From the Garden of Good or Evil
From the Garden of Good or Evil

The local food movement shows that consumers are more conscientious than ever before about where their food comes from, so why aren’t brands diving deeper into that story?

JIM, a 37-year-old, somewhat crunchy, bearded Millennial dad, drives his 8-year-old son, ARLO, home from school in a mid-level, hybrid SUV. They pull into BERRY’S BURGER STAND for a snack.

ARLO: Dad, why do we always go to Berry Burgers instead of McDonald’s?

JIM: Well Arlo, Berry’s is a local business that uses locally sourced, grass-fed beef, organic buns and locally grown produce. This means there are fewer harmful ingredients in the food we eat, that our food was treated more humanely in the case of the beef and the cheese, and that we have significantly reduced our carbon footprint by reducing the number of miles it took to transport our food from the farms where it was raised or grown to Berry’s Burgers. It also means we are supporting our local economy twofold by eating at Berry’s, a local restaurant that bought local ingredients.

Jim smiles at the steering wheel and winks at Arlo in the rearview mirror, clearly proud of how well and thoroughly he has answered. Arlo looks unmercifully skeptical.

ARLO: I mean, but. Not necessarily. Right?

JIM: Um. In what way?

ARLO: Well, dad, Miss Amanda says that “local” can mean anywhere within 400 miles, so like we live in Oklahoma so that means our food can come from Texas and still be considered “local.” You hate Texas.

JIM: I don’t hate Texas as a place, just their football tea –

ARLO: And Miss Amanda also says that you reduce your carbon footprint more by giving up one red meat meal a week – like with our Berry’s Burgers Wednesdays – than you do by buying local produce.

JIM: Well, that’s a fair point, but –

ARLO: And Miss Amanda ALSO says that smaller farms catering to local markets can use just as many pesticides as big agriculture AND that when they say “grass-fed beef” or “free-range chicken” there is a lot of wriggle room in the interpretation to meet USDA standards.

JIM: So what does Miss Amanda eat?

ARLO: I don’t know. You can probably just follow her on Instagram.

JIM: @missamandaknowseverything?

ARLO: Dad, it’s okay to not be as smart as Miss Amanda. We’re all good at different things.

**

Since the 1970s when the organic food movement first took off, a growing group of conscientious consumers has shown themselves to be interested in the quality and nutritional value of the food they put into their bodies. Over the past five decades, this line of thought has evolved to include greater questions of environmental impact, local economies and all of the other good intentions Jim recited to Arlo above.

The Jims of the world are the mainstream, right now. According to this article from ecowatch, local food sales swelled from $5 billion to $12 billion between 2008 and 2014, and they are expected to hit $20 billion this year. Interest in farmers markets has grown more than 370 percent in that time, and over 20 percent of households eat local regularly. People like Jim care more than ever about where their food comes from, how it is treated, whether it is good for them and how it impacts the environment.

And they mean well. But the reality is that the movement isn’t all it is advertised to be, and kids like Arlo and adults like Miss Amanda have called “eat local” and “buy organic” into question.

Some dissenters even throw the Berry’s Burgers out with the bathwater, and that’s a shame. In terms of Arlo’s original question – “Why do we go here instead of McDonald’s?” – Jim’s answer was a good one. Berry’s probably IS more in line with Jim’s personal values than McDonald’s. They probably have a lesser carbon footprint overall, even if the difference is marginal. They may be able to afford to pay their workers more. They are part of a local economy, even if they are buying beef from Texas.

But Jim believes he is paying a major moral upcharge for the Berry’s burger at triple or more the price of McDonald’s. He falls asleep every night thinking, “Well, I eat meat, but like, well-treated meat, and I know where my carrots came from so I won’t give my kid cancer.” And the reality is, as Arlo said, “Not necessarily.”

 

 

So how can the local food movement evolve from where it is to help Jim sleep soundly again? Does he need to go vegan, sell his car and buy a tiny house with a garden plot to truly make an impact, or is there something a little more mid-level, like his hybrid SUV, that he can aspire to?

The Truth About Eating Local

For all the holes in the locavore argument, there are many ways in which the movement has succeeded:

  • Local food sourcing, even if some produce is coming from 400 miles away, can keep local economies diversified by offering opportunities for smaller family farms and growers to network with local businesses and farmers’ markets.
  • Local food networks can open the door to innovation as farmers try to live up to the advertised environmental benefits of the locavore movement and reduce food waste in the production process.
  • Local food can build communities around farmers markets, restaurants, local groceries and other related businesses that participate.

However, the Jims of the world value the “eat local” movement in large part because they want to believe their food is not evil. That it comes from a good place. Ideally a sparkling, clean land free of pesticides and greenhouses gases, and full of frolicking livestock eating as much wild grass as they please before they lie down on a bed of flowers and magically become hamburgers.

But as that is impossible, maybe just a really well-kept family farm with nice people who really care about fresh food and love animals as both food and friends. But how does Jim find that?

Right now he would have a really hard time. According to this article from Washington Post:

If you’re looking for advice on how to make climate-friendly food choices, you’ll find there’s plenty of it. Unfortunately, most of it is either wrong or self-evident. (Though you will occasionally stumble on a thoroughly researched, tightly reasoned piece of advice about, for example, why you ought to eat more oats.) In the “wrong” category is the advice to buy local or organic. Sometimes those are better climate choices and sometimes they’re not, and it’s all but impossible to know which is which. In the “self-evident” category is waste, and how you should try to generate less of it, both in food and packaging.

The problem is vague definitions, such as what geographic range is considered local, and the fact that proponents of the movement often cite iffy science such as reduced “food miles” as an argument that local food reduces the carbon footprint in food transportation. As this article from ensia notes:

The commonly held belief that reducing “food miles” is always good for the environment because it reduces the use of transportation fuel and associated carbon dioxide emissions turns out to be a red herring. Strange as it might seem, local food uses about the same amount of energy  per pound  to transport as long-distance food. Why? Short answer: volume and method of transport. Big box chains can ship food more efficiently –  even if it travels longer distances –  because of the gigantic volumes they work in. Plus, ships, trains and even large trucks driving on interstate highways use less fuel, per pound per mile, than small trucks driving around town.

Add the upcharges and the inconvenience of having to eat strawberries only in the summer, and the local movement sounds less and less attractive, and less authentic. This blogger says, regarding organic, environmentally friendly growing practices, “If you aren’t absolutely certain of the source of your produce, you might as well not even bother.”

The Problems with Fixing the Problems

Almost every dissenter of the locavore movement has a “real solution” to “fix” Jim’s perception of what good or evil food is. The Washington Post article cited above parrots the “eat less red meat argument” and calls for carbon-sequestered, negative-carbon-footprint steaks. Author James McWilliams in his interview with Forbes magazine echoes “less red meat” and says conventional farmers have better means to reduce the environmental impact of food consumption if only the government would incentivize them with subsidies for technology such as irrigation sensors. This article from Slanker Grass-fed Beef says local farms even sacrifice the nutritional grade of their food as they balance demand with their limited capacities. Hyper-local food movements champion community farms over farmers’ markets that may or may not actually feature products from local farmers.

Dissenters also point out shortcomings of local farming ad nauseam:

While these may all be valid points, few of them help Jim in the immediate sense. Jim wants the ideal that “eat local” promised him, summed up perfectly by Edible Northeast Florida:

Where does this food come from? How was it grown or processed? Do I know and trust the maker of this product? Are these foods grown with a sustainable future in mind? Beyond odometer readings and borders on a map, it seems that living local is about building community, preserving farmland and making our food system more transparent to everyone. It’s about building a sense of social connectedness, a feeling of mutual exchange and a relationship between a consumer and a vendor. In its simplest form, it’s about knowing your food and trusting the people who make it.

That’s what eating local is all about, Charlie Brown.

 

 

Despite all the negativity cited above, all Jim really needs is “to know his food and trust the people who make it” in order to out-debate Arlo’s generalized assumptions that local food is “not necessarily” in line with their values as a family. And that doesn’t come solely through better farming techniques, new movements or even consumption practices.

That comes from better storytelling.

How to Make Jim's Sleep Great Again

Some local farms, markets, groceries and restaurants are already adopting the practice of telling their stories to gain the trust of Jim, but many fall short on specifics. They rely on buzzwords like “locally sourced,” “GMO-free,” “grass-fed” and “organic” that are easy for Arlo and Miss Amanda to question. Moreover, beyond boilerplate descriptions on a home page, the personalities behind these community staples are often muted on social media and barely visible in real life. How can Jim really know about his food from that?

If the “eat local” movement is truly meant to build trust and community between consumer and vendor, then the brands participating should feel more like friends. The following strategies can help their narratives along:

  • Talk openly about specific food practices on all media platforms. If you are a family farm that always fully harvests, note it and explain why. Talk about your last harvest; take Jim through it step by step. Tell him openly if you had to use a pesticide and note why you thought it was a less harmful one than a conventional farm might use. If you are a restaurant, talk about the family farm and what practices they use that you like. Do you freeze the burgers when they come in? Why? Grocery stores, what are you doing to reduce food waste?
  • Work to benefit your community in ways that also engage your community. Do you give day-old bread from Joe’s Family Farms to the homeless? Invite a local high school football team to help hand it out. Have a member of the farming family and an owner of the grocery store present to socialize with the participants. Part of telling a good story is creating a good story in the first place.
  • Collaborate with other local vendors to solve problems Jim cares about. Jim cares about the local economy and about food waste, he eats local, after all. So what if you, the restaurant, teams up with a local soap-making business that can turn your organic bacon grease into an all-natural surface cleaner? Jim would love that.
  • Get personal. If you and your wife opened a Southern-themed pub to honor your grandmother who supplied moonshine to the Appalachian communities during the Prohibition era, tell everyone how she used to tie you to a chair to help you sit up straight and told the best jokes after knocking back a few. Jim will be reminded of his grandma. She never liked his haircuts and called him “Buster Brown” for years.
  • Strive to live up to Jims ideals. You might have to use pesticides sometimes. You might have to harvest half your crop to meet demands. You might use too much water. You might lose a deal with Jims favorite restaurant or fail to pass a health inspection. But where you can, let Jim see how you are always working to improve. Show him that you are saving up for irrigation sensors. Find a new all-natural pest deterrent that Jim will be on board with. Form new relationships with environmental/community goals in mind.

The locavore movement as it stands has been extremely effective. Most Jims still sign on for local simply because they have seen time and again that their peers accept it as “good.” Before his conversation with Miss Amanda via his 8-year-old, Jim was on board with it completely.

But Jim is having these conversations. With so much information available to him and future generations, he has learned to distrust advertising and look to influencers he “knows.” That’s what drove him to the local food movement in the first place.

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