Local Food: What Counts?

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by Jennifer Meta Robinson

“Local” has emerged as one of the hottest food and cultural concepts in the United States in the past 25 years. Many people choose to buy local, read books written or published or bound locally, wear clothing made from homespun fiber or fashioned nearby, ride locally made bicycles, recreate locally, and build homes with locally sourced materials. Three-quarters of Americans say that they are highly influenced by labels that indicate food is “locally grown.” Food industry giants that regularly source from around the world, such as members of the National Restaurant Association, the largest food service trade organization, and Walmart, the largest US grocer, identify “locally grown” as a top food trend in recent years. The term’s ubiquity alone begs examination.

In a new book with co-author James R. Farmer, Selling Local:  Why Local Food Movements Matter (Indiana University Press 2017),

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we report on our research over two decades that includes hundreds of interviews and site visits and thousands of surveys to understand why local matters to the people involved and how they live it.  Our focus is on people associated with farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) in the Midwest and in the central Appalachian regions, but we also range far beyond. Here is a brief glimpse.

 What Counts as Local?

Research and experience point to many appeals to local food—social, economic, and environmental factors.  But the definition remains elusive.

On the surface, localism seems to be all about proximity–what is sourced nearby has more appeal than what is transported from far away. But defining local in terms of distance turns out not to be very definitive, even among its advocates:  400 miles, within state lines, within a day’s drive?  Proximity, it turns out, is only part of how people define local.  A passionate statement by a ten-year local grower, market vendor, and CSA provider we will call Sage Goodell helps open up many of the values that define local.

We call this thing that we are doing farmer. We are working hard to create a new definition for farmer. We are working hard to replace the image of big tractors and acres of corn with an image of farm diversity, creative thinker, healthy people, healthy land, life not death, vibrant nutritious living food, good land steward, responsible caretaker of this earth. Rather than a worn-out, sick “farmer” sitting in an air-conditioned tractor spraying toxic chemicals on a field, you see a robust, energetic, inspired, loving farmer on her hands and knees hand-weeding the carrots. Rather than going to Kroger and buying lifeless, tasteless, chemical-laden produce, you go to the farmers’ market and shake hands with the person who grew your vegetables, harvesting them the day before and sharing with you the latest news on the farm. You develop a relationship with this farmer. She thinks of you as she harvests produce each week. She thinks of you at supper on market day, knowing you have gratitude as you nourish yourself with her produce. You have a relationship with the farmer that grows your food. This is the new definition of farmer.

In the process of defining her profession, Goodell articulates seven notable facets of the ideology of local.

  1. Local Is Temporal

Freshness is frequently cited as one of the most desirable qualities of local food, and Goodell references “vibrant, nutritious living food.”  Picked so recently, it may still be alive. She mentions “harvesting [produce] the day before and sharing with you the latest news on the farm.” The food she grows, like news, loses an essential quality over time. In addition, she references generational time, agricultural practices dying away with the conventional farmers while the “robust, energetic, inspired loving” next-generation farmers flourish.

  1. Local Is Healthful

Goodell describe a generational trajectory of improvement in healthfulness and sets local in opposition to conventional agriculture. She describes a shift away from conventional agricultural methods that involve “spraying toxic chemicals” for “lifeless, tasteless, chemical-laden produce” and toward intensive methods that produce healthful food, “life not death.”

  1. Local Implicates Scale

She sets the scale of “big tractors and acres of corn” and rote, straight-line work against “an image of farm diversity, creative thinker . . . on her hands and knees hand-weeding the carrots.” The artisanal, or “small batch,” scale of local conveys desirable qualities beyond proximity or nutritional content. Indeed, food grown nearby but processed at large scale can lose the value it might gain from its proximity to origin, according to the ideology of local.

  1. Local Means Accountability

Goodell contrasts the traditional supermarket experience with going “to the farmers’ market to shake hands with the person who grew your vegetables.” That tangibility, an actual touch, enacts a “relationship,” a bond of exchange, a shaking of hands that may perform a greeting, a thank-you, or a contract. 

  1. Local Implies Environmental Stewardship

Goodell describes her goal of being a “responsible caretaker of this earth,” caring for it “down in the soil on my hands and knees, in the dirt.” Local food offers practical solutions to the environmental impact of agriculture in shorter transport distances, less fuel consumption, and less pollution, and many local food farmers strive to live with a small environmental footprint.

  1. Local Fosters Systems Thinking

In another conversation, Goodell described her work as “growing nutritious food the smart way” to benefit all, because “we are all in this thing together.” Her approach to land stewardship constitutes an “intimate relationship,” a “marriage” of sorts. The integrative nature of local informs “the new definition of farmer.”

  1. Local Is Oppositional

Goodell defines her work against capitalistic norms, setting corporate agriculture with its productivity ideal to “feed the world” against localism’s values of small-scale accountability and performative competence. The rich farmer with air-conditioned tractors is demoted, and the poor one on her hands and knees is elevated. The flawless and bountiful are toxic while the small and laborious are vibrant.

Local remains rhetorically ambiguous. It’s a fiddly notion that must be puzzled out differently by different people according to the contexts in which they find themselves.  Freed from a strict spatial definition that only reductively renders the spirit of the movement, local food in its many dimensions can become an activist tool for change–it’s not just about space but also about time, health, human scale, accountability, stewardship of environmental systems, and progress. It puts people inside a system with many actors who each play an important part.  As people and goods become more far-flung from their roots, the longing for connectedness and community become more intense. Local rehumanizes.

 

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Sage for sharing her brilliance.  And thanks, too, to the many other farmers and customers of local food who generously shared their worlds with us.

Thanks to Indiana University Press for their faith in the project.

 

Jennifer Meta Robinson, PhD, is professor of practice in the Indiana University Department of Anthropology where she studies food, communication, and pedagogy.  She lives on a 40-year local food farm in scenic Greene County, Indiana.