Vote With Your Dollars to Enrich Your Community

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw
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My husband and I recently had an energizing and enlightening week’s visit with our former German foreign exchange student and her husband. For me, it resulted in looking at the concept of “local food” in new ways.

Their jobs are financed by businesses and their government to promote German goods in developing countries. They’ve discovered that the concepts of “local food,” “organic food” and fair trade fit perfectly with economic development. As I listened to their stories of Brazil, Mozambique, South Africa, Pakistan and China, I realized that the economic development in those far-off countries is not so different from our own.

We may not consider ourselves a “developing country,” but most of us might agree that both our rural towns and inner cities can use some development. I believe we can help enrich our own lives and our own communities by using these same three concepts.

First of all, buying food or any commodity locally helps our community beyond our single transaction. Basically, every time a dollar recycles locally, it strengthens the economic base of a community. There’s nothing I enjoy more than taking the money I earn from selling eggs and honey at our farm and spending it at the local farmers market. A basic economic principle at work! Spending money locally will result in more options when shopping or finding good jobs. It will mean more money being available to fund schools and infrastructure.

Buying from people we know offers direct benefits to us also. If I buy something from a local store and it doesn’t work, local business owners care about making it right. Besides getting better service, I can also buy what I want and not what someone tells me to buy. I am not just a potential sale in my town; I am a long-time customer and a fellow resident.

Additionally, buying locally makes a local community unique. Choosing to eat at small restaurants that are owned and operated by local people gives us more choice than having only chain-restaurants. Shopping at the Farmer’s Market helps the market grow into having greater variety and even attracts dollars from other communities. We must invest our dollars locally if we want to live in healthy and vibrant communities.

For several decades we’ve been taught that buying cheaper is buying smarter. That concept has made corporate people very rich and has weakened our local communities. When we drive distances to shop, or shop on the internet for what we could buy from locally owned businesses, we put our neighbors out of business and weaken the community we call home. No wonder buying locally becomes key to healthy communities in all parts of the world.

It is interesting that “organic” is also an integral part of our German friends economic development work. Americans have been taught–mainly by large corporations–that organic food is inherently more expensive than conventionally grown food. That makes sense to me because as a gardener I can appreciate how much more labor-intensive it is to deal with insects and weeds by hand than by using chemicals. Studies have shown, however, that organic isn’t necessarily more expensive than conventionally grown food, and as with all products, increasing the demand will bring down the price.

Organic food makes real economic sense when we look at the “hidden costs” of conventional food. Price-tags at the grocery store do not include our increased medical costs from eating chemicals with food or our tax dollars spent cleaing up a polluted environment. The good personal and environmental health that results from eating organic food allows individuals and communites to spend their dollars on enriching their lives in other ways.

Eating organically becomes easier if you become familiar with the foods that contain the most poisons. Look up “The Dirty Dozen, the Twelve Fruits and Vegetables with the most Chemicals” online. You can begin this way to avoid the majority of chemicals. Don’t eat the 12 on the list if you can’t buy them organically or grow them yourself. In addition to “organic” and “local,” the concept of fair trade is also used to help economic growth. This concept is mainly used in international trade to help small farmers get a fair price for their produce. Consumers who buy fair trade products want the growers to survive economically and are willing to pay a bit more to have that happen. At our house, we purchase coffee and chocolate, our main non-local (and I admit, non-essential) “necessities” online at the Mother Earth News site or Equal Exchange. These items are also organic.

I think the concept of fair trade applies wonderfully well to local economies. When you hear the voice in your head telling you to go where the prices are cheapest, ask youself if you and your family could survive on the wages paid where prices are “cheap.” Often it is not only the people who serve you, but those individuals or industries supplying the produce, whose incomes are being cut below a living wage. I’d truly rather buy less, but buy local, quality products.

It’s easiest to apply the fair trade concept when you are buying directly from the producer. If you buy tomatoes or a watermelon from the grower at the farmers market, it’s not diffeicult to imagine the individual farmer’s labor. The same is true when buying bread, soap, jam or honey. The care it takes to make a fine product deserves a fair wage.

The concepts of buying local, organic and fair trade allow us to vote with our dollars for the quality of community we want. At a time when many of us have lost hope of getting help from the government, it’s nice to know simple ways to help ourselves and our communities.