Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2013, 2:29 pm
No kidding, say yes to fresh, healthy, local produce
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By Frank Mullen III
An Associated Press story recently published in this paper announced the Illinois Department of Agriculture's new "Where Fresh Is" campaign to encourage us to buy and eat locally grown produce.
I am all for this, particularly since I just found out that since 2004, popcorn has been the Official State Snack of Illinois. Any state whose Legislature promotes junk food needs education in proper diet.
Ignore anyone who tells you that unbuttered popcorn is delicious and good for you. Show me someone who eats popcorn without butter and I'll show you a novitiate of the Sisters of Perpetual Self-Denial.
It makes a lot of sense to eat food produced where you live, as long as you can identify it. I spent a few years in Japan where the food is unrecognizable, the menus are written in Oriental hieroglyphics and you never know whether the pile of mysteries on your plate was recently floating in a rice paddy or crawling in the mud at the bottom of Tokyo Bay.
But the "Where Fresh Is" program isn't just about eating well; it's about economics. The Ag Department's director, Bob Flider, says that the state's economy would rise by $20 billion a year if we increased our consumption of locally grown produce by only 10 percent. Illinois needs those billions; times are tough, and the state Legislature has gone months without a pay raise.
The math is spelled out in a brochure available for viewing at the Department of Agriculture's website. (Life is strange. Fifteen years ago, I lived an hour from Washington, D.C. and taught at a public college.
Now, I live next to a cornfield 19 miles from the Mississippi river and download brochures about vegetables from the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Go figure.)
"On average," the brochure tells us, "produce travels 1,500 miles to the grocery store it is sold from." Obviously, it's expensive to haul food long distances from farm to consumer. (Of course, it's even more expensive to haul the consumer to the food. I'm the only person I know who packed his household goods in a U-Haul truck and drove 1,000 miles just to live where the sweet corn grows.)
It also spells out the significant economic benefit of buying food that's not imported from distant farms: "When spent locally, $.32 more of every dollar stays in the community."
I'm right in step with this thinking. Our lives are knotted together with the lives of those around us. I may joke about them, but Illinois farmers need my support as much as I need their corn. If I wanted 32 cents out of every dollar of my food budget going to farmers in, say, New Jersey, I'd just write a check and send it to the director of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Vinnie "Bullets" Carbonara.
Many Illinoisans consider it patriotic to buy products made in America by American workers. If we're willing to "Buy American," shouldn't we also "Eat Illinois"?
Grocery stores and farmers' markets will soon identify produce that was grown in Illinois. I'll bet Hy-Vee will be full of people like me who will appreciate having this information. You won't have trouble recognizing me; just look for the guy in the popcorn section scouring the shelves for the best deal on popcorn with a "Where Fresh Is" sticker.
Or I may be in the dairy aisle. Sure, I want to support Illinois's economy, but I'm also concerned about Wisconsin's well-being -- I like lots of butter on my popcorn.
Frank Mullen III of Aledo is a former Navy band leader.