THE BLOG
01/05/2015 02:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What's More Important -- Buying Local or Knowing Where Something Comes From?

Since the inception of our restaurant, I either source my ingredients locally or when I am unable, I know where a fair bit of it comes from. And, by locally I mean I could (and often do) drive to the actual source in a reasonable amount of time. The global food supply chains are a complex labyrinth of connections, disconnections, transactions, and processes. While it may not always be necessary to choose between the options, the reality begs the question: "Which is more important: Buying Local or Knowing Where Something Comes From?" Of course, part of the answer depends on what one means by the word "important". And the rest of the answer is that "both are". In the case of food, when an ingredient is locally sourced, part of its draw is the fact that there is a tangible identity to the person or people who grew or raised it, and consequently, we feel better connected to the food. Somehow, it seems to taste better because of that connection. Perhaps, that is so, because we feel reassured that the food is safer and representative of our own sense of place (terroir).

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Now consider the case where one knows the source of an ingredient and that happens to be halfway across the world. We would think nothing of the geographical origin of some commodities like say, wine, and often we seek the best ones out, irrespective of their physical origin. Alphonso mangoes grown and packed in India, cheeses from Europe, tea and rice from China are just a few of thousands of ingredients which travel great distances to household and restaurant kitchens all over the globe. But we couldn't imagine a world without them. Many items like spices come from faraway lands and while they may be packed in the USA (as they are in the case of certain name brands), the raw materials come from unnamed sources. Yet, they form the pantry staples of even the most ardent locavores. It would be difficult to visit an ethnic market in the United States and find ingredients which are sourced nationally, let alone locally. Does this fact make them less desirable? Or, does it make them less sustainable? The answer is of course, not necessarily, and often, hardly so.

Finally, imagine the hypothetical case of actually knowing a farm and its farmers halfway across the world that practiced responsible farming and grew delicious food. Would we feel more comfortable sourcing and consuming that? I suspect the answer is yes, despite the expense of the cost of transporting the goods across such a large distance. In this case, our personal connection with the source gives us a sense of comfort and even pride.

So, the points are these. Local is good and often the best option because we feel most connected. Much of what we utilize is hardly local, yet we would be hard pressed to survive without it. Yet, if we had a connection with something that is anything but local, we would probably choose it without much consideration.