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