THE BLOG
01/22/2014 01:56 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

The Year of Buying Locally

2014 is the year of buying local.

You've heard that, right?

These days all it takes is a bunch of people repeating the same catchphrase over and over to make it the zeitgeist, so let's do that. Everywhere you go, just be like "Oh yeah, 2014? Year of buying local." Say it and we will make it so.

This seemingly random declaration of mine is actually related to a much deeper puzzle I've been pondering in my head.

I own a cooking school and café with an event space in Manhattan called Haven's Kitchen. When people ask me, "What is Haven's Kitchen?" I usually just say "a cooking school," because trying to explain the rest gets me a bit tongue-tied. Inevitably, the next question they ask is, "What kind of cooking school?" to which I reply, "We teach all sorts of cuisine but we really teach our students about cooking to support a more sustainable food system." More often then not, the response is a blank stare. You can see why I don't even venture into the café or event space parts.

Clearly I have to re-visit my elevator pitch, but in my defense, explaining Haven's Kitchen and sustainability are both difficult for even the most concise speaker. Even so, I am resolute that 2014 will not only be the year of buying local, but also my year to practice crisp and pithy language.

So, here we go...

Sustainability: The best description is the one used in the 1987 UN Report, "Our Common Future." It defines sustainability as development that meets the needs of our generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In the context of food, that definition begs the question: Do we currently grow and distribute food that meets our needs and will not hinder our ability to feed future generations? And if the answer is "no," (which I believe it is) how can we create a food system that is sustainable?

Why did I answer "no?"

Because our current food system depends heavily on chemicals and fossil fuel, monocultures have taken over where there had been diverse family farms slowly but surely chipping away at our arable land. Farm subsidies, established to protect rural Americans from poverty, are now entitlements that support massive food corporations, and unhealthy processed foods are the norm making us dependent on prohibitively expensive drugs.

It simply isn't sustainable to continue with a system that includes destructive monopolies by industry farms and food companies, dependence on credit, decline of our communities, and a concurrent rise of food deserts, not to mention a deeply divided society and a health care system that costs us too much to maintain.

No matter how you look at it, the food system that is responsible for 98 percent of the food produced in the U.S. needs a good hard tweaking.

Where, then, do we begin to fix it? This is where 2014 comes in!

Remember? This is the year of buying local. Local produce begets smaller scale agriculture. It also ensures that we farmers are paid decently in that they more cents to the dollar growing for their community than they do growing for a food corporation. Local produce frees us from chemical agriculture necessary for long-distance transport of food. And knowing who grows your food focuses us on who is producing our food, how they are treated, where it comes from and what toll it takes on us and our planet.

Clearly, there is a lot to do. Systems are slow and challenging to change. It is going to take a lot of economic and policy work to build a truly sustainable food system. We will need to repair our soil, convince companies to make better food, and come to terms with paying the true costs of food. We will have look at our food system for injustices and living sustainably, for now and the future, will require us to change our palates for less sugary, less artificial, less processed foods.

So much for pithy, but here's my nod to crisp: What you can do in 2014 to support a more sustainable food system is this: Buy whatever you can from a local farmer, and spread the word. We've still got 320 or so days left.