Opinion: Local Food, Community, and Thanksgiving

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 22, 2016, by Claire Morenon

At Thanksgiving, our nation pauses to celebrate and give thanks for the harvest that feeds us, over a meal that reflects the seasons and the foods of Massachusetts.

This harvest celebration is a thread that connects us to human history. Even as our diets have become increasingly disconnected from the rhythms of the seasons and from our own labors, we still gather each November to mark the end of the harvest. And from the beginning, these feasts have celebrated not only the bounty of our harvests but the bonds of our communities.

People in the Pioneer Valley care about local farms, maintaining open spaces and our local economy. At CISA, we see it in the vibrant farmers’ markets, in the availability of local food at grocery stores, and in the Be A Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown bumper stickers adorning vehicles up and down the Valley.

Still, the best estimate by Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture is that just 12.5 percent of the food we eat is from local farms, while the New England Food Vision posits that our land base, used productively to meet increased consumer demand, could provide as much as 50 percent of our diets. This relatively small percentage of local food likely holds true for the Thanksgiving meal, despite its origins in our local harvest.

The reality is that most of us spend our days rushing from work to other commitments. We’re stretched to eke out enough time with our families.

And in too many households, we’re worrying about where our next meal will come from. It can just be too much to add another stop at a farmers market, to plan around the seasonal availability of different foods, or to spend an extra dollar. A lot of our work at CISA is focused on making it easier for people to choose local when they can, from our online and print farm guides to our SNAP & Save program, which doubles SNAP (food stamp) dollars spent at farmers markets. And still we know that choosing local can’t always be a top priority for everyone.

But holidays give us an opportunity to step away from our daily tasks and worries. Thanksgiving, in particular, reminds us to honor gratitude and connection.

Traditional harvest festivals marked the grace period between the labor of the harvest and the lean times of the winter, a period that was celebrated by sharing seasonal abundance within communities. Those people with plenty shared, and those without were fed, and communities built resilience by breaking bread together.

Our modern Thanksgiving holiday gives us an opportunity to build resilience and connection within our community, too, by honoring the local harvest and the farmers that produce it. This year, after a tough growing season and a bruising political season, we’re called more than ever to look for joy and connection within our families, friendships, and communities, and to give thanks for the places we find strength.

Find farms that you want to support, and put your holiday dollars into their season-end coffers. Take time to know the source of the food you buy, and give thanks for the farmers who work all year to produce it.

Buy raw ingredients and cook them — maybe you can’t do that every day, but if you only mash your own potatoes with local cream and butter once a year, this is the day to do it!

Local apples are available in countless varieties and textures and flavors. Visit an orchard, breathe in the air and take in the view, and take some apples home for your pie.

Choose grocery stores that have ongoing relationships with local farmers, and support them, too. You might still be able to find a local turkey at a grocery store, and it’s exactly the right time to order a local roast or ham directly from a farm for your year-end holiday meals.

As you make plans to enjoy the fruits of the local harvest, consider ways to reach beyond your household by inviting someone with nowhere else to go to join your supper, and finding ways to give to your neighbors who don’t have enough.

Local farmers themselves demonstrate impressive generosity — the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts estimates that Pioneer Valley farms donated half a million pounds of produce to feed hungry households last year, and that does not include the tens of thousands of pounds local farmers donate directly to food pantries.

This Thanksgiving, complete the circle, and join your friends, family, and neighbors in celebrating and supporting the farm community that feeds us.

Claire Morenon is the communications manager at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture of South Deerfield