come this milk costs $1 a litre, and this one costs $5? When can we start growing our own herbs like we do at school? Can we go and visit Brad the farmer for his farm-gate apples, like we got to do on our excursion last week?

 

In an age of economic uncertainty, people become more considered in their spending, choosing to distribute what money they have on the things that they value the most. In some ways, the recession has been a positive kick in the tuchus; it’s reminded us to be more frugal in our spending- and in our eating.

 

According to Arabella Forge, author of Frugavore, two decades ago, we had to make-do with very little, and so we chose to make the best of what we had. Nowadays, with the aforementioned “abundance of choice”, it’s become too easy to look at the bottom line, buy Mexican garlic, and ignore the most important fact: being a frugavore is not about spending less… it’s about getting the most bang for your buck. And the most bang comes, when said buck is spent on something that has a solid ratio of calories to nutrients.

 

We feel fuller and more satisfied, when the foods we eat are fresh and “sharp tasting”. This is, in fact, our body’s natural gauge for nutrient intake… “we don’t need a tick to tell us it’s good for us- our taste buds do that,” says Forge.

 

This “sharpness” that comes about through seriously fresh fruit and veg is very real; It’s what makes me smell and touch every Apiaceae, or Brassicaceae or Cucurbitaceae before putting it in our trolley. I call it “The Zing”… And if anyone watching me on Masterchef Australia ever wanted to know what drugs I was on, you need look no further.

 

Indeed, it is the superior taste of locally sourced foods, that is the most important draw card for those who make their living out of… Making food that tastes good. Many chefs, including Pope Joan’s Matthew Wilkinson, are choosing to shell out more for locally grown, fresh produce, from producers who they have formed a relationship with. To counteract the price-disparity, they are simply absorbing it into their costings; and people are paying more to eat said produce, as can be seen by the popularity of Wilkinson’s “humble” cafe, which has queues out the door every weekend. At the end of the day, according to Wilkinson, “it just tastes better”.

 

This exact sentiment, in these exact words, was expressed by Andrew McConnell at Saturday’s Ingredients for a Great Restaurant hosted by Dani Valent, as part of The Melbourne Writer’s Festival. To him, it was “most important, that local and seasonal is not just seen as a catchphrase”; instead, the availability of ingredients is what McConnell chooses to base the menus of his harem of hot restaurants around.

 

Ergo, for those who missed either/or speaker, the message, it seems, is that one of the most important ingredients for a great restaurant, begins with choosing the right… Ingredients; locally sourced, seasonally appropriate, and ethically produced.

 

But I digress.

 

Because it doesn’t matter what the food tastes like when it’s dolled up in a fantastic restaurant, in the hands of a professional chef. To many, this is not proof enough of the value of great, local produce… They’d just put it down to cheffy technique and “oh, I couldn’t possibly”s (ICP).

 

Instead, what does matter, is that this produce winds up in aforementioned ICP homes, and that, upon tasting in their natural habitat, this ICP consequently becomes a believer in “The Zing”.

 

And what’s the best way to infiltrate these homes?

 

Through the hearts and minds of little people, whose said hearts, and minds, haven’t yet been filled with ICP.

 

Because we can’t possibly afford not to eat local.

 

It’s not “fair food”, as fooderati & forumer Rita Erlich describes it, if we can’t apply the same standards as we would to “fair-trade” coffee or chocolate, something most people would deem a non-negotiable on a label.

 

According to Claude Baxter, former GM of South Melbourne Market & fledgling farmer, clearer food labelling is another way that people of all ages can begin to become better educated as to the progeny and proximity of their food; a view that was echoed by Olivia Tait, “speaking as a consumer and not as a member of the Dept. of Business & Innovation”. Certainly, such moves would help us in having a clearer choice; but it’s up to each Australian household, through healthy discussion, to understand why buying local is the correct, conscious choice to make.

 

In this time of options and optional extras, despite (or due to) a difficult economic climate, we, as a nation, must turn our focus inwards; to what we truly value. And if we do truly value our health, our environment, and our fellow Australians, we will recognise the real cost of not eating local, and make the right choice.