It's All in the Words

By Kjeld Petersen | January 01, 2011
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Much of our conversation about local food is laden with jargon — sometimes confusing as we look to find a common language to describe it. Some of the words we use have specific, universally-agreed-upon definitions — yet somehow get changed or used incorrectly or inappropriately. Some of the words have very subjective usages or interpretations that rely heavily on the context in which the words are used.

The following is a high-level look at the definitions and meanings of some of the common words we run across in our edible conversations (words in italics are also defined):

ARTISAN: Foods which are prepared with respect to traditional ingredients, methods and in small-batches. Unlike typical, commercial food products, artisan foods are normally produced using seasonally available ingredients and are done so using small-batch or by-hand techniques. As such, quantities of true artisan foods are normally very limited. Cheeses, pastas, breads, preserves, flours and beverages are common artisan food product categories.

COMMUNITY SUPPORTED AGRICULTURE (CSA): A community-to- farm risk-based system of commerce where individual ‘members’ pledge support to a farm (in the form of a fee or labor or a combination of both) in exchange for a scheduled delivery of products. In its truest sense, members pledge both financial support and individual labor in return for the ‘share.’ The member assumes the risk that if a farm is unable to bring a harvest in for any reason, they will not receive a delivery. Items in each share are determined by the farm and may include items provided cooperatively with other producers.

ECOTARIAN: The practice of eating sustainably in a manner that is primarily plant-based, organic, local, fair and nutritionally balanced. The term is relatively new and, in essence, summarizes a number of existing principles.

FAIR FOOD: Food that is accessible to all, regardless of income, and produced by people who are treated with dignity and justly compensated for their labor. Fair Trade is a registered trademark and is commonly associated with imported food products (such as coffee) where producers are directly engaged in selling the goods and receive just (or higher) compensation for their labor in comparison to goods they might sell through a broker or other middleman.

FARMERS’ MARKET: A market organized in public spaces enabling farmers to sell directly to consumers and end-users (such as restaurants). Farmers’ markets have existed for centuries as commercial and cultural centers of communities around the world. Farmers’ markets may or may not include the sales of crafts, cooperatively produced items or resellers.

FARMSTEAD: A term to indicate a value-added food product (such as a preserve or cheese) that is made at the same location from where the raw ingredients are grown or produced (such as a berry farm or dairy). The term is widely misused on menus to indicate an ‘artisan’ provenance for an ingredient.

FOOD-SHED: An area where food is grown, generally defined by its climate, soil, watershed, local varieties, species and agricultural systems. A food-shed can be made-up of parts of different states or countries that share common conditions in these areas.

FOODWAYS: The academic study of the foods that are eaten, grown, prepared and preserved through tradition in a defined area, including the study of the people involved in the process. Foods in the defined area are considered from historic, traditional and current viewpoints as it relates to the social, economic, political and nutritional landscape of that area. Organizations devoted to foodways, such as the Southern Foodways Alliance (, seek to study, document and enjoy an area’s (such as the South) contributions to the national culinary landscape through a variety of public and private programs.

FREE RANGE: The term only applies to poultry in the United States and USDA regulations only specify that the animal has been ‘allowed’ access to an area outside of its containment location. The USDA does not specify the area or quality of the outside range nor does it specify the amount of time poultry must have in the outside range. The USDA has no specific definition for free range eggs, beef, pork or animal products (such as milk). The term (as is ‘cage-free’) is commonly misused by egg producers to indicate wholesomeness or the humane treatment of chickens.

GRASS-FED: Livestock relying solely on pasture or rangeland to supply protein and energy requirements. Generally considered to be the most environmentally-friendly manner of livestock production. Grass-fed livestock grow to market weight slower and develop less inter-muscular fat (or marbling). Although, in reality, most livestock are not 100 percent grass-fed.

HEIRLOOM: A term usually used for vegetables that have unique genetic characteristics or traits that allow them to be well-adapted to local environmental conditions or for a particular use or flavor. They are typically old varieties that are achieved through seeds (instead of hybrids, cuttings or other propagation methods) and produce crops through open-pollination (as opposed to forced pollination). Varieties of heirloom vegetables are preserved through ‘seed-saving.’ Common types of heirloom vegetables are found in tomato, bean, squash, melon, lettuce, radish and carrot varieties.

HERITAGE: A term usually used for animal breeds that have unique genetic characteristics or traits that allow them to be well-adapted to local environmental conditions or for a particular use or flavor. The Tamworth hog (a heritage breed) reflects centuries of selection for an outdoor life where they are expected to find their own food. The result is a hog which produces finely-grained, lean meat, especially bacon, which differs from the commercially sought Berkshire, Duroc and Hampshire breeds which produce long loins, short hams and generally have a higher amount of fat.

HYDROPONIC: The system of growing vegetables in a greenhouse using a nutrient-rich liquid medium with or without gravel or other supporting soil. Hydroponics allow a producer to grow vertically (using growing beds stacked on top of each other,) rather than horizontally (using more land), and to grow a crop year-round. Differences between hydroponically-grown and field-grown produce is qualitative in nature (greenhouse versus ‘sun-ripened’). Hydroponic produce has been shown to be safer, due to the fact that the plants do not come in contact with soil. Hydroponic produce can be just as local as food grown in the soil.

LOCALLY GROWN / LOCAL FOOD: The United States government has legally defined local as “(1) The locality or region in which the final product is marketed, so that the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product — or — (2) The State in which it is produced.” Not exactly our definition of local, but it makes sense in a certain way, 400 miles is essentially within a day’s drive. Some see local as being a much smaller area, typically a city or its surrounding area or within a specified growing area or food-shed.

LOCAVORE: A person who prefers to eat locally-grown or produced foods. ‘Locavore’ was selected by the Oxford American Dictionary as the word of the year in 2007, paying respect to the rapid and enthusiastic embrace the word has received in the general lexicon. The word itself was coined to reflect individuals who initially were challenged to eat only foods grown or produced within a 100-mile radius of their residence.

NATURAL: Legally, food labeled ‘natural’ does not contain any artificial ingredients, colors, or chemical preservatives — and in the case of meat and poultry (proteins), is minimally processed. Food containing ‘natural flavors’ can legally use the label ‘natural’ even though the ‘flavor’ may be derived from highly processed proteins.

ORGANIC: A federal certification for foods produced according to Organic standards. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are not permitted in production. Organic standards must be maintained throughout processing as well in order use the certification. Naturally occurring food items, such as salt, cannot be labeled Organic. Food items that cannot be traced to Organic sources or standards, such as honey, cannot be labeled Organic. (It’s really difficult to get the bees to only feed from organic flowers.)

PASTURE-RAISED: A term describing animals, including poultry, cattle and hogs, which are raised on grass pasture for their entire lives, with the exception of the initial birthing/brooding period. Conceptualized and popularized by sustainable farmer Joel Salatin, ‘pasture-raised’ is indicative of animals that are raised without containment, other than appropriate fencing. The animals are free to roam, eat and develop accordingly. Animals raised in this manner may be classified as ‘natural,’ but not ‘organic.’

SUSTAINABLE: The legal definition of sustainable agriculture is an integrated system of plant and animal production that will, among other things, provide for human food needs, enhance environmental quality, make efficient use of natural resources and enhance the life of farmers and society as a whole.

TRUCK FARM: A commercial farmer who typically produces a mono-crop or less diverse crop profile and in amounts normally larger than a farm that produces for a farmers’ market or CSA. It does not necessarily indicate that the farmer sells his or her crops from the back of a truck. Sweet corn, pumpkins, tomatoes, melons and onions are common truck farm crops. The term originated from the basic system of commerce where foods are purchased by the ‘truck-load.’ It is commonly misused to indicate a wholesaler, jobber or other middleman who purchases a ‘truck-load’ of produce (either directly from a farm or from another wholesaler) for resale, often at impromptu locations (such as in a store parking lot).

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