A few years ago, a travel writer penned an opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune lambasting the “local foods movement.” One thing that really galled him was seeing all those Volvos, Saabs and Hondas that consumers parked at the farmers’ market while they shopped for vegetables that had been transported into town by numerous, often gas-guzzling, pickup trucks. That, argued the commentator, was a major reason locavores were being hypocrites when they claimed they supported “local” for economic and environmental reasons.
Scoffed the writer, “If patronizing local producers is so important to building local economies, why did I see so many foreign cars parked at the farmers’ market?”
He made a good, if somewhat narrowly observed, point, and as Philip Ackerman-Leist argues in his new book, Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems, the so-called local food movement has probably set itself up for such derision. Participants in the movement have too often characterized it as one that’s superior because of strictly defined geographic, economic and environmental benefits. These are all part of the picture, but can be limiting if we “fetishize” any element in isolation and don’t consider it part of the whole, writes Ackerman-Leist.
A prime example of this is the argument that buying local food is good for the environment because it reduces food miles, which automatically cuts the carbon footprint of those tomatoes raised in the next county. In recent years this has pretty much been debunked; it turns out a semi-trailer hauling tomatoes a couple thousand miles from Florida in August produces fewer greenhouse gases than all those individual farmer vehicles trundling in from past the outer ring suburbs. “See,” say promoters of the conventional, industrialized, multi-national food production and distribution system, “our way is better.”
But Ackerman-Leist, a farmer and professor who directs Green Mountain College’s Farm & Food Project in Vermont, uses his well-researched book to show how thinking “locally” when it comes to food should not mean taking a parochial view of the world. In fact, a successful local food movement consists of quite the opposite approach.
He spends a good part of the book outlining in detail the reasons why we should care about the local food movement in the first place. Many of the pro-local arguments in Rebuilding the Foodshed won’t be a surprise to anyone who follows the issue even from a distance, but Ackerman-Leist does a nice job of bringing them together into one place. And despite debunking the “food miles” rationalization, the author even makes a convincing case for supporting local food because it’s more energy efficient. Hint: we need to stop focusing so narrowly on how the food gets from the farm to the market, and more on the systems approach that gets it from the soil to the farmer’s hands in the first place.
So now that we’ve reaffirmed the local food movement is good for us, how can it be moved beyond the niche status that’s sustained it thus far, but is starting to show signs of wearing out its welcome? Well, just as we should not get too focused on individual benefits to the exclusion of the big picture, we should figure out a way to pull together all the excellent local food efforts that exist around the country into a more coherent whole, says Ackerman-Leist. For this movement to have a real impact on our economic, social and environmental landscape, it needs to start making connections.
“Thinking of our own local food systems as dots on a map is shortsighted, and it stymies the real potential of this critical work,” he writes. “We should be concentrating much more on the flows than the dots. Just as a good ecologist understands the organisms in and of themselves aren’t really the point of study—the interactions between all the different organisms are the point….”
In some ways, Ackerman-Leist is well qualified to make such an argument, since he lives in one of those “dots.” His family produces much of their own food in a bucolic part of Vermont where local food is not only available, but ways of making it more available are being taught at the local college.
But the good professor knows we can’t all live in Vermont, or southeast Minnesota or the San Francisco Bay area, for that matter. That’s why we need to pay attention to those inter-community flows and encourage the development of food councils, cooperatives and even national initiatives like the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative. These can help connect those dots and develop efficiencies that are lacking in disparate local food systems, particular ones trying to get going in sparsely populated areas.
And in the end, argues Ackerman-Leist, we need to stop calling it “local food” and start using terms like “community-based food systems.” When we look at this system as community-based, it beats the conventional system hands-down. As Ackerman-Leist says, “food production” is about a terminal point in the act of agriculture while farming is about a continuum that includes an entire community, from what’s in the soil to who takes part in this process, including not only farmers but workers and eaters. “Such a mindset helps us break out of the restrictions geography can impose,” he writes.
Such thinking helps us consider the community-based foods movement as the kind of force that, at times, can move beyond our national or even continental borders as we forge marketing relationships with farmers who may be thousands of miles away, but share our desire to build a healthy, sustainable community. That sound was one of Midwestern lovers of bananas and coffee breathing a collective sigh of relief.
This isn’t just about getting a permit to put on a Saturday morning farmers’ market. This is complex stuff and involves reforming everything from agronomic systems and transportation to farm policy and the way we treat workers. Ackerman-Leist concedes that there is an irony here.
“While sustainable agriculture involves the careful conservation of resources,” he writes, “the building of a resilient community-based food system involves utilizing as many resources as possible: farmers, entrepreneurs, social justice advocates, and technologies old and new.”
But like a healthy soil, all that energy that goes into establishing a community-based food system can be self-perpetuating.
Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.