ROBERT ST JOHN: Buying food locally is better for many reasons

By Robert St. John

While walking into a convenience store the other day, I noticed a homemade sign posted near the entrance that read, “Do you want to help your state and community recover from the recession faster? BUY LOCAL! Avoid letting your dollars make other states stronger.”
Whereas I agree with the general intent of the statement, I am not fully sure the purpose is well founded.
I am all about buying “local.” It is deeply rooted in my core beliefs. But instead of buying locally to “avoid letting your dollars make other states stronger,” I want to buy locally because the quality is better, the food is fresher, it helps my neighbors, and it is the right thing to do for my community. I am OK if other states do well, too, though not at the expense of my own.
I believe that “local” has been one of the keys to my 25-year business success. In 1987, when most restaurants were shipping in salmon and frozen fish from the Pacific and Atlantic, we made a commitment at the Purple Parrot Café and Crescent City Grill to buy and serve only fresh Gulf fish. Period. At the time that business decision wasn’t based on a movement that focused on purchasing locally caught fish. We bought fresh – never frozen – Gulf fish because Gulf fish is better.
This year we will serve almost five tons of fresh Gulf finfish fillets to our customers. Had I tried to build our business on frozen fish from other parts of the world, I don’t think we would be purchasing anywhere near that much fish. We might not even be in business.
Last year we purchased over 17 tons of Gulf shrimp from the local waters of Mississippi and Louisiana. We did it, in part, because we believe in helping the local fishermen and the local seafood industry. But to be completely honest, we also bought Mississippi/ Louisiana shrimp because they taste better, period.
The same goes for oysters. Say what you will about East Coast and West Coast oysters. There are dozens of varieties, and I have eaten them all, from San Francisco to New York. In the end, those oysters can’t hold a candle to the ones we harvest in Mississippi and Louisiana. That’s not a sales pitch or empty rhetoric. It’s a fact.
South Mississippi has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to locally grown foods. For years, before we started tending our own in-house gardens, we purchased tomatoes and other fresh vegetables from Harmony Farms in Lumberton. Mark and Shelly Babcock were driving to the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans twice a week to sell to the restaurants down there. All we had to do was drive a few miles. Hurricane Katrina forced the couple to move, but today we purchase tomatoes from Buddy Clark who has an amazing tomato garden located just outside of the city limits. We purchase pastured poultry and fresh eggs from the Pogue family at Dominion Farms in Moselle, not because they’re great people – they are – but because the chickens are allowed to walk around in the grass eating worms and grubs, which is what chickens are supposed to eat.
For years we drove to Smith’s Creamery in Mt. Herman, La., to purchase their dairy products. Now we buy Country Girl Creamery products just down the road in Lumberton. We raise our honey in house, and buy fresh seasonal fruits from all over the region. This winter we will plant a fruit orchard near our vegetable garden where we will soon be picking blackberries, blueberries, figs, peaches, pears, plums and apples. We won’t do it because we are preventing other states from “being stronger.” We’ll do it because the end product is better.
Local is better because it tastes better. Local is better because you are helping to keep money in your community and not sending it to pad some corporate suit’s salary in New York. But buying from local businesses also adds to the character of your town.
I can pull off of the interstate anywhere in this country and eat at the same chain restaurants and shop at the same chain retailers I can patronize at the next interstate exit and the next. It’s almost as if someone flew over in a helicopter and sprinkled a packet of chain-store seeds at every interstate off-ramp. Those places don’t tell me anything about that particular community and its people. This is not a rant against chain restaurants or chain retailers. They have their place and I have spent money with them.
Though I always defer to locally owned businesses because, when patched together to form a whole, they make my hometown unique. All of the independent, locally owned restaurants and retailers are the reason my town is distinctive and not just another cookie cutter seed-packet retail stopover on the way to somewhere else.
In these days of mass globalization and corporate consolidation, it’s good to see that people are coming back to the way things used to be. It’s true, “local” is where it’s at. For many of us, it’s where it’s always been.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.