During a tour of the bustling Yangpyeong street market, I learned how food figures prominently in Korea’s creation myth. According to my guide, Dae-Han Song, Bear and Tiger had an irrepressible urge to become human, so the God Spirit instructed them to go into a cave together where the only food was garlic and the herb mugwort. Sadly, Tiger was not able to handle the deprivation and died. But as a reward for Bear’s survival, the God Spirit turned him into a beautiful woman whom he promptly married. Together, they set about populating what is today the Korean Peninsula.

Just as Dae-Han finished his tale, I was abruptly body-slammed by a miniature elderly woman lugging a large tray of whole mackerel. Spinning hard to my right, I found myself staring face-down into a wooden crate of mugwort. And right on cue, a small flat-bed truck packed to the gills with garlic entered the same stall. The act of creation was unfolding right before my eyes!

This was my third visit in eight years to this, the last divided country on earth. Besides being run down by relatively short people, it’s easy to be equally struck by the dynamic angularity of Korea’s urban spaces and the soft contours of its countryside. Because food security is a matter of utmost concern here, the intensive horticultural use of nearly every undeveloped nook and cranny is a natural and necessary fit for both city and country. And while small farms and greenhouses were an aesthetically pleasing offset to some cluttered, high density areas, food security was also the reason I had been invited to speak at Yangpyeong’s local food conference.

One thing I’d learned from attending previous events was the Korean love of ceremony. Imagine a July Fourth observance in a small American city with the mayor and other local dignitaries holding forth from a bunting-draped stage on the virtues of patriotism and independence. With even greater fervor a group of local dignitaries that included Yangpyeong’s mayor, the director of Local Food Korea, and representatives from provincial and national agencies welcomed the assembled crowd. Unlike similar American moments, however, the occasion of the Korean event, replete with flag-waving and the playing of the national anthem was the celebration of local food!

The hoopla, which included the firing off of rockets, and subsequent one-and-a-half days of presentations and meetings was more than symbolic. Because of Korea’s acute dependence on imported food, much of it now coming from China, the most quoted number throughout the conference was 7,200 kilometers (about 4500 miles), the average distance that food must travel to reach Korea’s consumers. Compare that to the often cited U.S. figure of 1,500 food miles and you can appreciate why Korea’s interest in local food is much more than a fad.

The path of local food (a phrase that acquired mantra status during conference deliberations) is similar to the one taken in the U.S. – a rapid growth in farmers’ markets, CSAs (box schemes in Korea), agricultural coops (akin to food hubs), and farm to school initiatives. There is a strong interest in organically produced food, but the tendency is more toward “environmentally friendly” agricultural practices rather than a strict adherence to national organic standards.

The Sisters’ Project is an example of how Korea’s local food movement draws on tradition and relationships as a way to address contemporary food issues. Founded by the Korean Women’s Peasant Farmers association, the Sisters’ Project is a CSA/box scheme that originated from the need for Korean women to have an independent source of income since they were formerly prohibited from owning land. The traditional box consisted of greens and 10 eggs assembled from the chicken coops of several women growers. But these schemes have grown in number and diversity in response to the perception that Korean women were losing their cooking skills. This producer/consumer connection – one founded as much on empathy as on economic need – undergirds many of the local food dealings in Korea. It is a hope that co-existence will lead to co-prosperity, and a recognition based on the belief – stated often during the conference – that food is a public good, not a set of private goods subject to commodification.

While Americans may teeter back and forth between their anti-government biases and an expectation that government should enable a locally based food system, the Koreans make no bones about it – they expect government to be at the table. Throughout the conference, presenters and participants called on government, from the national to the provincial to the local, to act aggressively in support of local food.

Nowhere was this sense of partnership and shared values more evident than with a national project that is simply called Local Food Stores. Typically, these retail food shops are based on a hybrid social enterprise model driven by public interest concerns and cooperative business practices (most of the inspiration for this model was acquired from Japan which has a robust history of local food stores). The LFS works with a prescribed set of farmers – now numbering 1200 nationwide, many of whose “farms” are not much larger than a big backyard garden.

As explained to me by Sang Hyun Yoon, Local Food Korea’s communication manager, participating farmers commit to taking six mandatory classes that cover “environmentally friendly” production methods. The classes also orient the farmers to the business and management practices of the LFS.

Though Korea’s institutions work hard to support farmers, they definitely don’t coddle them. If, after regular inspections, your farm violates the environmentally friendly practices three times, e.g. using insecticides, the LFS takes the unfriendly action of throwing the farmer out of the coop. And if you miss one of the six courses, you don’t get in at all.

I surmised that “tough love” like this was at least partially justified in a nation that survived near annihilation in the early fifties, and nuclear missile-waving nut cases just north of their 38th parallel. But the rewards appear commensurate with the rigidity of the requirements. Not only does a committee of farmers set store prices, member farmers reap 90% of the gross sales, reserving 10% for store operating costs (in other cooperative schemes described to me, farmers only received 60% of the retail price). Yes, the farmers must deliver their products to the stores early each morning, and then pick up unsold product in the evening (work is underway to develop “value-added” projects to utilize surplus product), but this is consistent with the LFS’s high quality, maximum freshness image that is currently contributing to their success. As best as I could determine from my interview with Mr. Yoon and my visit to one beautifully merchandised LFS located in the middle of the Yangpyeong street market, sales were brisk and consumer satisfaction was high.

Mr. Yoon told me that the role of government was key to the development of the LFS initiative. As part of the national government’s commitment to small farmers, it plans to add another 70 LFS to the current 50 that have already opened over the past two years. Wan-ju County, for example, has opened four stores which have already garnered seven percent of all county food sales. In a form of government action that sounded almost quaint to the cynical ears of this Westerner, Wan-ju has made LFS expansion one of the “five promises” that it has made to its people. “Is a ‘promise’ like an ordinance or statute?” I asked Mr. Yoon, trying to imagine a big city American mayor making any promise without a wink wink. While he couldn’t give me an easily translatable explanation, I was told that this promise yielded an annual county commitment of $1 million to LFS development in Wan-ju. In Korea, I guess, promises really matter.

From the opening ceremonial rockets to the earnestness of the hundreds of participants and presenters gathered in Yangpyeong, it was obvious to me that the Korean local food movement is marching forward double time. Is it increasing national food security? Has it made the lives of its much revered peasant farmers better? According to Korean University sociology professor Chul-Kyoo Kim, the evidence so far is slim. But as he put it, “with the economic difficulties Korea’s small farmers face now, CSAs, local food shops, and farmers’ markets will definitely help them.” In a nation where both history and culture inform present action, and where the threat of food insecurity is palpable, sometimes faith is the best master. Or as one Korean saying goes, “Food is heaven, food is life.”