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Why “Local Food” Should Not Be Defined By Geography

December 20, 2011

McDonald’s is set to launch a new advertising campaign which personifies the farmers that grow their potatoes. Already some are calling it “farmwashing”, a blatant attempt by the fast food giant to co-opt the idea of “local” and apply it to the farmers that produce the raw materials for their fatty fatty french fries.

Small farm advocates let the definition of “local” slip away from them when they tried to define the term geographically. Ever shop at a farmer’s market that wouldn’t accept vendors from outside of a 100 mile radius? Why not 101, or 99? I have yet to hear someone proffer a definition of “local” that was not based on some arbitrary mileage limit.

The mileage limit definition misses the point entirely. For every McDonald’s located in Idaho, the french fries are local. A geographic definition of “local” is unnecessarily inelastic and it will be remorselessly green-washed as Big Food finds its groove.

Big Food is responding adroitly to the new skepticism of consumers. Giant’s like Land-O-Lakes have web pages that personalize the commodity farmers who produce their milk. Smithfield has trademarked the phrase “Good Food. Naturally”, for whatever the hell that means in the hellish context of commodity hog production (Serial Number 77375782 in the USPTO database). Tyson has its own Sustainability Report to demonstrate its own good stewardship ethic. Whatevs.

A social distance methodology to define “local” would describe far more accurately the kind of close (closed?) relationship between producers and consumers which small-farm advocates would like to see. “Local” should define a relationship, an information loop between a producer who knows her customer and a customer who knows something about how the food is made. It would require a simple drafting change to incorporate a social distance definition of “local” into the bylaws of an agricultural coop, the business plan of a neighborhood grocery store, or the vendor’s guidelines for a farmers market. There is no need to change preexisting practices – just codify the act of direct marketing farm products. On limitless marketing budgets, industrial producers will obfuscate the meaning of words like “local” and “sustainable” all day long. No amount of money will allow them to fake the seamless nexus between the grower and the eater, which is the best asset a small scale farm can have.

Now behold! this clip from Seinfeld, as I further persuade and entertain you!

Categorized: Local Food

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  • Gerry Danby

    I like the idea of social distance but it needs to be developed, not necessarily scientifically defined. Is the nexus only capable of being formed directly between grower and eater? If not how many retailers can there be in the chain? In which case, this starts to look like an arbitrary number again.

    Need also to take account of food miles – the direct supply from farmer to eater across 3,000 miles of air freight ought not to come within the definition – arguably the relationship would be absent here.

    More a question of defining characteristics than numbers, some things cannot be precisely defined, but we all recognise them when we see one! Taking ownership of words like local are important to the future of artisan and small scale food production – we’ve seen what has happened to ‘artisan’.

    Like to see your proposed drafting change?

  • Lorraine Lewandrowski

    Since 2009, I have been wondering how NY’s dairy farmers fit into “local foods”. With the 2009 milk price crash, some of us dairy farmers upstate called “local foods” groups in NYC to see if they might speak a word of support at some of the dairy hearings going on. Milk prices had crashed to Depression-era levels, dairy farmers were committing suicide, farm families were sinking into despair with mounting debts. We struggled to get food stamps for families and asked food panties to quietly give food to farmers.
    As I called “local” foods groups in NYC to ask for help, I was shocked, truly shocked when to a group they told me that dairy farms upstate would not be on their radar. I learned that we are not really “local”. Some of the groups told me that maybe if we made an artisan cheese, or set up a farm bottling plant, they would be “interested.” Not a single “local foods” group showed up at the many dairy hearings and Upstate’s dairy farmers pretty much fended for themselves.
    Is there some way that we as dairy farms could be considered to be local or maybe regional? New England has organized http://www.KeepLocalFarms.org Is there something terminology in the middle that would allow us, the dairy farmers, to be recognized as part of NY’s foodshed? How can we have a face?

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  • kit

    what you’re advocating is already potentially covered by the “fair trade” concept IMHO, which would just need to be applied intra-nationally as well as internationally.

    “Local” is, by definition, geographic and some of local food’s main selling points are intrinsically geographic, eg: foodsheds and local economies.


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