The Difficulty in Defining Local, as It Pertains to MyPlate

During our MyPlate project—our attempt to experiment with USDA’s MyPlate project in our local food context—some tough questions came up.  The first question was, obviously, “What does local mean?”  We also grappled with the oft-criticized decision by USDA to include milk as its own, separate component.  What follows is a brief description of those debates we had, and the guidelines we came up with for this project.

Question 1: How do we define local?

We chose to define local loosely, to mean, anything you can grow in the immediate area surrounding Tucson.  Considering the vast elevation differences between the desert floor (~2000 ft above sea level) and some of our mountain ranges nearby (~9000 ft above sea level), coupled with varying weather patterns, we actual have a pretty broad scope of ingredients to choose from during any given season.  That said, we tried to, for the most part, to ask the question, “Could I grow this in my backyard during x season?” as a way to answer this question.

Question 2: What about native or heritage foods?

We chose to differentiate between local foods—anything that can be grown locally—and two other categories of food.  Native foods are foods that are indigenous to this area and have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years.  We decided to also pay respects to the slew of foods brought over during the 1600 and 1700s (starting with European explorers and missionaries) that later became part of the local and cultural food ways.  We called these foods heritage foods.

Question 3: Is there a breakdown of ingredients by season?

Yes!  Keep in mind this is a work in progress, and may contain mistakes here and there.  But if you’re interested, check out our google doc of local, native and heritage foods by season.

Question 4: How strictly should we adhere to our definitions in acquiring our ingredients?

We we were not strict on basic spices and oils.  For ingredients that we felt, somewhat arbitrarily, should be considered “main,” we stuck to the “can it be grown/produced here” rule of thumb.

Question 5: Why is there no milk in your MyPlate meals?

USDA has been criticized often for its decision to bend to the will of the dairy industry and include milk as its own component, on top of the protein section.  We had similar reservations, and decided to go with a slightly different version of MyPlate, one produced by the distinguished (and arguably less-biased) Harvard medical school.  Here is there Healthy Eating Plate (and a description can be found here):

Harvard Healthy Eating Plate

Let us know if you have any questions!

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