For South Carolina commissioner of agriculture candidate Emile DeFelice, buying locally grown food isn't just a feel-good option — it's a practical choice with the potential to boost the bottom line as well as guard against disasters both natural and manmade.
That's important to point out for a candidate going up against not only a strong Republican incumbent but an incumbent who was essentially handpicked only two years earlier (Hugh Weathers, a third-generation dairy farmer from Bowman, became interim commissioner through an executive order of Governor Mark Sanford after a nasty money laundering scandal ousted former commissioner Charlie Sharpe).
DeFelice — himself a certified organic farmer whose ham, pork shoulders and loins, and fatback are prized by top local chefs in Charleston such as Mike Lata of FIG, as well as by restaurants in New York City and Washington, DC — has much to say about the politics of food and how it impacts the culinary scene and tourism as well as the economy and even public safety.
Organic food has been around long enough to solidify its share in the market. It is a legally defined term intended to help environmentally conscious consumers vote with their wallets.
"Organic certification was basically developed as a third-party verification system," DeFelice explains. "So if you go into the store to buy food that makes a particular claim, you can know that you are getting what you're paying for."
Certified organically-grown food typically makes the wallet a bit lighter than the average fare on the shelves does, but in return it promises hope for a more sustainable future: better health for you and yours, better health for the soil in which the food was grown or walked upon, less erosion, and fewer toxins floating about. Hard to see the downside of any of that, but on the average income, doing what is good for Mother Earth may take a backseat to being able to keep the belly filled from paycheck to paycheck.
This is the standard charge leveled against proponents of organic, local, and artisanal foods — that it is somewhat elitist and too expensive. For many others, in particular those on tight budgets, buying organic is not even on the radar screen. This has stirred more concentrated efforts on raising awareness of hidden costs — the small farms that go belly-up, the shrimp boats tied up at the dock while tourists eat shrimp shipped in from overseas, the real loss of jobs, and an impact on the local economy that people can relate to.
That's why, for DeFelice, buying local trumps buying organic. "Buying an organic apple from New Zealand probably does a lot more damage to the environment than buying a non-organic apple from South Carolina," he says. "That's where organic certification falls short." One main reason, he explains, involves food miles — the energy expenditure required to refrigerate and transport bulk food over distance. His platform, "Put Your State on Your Plate," challenges residents of the Palmetto State to support their own communities and South Carolina in general when making food choices. He's taken the challenge himself, preparing feasts in which everything on the table, from the meat to the wine to the vegetables and grains, are all from South Carolina farms.
Though the office of incumbent Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers did not return calls for comment, Weathers has also been vocal about the importance of promoting local farms and foods, securing funding from the state legislature to brand South Carolina-grown products and using both his farming and financial savvy to boost the role of agribusiness in the overall state economy.
According to DeFelice, decreasing reliance on foods shipped in from outside the area isn't just good for the local economy, it's safer.
Pointing to the recent scare involving bagged spinach contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7, DeFelice proposes a local web of small, medium, and large farms that would serve as a safety net in the event of a catastrophe that impacted large-scale food distribution.
The concept is intriguing: a decentralized network — the internet is an example of exactly that — can't be taken out by attacking any one point. The vulnerability inherent in relying on mega-farms and massive storehouses that service entire regions should be obvious.
"Taking a realistic view of the world today, these are the days when your borders can be sealed and your food supply cut off," he says. "Ask Canadians or the British about their experiences over the past few years. It's not only not funny, it's pretty damn scary."
For the average chef, consumer, or voter, however, the day-to-day politics of the food we eat — in particular for a culinary city such as Charleston — is in maintaining the regional distinction that we prize. This, DeFelice notes, is one of the immediate benefits of choosing local, organic foods when dining out or shopping.
"It's very difficult for a restaurant to distinguish itself if the trade depends on two or three trucks that all have access to the exact same pile of food," he says. "It makes it even more difficult for a town to distinguish itself amongst millions of other American towns."
"I have friends in Chicago who come to Charleston four times a year just to eat. When that's happening, you know there is something special going on. And what's going on is Hank Holliday putting hogshead snapper in at Mercato, Robert Stehling putting artisanal farm products on his menu at Hominy Grill. It creates a vibrant economy that is good for the restaurant, good for the city, good for the state."