Historical Context for the Debate Over "Local" Food, Part 1 of 2

Yet another newspaper article today about the growing conflicts over "urban" animals -- in this case, in Salem, Oregon, where some residents want to keep hens, and other residents don’t want the animals around. We’re going to see more conflicts like theses as the "local food" activists gather steam, focus, and energy. (*1)

Many Americans are trying to "take back" their food and the nation’s food system. Some demand better state and federal food regulations. But others are engaged in grassroots efforts by supporting farmers’ markets and by producing their own food at home.

So what’s all this got to do with the price of eggs? History, that’s what.

As I’ve noted here before, I’m writing a history of meat in America (see more here). The first two chapters of that book look at the debate over "urban meat" in the late 19th century. That debate centered on Americans' unhappiness with their "local" food systems: they didn't like them, and wanted them gone.

The short version is this: Urban growth accelerated significantly in the mid-nineenth century. As cities grew, so Americans’ ideas about how to manage those cities changed, most especially ideas about how to manage urban sanitation.

No surprise, urbanites began building centralized sewer and water systems, to name one example. But they also began to question the value of "local" food production, especially meat processing. If we could go back to a typical American city in, say, 1870, we’d find dozens of slaughterhouses.

Dozens. And they weren’t on the outskirts: they sat next to houses, churches, stores, and schools.

And yes, with all the odor, waste, and, well, filth, you might imagine, as well as the constant parade of animals through city streets. (The livestock usually arrived by rail, and then handlers herded them through the streets to various slaughterhouses and butcher shops.)

Americans decided that this centuries-old system of meat production was outdated, unsafe, and unsuited the needs of a modern, progressive people.

Over the next fifteen years, they debated, considered, and experimented with alternatives (the first two chapters of my book will examine that process.)

By the late 1880s, most cities had banned those local slaughterhouses (as well as things like backyard hen houses), and a new meat processing system had emerged: A handful of operators slaughtered and processed livestock at giant "packing" houses located in just a few cities -- most notably Chicago, but also in St. Louis, Omaha, Kansas City, and Fort Worth.

Americans applauded this change: The new system was healthier and safer, and so were the nation’s cities. Next: The twentieth-century battle over meat processing.


*1: Don't take my word for it. There are a zillion blogs out there. But also check out the intense food-related activity on Twitter.  (Indeed, anyone who still thinks Twitter is for narcissists and teen-agers only needs to spend a few minutes just reading the food posts on Twitter. There’s a movement out there!) Use the Twitter search box and  type in, for example, #profood.