Hand me a sealed plastic bag of so-called “food” on an airplane and my instinct is not to say “thank you.” My instinct is to say, “If any portion of the high cost of my airplane ticket is justified by the expense of this nasty little sack of over-processed by-products, please give me the home address of your CEO because I desperately want to wake him in the night by ramming these airplane-shaped graham crackers down his throat.”
On a recent flight between Santa Fe and Portland, Ore.—two cities with strong artisanal bents in terms of food and beverage production—my peanut and cracker offerings from Southwest Airlines struck me as particularly pathetic.
What if, I wondered, airlines picked up exciting and regionally characteristic snacks each time planes stopped in different locations? Dreamy, right? Imagine flying across the country and having a knish followed by an orange followed by a spanakopita followed by mini blue-corn chalupas followed by brandied pears. Instead of crowding onto nonstop flights, people would be looking for an excuse to grab connecting flights.
OK, maybe those particular food items are a little bit unrealistic and maybe nothing will ever defeat the McDonald’s theory of global domination: People will sacrifice their minds and bodies to you as long as everything, everywhere tastes exactly the same.
But the genuine hurdle to eating more local food—especially in New Mexico—is to increase production. Even if airlines were begging New Mexico’s farmers and food processors to show up with prêt à manger items for top dollar, there would be nothing to give them. At least not now. But if such a bankable demand existed, food production could increase.
When interviewing the Massachusetts-based local economy activist Susan Witt, she recounted to me the experience of visiting a friend in a hospital who was eating the common diet of small amounts of apple sauce each day. Witt noted that apple sauce was easy to produce in the region surrounding the hospital.
“If a hospital like that committed to buying local apple sauce beginning in five years,” Witt says, “people could get loans, open a cooperative processing and canning facility and start meeting that demand.”
Clearly we are not on the verge of airlines demanding local food during New Mexico pit stops, but there are a few tangible places we can begin locally. Organizations like the Santa Fe Alliance (with its Farm to Restaurant program) and the joint city and county Santa Fe Food Policy Council are doing the heavy lifting, but we need buy-in from large local organizations in order to see a guaranteed revenue stream for local food in the future.
Eating in the restaurant of a local hotel last week, with Witt’s comments fresh in my mind, it occurred to me that the Santa Fe Lodgers Association is a perfect leadership entity for such a venture. With many dozens of members that operate restaurants in association with hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts, the association constitutes a considerable block of purchasing power and a hugely influential lobby. If the Lodgers Association members each committed to purchasing 10 percent of their ingredients from local sources starting five years from now, it would have the effect Witt described. Farmers could invest in significant greenhouse projects in order to be able to produce more and across multiple seasons. Entrepreneurial and/or cooperative processing and packaging efforts could get off the ground.
Local banks would accept a commitment from the Lodgers Association as an indication of real growth in local foods, so financing would be available for expansion projects.
There are other big entities that are also key (Santa Fe Public Schools is trying to move toward increased reliance on local foods), but it’s important for big buyers and block purchasers to step forward and figure out how to commit to leadership roles.
We’re never going to have a strong local food economy by selling one meal—or one bag of groceries—at a time.