Lately, if you do any eating out in Austin, you are seeing and hearing the term “local/sustainable”. With more people demanding accountability on where their food is coming from and how it is being raised, “local/sustainable” has become the new catch phrase for “assuring” people that all is well with the food they are being served.

But is it really? Don’t count on it!

First, let us agree on what the words “local” and “sustainable” are suppose to mean. Or at least imply.

Local is meant to mean from somewhere close. This is a difficult one as “local” in Texas can mean something very different than “local” in New York. Distances are greater. Growing seasons are different and, frankly, much of what “local” can mean is pretty arbitrary.

If you are buying “local” you would assume that it is supporting farmers and ranchers in your area – but how big is that area?

So how about what it doesn’t mean.

“Local” does not mean out of State. I can accept “local” in Texas meaning anything in state – with some caveats   - We have a Rio Grande Valley that can grow avocados in the winter, as well as oranges, watermelon, grapefruit and a host of vegetables. Those farmers should be able to sell their produce throughout the state with pride labeled “Grown in Texas”.  One could argue that they are “local” to Corpus Christi, Houston, and even San Antonio. Distance in Texas is way more than say New York, where one can argue that “local” is the Hudson Valley to Manhattan.

“Local” is not corporate headquarters in Austin when all your farms and ranches that supply you are outside Texas. Having your headquarters here doesn’t make the Kiwis from New Zealand and strawberries from Mexico “local”. It doesn’t make the eggs from Arkansas “local”.

“Local” is not sourcing from an Austin distributor who is getting all their meat from a supplier in Colorado.

I know we don’t grow Kiwis in Texas and that much of the produce we want out of season has to be grown in warmers climates somewhere else. I understand – just don’t lie to me!

“Sustainable”. Well here is a loaded word. What is “sustainable”?

My guess is that if you are growing produce or raising livestock in a way that neither exhausts the soil nor does damage to it, and that you are adding back to the soil and the environment with your practices at the same time – thus keeping the ecology in balance – that is sustainable.

But while one can make the argument that what any given farm or ranch does is sustainable, how much of that “sustainability” is negated as you move away from self-contained practices.

As an example: If a ranch or farm raises animals on their own property and feeds them grain, one could make the argument that they are sustainable if they grow the grain themselves for their own animals, but are less sustaining if they are bringing the grain in from somewhere else and that the farther the grain has to come transportation wise, the less sustainable the feeding of those animals is.

One could argue that feeding cattle grain at all when they should be eating grass for their best health is not a sustainable practice. On the other hand, pigs and chickens need feed.

Frankly, my personal opinion is that “sustainable” is a loaded word that in reality is too complex to tell the consumer anything. It is a “feel good” word that is used more often to put up smoke and mirrors and allows the seller to not answer the real questions the consumer is asking.

Where was my food raised or grown?

How was it raised or grown?

Was this done humanely? Was it done with additives? Chemicals?

Is this producer organic?

Was this a family farm or ranch?

Grass fed? Grain fed? GMOs?

I understand that the majority of restaurants, grocery stores, food trailers, and any other food outlets are wincing as I write this. This is a lot of information that may or may not be what any given consumer wants. And, in fact, the majority of consumers still don’t want to be this engaged with their food sources.

However, more and more consumers are beginning to ask questions.

So here are some suggestions:

Just be transparent. Post in plain sight who supplies you.

One sentence underneath identifying where the ranch or farm is located, or if it’s a bigger producer that uses multiple producers, post the region in the state.

Say if they are organic (thus identify that there are no chemicals, antibiotics, hormones or GMOs). And list any certifications that the producer may have: American Grassfed Association, Humane Certification, Whole Food Level Certified.

Say if they are Grass fed, Grain fed, etc.

All this can be done with one sentence. Do it for each producer and post it. You’re done and the customer can see what is going on with their food.

I know two grocery stores – Wheatsville Coop and Whole Foods – that do this. I know a couple of restaurants – though most of them just list the producer and don’t usually list any additional information.

I also know a large number of restaurants and grocery stores that are now playing the “local/sustainable” buzz word game. Many of these places are doing it precisely because they DON’T want to list the other information.

So it is up to you – consumer – to ask for a “posting of transparency” to know about your food. And when someone tells you they don’t know or that is just too economically “unsustainable” tell them “just post it”.