Jessica Prentice created the word "locavore" seven years ago. She used it describe how she ate. Whenever possible, she bought food raised near the Bay Area, where she is co-owner of a community-supported kitchen.
As the first locavore, she enjoys making a connection with the farmers who grow her food and knowing how they raised it. But, she said, for her locavore is not a doctrine. She also occasionally eats foods not available from local farms.
Folks involved in agriculture often comment that they wished the public knew more about farming. In that context, a locavore is one of agriculture's best friends. A locavore is someone who wants to know how food gets from farm to fork.
However, some folks have extrapolated the meaning of locavore and inserted political and economic undertones. Some books, magazines and blogs have taken a perfectly good word and turned it into something more than someone who eats local food whenever possible.
Some people discuss "food miles" as a measure of quality and ecological purity. After all, it's no secret that bananas for sale in January are not raised locally, unless you live in Ecuador.
"Local" has also become a political buzzword. Public institutions such as schools are being pushed to "buy local."
All things being equal -- including the price -- it makes sense for schools to buy locally grown food. But buying local food at higher prices prompts several questions, including where the extra money will come from. Most school districts are scraping by financially, and do not have enough money for teachers and educational materials, and they're supposed to spend more on food? Or is the federal government, which is running a $1.5 trillion annual deficit, supposed to pay for it?
It also ignores the fact that, in a very real sense, all foods are "local." Apples grown in Wenatchee, Wash., are local to that area. What, exactly, diminishes them when they are sold in Chicago, New York or Taiwan?
Blueberries grown in Oregon are local to that area. Aren't they just as tasty and nutritious when consumed in South Korea -- or South Dakota?
The dogma that a few people have attached to the word locavore ignores the fact that good food is just as good no matter where it's eaten. It also doesn't recognize the seasonality of food. The fact that we have an intricate network of distributors that supply reasonably priced fresh fruits, vegetables and meats to grocery stores and restaurants year-round is a unique American success story.
That a mother in Fairbanks, Alaska, can buy fresh produce and milk in the middle of winter to feed her children is a modern miracle that didn't exist only a few decades ago.
Many older consumers remember the "original" days of local food. They remember that, in many regions, grocery stores in the winter were all but devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables.
In some regions, fruits and vegetables simply cannot grow without massive investments in greenhouses and heating fuel. Even then, the adjective "local" can equal "expensive."
That's the point of a new book, "The Locavore's Dilemma," which was written by husband-and-wife researchers Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu. Their point is not that "local" is good or bad. In fact, they say they shop at local farmers' markets when they can.
They object mainly to the dogma that one should buy "local" food all the time, no matter the price or season.
"People should disregard geographic origins," Desrochers told reporter Kelsey Thalhofer. "They should go for quality-to-price ratios."
They wonder out loud that if the local food "system" is so good, why was it replaced by the innovative, efficient and cost-effective system we now have?
Local is good. When food is in season locally, nothing is better. That's when being a locavore pays off.
But during the rest of the year, we should be thankful that other options remain readily available.