What's your definition of local?

Clarkson University’s Main Street Grill, which offers lunch made with locally grown food, from salads to burgers.   It’s open 11am-2pm weekdays and is serving about 150 students a day.  Photo:  Todd Moe

Clarkson University’s Main Street Grill, which offers lunch made with locally grown food, from salads to burgers. How far away can this plate of food be produced before it's no longer "local"? Photo: Todd Moe

I was out to dinner with some friends last night, and conversation turned to a new eatery for students at Clarkson University. It's billed as using 100% local ingredients.

Clarkson's Main Street Grill in Cheel Arena advertises chicken from Vermont, potatoes from Quebec, beef from Brasher Falls. Aside from that last one, my friends scoffed.

"Since when is Vermont and Quebec local to St. Lawrence County??!!" one said.

It turns out our very own Todd Moe fleshed out the story this morning with an interview with head chef, Kyle Mayette. "We know it's the right thing to do," Mayette told Todd. He mentioned words like "integrity", but also "demand" and "student interest".

The details of running such an operation are mind-numbing — finding tomatoes when late blight has destroyed some crops, getting produce across the international border, dropping off, picking up, not to mention what to serve when the fields are buried in snow.

Mayette says it's not feasible for this to spread to the rest of the university. "Some students are not going to want to eat turnips and cabbage and pickled beets all winter long."

And you have to look askance at some ingredients: you won't find olive oil grown anywhere near northern New York.

The definition Mayette uses for local – to answer my friends – is 200 miles. Hence, Vermont and Quebec are local to Potsdam.

That's not an unusual number when you look across groups that attempt to define what "local" means. One group, GRACE Communications Foundation, answers the question this way:

A 2008 survey found that half of consumers surveyed described “local” as “made or produced within a hundred miles” (of their homes), while another 37% described “local” as “made or produced in my state.”  FThe ability to eat “locally” also varies depending on the production capacity of the region in question: people living in areas that are agriculturally productive year-round may have an easier time sourcing food that is grown or raised 100 miles (or even 50 miles) from their homes than those in arid or colder regions, whose residents may define “local food” in a more regional context.

So, what's your definition of local? In your state, your county, the entire Northeast? Only if you actually know the farmer? Please comment below.

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  1. How about how far food could travel before petrochemicals? We had Albany ale here in Kingston in 1816. In the 1700s Hudson Valley wheat was sold into the Caribbean. Heck, in the late 1500s the masterless men of Newfoundland sold their dried cod into Spain. If the concern is sustainability, the reach of a sailboat or one on a canal might be as good a measure as any.

  2. It depends on what your goal is. If you're trying to keep your town's economy strong, Quebec, Vermont and the Mohawk valley do not count as local food in Potsdam. If you're trying to bring ingredients to your diners that is fresher than a lot of supermarket fare, 200 miles seems reasonable. If you're concerned about carbon footprints and pesticide use,labeling food according to origin can be misleading – transport is only one factor in a sustainable food system.

    I buy and produce local to a large extent, and I have been moved by learning about factory feedlots and the tomato industry in Florida to avoid certain guilt-laden products, but I still look forward to oranges and grapefruit appearing on the shelves in the middle of winter. They remind me of a sunny, warm place at a time when "local" is not always appealing.

  3. It doesn't bother me to consider Quebec and Vermont as "local" to Potsdam. Piercefield, St. Lawrence County, isn't much further from Potsdam than Quebec.