As some of you know already, I looove food. I love to eat it, to cook it, and will go to great lengths to experience and learn more about it whenever I can. And lately I’ve been quite taken with the idea of becoming a locavore, of eating foods that are grown within a certain radius from where you live. It means you’re more likely to know who and how it was grown, and in theory you are reducing your carbon footprint by lowering transportation costs. I say in theory because aI recently found out in a recent excellent piece in the New Yorker, calculating carbon footprints are not so easy, and eating a lamb chop originating in New Zealand in London is actually more ecologically sound than eating a lamb chop bred and butchered in the English countryside.
So as I was musing on the aesthetic elegance and ecological complexity of being a locavore, I came across a very different slant on being a locavore as I visited this amazing social enterprise on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, courtesy of our good friends at HelpArgentina. The social enterprise is called La Juanita, and it’s a self-organized coop engaged in a number of revenue generating ventures, including a well-known bakery. Their most recent success has been to build a partnership with a prize-winning chef, and turning out baked goods that could be sold at a premium to companies and individuals in the wealthier parts of Buenos Aires. The thing that struck me though, was that the price they were quoting for their pan dulce was almost 3x the regular price of pan dulce—and they were charging that price 1) because it was for a holiday occasion, and the market could bear that cost, especially when consumers factored in the idea that their pan dulce purchase was in part a donation; 2) the pan dulce was that good; and 3) they needed to charge that price because this social enterprise needs to cross subsidize the sale of that same pan dulce to the local community as below market prices.
The last point is where I started muttering, “But, but … that’s crazy. They should absolutely charge what the market can bear, but they should charge a price that is sustainable and delivers a long-term stream of income that allows La Juanita to establish a clear brand in people’s minds, and they should sell all their pan dulce to their high-paying customers, not keep any of it back to sell at subsidized prices to their local community.” But before I could say this, their chief baker intervened. He said that often there are those that produce, and those that consume, and usually the twain don’t meet. And it’s really important for the impoverished community around La Juanita to have access to the top-quality baked goods that they produce so that they too can experience what high quality is.
Morality aside, as a cook and a foodie, I had to agree. Because, you see, cooking is experiential. And you can’t learn how to make great pan dulce unless you know what great pan dulce is, can visualize it, and smell it and taste it. And a lot of other things besides cooking are experiential as well. And perhaps taking a strict business or economics view glosses over that experiential gap that can develop when one community produces and the other consumes. Perhaps being a locavore isn’t a short-term logical choice, but at La Juanita, it might lead to some kid there becoming a committed foodie, or the new Iron Chef from Argentina.