Memphis: Locally Sourced 

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Last weekend on Facebook, I posted a link to a story about the poet Mary Oliver and her longtime companion, Molly Malone Cook. I liked it — and wanted to share it — because of its insights into the joy, pain, and ultimate mystery of living with someone for 40 years, until death takes one person away.

Within minutes of posting it, I saw that my 91-year-old mother in New Mexico had "liked" it. What a world we live in, I thought, where, without speaking, communication with a loved one happens so easily and instantly. It made me happy to think my mother was reading the same story I'd just read, and perhaps remembering her own long life's journey.

It's something of a miracle, isn't it, that we're all connected — family, acquaintances, old friends and new — sharing what we're reading, what we're doing, what we're seeing through our omnipresent camera phones? It's as though we're all talking across a backyard fence, even though we're miles apart. Distance has become local, at some level, and I'm grateful for that.

That same afternoon, I read a story from a Tampa newspaper that was linked on a friend's page. It was about how the "farm-to-table" trend was being abused by many restaurants in Florida. On their chalkboards and menus, the eateries claimed their food was "locally sourced" and listed various nearby purveyors of seafood, produce, and meat as their suppliers. A reporter followed up with phone calls to the local purveyors and learned that many restaurants were just making up their connections, or that those connections had long ago lapsed.

Localizing human communication is one thing. Localizing the products we consume is quite another. In the case of those Florida restaurants, the concept of "local" over "distant" was recognized as being valuable, but it was being corrupted, and their customers were, quite literally, paying for it.

Why is locally sourced food perceived as valuable? It's not just a hipster thing. Food that's produced locally is fresher, certainly, but it goes beyond that. The money spent on local food — or any locally produced consumer goods — tends to stay in the community. And that's a big deal.

The value of "local" applies to more than food and restaurants. When we patronize locally owned or managed retail shops, bars, bookstores, liquor stores, music clubs, coffee shops, hotels, (ahem) newspapers, farmers markets, and other businesses, the money stays here, for the most part.

Sure, most of us succumb now and then to the temptation to use Amazon or other online enterprises for consumer goods, but it's important to remember that those purchases don't help the local economy much, except for the company flying those big orange and blue airplanes. Unlike most cities, at least the Memphis economy gets a piece of the online action via FedEx's presence here.

The American Independent Business Alliance recently did a study that determined that 48 percent of every dollar spent in locally owned businesses stays in the community, versus 14 percent for chain outlets such as WalMart. The numbers are clear, and the lesson is obvious: Whenever possible, spend your disposable income where it does the most good for your friends, neighbors, and fellow Memphians — and ultimately, for you.

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