Sunday, February 14, 2016

So you want to eat locally. Now what?

This week's post is by guest blogger Samantha Noll.

It’s hard not to see the effects of local food movements wherever you look. For example, we increasingly see produce labeled “local” or “sustainable” in supermarkets. We’re inundated with documentaries, such as Food, Inc and Cowspiracy, critiquing industrial food production and we frequently encounter articles in newspapers and magazines espousing the virtues of “eating locally.” We may even catch a podcast, NPR interview, or watch a YouTube video by Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, or another local food enthusiast on everything from small-scale animal production to the benefits of eating locally. Some businesses, like Chipotle, have begun marketing to conscientous locavores.

So maybe you’re at least partially convinced by the arguments to eat locally and want to support local food. But what does this mean in practice? Do you eat more meals at Chipotle? Do you only purchase products labeled “local” from your grocery store? Do you visit farmer’s markets weekly to get to know your local farmers and to purchase directly from them? What about changing local policies to be more favorable to local food or writing to your elected officials to ask them to support increased funding for local food in the U.S. Farm Bill?

Sounding complicated?  In fact we are just scratching the surface of this issue. The local food movement is not just a single movement but is made up of several distinct food related initiatives. These can be roughly broken down into the following three sub-movements: Individual focused (IF), Systems focused (SF), Community focused (CF). Exploring each of these sub-movements with an eye towards understanding the commitments that guide them could help us better identify what we can do to support the local food movement in total.

The IF sub-movement is the most well-known of the three. In fact, it is often considered to be the “face” of local food, as this flavor of local food is touted by popular local food advocates that highlight the personal benefits of buying locally. Here food purchasing choices made by individuals directly translate into the enjoyment of freshly-picked food, health benefits for family, interactions with farmers dedicated to local food production and consumption, and a greater understanding of the local environment and seasons. For these reasons, IF can be understood as a phenomenon happening at the nexus of local food and “lifestyle” politics. It’s roughly built on the following commitments: 1) that food is a product; 2) that people are individual consumers; and 3) that change happens at the individual level. Many people who buy those Chipotle burritos, do so for personal reasons. This just means that they’re largely supporting individual focused local food projects.

In contrast, SF understands food systems as dynamic (i.e. connected to local ecologies, national politics, and historical contexts) and place-based. Local food initiatives are necessary because they help to stabilize the larger levels of food systems. Like IF, SF conceptualizes “food” as a product that a person can choose to purchase, but also sees these choices as largely constrained by the contexts already prescribed by larger political and economic systems. For example, my choice to buy a locally grown organic apple from Michigan is greatly impacted by agricultural standards, available infrastructure, food policy, ecological factors, and other structural impacts. Indeed, the very shape and taste of the apple is itself a product of these forces. For these reasons, SF initiatives understand change as happening at both the individual level and the more abstract levels of policy. So, for example, people who advocate local standards, so that Chipotle can purchase organic tomatoes and avocados (and thus make them available to customers), largely hold a systems-focused perspective.

Finally, there are community focused initiatives. As noted, IF and SF hold similar definitions of “food” as a commodity and “people” as autonomous agents or consumers. Community focused initiatives stand in contrast to these two sub-movements, as they hold markedly distinct definitions of these two key words. For CF, food is not simply a commodity, but is co-constitutive of culture and personal identity. In this context, the apple, mango, or salmon that a person eats is more than just a product but is a rallying point for communities that see larger food systems as threats to cultural identity, traditional practices, and local systems. For these reasons, CF sees political action, community, and food as inexorably intertwined. CF projects are also largely known as food sovereignty and/or food justice initiatives. From this perspective, a farmer who is able to grow heirloom tomatoes by a process passed down over generations and an urban farmer who has control over the production of her community’s food, can both be seen as part of this third sub-movement. From this position, buying that burrito from Chipotle may actually harm local food, as the choice supports larger industrial systems that may be harmful to local food practices in other countries. This is exactly the position Mark Navin takes on local food and international ethics.

Of course, the above categories often overlap. The choice to buy local could be seen as a decision to support larger structures, which make local production possible. Or it could be seen as an individual lifestyle choice, and even taken to be supportive of more traditional farming practices. It all depends on your values, focus, and perspective. 

Alright, so it looks like thoughtful eaters have more than a few choices to make. There are many ways that people like you and me can get involved in local food. Understanding your own values, and how they map onto commitments that guide various local food sub-movements can help to inform your food choices.  

Samantha Noll
Department of Philosophy
Michigan State University

(See Werkheiser and Noll, 2014 for more information about local food movements).


  1. Samantha, thanks for this illuminating post. I do not have a specific question about your post, but I am interested in where you stand on locavorism in general.

    I find that I'm pretty suspicious of ideological locavorism, at any of the levels that you describe. I certainly get why people enjoy eating food they or their neighbors grow. And I'm all for the creation of markets that serve this kind of consumer demand, just like any other. To the extent that there are laws in place that make this unnecessarily difficult, I would support attempts to repeal them. (Not from any commitment to locavorism, but just to fair business practices.)

    But I would never think of prescribing this practice to anyone, anymore than I would prescribe the purchase of locally made building materials or institutions of higher education. In my limited experience, people who do seem to have adopted it on quasi-religious grounds. They do often cite environmental and health reasons, but these are largely made up. They can point to specific examples of local foods that plausibly have a smaller environmental footprint than some available alternative, but there are just as many, if not more, counterexamples.

    To be clear, I am not at all dismissive of concerns about industrialized farming practices. For example, the way livestock is grown in this country is, to me, sickening. But (as I am still somewhat carnivorous) I would be very pleased to purchase one of your well-treated pigs from Michigan if I could get it for a better price than one that is raised in a similar same way nearby.

    1. Hi Randy,

      You make very good points regarding ideological locavorism. Popular books, pamphlets, and documentaries often give very limited pictures of complicated food related issues. These limited pictures are then treated as “facts” by some consumers and used to guide food decision making. What I’ve seen on the ground, especially when talking with small-scale producers in Michigan, is that ideological locavores are double-edged swords, so to speak, for local farmers. Small-scale producers are often grateful that customers are passionate about local food (and thus buy from them), but are also puzzled by some of their requests and comments, especially concerning “GMOs,” “chemicals,” and various farming practices. “Chemicals” are used by both organic and non-organic farmers, for example. Also, there is a great deal of confusion concerning labels and certifications. For instance, all organic produce is not local or sustainably raised and all local produce is not grown on a small-scale farm or is organic. Even when strictly looking at nutrition, organic produce is not necessarily “healthier” than non-organic, as contextual features, such as when the produce was picked or how long it’s been on the shelf, influences this. This stands in contrast to what many believe.

      What I’m trying to get at here is that food production is complicated and I largely agree with your points about ideological locavorism. While this cultural shift has increased the demand for locally grown products, it’s also an area where more detailed materials should be made available to consumers interested in food systems. That’s been one of the goals of my work identifying commitments that drive local food movements, as my hope is that this work helps to identify narratives that need to be critiqued.

      I also agree that the critique of locavore movements does not dismiss concerns about industrialized farming practices. With that being said, profitability is a concern in both farming paradigms. The student organic farm, where I teach, is also a working farm, in that is has to make a profit. It’s important to be able to find markets that will pay a premium for the well-treated pigs. As the farming students often say, economic sustainability (keeping your farm running) needs to be seen as a part of overall sustainability concerns. Balancing values, environmental impacts, the needs of customers, larger certification mandates, packaging plant requirements, family needs, animal welfare issues, and various other factors is no easy task... Hopefully, critiquing some of the simplistic conceptions of farming and food held by ideological locavores can help to cultivate a better appreciation for how difficult a task this is.

  2. I share Randy's general skepticism about locavorism. Want to reduce your carbon footprint? Small farmers making frequent, small deliveries around their weekly farmer's market circut use more energy/lb. of produce than shipping huge loads of food from the other side of the world. Anyway, these shipments don't account for much of the total of carbon emissions in agribusiness. Most of it comes from producing the food, and these emissions would probably increase if it were produced locally. Plus, a more locavore future would likely eat into the carbon-emissions savings we get from having population dense areas.

    1. Hi Kyle,
      Your critique of small farmer’s carbon footprint is a great example of how buying “locally” doesn’t necessarily mean that you are using less energy. It all depends on what types of farming methods you employ (till or no-till systems, for example), if you are using cover crops to sequester carbon, and the types of inputs you’re using in your farming operation. While the proximity of a farm does impact how much fuel is used in transportation, whether or not a farm is local or the size of the operation largely does not impact the above factors. That was a great point about the carbon footprint associated with producing food.

      If you’re interested in this topic, Rodale Institute does quite a bit of work on organic methods and carbon sequestration. Also, check out this synopsis of a 12 year on study on cover crops:

    2. Here's a link to Rodale Institute's work on organic production and carbon, as well:

  3. Great post on a topic I'm quite interested in. Since the last few responses here have pushed you on the value of locavorism for dubious health and environmental benefits, I'd like to take a different tack -- do you think there are other benefits of engaging with local food? If so, what are they?

    Some benefits that people have suggested include the building up of communities and the general good of maximally local control over complex systems (I'm thinking here of some of Gould's recent work on democracy); a development of agricultural ethical virtues by interactions with farmers and farming, for example by volunteering to help harvest as part of one's CSA (I'm thinking here of some of Paul Thompson's or Wendel Berry's work); the epistemic advantages of local food produced and sold by people you meet in person (I can't find the reference for that, but I feel sure I've read some things about epistemic responsibilities and epistemic distance in regards to local food); and so on. Do these or other proffered values of locavorism have merit? How do you think whatever benefits you do accept fit in with the IF, SF, and CF framework? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts, and thanks again for an excellent post.