Rhetoric vs. Pragmatics in Eating Locally

Organic produce

There’s an enormous problem with the local food movement- the lack of access. Eating organically and locally is a choice, but it’s not a choice only the well-off should be able to make.

Often, eating locally, like eating organically, is framed in almost purely moral terms. One must eat locally to save the small farmer, sustain a local economy and sense of community, remain in touch with the seasons, re-learn what is available in a given area and when to expect it, to save the planet from ‘food-miles’. You must eat organic to protect your vulnerable children from harmful chemicals, to reduce pollution and run-off and soil erosion, to improve the health of the (often migrant) farmworkers, to eat more wholesomely, more naturally, more purely.

That’s all great. Any reason is a good reason to eat organic, or even better, to eat locally. However, in our focus on the individual and their reasons for choosing organic or local produce, there is rarely a larger discussion of why eating organically or eating locally, is predominantly framed only as an individual choice. (In particular, it is often framed as a mother’s choice, but that’s a discussion for another time.) There is generally only a limited discussion of the necessary food and infrastructure framework that enables that choice to be made.

Eating organically and locally is often discussed as an option that is only available to the well-off, not those struggling to put food on the table or work two jobs. No discussion of gentrification would be complete without a jab about how the organic and specialty markets have followed the gentrifiers to a neighborhood. And often, that’s fairly accurate. It is a lot easier to buy organic if you have disposable income, and to buy locally if you have spare time.

This is one of the major themes of Mark Winne’s recent book, Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Mark Winne had a 25-year tenure as the director of the Hartford Food System, a Connecticut sustainable food and hunger non-profit. The organization regularly speaks with various low-income people to get their point of view about food issues. One conversation with eight low-income African-American and Hispanic Hartford residents, described in the book, is excerpted below:

“First off, the group expressed an immediate consensus that fresh, inexpensive food — the food they generally preferred — was unavailable in their neighborhood. Everyone agreed that traveling to a full-line supermarket was a hassle because it required one or two long bus rides or an expensive taxi fare. As a result, they did their major shopping once or twice a month, and when they shopped, price was their most important consideration.

When asked what the word organic meant to them, the residents answered “real food,” “natural,” “healthy,” and “you know what’s in it.” While they believed that organic food was preferable to food they described as “processed,” “full of chemicals,” or “toxic,” they said that buying organic food wasn’t even an option, because it was simply not available to them. One young woman made a point of saying that she didn’t trust the environment where she lived or the food she ingested. “Everything gives you cancer these days,” she said. Conversely, there was an underlying tone of confidence in the safety and healthfulness of food that they could identify as local and organic.

Their awareness of the benefits of local and organic food was very high. For the elderly, there was the nostalgic association with tastes, places, and times gone by. For those with young children, there was an apprehension that nearly everything associated with their external environment, including food, was a threat. Like parents of all races, education levels, and occupations, these moms wanted what was best for their children as well, even when they knew that what was best was not available to them.”

Local and organic food should not be an exclusive issue. Taste, freshness, healthiness, environmental benefits and creating a sustainable local community are issues that matter to everyone.

The ideas of local food will only become a movement, rather than a niche preference, if access is made more inclusive. There are many obstacles, but also many initiatives, ranging from subsidized CSA shares to being able to use food stamps at farmer’s markets.


One response to “Rhetoric vs. Pragmatics in Eating Locally

  1. Pingback: Foodmapper on Eat-Local-Speak « Local Foods Research Project

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