Thursday, June 12, 2008
Local, but Not From Here
There has been a very interesting discussion among the participants of One Local Summer about what defines a diet as local. Joy has a lovely post outlining some of the most central issues. For example, she discusses the conflict between buying nonlocal organic versus local nonorganic, nonlocal grassfed versus local grainfed, locally milled or packaged but not locally grown grains and beans, etc. I recommend her totally non-preachy exploration of these issues.
We are lucky enough to have access to several different all-local farmers markets, organic-style (meaning not always certified) produce from our CSA and several booths, and an organic-style pasture-fed farm source for meat and dairy products. We even can get maple sugar, maple syrup, honey, candles, and soap at our local farmers market.
Grain has not been nearly so easy. This year we bought some non-local bulk grain and a small hand-cranked grain mill--and what we produce from that we count in our local diet--but this is not necessarily something everybody else would allow.
We've also allowed ourselves--no, encouraged ourselves--to buy local foods in the places we travel. We've brought home rice and tea from South Carolina, grits and chow-chow from North Carolina, peanuts from Virginia, maple syrup and cheese from Vermont, current cordial from Quebec, and wine from the state of Washington. Are these local? They were when we bought them... Does that count? Well, it does for us.
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Buying local foods supports one's local economy and helps it further develop. If the local food is from the places we are visiting, it still supports the local economy there. If our major issue is creating food security where we live, channeling money into other localities does not help at all--but obviously it is important to help others create food security where they are. So we feel pretty good about our purchases--in addition to enjoying one of the most tangible expressions of the culture of these other places: food.
Eating local also reduces the amount of petroleum products that have to be used up to bring us food from around the world which is out of season for us or that cannot be (or just isn't) grown here. When we bring home food from vacation or buy grain in bulk from a non-local source, we're adding in that petroleum, although perhaps there is an argument that the oil is not as high as it might be otherwise. I'm not sure about that, though.
One of the things I'm most drawn to is the goal of making my purchases from non-corporate sources, whether they are local or not. Although there are a few very large food companies that are located in our area, we typically don't count their food as truly local.
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All these issues swim around in my head when I contemplate ordering online tepary beans. The beans, deeply local to the place from which I order, will be trucked and trained across the United States to my doorway. This is not in our local diet rules--but in a way much more profound than are the greenhouse tomatoes that show up in early June in Maryland, these beans are indeed local.
Tepary beans, once a staple in the Sonoran Desert and throughout Mesoamerica, are one of North America's oldest native crops and are now members of Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste. They have been cultivated for more than 8,000 years. You can read more about the history of this crop in Gary Paul Nabhan's wonderful Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods and also his Gathering the Desert.
Tepary beans are considered by many to be the most drought-tolerant annual legume in the world. They are capable of producing a harvest of beans with a single rain in the harshest conditions. When irrigated, they produce higher yields only up to a certain point, after which excess moisture becomes a detriment and leads to overproduction of foliage and low bean production. In fact, it appears that moisture stress is necessary to trigger fruiting. As water shortages become a reality in many parts of the U.S. and around the world, teparies can play an important role in dryland agriculture. In fact, tepary cultivation is now taking place in dry areas of Africa and is being revived in southern Arizona where it was quite common as recently as seventy years ago.
The tepary bean has a higher protein content (23–30%) than common beans such as pinto, kidney, navy, and even soy. It also has higher levels of calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and potassium. While higher in all of these desired nutrients, tepary beans are lower in polyunsaturated fat and in the anti-enzymatic compounds which make common beans hard to digest.
Many native people in the Sonora Desert once depended on teparies along with other high fiber and mucilaginous foods, such as cactus and mesquite, as dietary staples. As these native people gradually abandoned their native foods and embraced a highly-processed "Western" diet, type-2 diabetes diagnoses soared. In some native populations, diabetes is fifteen times the national average. Tepary beans seem to be an ideal food for people prone to diabetes (or living with diabetes) since tepary bean sugars are released slowly and steadily. Many reservations in southern Arizona have re-embraced the tepary bean and now cultivate the beans for their own use, as well as for sale to support the community.
The teparies we have are from a community- based organization dedicated to creating cultural revitalization, community health and sustainable development within the Tohono O'odham Nation. The Tohono O'odham (formerly known as Papago) Nation sits in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, sixty miles west of Tucson, Arizona. Approximately 18,000 of the tribe's 24,000 members live on this main section of the Tohono O'odham Reservation.
Check out Heritage Foods USA for the sale of this product and other community-supporting foods.