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Industrial Local?

The New York Times published an article on May 12th titled When 'Local' Makes It Big, that outlines the latest attempt by Big Food to cash in on the growing sustainable food and farming movement. This time, they've gone after "local."

Frito-Lay North America (owned by PepsiCo) is trying to portray Lay's potato chips as a local food in the regions where the potatoes are grown.

ConAgra is trying to say that because Hunt's canned tomatoes are mostly grown within 120 miles of its processing plant in Oakdale, California, that makes them "local" for Oakdale, and maybe even Californians.

"Kraft is trying to figure out whether people in Wisconsin will buy more pickles if they know the cucumbers that go into a jar of Claussen’s are grown there."

Admittedly, in terms of food-miles, maybe "more local" is better than not at all. Paying some attention to your food is better than paying no attention at all. But as Tom Philpott points out in his analysis of the issue, a lot of times this kind of greenwashing (and it IS a kind of greenwashing) is downright ridiculous and obvious:

A couple of years ago, a student group formed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to reform the campus’ dining halls...noted that Chapel Hill lies in a robust foodshed, with plenty of small- and mid-sized farms churning out delicious food. Why not get some of that local fare into the dining halls?

The administration’s first response was priceless: to paraphrase, hey, we buy lots of pork from Smithfield Foods—and their biggest processing facility is less than 100 miles away! Ah, Smithfield—a company that abuses labor, the environment, and animals as a matter of course.

...Pitching Smithfield pork as local and therefore desirable fell with a thud with the UNC students; I doubt this silly campaign will find much traction either.

Clearly, the term "local" can be easily misappropriated. Consumers still need to buy local AND organic, and we all need to pay attention to who is benefiting from the term. Is the local product in question coming from a small, family-run business or a larger company? If it is a larger company, is it privately owned or publicly traded? I would argue that if it is a large, publicly traded company, "local" is not really a term that accurately applies.

Always be vigilant, folks! And take heart. The appropriation of this marketing technique may ultimately be a sign that we're getting closer to our goals. Clearly people ARE paying more attention to their food-miles, and these companies know that. Tom Laskawy points out that the NYT article also talks about Sacramento area growers who are being encouraged to switch from industrially processed crops to "grocery store crops" which could then be sold locally.

What these Sacramento growers would do is EXACTLY what people interested in a more localized food system want. We want growers to abandon crops that are sold into the industrial meat and processed food system and instead grow things that their neighbors can eat fresh. There's no hypocrisy there, no corruption of the "local" label...And while I don't appreciate Big Food's attempt to appropriate all the positive connotations of local food for itself, I do appreciate growers, no matter how large, who decide to fill local consumers' need for healthy food rather than the needs of industrial food processors and their insatiable demand for raw materials. 

Amen to that. How else are we going to relocalize the food system on the scale necessary to deal with climate change and peak oil?