Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How big is your backyard?

A recent issue of the Boulder Weekly, an independent, weekly newspaper here in Boulder, Colorado ran a very interesting and thought provoking article titled "The Corporate Co-opt of Local." It's a broad-reaching piece whose central thrust is that Big Name Corporations and franchises/chains are jumping on the local bandwagon, but doing so by using marketing spin that pushes the meaning of "local" far beyond its original intention.

And while "local" is a term that applies across all sorts of scenarios, nowhere is it more pervasive or clearly defined than in the world of food, where the movement is more specifically known as the "locavore movement." I'm an outspoken advocate of eating locally, and I've touched upon it a time or two on this blog, as well as in the preface of our forthcoming cookbook.

But it's interesting to see how the meaning of local has shifted within a corporate context. For example, some major food companies are touting their products as local because most or all of the ingredients come from North America, or from the United States. That's a pretty wide net to cast. On the other hand, we live in an era when a high percentage of produce in the grocery store may come from South America or from points even farther afield. From that standpoint, "Grown in the USA," or "Produced in North America," is indeed more local than the alternative.

In another example, corporations and chambers of commerce and marketing/PR firms are putting forth the idea that, as long as the store is locally located, you're shopping locally. But that's a disingenuous argument. The Boulder Weekly article cites a Civic Economics study that found that for $100 spent locally, $45 stays in the community if it's a locally owned business. However, only $13 stays in the community if that local store is a chain.

For me, this hits at the heart of my own working definition for local, which has always had two parts. On the one hand, it means that the food is locally grown and produced. But on the other hand, it also means that the money I spend on that food accrues to a local farmer or business owner in my community. It's a two part equation, and ideally I like to achieve both halves of it.

Of course, this whole time I've refrained from defining exactly what I mean by "local." That's because, as with so many things in life, there are many shades of gray, and an almost infinite spectrum of possibility. From where I sit, much of that possibility is bound up in the question of scale. How local is local enough? Food grown in your own backyard garden? Food grown by nearby farmers and purchased through a CSA, or purchased at your local farmer's market? Food grown in-state and labeled as such through programs like Colorado Proud and Pride of New York? Food grown in the U.S., or in North America?

Some people have put a specific number to the question. For example, the Black Cat restaurant in Boulder offered a 100-mile Thanksgiving dinner, in which everything served - from the turkey to the stuffing to the mashed potatoes to the cranberry sauce - came from within 100 miles. You also have the example of the book, Plenty (known as The 100 Mile Diet outside the US), in which the authors spent a full calendar year eating only from within 100 miles of their home.

Complicating the whole scenario is this question: What if a given food doesn't grow locally in your area? Should you abstain from eating it? Or is it okay to "import" foods that simply aren't possible on a local level. If you drink coffee made from Central American beans, oranges from Florida, Vidalia onions from Georgia, certified potatoes from Idaho, lobsters from Maine, olive oil and balsamic vinegar from Italy, or wine from France - without living in any of these places - then your answer to the question is already an implied "yes."

Your answer to that question isn't really a concern, I think. Personally, I'm much more concerned about what the Boulder Weekly article calls "local washing." In the same way that the organic agriculture co-opted the small, diversified, local organic farms and gave us industrial organic agriculture that looks very much like regular industrial agriculture, and in the same way that corporations engaged in green washing to tout questionable environmental achievements with the aim of winning the hearts of eco-conscious consumers, there's something subversive about local washing. We need transparency and honesty, and each company needs to be forthright in sharing exactly how they define "local."

On the level of individual gluten-free foodies, though, it's self-defeating to start engaging in conversations of "I eat more locally than you do." On the level of individual people, the important thing is awareness. When we're aware of the benefits of eating locally - environmental, economic, social - it motivates us to think a little bit different about what foods we buy and why. And no matter to what lengths you personally go to eat locally, that's a good thing. Some people will inevitably eat more locally than others. That's okay.

For today, I'd like to celebrate all the great local things that are happening within the gluten-free community. If you're a New Englander enjoying Aleia's Gluten-Free Bakery, a California GF foodie enjoying Mariposa's, a Coloradan enjoying Debbie's Gluten-Free, or anyone else enjoying the gluten-free fruits of someone's local labor, let's celebrate that. Please leave comments - let me know what local means to you, and if you have a favorite local GF bakery, or pizza shop, or whatever, give them a shout out and let the rest of NGNP's readers hear about the great local happenings in your own particular corner of the GF world. We're connectly globally, for sure, but ultimately life unfolds on a very local level for each and every one of us.

- Pete


gfe--gluten free easily said...

Another interesting article, Pete. Oh, I do believe the big corporations are jumping on the "local" bandwagon. These are the same folks who are trying to convince us that HFCS is perfectly fine. And, people will buy the concepts and buy the products ... sadly. I don't buy that much locally because much is not available and all of what's available is not affordable (e.g., $20 lb for organic steak is not in our budget, although I wish it was ... more reasonable to focus on venison in our freezer than that). I think how much you can buy locally largely depends upon your area. And, yes, I do eat foods that are not grown here, like bananas. I understand the dilemma for sure, but if I ate only what was available locally, I'd be pretty limited.

It is great to celebrate what we do have though. Our new farmer's market is still nowhere near big time, but it has grown tremendously since it opened in May.

I hope some more folks will pipe in.


peterbronski said...

Hi Shirley... I think there's definitely some big regional variability in terms of what's available locally. And price can definitely be an issue, too. It's a shame that the healthiest, most eco friendly, and arguably, tastiest foods are the most expensive. But as I said, for me the most important thing is simple awareness. That alone I believe motivates people to think about what they buy and where it's from, and that inevitably informs their purchasing decisions, whether big or small. We each do what we can, and in the way that works best for us. I'm also a fan of "regional trade" for non-local foods. Beyond all the local, transportation, environmental, etc. arguments, there's something invigorating about food exchange...whether for a Florida orange, or an Italian olive oil, or whatever. The diversity of regional and world cuisine is inspiring, and something to celebrate in our kitchens at home.

Cheers, Pete