By: Cameron Meyer
I read an article this week by the food scholar Laura B. DeLind that got me thinking about several pertinent points regarding the ongoing debate surrounding the local food movement, which in itself is part of the larger health discourse concerning the “obesity epidemic” here in the United States, among other things. It seems that wherever I turn, “local food” is being touted as a solution to this and other perceived societal ills (Al Jazeera, a news agency that I consider to be very “unsensational,” has even covered this topic), despite the term itself being poorly defined to the point of hardly being a definition at all (a definition vacuum, if you will). With this in mind, we must concede that the time is ripe and most certainly profitable for the establishment of a concrete definition of a “local food system.”
It would make sense that those that are most intimately aligned with the local food movement should have the most power to determine a binding standard. According to DeLind, a local food system should be based on community building, which could be interpreted as a system that promotes sovereignty and agency of local individuals and initiatives. This focus ensures that power of production remains in the hands of those that can benefit most from said production, whether it is through community gardens, local farms or other related endeavors. Primarily, the argument is that strong, interconnected, and tight-knit communities have greater resilience to overcome problems and inequalities that are inherently the result of participation in an unfair capitalist system. A secondary argument is often espoused, and is indeed present in DeLind’s article, claims that local food tastes better, is better for you, and is more environmentally sustainable. Fair enough, both are good points that are hard to argue with. The problem arises when so many local foodie talking heads focus their argumentative energy solely on the promotion of the second point, jointly insinuating that the ability to purchase and consume local food is equitable to a participatory approach in local food politics and production, and constitutes viable community citizenship.
Enter Walmart into the equation. With a weak to non-existent definition of what is local, Walmart has been able to capitalize on this “socially responsible consumer/citizen” market opportunity by determining some intra-corporate metric of local (Walmart’s definition of local is hard to pin down, with one article claiming it to be within a day’s drive, and another that includes anything grown within the state that the store resides in), labeling some of their products this way, and selling them to well meaning individuals. Many have argued that this adoption of the local food idea is not necessarily a bad thing, parroting Walmart president Michael Duke’s mantra that “No other retailer has the ability to make more of a difference than Wal-Mart.” This is most certainly true, and it would behoove proponents of the local food movement to recall how Walmart has “made differences” to local production systems in the past, both agricultural and industrial. A point that needs to be reiterated concerning Walmart’s business practices is that “price is where every consideration begins and ends.” Walmart, the omniscient corporate juggernaut, has the power to establish a long lasting and hegemonic definition of what constitutes a local food system, which will ultimately be based on their profit, their bottom line, likely ignoring DeLind’s community building imperative. In fact, according to the New York Times, the corporation has already wielded this power, through training of small to medium farmers in emerging markets, presumably in methods that will ostensibly benefit the farmer and the community, but are more likely to determine standards that will ultimately reap record profits for Walmart. At the end of the day, when a local farmer enters into a partnership with Walmart, it is clear that the power dynamics of the relationship will be skewed in the corporation’s favor, with the farmer left with little choice but to adhere to corporate demands.
While there is text in a 2008 congressional bill that states that local food is defined as food that is purchased within 400 transport miles or within the state of its production#, there seems to be no single commercially accepted institutional standard of what constitutes local food. If there comes a time that a labeling standard is proposed and accepted as universal, Walmart will likely be there with their corporate clout pushing their standard as the standard, leaving actual local voices unheard. I suppose this comes as a call to action, then, to determine and establish institutional standards that reflect the sovereign community origins of the local food movement, and to promote these standards beyond just dollars spent on tasty food.