Navigating the New Food Movement

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Thursday March 22, 2018

What consumers really want from 'local'

"'Local food' or 'regional food,'" says the Lyons-based Center for Rural Affairs, "have no precise definitions....  Some consider 'local' to describe food from a 50-mile or 100-mile distance from where it is sold. Others say a one-hour drive from the market or other place where sold. Thus, it is important to define what is meant by 'local' when using the term in food marketing or sales."

That kind of dwelling on the simple logistics of local, or "food-miles," according to authors of a recent review of the subject in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, is too narrow. Defining local as simply the number of miles food travels creates a "local trap"--a sustainability red herring that ultimately interferes with the real goals of the new food movement. Instead, according to these University of California professors, "...we need to acknowledge the complexity of the issue, cognitively and behaviorally and institutionally, and participate more in the public dialog about alternative local food to help move the discussion toward enabling change."

As a case study in that "public dialog," they analyzed the 496 substantive comments in response to a Huffington Post article that reported on a now infamous 2011 study disputing any real environmental impact of eating local. That study, which dissected the impact of local eating within California's Santa Barbara county, found that if all the food eaten by residents of that county were grown within the boundaries of the county, it would neither reduce global-warming greenhouse gases nor improve the nutrition of the county's residents--an empty feel-good effect that later came to earn its own title: "Santa Barbara syndrome." In response to that heated public debate, this latest study attempted to glean out what today's "informed consumers" really mean when they demand "local" food. What does local really stand for?

  • Eating local food is not about reducing global warming. The growing movement to make food systems more local has grown fashionable as a response to a problem that may not exist, they note. Recent research has shown food transportation in the United States accounts for only about 11 percent of the greenhouse gases produced in this country. And only 40 percent of that fraction is caused by direct transportation of food--the commonly accepted definition of food miles. That means food miles as most consumers understand the concept contributes only 4 percent of the total greenhouse gases produced by the food system. In fact, the California researchers note, some studies have shown that greenhouse gas production actually goes up with a decrease in food miles, not down.
  • Except, that is, where local food is about global warming. People should nevertheless not stop eating local food just because the research shows dissapointing results in reducing greenhouse gas, they argue. Getting caught in the "local trap" does not move society toward change because advocates "transmogrify" the broader aims of the food sustainability movement into a narrow caricature called "food miles." Or as one cited HuffPo commentator put it in less academic terms, "It’s like intellectual monoculture to approach the question of eating locally as if it were simply about greenhouse gas emissions." But how then can eating local be both about reducing global warming and not about global warming at the same time? The underlying problem, the researchers argue, is that "...local food systems remain embedded in the same environmentally unsustainable industrial infrastructure as long distance foods, but the fault(line) lies with industrialism itself, not simply the food system."
  • Eating local food is about progressive social goals. Similarly, "Food miles can also be a poor indicator of the progressive social goals that mobilize alternative food activists and [non-governmental organizations], such as advocacy for fair labor conditions, animal welfare, improved human nutrition, community economic development, and food sovereignty. A focus on food miles can come at the expense of addressing social inequities related to farm and restaurant labor, and to community food access.... It may even be antagonistic to these goals," they write. Too often, that kind of locavore pride in local food taps into an ugly chauvinism and provincialism that smacks too much of "national vigor, purity, [and]home soil," that has led U.S. culture in the past to ignore the reaility of migrant workers and other "marginalized" people.
  • Eating local food is about vague personal benefits. Many of the HuffPo comments the researchers dissected repeated the often-voiced by little-proven personal benefits local food is supposed to impart, from better taste to higher safety to more food self-reliance. "It’s about independence, if you grow your own," one cited comment explained. "It’s about keeping food natural instead of relying on genetically altered food from Monsanto. I’ll stick with farmers markets in my area as well as my own garden as much as possible, thank you very much." At the same time, the researchers note, little research has demonstrated local eaters ever attempt to objectively assess, beyond their personal experience, whether the localized food system really accomplishes those aims. It's still a long way from consumers adopting the local farmers market as a symbol for reconnecting food with a sense of place and "operationalizing" that symbol to change the food system into their image.


In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.

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The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.

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The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

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