Since the organic food movement took off decades ago, a growing group of conscientious consumers have shown themselves to be interested in the quality and nutritional value of the food they put into their bodies. Over time, this movement has evolved to include greater questions of environmental impact, local economic development, etc. 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% in that time, and over 20% of households eat local regularly. People 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.
But the reality is that the movement has its limitations, detractors, and problems, and some people have begun to call it into question. Shifts is economic stratification, sociopolitical identities, lack of clarity on the labeling, and simple access to these foods are making the decisions to buy harder. So how can the local food movement evolve from where it is to help consumers make the decision process easier?
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 help diversify economies by offering opportunities for smaller family farms and growers to network with local businesses and farmers’ markets.
- Local food networks can spark 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.
But there are deeper connections for many of the people who deeply value the “eat local” movement. Quite simply, 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 becoming meat. Unfortunately, the reality of farming doesn’t necessarily mesh with the ideal. And it’s at that point where things can break down.
The problem is vague definitions, such as what constitutes “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. 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. Indeed, local food uses about the same amount of energy per pound to transport as long-distance food. 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. Dissenters point out shortcomings of local farming ad nauseam:
- Local farms Can’t feed enough people.
- Local farms that actually employ organic practices aren’t efficient.
- Local farms can’t scale without losing either their integrity or their profits.
While these may all be valid points, few of them help consumers in the immediate sense. People want the ideal. Despite the negativity cited above, consumers primarily need to know that their food is “clean” and trust the people who make it.
Easing the concerns. Some local farms, markets, groceries, and restaurants are telling their stories well, but many fall short on specifics. They rely on buzzwords like “locally sourced,” “GMO-free,” “grass-fed” and “organic” that are easy for consumers 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, negating, or at least diminishing, trust. 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 part of that community. 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. Speak 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 your audience cares about. People care about the local economy and about food waste. They eat 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?
- 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. People will be reminded of his grandma.
- Strive to live up to their 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. But where you can, let buyers see how you are always working to improve. Show them that you are saving up for irrigation sensors. Find a new all-natural pest deterrent that they 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 people still sign on for local simply because they have seen time and again that their peers accept it as “good.” With so much information available about, people have learned to distrust advertising and look to influencers and sources they “know.” That’s largely what drove them to the local food movement in the first place. Remind people that “local” means connections and community, not just practices.