In a story about "local" business, you should hear it from your neighbors: Shopping at the nearby outlet of a national chain isn't equivalent to local buying.
"The big chains have always tried to look like what they perceive the customer wants," says Mike Callicrate, owner of local meat purveyor Ranch Foods Direct. "From 'natural' to 'organic' to 'local,' they have co-opted the brand and the image. They are testing the intelligence of the consumer and stretching the truth to new limits in saying they are 'local' or that what they sell is local."
Says Michele Mukatis, of the local Cultivate Health: "In a sense you're buying local, but as for where all [the money] ends up, it's China."
By contrast, Mukatis says, when we feed ourselves from local family farms, we protect our local heritage, preserve farming and keep land in agriculture, safe from development.
Richard Skorman, founder of the Colorado Springs Conservation Corps, has carved out a living through local businesses, from the long-time Poor Richard's bookstore and restaurant to his newer Little Richard's toy store and Rico's café. As an independent local businessman who has enjoyed his community's support, Skorman returns the favor by relying on goods from the same kind of merchants.
"That person lives here; they're liable to use other local independent businesses for printing, advertising," he notes. "They're more likely to be locally connected.
"Obviously, the closer to home you get something, the less it harms the environment. That's an important issue. ... You know the food's been grown locally and hasn't been trucked very far."
Also practicing what she preaches is Jane Ard-Smith, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Pikes Peak Group. She and her husband participated in a program last year in which they promised to buy locally and eat at least one meal a day of solely local foods.
"A thing we really enjoyed was canning a lot of fresh local produce — tomatoes, pickles — and we made applesauce," she says. "So we really knew what was in our food. Just from a community standpoint, it was great."
Ard-Smith admits it's "a bit of a time commitment." And some products, such as olive oil and coffee, aren't produced locally. But she did find fair-trade, shade-grown, organic beans roasted by solar power at Solar Roast Coffee in Pueblo.
Ard-Smith urges people to read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, recounting the author's experience of feeding her family entirely from items grown on or near their Virginia farm.
Trying something similar here wouldn't be as difficult in Colorado Springs as in some areas of the country, thanks to our proximity to Arkansas River Valley crops, Fountain Creek and productive short-grass prairie. And because property is less expensive here, plenty of independent local businesses have sprung up and succeeded — compared with places such as Boulder, where Skorman says higher property values result in more national chain stores.
For those converting to a "buy local" lifestyle, Mukatis advises at least three months of practice to make the new habit routine.
"I'm a big fan of little steps," she says. "Try one thing. Go to the farmers market once a week and buy your veggies there, then buy the rest of the stuff at the supermarket. Every choice has a consequence."
Callicrate says the best way to assess whether something is local is to ask: Who benefits in the sale and purchase, and where does the money go? Do you know the person who produced the item, or can you know them?
And, how far did the food travel?
"This makes a difference in the nutritional value and in the amount of energy consumed in transport," he says. "If a local farmer or rancher produced the food, then our money will stay in the community. If the food store is locally owned and operated, the wages and profits also remain in the community."