Slow Food Columbus

What Is Local Food?

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Local ground cherries

As Time Magazine’s excellent lead story about the high costs of cheap, industrial food hits the stands and Local Matters’ Local Food Week in Columbus draws near, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the meaning of local food.

The locavore movement arose at a time when “local” meant not just “from nearby” but also “made by our neighbors,” “sustainable” and “not industrial.” As concepts go, it was the perfect storm of progressive foodie goodness: in one word it connoted fresh taste, a low carbon footprint and good farming practices, and appealing social values.

It wasn’t long, however, before the food industry caught on to the fact that something with this much appeal could be profitable—so now, Frito-Lay is rolling out “Local Lay’s,” potato chips made from local potatoes, and ConAgra has started promoting the local provenance of its Hunt’s tomatoes (at least around its Oakdale, California, facility).

As a result of developments such as these, local food fans will increasingly be forced to ask themselves what they mean when they support local food. Is the goal to support the local economy? If so, Local Lay’s and Local Hunt’s would be every bit as legitimate as local lettuce sold at the farmers’ market—as would, for that matter, local wine made from grapes grown in California but bottled and sold in Ohio. Indeed, they should be seen as major progress, since Frito-Lay’s business represents a huge increase in demand for local products.

Or is the goal to support good, sustainable food produced with best practices? Seen from that perspective, Local Lay’s is a step in the wrong direction, as Kurt Michael Friese argues in Grist:

Strictly speaking I suppose it is [local] since some of their potatoes are grown and fried in Florida. But by this logic, all of us here in Iowa can begin referring to high fructose corn syrup as a local food as well. … Local Lay’s are just the beginning of industrial food’s latest foray into absconding with another useful term. They took “natural,” they redefined “organic,” they’re taking “sustainable,” and now they want “local,” all the while changing the meaning of the words instead of their own detrimental practices.

It’s worth underscoring the implication of that last sentence: to Chef Friese, anyway, “local” refers to more than just geography. It connotes a set of practices that are antithetical to those of industrial food producers.

Under that understanding of “local,” some locavores might actually prefer local food from other foodsheds to industrialized food from their own, even though that logic might seem somewhat twisted at first glance. This is the notion behind “virtuous globalization,” the idea that, by seeking out local specialties from around the globe, we can help to preserve local, sustainable traditions everywhere, not just at home. (For some examples of this idea in action, take a look at Slow Food’s Ark of Taste program.)

I don’t know that we have to choose just yet. Fortunately, at this point most local food still (arguably) possesses all of the virtues that its proponents hold dear. But given the extent to which the local movement has taken root and given the skill that the food industry demonstrates in making a profit, the advent of the Local McNugget might not be far away. Which makes me wonder: How much will the industrialization of local food divide the locavore movement and force us all to re-think what we mean by local food?