Recently, an Owner shared with us a December 2013 article from The Week entitled “The Limits of Locavorism.” They asked for our response. The subheading for the article poses the question: “Foodies, chefs, and hipsters are embracing the idea of eating locally grown food. Should the world follow their lead?” and then subsequently details the upsides and downsides of global adoption of locavorism as a personal practice. For those interested in reading the article, please visit theweek.com/article/index/254007/the-limits-of-locavorism.
A Brief Locavorism Primer
To refresh, locavorism is the currently trending term coined to describe adopting a practice of purchasing and consuming locally sourced ingredients or locally produced products. The definition of local varies depending on the user. In some cases, businesses will define what constitutes a locally sourced or produced product. Willy Street Co-op, for example, defines local as a product sourced or produced anywhere in Wisconsin, or within 150 miles of the state Capitol building, and then divides local products by three subcategories: “100% Local” are those items that are produced locally with locally sourced ingredients; “Essentially Local” are those items that are produced locally and source mostly local ingredients; and “Locally Prepared” are those items that are produced locally and the majority of ingredients come from elsewhere. Locavorism has defined people’s shopping choices, restaurant choices, and business choices. Countless books, articles, and blogs have been written around the movement behind the term, and businesses nationwide have been doing almost anything they can to jump on the local bandwagon because it’s selling. It is also a term that has caught the attention of leaders and figureheads worldwide; with state and municipal lawmakers and administrators developing laws and rules that establish how public entities can provide more locally sourced products, and global leaders drafting world trade agreements that may impact origin labeling and/or whether localities can continue allowing localized preferencing in bidding contracts for sourcing or staffing. No time like the present to begin considering how important local sourcing is to you, and how local sourcing has a global impact.
Flaws In 100% Pure Locavorism
Locavorism has its flaws, for certain, just as any “ism” may. Folks who have participated in the Co-op’s past Eat Local Challenges have learned some of those flaws hands-on (the goal of the Eat Local Challenge is to incorporate as much 100% local product into your diet as possible for either two weeks or one month). Many caffeinated beverages, chocolate, acids such as vinegar and lemon, and sweeteners are hard to find or simply can’t be locally sourced. There are many fruits and vegetables that are not available locally out-of-season. Sometimes locally sourced products are priced at a premium due to an inability to benefit from economy of scale and inconsistent availability of ingredients to the producer. These challenges often require changing eating habits for yourself or the entire household, planning well in advance, having time to cook more from scratch (and in some cases learning to do so), and financial accessibility. While the Eat Local Challenge and experimenting with full-fledged locavorism provides excellent lessons in knowing exactly what is and is not local, and provides an opportunity for our Owners to really develop their sense of place and community through local flavor, maintaining the challenge in the long term poses disadvantages: an inability to enjoy treats from parts of the world other than our own and an inability to support some globally positive food production and economic justice movements that are important both at home and elsewhere. Sourcing locally also does not make promises in terms of quality—consumer homework is still required. As The Week points out, not all local companies embrace healthy environmental or economical practices, and just because a food is produced locally, it does not mean that food is good for your body and your household’s needs.
Embracing a Broad Definition of Local: Serving the Greater Good
Does all this mean that the entire concept of locavorism is misguided, or not of value? Hardly. We at the Co-op firmly believe that it is beneficial to shop local when feasible, and to do so as local as possible. No one disputes the sustainability and economic value of eating locally with the seasons—even the article in The Week suggests that it makes sense “to buy local when natural conditions of the season and environment favor certain… products.” They also state, however, that “some distant places are so much better suited to growing certain foods that it’s folly not to take advantage of them.” We agree. Growing coffee, sugar, olives, bananas, avocados, and a host of other crops would not work well in Wisconsin and all of these things are very enjoyable treats and indulgences, no doubt. That said, you are serving the greater good when you support our Locally Prepared vendors who use or source these ingredients, as many are local businesses who work with small farms, businesses, and localities worldwide to promote food sovereignty, trading with farmers and workers in other regions for just prices, implementing environmental sustainability in farming and production practices, and fostering economic diversity by promoting the cooperative movement and entrepreneurism. Locavorism doesn’t have to be specifically about ingredients, it can be about how an ingredient is tied to your local community as well as developing an understanding and appreciation for the distant community where an ingredient that supports your local businesses was grown.
Think Local, Impact Global: Locavorism Principles
While The Week drew attention to some imperfections of adopting locavorism as a strict environmental conviction, the article failed to address the economic benefits to local communities both at home and abroad that are the other cornerstone of supporting local vendors: contributing to keeping our neighbors employed locally, building our community purchasing power, and supporting maintained or growing diversification of industry and wealth. The article also suggests that in contrast to locavorism, eating globally works because it “successfully feeds six billion people.” Sure, maybe six billion people have a table of food to come home to, but the current global population exceeds seven billion, and so there are still a lot of people who go to bed hungry daily. As early as 2009, reports from the United Nations were claiming that the world hunger rate reached an all-time high at over one billion, and the global economic recession was the chief culprit. Their policy recommendations to alleviate hunger suggest that “small scale farmers must be given access to indispensable tools and technologies that will allow them to boost production,” and “higher local production will be instrumental in lowering food prices for poor consumers, both rural and urban.” To further the argument that locavorism can provide the means for economic stability, The US Food Sovereignty Alliance maintains localized food systems as one of their core principles, because they believe bringing food providers and consumers closer together helps the two make food decisions jointly, which will protect both parties. Locavorism also promotes another one of their principles: putting control locally, as “food sovereignty respects the right of food providers to have control over their land, seeds, and water and rejects the privatization of natural resources.”
Cooperatives Are Locavores At Heart
Major tenets of the Cooperative Principles include democracy, economic participation, autonomy, information, and community concern. The history of the cooperative movement is rooted in localized control over employment and supply. A case could be made that the cooperative movement is the grandparent of the recent trending towards locavorism. It is important not just for our local economy but for economies worldwide to maintain a level of sovereignty and control over their farms, their companies, and their food. To say that locavorism is a simple rejection of globalization that is only environmental and a naive means to achieve sustainability that shuts the rest of the world out is caricature. Locavorism is about building community, establishing connection to place, and maintaining diverse economies and cultures. Developing our own connections to our own places helps us better understand and appreciate the places elsewhere. True locavores understand this, and support localization of food systems not just with their ideals, but also their dollars both at home and abroad. Our Owners and other patrons are a clear demonstration of this. We thank you for your patronage, and for supporting local communities worldwide when you Own and shop here together.