If you walk into a Whole Foods in Oakland and pick up a container of non-dairy yoghurt marked “local”, you might be surprised to learn that though the company is headquartered nearby in San Francisco, the cashews the yoghurt is made of come from Vietnam, more than 7,500 miles (12,000km) away, or Ivory Coast, about 7,300 miles in the opposite direction.
This yoghurt made with ingredients from the other side of the globe points to the contradictory nature of so-called local food today: though the term holds appeal for customers, nearly two-thirds of whom perceive local food to be more environmentally friendly, experts suggest it may not always mean what you think.
“Most of it is bullshit,” says Austin, Texas-based Errol Schweizer, who led grocery merchandising for Whole Foods from 2009 to 2016. “Every retailer has a different definition [of “local”]. Even the retailers themselves will have different definitions, depending on where they are, and the original purpose of localization has totally gotten lost.”
Most of it is bullshit. Every retailer has a different definition of ‘local’
Local food first started to attract attention against the backdrop of globalized supply chains at a time when US shoppers had become accustomed to eating quinoa grown in Bolivia or salmon caught in Norway. Local became a selling point in the early 2000s as the result of an intellectual backlash to the growing hegemony in grocery stores and prevalence of highly processed foods, says Schweizer, who points to the publishing of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma as one inflection point.
Proponents like Pollan asserted that buying local would mean fresher and healthier food with a lower carbon footprint. What followed was a “flurry of activity to figure out how to re-localize supply chains” that had been decimated by the advent of 20th-century national grocery chains, which had de-localized in the name of efficiency, says Schweizer.
There was never well-defined agreement about what the term actually meant, though. According to Food Tank founder Danielle Nierenberg, “local” is usually understood to refer to food grown within 100 miles (160km) of where it’s sold and eaten, a perception bolstered by books such as The 100 Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon. But the US Department of Agriculture’s definition of “local” in the 2008 Farm Bill includes food grown in the same state or within 400 miles (640km) of where it is finally marketed – and even that definition isn’t regulated the way a label such as “organic” is.
That’s led to a lack of clarity and consistency in how the term is deployed in supermarkets across the country, with each grocer defining the label for itself. In the produce aisle at a HarvesTime in Chicago, for example, microgreens classified as local are grown at a farm about 45 miles (70km) away in Carpentersville, Illinois. At a Union Market in Brooklyn, the “local eggs” category includes cartons from a farm 158 miles (250km) away in Pennsylvania, one 17 miles (27km) away in New Jersey and another 270 miles (430km) away in upstate New York.
Meanwhile near Dallas, Central Market posts signs with the outline of Texas promoting “local flavor” that sometimes point to items that are grown in-state, like wine from the Frio Canyon Vineyard, 340 miles (550km) away. Other times, the same sign seems to have more to do with where a food company is headquartered, as is the case with Austin-based Lamme’s Candies, 200 miles (320km) away. Lamme’s features Texas heavily in its branding but gets its chocolate from the California company Guittard, which in turn sources cocoa from Ecuador (around 2,500 miles, or 4,000km, away) and West Africa (almost 6,000 miles, or 10,000km, away) – a fact you wouldn’t find out without poking around online.
Whole Foods, HarvesTime, Union Market and Central Market did not respond to requests for comment.
This proliferation of the term in grocery stores arose in part from the fact that without a strict definition, “local food” was first used as a kind of shorthand for a type of food that addressed broken food systems. But that understanding was flawed from the start, says San Juan, Puerto Rico-based Alicia Kennedy, author of the forthcoming book No Meat Required.
“When we talk about the concept of local food as an idea or movement, what comes to mind for a lot of people in the US is a sort of bourgeois white affectation,” says Kennedy. “The idea of local food in a US context stops short of saying what to do about poverty or white supremacy in how people are granted access to food.”
Many of the most prominent voices that helped popularize the idea – people like Pollan, Alice Waters and Mark Bittman – are white.
What’s more, Schweizer says that based on his experience at Whole Foods, local food in the US is frequently more expensive, since it’s distributed through supply chains that are often less efficient than their national or international counterparts. Those factors combine to make the local food conversation feel inaccessible to many.
Plus, Schweizer adds, the local food conversation didn’t “reignite more of a local infrastructure supply chain complete with manufacturing, processing, storage and the like, and that is the only way you can actually do something legitimate or authentic”.
Going to farmers’ markets or buying into a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, which are often presented as more authentic local alternatives to chain grocery stores, aren’t silver bullets, either. First off, Schweizer notes that though those direct-to-consumer avenues get a lot of attention, they make up a tiny percentage of the industry – direct sales and farmers’ markets are worth $3bn (£2.4bn) a year, compared with the grocery industry’s $850bn (£680bn) a year, he says. And even at a farmers’ market, the term “local” isn’t straightforward. Vermont-based farmworker and floral designer Amber Tamm, for example, has been a first-hand witness to farmers’ market stands labeling produce that was actually shipped in from elsewhere as local. She recalls being instructed to sell produce as local even though she knew some of it didn’t come from the farm she was supposed to be representing. “They knew that this is what customers wanted to hear,” she says.
‘Local’ used to be about climate change and developing strong supply chains and regional food systems. Now it’s essentially a marketing gimmick
According to Schweizer, “local” “used to be about climate change and developing strong supply chains and regional food systems. Now it’s essentially a marketing gimmick.”
These days, Kennedy adds, local food has “worn out its welcome as a monolithic concept”. That doesn’t mean she’s uninterested in where her food comes from – just that she thinks we’re going to need to ask questions that go beyond how far away our kale was grown to fix the food system. And for Tamm, that means prioritizing local in terms of her produce, but intentionally buying some imports with the intention of supporting “peasant farmers globally”.
Kennedy says it’s more useful to think about the bigger picture of where food comes from, including the ecological impacts of how it was grown and other effects on its place of origin. When thinking about how to redesign food systems, there are many other factors to consider: everything from affordability and availability to race, class, government subsidies and international trade agreements – in addition to, yes, how far away it was packaged or grown.
In other words, the “local” label at your nearest grocery store may not mean all that much. But maybe rather than seeing that as a reason to throw up your hands, you can take it as an invitation to dive deeper into what it might take to actually build a food system that works for everyone.
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