Things seem pretty good for seasonal, local food, if you take a look at my dining room table. I don’t have a ton of disposable income, but I chose to spend a lot of it on tomatoes last week. And from the numbers, you might believe this reflects national consensus. Back in 2011, the USDA projected that local food would bring in $7 billion in sales.
A lot of you who read this site would probably consider yourself “locavores”. It’s a group with which I also identify, but uneasily. The movement is one under which people with very different priorities gather, united by a single objective: buy food grown or produced nearby.
Locavorism alternately emphasizes that local food takes fewer fossil fuels to produce and transport, supports the local economy, promotes biodiversity, preserves rurality, mitigates environmental damage, is grown more naturally and seasonally, and is generally healthier. It seems so simple, really. How can buying local agricultural products be panacea for so many of society’s ills?
The short answer is that it cannot.
I do think there’s a certain, very small set of hardcore consumers who choose a close-to-home product at all costs. On the other hand, “local” can be confusing to everyone else less committed to the tenet, who know that they’re supposed to like and support local producers per the wave of current social consciousness, but for whom the grocery store seems much more convenient, offers more variety, and hey—even has organically grown stuff.
This type of confusion is on display at any greenmarket on a Saturday morning, where inevitably, some customers walk away disappointed when they can’t cross everything off their grocery list. “I need oregano and potatoes, “ a customer pleaded at a farm market I worked early this summer. Another person demanded to know where the strawberries were, because “there are always strawberries in June”.
This is probably why that much-lauded $7 billion figure seems meager when you compare it to the total amount we spent on food in the same year—near $700 billion (and that’s just the at-home food spending).
But honestly, I think that confusion and skepticism is well merited. For a movement that promises so much, and that has been gaining so much ground, there’s little real evidence out there to back up many of its sweeping claims.
. . . .
A food system is exactly that: a system. Systems, by definition, are always changing and are almost always complex, with moving parts and actors. There are positive and negative spillovers that we might not anticipate. A locally produced food is not, by definition, produced without use of fossil fuels. It is also not, by definition, grown organically or with low chemical use. To be locally grown is to be many things, but it doesn’t always encompass the host of virtues that have somehow become associated with it.
In fact, the concrete benefits of locally grown or produced food are those about which we infrequently talk.
One of the reasons that I buy food from local sources is that I care about keeping nearby farmland—almost all of which is occupied by family-owned farms—in production. I also care about transparency in the ways that food is produced, and there’s no better way to see what goes on in the production of your food than to live in a place where you can drive over and see what’s going on, or to talk to the person who grew the product at your local market. The bottom line, I suppose, is that I care about place, and about the smaller, more regional economies into which local producers feed their goods.
Notice, though, that I said nothing about a particular farming practices. While small farms may be more likely to practice better stewardship of their environment, there is no guarantee that “local” equals “chemical free”. It is near impossible to grow an unsprayed stone fruit in Virginia—but I prefer a sprayed Virginia peach to a certified organic California one. The point is not that one is necessarily better than the other. The point, instead, is that it’s not so simple.
In this light, maybe you understand why I’m uncomfortable with the blind “buy local” gospel. Local food just may not do what we want it to do.
What is always left out of the social justice rhetoric surrounding local food—and ironically what is probably, in my opinion, the reason why the movement has grown so much—is the deep pleasure that many of us get from knowing food, growing food, getting it from within our communities, and then, in that ultimate “agricultural act“, putting that food on our tables. There is a reason why farm markets are gathering places, where people wander and linger, and supermarkets are not.
But maybe you understand, then, why I get frustrated. Buying locally produced food is a safe, comfortable, pleasurable way for us—and by us, I’m speaking as the relatively privileged white, educated person that I am—to feel as if we’re promoting some vague sort of social good. (Save the world: All you have to do is sip a latte as you stroll around the farmers’ market and buy $5.25-per-pound-grass-finished ground beef!).
I fear I’m sounding too negative. This is not to say I think buying local food is futile. But I do know that I don’t see many farm market customers discussing the Farm Bill that’s been in pathetic, year-long Congressional limbo as they snap up their Cherokee Purples. That same Farm Bill continues to place their favorite, quaint family farm in jeopardy (not to mention the intertwined fates of folks on SNAP who can’t afford those same heirloom tomatoes), while financially safeguarding the existence of industrial farms they so despise.
The heart of the issue is, of course, more nuanced still. No one can deny that food systems play some role in creating or alleviating the myriad specters of overdependence on fossil fuels, disappearing farmland, unsafe or contaminated products, or even our own health and wellbeing. To work to improve these systems, it may be true that we should buy locally, but we also need to overcome our shortsightedness—we need to actually think.
. . . . . .
I made another e-booklet—only took me a year!—this one, five meals/recipes to deal with a glut of tomatoes. It was supposed to be the entirety of this post, but clearly…someone got sidetracked. —S