Is it local?

Jan 17, 2015
Vicki Robin

No certification yet exists for “local food” – yet it’s all the rage. When I went on a hunt for local food in 2010 I picked a 10 mile radius which revealed the blessings of relational eating and our utter dependence on industrial food – and led to writing Blessing the Hands that Feed Us. I’m no longer satisfied with miles as a definition – and few others are either. But that begs the question: what is local food?

Until someone/s do the tough work of developing a framework and testing it with consumers and producers who rely on the “local” brand, I offer the following three criteria for you to test in your own lives:

It’s local if…

  1. It’s food from hereabouts
  2. It’s food you can trust grown by people you can know
  3. It’s food that builds community

and it is probably from small scale (under $250,000 sales, owner operated) farms using organic practices with diverse (versus monoculture) crops, including livestock as well as crops, though these fall outside the “relational eating” criteria I am offering.

Food from hereabouts

“Here” is a location on a map. You are “here”, precisely, corner of x and y. “Hereabouts”¬† means in this region or neighborhood; near this place. “Here” is linear, and most definitions of “local” are linear: how many miles did this tomato travel? “Hereabouts” is relational, describing a place people share, probably with history, customs and gossip. The relationships are human to human, but also human to soil, hills and coastlines. When we eat locally, we eat food that has endured the same wind, heat, cold, rain, sun and seasons we have. I don’t know any scientific proof that eating at least some food that has lived through what we have is better for us, but the idea makes us kin with our food, increases that sense that eating is an act of belonging.

Food you can trust

Eaters of all persuasions are increasingly suspicious of Industrial food. Produce, grains and beans might have toxic residues from fungicides or herbicides. Meat might be from animals raised on GMO feed, or have antibiotics or stress hormones in it. Packaged foods have lists of ingredients we don’t recognize and suspect are bad for us. Industrial scale production can harm the environment. Organic standards protect us from most of these toxics but the industrial scale means the food probably fails the “from hereabouts” or “builds community” criteria. Natural and Whole are bandied about with no integrity. Consumers are now sensitized to food justice as well and wonder about the working conditions of the laborers.

This adds up to an increasing distrust of industrial-sourced food, not matter how beautiful it looks or how good it tastes. Local offers us the ability to see for ourselves how the food is produced and meet personally the producers. It offers us the chance to be involved in the lives of the producers – through CSAs and Farmers Markets and working on issues of common concern.

Just because food is local doesn’t mean it meets your highest standards. It just means you and others locally can verify the practices. We rely on the USDA and FDA to assure a safe food supply, but those regulations increasingly squeeze out your smaller scale producers who can’t compete with the large corporations. Some communities are waking up. Read here about how Benton, Lane and Josephine counties in Oregon are working on community food bills of right. On Kauai, Oridinance 960 that requires large-scale agricultural operations to disclose¬†the presence and use of pesticides and genetically-modified crops was immediately challenged by the large scale ag companies that spray and use GMO seed – but the fight is on. Cottage laws allow small producers to sell their home made products. Here’s a fantastic site to see the state of Cottage Laws in your state. The Center for Food Safety has an excellent round up of the states where GMO labeling initiatives and bills have been put forward. At some point a win one place will spread the way gay marriage has across the states.

I believe that one day we’ll have Community Food Boards like Water Boards and School Boards that can create a local seal of approval for “foods from hereabouts” that will make non USDA or FDA approved foods legal to trade in a confined area and in limited number with warnings like we put on cigarettes. It will be performance standards – do people get sick from eating it – rather than processing standards – was there a USDA inspector on site with a clipboard.

Food that builds community

What I call Relational Eating puts a different cast on “local food.” If the growing, processing, trading and eating food increases eater isolation and decreases the density and prosperity of local businesses, even if it is from “hereabouts” then it doesn’t make the cut. How can that be?

Businesses that buy and sell food from hereabouts need to be locally owned and operated so the profits are more likely stay in the community. – and the producers in the community as well.

The American Independent Business Alliance summarizes what’s called the “multiplier effect” of dollars spent locally. Forbes magazine challenged the idea of local for all purchases, but still supports using the savings from Amazon Prime, for example, to go to the local brew pub.

Living in a small town on an island has given me a clear understanding that ownership matters. My village used to have a drug store, a hardware store and even a gas station – all gone down the road to the main island highway. A quarter of our island people use the food bank some time during the year. A prosperous local economy means that people – and businesses – we need and love can flourish here rather than moving “off-island”. It’s a bit like communities decimated by laws that favor multinational corporations, meaning that workers need to migrate to where the jobs are. This is not to say that the draw of cities is bad! They are hives of culture and learning and novelty and prosperity, all of which I love. Food, however, always grows somewhere and “local food” nourishes local economies which are hives of relatedness and belonging and true social security.

A relational food system recognizes that eating is an act of belonging, not just an act of consumption. It recognizes that a distributed rather than centralized food system is more secure in times of change, unless it’s an emergency when we need the speed of the industrial sized logistics. It creates a web of prosperity. It assures that eaters care about agricultural practices and will protect their foodsheds and watersheds. It provides the security of community in a time when Social Security and pension plans and life insurance – the ropes of the social safety net – are fraying.

In addition, it’s probably better for you because it is whole, unprocessed or minimally processed, grown in rich fertile soil, nutritious, fresh, humanely killed and provides growing children with better food for body and brain.

This is just the beginning of my thinking. Do these 3 criteria ring true? What would you add? Subtract? Challenge? Celebrate? Help me create “Is it local?” 2.0.

~~ Vicki Robin, January 2015


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