The theory of "six degrees of separation" is based on the idea that people are only 6 steps away from each other, i.e. you can connect any two people in the world by association. Take me and the President, for an example. My daughter went to a White House dinner a few years ago and hugged Michele Obama. And Michele is Barack's wife. That's three degrees of separation! (Who knew we were that close?!) There's also a fun twist on this game where you work to link an actor to Kevin Bacon. You win the game by coming up with the shortest link between the two. It might be helpful to think of our relationship to food in terms of this paradigm, too. How many degrees of separation are between us and the place where our food originated?
Think back to your algebra class (or was it geometry? I was never a math whiz.) Regardless, everyone knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. When we buy from a chain grocery store, food gets to our table in a circuitous and convoluted route (think: Billy in the Family Circus cartoons). It's the opposite of a straight line.
Let's imagine the journey some green beans might take, for example. A farmer in Wisconsin decides to plant them because he or she knows that people love them and that green beans love them back. Green beans are chock-full of good things for us, including vitamins A and B, omega-3 fatty acids, and calcium! The beans are picked and then taken to a factory where they are cleaned, sliced, diced, and processed. Days pass. They may sit in a temperature-controlled warehouse, or they may be immediately canned or frozen. Sooner or later, they are shipped to stores across the country where they wait to be purchased. Eventually they make their way to our homes. Degrees of separation: 6+
Contrast this with buying green beans from a farmers market or finding them in a box of produce from a CSA. They are grown close by, harvested, and brought to you. You may actually meet the very person who picked or planted the beans himself. Degree of separation: 1 (It would be "0" if you grew them yourself.)
Why do the degrees of separation matter on the food front? First and foremost, it's about freshness. Something is lost in the translation/transportation. Studies show that nutrient content is diminished, the more time that elapses between harvest and consumption. This means that we get less vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc. , the further removed we are from the source. That's why we should seek out ways to get food at its freshest, most nutritious peak.
Second, it's about relationships. It's wonderful to know exactly who is behind the food you are eating. Commercials that show farmers picking the tomatoes that go into your salsa are trying to send that same message. These are the people that grow your food, they seem to say. But chances are good that that "farmer" is just a C-list actor. Nothing beats being able to actually meet the people who've planted, tended, and harvested your food. It's amazing to be able to look them in the eye, ask them questions, see the pride they have in their product. And thank them.
Third, it's about accountability. If something goes wrong (something is missing from your box of produce, the yogurt is watery, etc.), you can talk to the farmer or grower. There is less confusion and obfuscation when you buy local. If something goes wrong in the large-scale production process we mentioned earlier, it's harder to pinpoint where the problem lies and who is to blame. To cite a recent example, you may decide to stop buying Sabra hummus because of Listeria concerns, but those same chickpeas may be in found in other products that you are still buying, unawares. Locally, If food is good, you'll keep buying from the same farms. If it's bad, you'll stop. You've got a direct line to the source. It's simple and clearcut.
Fourth, it's about saving energy. I love blueberries year round. But they're not in season year round. When I buy blueberries from Chile in the winter, it's good for me (well, kind of) but it's not good for our environment. Think of all the fuel spent flying them to our country and then transporting them via truck to DC! Those blueberries were more of a luxury than I ever realized.
These are some of the reasons that drive the local food movement, farmers markets, and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture programs). When we minimize the degrees of separation from our food source, we ALL win! Don't you agree?