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Eat Less Freight

With gas prices rising to over $4.00 per gallon, long-hidden costs of the fuel embedded within our food system are beginning to show with higher prices at the supermarket checkout. The legacy of once-cheap oil, petroleum now pervades every phase of America’s food production. It’s used to make fertilizer and pesticides, to pump water for irrigation, to power tractors and other farm equipment, for ripening fresh fruits, for processing into cans and boxes, and, of course, for shipping foods from distant farms to our market shelves. Anticipating scarcity, critics long have warned about the amount of oil in our diets—that foods travel more than 1,500 miles from farm to plate—that it takes more than 10 calories of fuel to make just one calorie of food. But criticism of such inefficiency in our modern food system goes back farther than you might expect. Consider an article by James Collins that ran 91 years ago in the Saturday Evening Post—about our “costly national habitat of useless hauling.” At a time when the national food system was still just emerging and its promise remained ambiguous, Collins admonished that the average American family spent 20 cents per dollar on freight costs alone. “There is certainly not a word to be said in defense of our national habit of wiring the West to send us certain food products that we could raise in our own neighborhoods,” Collins wrote. “…And when this habit is followed up in its various ramifications it reveals downright waste and collective boneheadedness.” History is especially fascinating when it reveals how conventional wisdom can turn entirely upside down. And now, it’s cartwheeling head over heels once again as more and more people are becoming interested in the merits of eating local poultry and produce and rebuilding regional food systems. It’s a good time to look again at the “collective boneheadedness” that Collins identified so clearly back in 1919—just as America’s food system launched into its petroleum addiction. As price pressures for hauling increase, adding more local foods to our diets may become not only the best tasting option but the most economical as well. As Collins advised, “eat less freight.” ---------- Ann Vileisis, author of Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get it Back, loves to share history that offers perspective on modern-day concerns.