If sustainable principles are important to you, then you probably already know more than the general population. You know about the lack of transparency in our food system- how food labels and GMO debates are working hard to skew our perceptions of the food we eat and where it comes from. You also may be supportive of organic production, maintaining soil health, saving pollinators, and shaking the hands of the farmers that feed us. Well, not to completely downplay your efforts, but you’ve probably fallen into the Local Trap.
What do I mean by "Local Trap"? It is the perception that many (not all!) self-proclaimed “foodies”, sustainability advocates and health conscious consumers hold that local is better. It is the emphasis that local food on a small scale is inherently ecologically sustainable, socially just, democratic, nutritious, fresh, and promotes food security. It is the idea that the world’s unhealthy habits, food system injustices and food inequalities will disappear if everyone shopped at their regional farmers' markets and CSA’s, had a backyard garden, and did away with GMO’s and conventional production. We would love for that to happen, but frankly it is unrealistic for the vast majority of consumers, and impossible at this point in time for our contemporary food system to change on such an immediate, drastic scale.
Setting the Trap
You may have heard of corporate “greenwashing”- an attempt of giant corporations to make their initiatives seem environmentally conscious and their products counteractive to their pollution and financial greed. Well, “localwashing” is the same thing in regards to food. It is retail and processed-food brand giants labeling their products and depicting them in a way that makes them seem neighborly, quaint, and socially desirable. Stacy Mitchel, a writer from UTNE.com talks about how Starbucks removed the brand’s name off several of their Seattle stores, re-naming one of them, “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.” WalMart is opening additional box stores with green signs reading “Neighborhood Market”, while retail chain Winn-Dixie launched an ad campaign several years ago under the tag line “Local flavor since 1956.” Corporations such as Frito-Lay and McDonald’s have marketed their potato chips and French fries using video footage of small-town potato farmers, portraying the image of family farms and community growth. Smuckers does the same, using imagery of farm houses and roadside stands with adorable children selling their homemade, wholesome family products… Has anyone read the ingredients label of Smuckers jelly recently…
You probably have never thought about the association of these ads to your food- and that’s the point. They do it on purpose. Michelle Barry, 2009 Senior Vice President of the consumer research firm, the Hartman Group has been quoted saying, “Big companies have to be much more creative in how they articulate local… It’s a different way of thinking about local that is not quite as literal.”
Last time I checked, there was only one way of honestly describing something as local…
However even that is difficult to do, considering the fact that like many food claims these days, there is no regulated definition of “local.” Some retailers define "local" as sourcing from within their location's state, while also retailing as many products as possible that are grown or made within X amount of miles. Other retailers define “local” as sourced within 150 miles, or even 300 miles. Others have a more vague definition describing local as “within the same geographical region.” Farmers markets in urban areas such as New York City can advertise “local” produce from farms within a 2-3 state radius of the retail location. Even with these inconsistencies, when one considers any given food item on an American’s plate travels an average of over 1,500 miles to get there, we’d say any of those sound pretty good.
In the book Hope’s Edge, authors Frances and Anna Lappe, discuss “local” as the basis of food democracy. The typical modern supermarket has anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 items on its shelves- about half of which are produced by just 10 multinational food and beverage companies. Since this data was collected over 10 years ago, we would assume this fact is even more shocking today. Even so, the message is the same- our perception of choice is an illusion, masked by clever branding and packaging initiatives. Check out the image below. How many brands do you know and love? 2? 5? 10? Doesn’t matter, they’re all owned by Kraft.
The Mirage of “Local”
Many big-brand corporations are beginning to address this new transparency into the mirage of “local”, even if their motives aren’t exactly what we’d call admirable. WalMart, who is one of the largest grocery retailers in the world, has been feverishly marketing its more recent sustainability initiative and with its roll out in 2009, pledged to more than double its percentage of locally grown produce (which it defines as produce grown within the same state of a given store). In doing so, the corporation also planned to provide training to farmers and producers on in-demand crops in their region, as well as proper pesticide and production techniques. According to the New York Times, future plans boast to be involved with reducing food waste and advocating for sustainable agricultural practices. This sounds great on paper (er…screen), but how sparkly and pure are these claims? Many critics assume this to be another WalMart ploy to increase revenues and capture more producers into the retailer’s ever-expanding pool of suppliers. Sourcing from the same state is great for small and medium-sized producers, but what about the bigger guys such as California and Texas? California has an area of over 163,000 square miles! “Local” from one side to the other according to WalMart’s definition still wouldn’t be very sustainable. Many consumers agree that if sustainability was a concern of the corporation, they would be omitting certain suppliers and changing their entire business model to create new opportunities for small producers and sustainable agriculture.
In 2015 I met a man who was previously a potato inspector from the region we lived in, in Southern Colorado,
an area that grows over 50,000 acres of 20 different varieties of potatoes every year. He informed me that potatoes grown in our region were advertised as “local” at the WalMart in town, and rightfully so (after all, they’re grown right down the street). However before they reached consumers, the crops were harvested and shipped over 200 miles away to a distribution hub in New Mexico, where they sat in an un-refrigerated warehouse for 3-6 weeks before being shipped back to the WalMart in our town for retail. According to him, there was no explainable logic to this; it was simply WalMart’s policy on distribution by its state producers. Everything must leave a distribution center. Perhaps if we lived in a region closer to the distribution hub, or if there wasn't a WalMart retailer a half a mile away, things would be more sustainable. Our potatoes wouldn’t have been taken on a 400 mile, 6-week joy ride around two states. But alas, this is our food system. And in this case, “local” could have been done a whole lot differently.
Despite these questionable motives, excessive transportation and debatable claims, one can argue, who cares? WalMart is the one of the most powerful forces in retail at the present time and unlikely to give up their throne any time soon. If they are spreading awareness about local consumption and making local produce available to populations who may not otherwise have access, why should we care what their motives are? WalMart is going to make a profit. It’s a given; it’s WalMart. If their way of doing so can expand a handful of small businesses and promote local agriculture within every state, we should be all for it. Am I going to give up my summer trips to the market because my local WalMart has "local" lettuce on sale? No. But if my neighbor who has never experienced the value of supporting local producers because of their financial situation or where they live wants to do so, I am 100% supportive.
Ends, Means, and Other Arguments
I want to bring your attention back to the perception that “local” isn’t always better. Like WalMart’s claim regarding “local” in the larger states, our imagery of “local” associated with "Farmer Brown’s" red barn and rolling fields behind a white picket fence probably isn’t accurate. “Local” can mean factory farms. It can mean mass production. It can mean conventional and GMO production. It can mean worker exploitation and social injustice. As Mark Purcell explains, “it confuses ends with means, or goals with strategies.” Creating a sustainable food system may call for national or even international policy and strict regulation. Focusing on “local” acts immediately cancels out these tactics. We would argue that WalMart has made “local” a goal rather than using locality to increase the sustainability of its operation. Does it help? Yes. Is it an easy front deterring a bigger issue? Also, yes.
Eating seasonally also has a great deal to do with buying locally, which many consumers can’t quite get the hang of. If you live in New England, say goodbye to bananas and nuts. If you live in the Southwest, it’s goodbye leafy greens. South Easterners will have to say "no" to potatoes and root vegetables. Unless farm-raised, Mid Westerners can forget about fish and fresh seafood. Everyone had better sign up for canning and homesteading lessons because unless you’re prepared to store the majority of your food during growing seasons, almost anywhere we can live in the U.S. will require sacrifices in what we eat. Advocates of local food may argue that a major benefit of local production and consumption is that it requires less transportation energy and fuel to get the food from farm to plate. Although we completely agree, think about this: What about South Central and Southwestern states such as Arizona, or parts of Colorado and New Mexico? The energy inputs of irrigation for agriculture far outweigh the consumption of fuel for transport. In order to grow the produce needed for a standard American diet in these areas, the increase in irrigation and energy costs (not to mention soil supplements for many crops in rocky or sandy soils) would be phenomenal. It would be much less impactful on the environment to transport produce from other production states than to force an unsuitable landscape to grow it.
Slow Food founders Carlo Petrini and Alice Waters have explained that adopting a local food lifestyle in one’s own life as well as in American schools, would have a profound impact on our ability to supply and demand foods on a local level. While this is credible and an honorable, idealistic approach, it has also glorified local food, seen in the rising prices of food items and restaurant meals produced and labeled “local”. Evolving our food system to operate on local levels will be sure to have entities who aim to profit off labeling and the very nature of local products. This would especially be evident in restaurants, specialty food retailers, even lower-chain and fast food restaurants. Can you imagine a chicken sandwich at McDonald’s made with locally produced chicken breast? It would fly out the doors, and people would probably be more than happy to pay an extra $1 to feel better about eating it. Advocating for local producers, yes. But let’s think about the fast-food giant’s daily profit on this as well.
Avoiding the Trap
Eating locally grown and produced foods can substantially increase efforts to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Simply being aware of where our food comes from is the first step in adopting more sustainable habits. However, it is not the end-all-be-all solution to alleviating negative impacts on our food system. It is important not to see “local” as the opposite of a corporate, globalized food system. The two components can go hand-in-hand when trying to transition into a balance of sustainability (or the other way around). Don’t forget other factors that go into our food such as how it is produced, when it is produced, and the external benefits or negative effects the item can have on the environment, food access, and inequalities. Beware localwashing food giants, know the true sources of your favorite brands, and don’t buy something just because it has a picture of a farm or on it or is advertised as being produced in your area. Start seasonally, get to know the methods of your producers and learn how to store your food so you’re not buying from across the country later in the year. Email us with your own suggestions. You’ll get the hang of it. The "Local Trap" is totally avoidable.