Where does our food come from?
Throughout human history, at least up until the 20th Century, this question has had a fairly straightforward answer: the land around us. To ask that question now is to invite all of the confusion and existential anxiety that a post-industrial society can offer, which is why mostly we don’t ask it. Our supermarket shelves are loaded with avocados from California and Mexico, peppers from Peru, and beef from New Zealand; and the labels on each product outnumber the flags from the countries of origin. That’s assuming there are labels at all. If we go out to eat, whether at the fanciest steakhouse or Steak N’ Shake, the source of our dinner remains shrouded in a thick fog of mystery, so potentially shameful that it demands an equally nefarious policy; don’t ask, don’t tell.
We all need to start asking.
As I write this, the Amazon Rainforest is burning at an unprecedented rate, largely due to deforestation at the hands of global industry. Wood and paper products, as well as beef are major exports from the Brazilian Amazon and are rapidly contributing to deforestation in the region, resulting in drier conditions, which encourage the spread of fire. Processed beef is still imported to the United States from Brazil. Closer to home, in California, insurance companies are no longer covering homeowners due to wildfire-risk. Though it’s difficult to isolate cause and effect with regards to climate change, the draining of the Colorado River—which irrigates ninety percent of the nation’s winter vegetables—contributes to a drying California. In Mexico, a similar story is unfolding due to the rising global demand for avocados. The implications of a global food system dependent on a few, far-away places in the face of climate change are daunting. At best, we face rising food costs, at worst, our ability to eat is called into question.
But there is another way.
St. Louis sits in the middle of a lush foodshed. Within the 100-mile radius defined by the St. Louis Regional Food Study, there are over 14 million acres of productive land including farm, pasture, and woodland. At present, most of our farmland is under industrial commodity crop production; none of which is destined for our dinner tables, and none of which is providing our region’s farmers with a stable, livable wage. There are exceptions, however, and because of consumer demand for local food products our region has seen an increase in the number of small-scale fruit and vegetable farmers and pasture-raised meat producers, which, unlike feedlot beef, or beef from deforested regions, can actually help sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Yet there remains an enormous gap between our region’s food needs and our local production. This is not an issue of capacity, this is an issue of priority, and a different choice is ours to make. We can feed ourselves locally and support a robust farming culture and economy throughout our region and this is exactly the vision of Known and Grown STL.
What began as a conversation within the St. Louis Food Policy Coalition(STLFPC) around addressing the difficulties small farmers face getting their products to consumers in the region—as well as the difficulties consumers have in knowing where their food is actually coming from—is now a functional farmer-certification brand. Remember all those confusing labels at the supermarket? We would like to clear that confusion up and make the Known & Grown brand the only one that matters for our region.
Through the combined efforts of Missouri Coalition for the Environment staff and STLFPC members, (which includes farmers), a set of criteria was established as the benchmark for good steward farm practices. These are practices that are healthy for us humans, as well as for the rest of the living things in our foodshed. Since some STLFPC members are actual farmers, we know that these standards are not only achievable, but ultimately result in more productive farming, since these environmentally responsible practices improve soil health.
The coalition, having its standards in place, sought out a partner who could create a living, visual brand that would embody all of the virtue inherent in a healthy local food system. We found that partner in De Nichols and the team at Civic Creatives, and what they brought to the table shattered every expectation we had for what a local food brand could be. We knew that in order for this project to be successful, and for the vision of a healthy, locally-fed St. Louis to eventually become our regional reality, that this would have to be a community-informed process. De spent countless hours engaging people across the food system, from farmers to chefs to eaters, of all backgrounds and only then did they begin imagining a brand that could capture the soul of the whole St. Louis foodshed.
Known and Grown STL is here to help our region grow into a more self-sufficient and abundant future, where everyone has access to healthy, locally-produced food, which is not only affordable to eaters, but also profitable to small farmers. The future I want is one in which we are not dependent on an uncertain industrial food chain, nor complicit in the serious ecological side effects of globalized, corporate farming. It is a future that is possible, but only if we do what we must do in the present, and that will take all of us acting together. Known and Grown STL can help us all make informed choices as eaters, so we may support the right kind of farming in our region, making it profitable for farmers once again. With more demand for locally-grown food, more farmers will arrange to supply it, strengthening our entire regional economy from Downtown to the furthest rural communities in the foodshed. We all need each other, and if we live into that we will finally, once again, be able to answer the question of where our food comes from with “the land around us” and maybe even add to that, “our friends and neighbors”.
Please check the Known & Grown website regularly to find out where you can purchase items from our branded farmers. Next time you’re wondering where your food came from, check to see if it’s Known and Grown!
Writer, Grower, STLFPC Member, Known & Grown Committee-person
I will leave you with one final thought, something that I’ve found hopeful lately, even in the face of the horror in its creation. Earlier this month, the Okjokull glacier in Iceland was officially declared lost to climate change, the first of any Icelandic glaciers to lose its glacial status, having been reduced to a tiny patch of ice. The country memorialized their great loss with a plaque, written by Icelandic author Andri Snaer Magnason, that reads as follows:
A Letter to the Future
Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier.
In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path.
This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done.
Only you know if we did it.