Misleading the Locavore: Why "Local" Isn't Always Better


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. E