Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Local Food Systems: A Green Way of Life, or a Luxury Only for Elites?

Oct 28, 2014

The following article has been republished with kind permission from Feeding Nine Billion.

This past summer, my Master's research brought me to British Columbia, Canada, where I was working toward greater understanding about low-income consumers' barriers to accessing fresh food. Through interviews and surveys province-wide, this research involved frequent conversations with well-informed folks embedded in the local food movement and alternative food economy. As farmers' market managers, owners of food hubs, and heads of food co-ops, these people were undoubtedly convinced of the value of small-scale, sustainably grown food, and had devoted their lives to furthering and strengthening their local food economies. It came as some surprise, then, to stumble upon a pervasive criticism running through their responses.

Their concern was that the local food movement has celebrated local and alternative food to such a point that it is now growing a trendy "yuppie" food system; and furthermore, encouraging farmers to cultivate only niche crops and rarify themselves and their products. This latter critique is fairly new to the rhetoric around local food and surprising to uncover.

This attitude was first expressed when I asked a woman to explain the economic situation of farmers in her region. She described "these new kind of I don't know what you'd call them, like . . . fifi farms," and impersonated them to elucidate: "like, I'm growing salad greens, and blueberries! But it's not really my primary source of income. Or maybe I have a winery too. But I'm also still doing contract work off-farm, so I don't care who gets to eat my food." From this quote, we might assume that farmers would charge affordable prices since they are not relying on the farm as their sole source of income. Instead, in some cases, the opposite appears to be true. My participant continued, describing how some small farmers operate under an ideology of "I want to get a certain amount of money for it, and I've got this image that I'm projecting." As a small farmer myself, I believe that farmers deserve more prestige than currently credited with. However, if the way to garner prestige and project an image is by association with high-cost niche items, then this leads us further from an inclusive, equitable, alternative food system (AFS), because as prices rise, fewer people are able to participate.

For as much as the local food movement has stimulated a very important consumer demand for alternatives to destructive industrialized food production and distribution, it also cultivates an exclusive space, where only those who can afford to "vote with their forks" participate. This is well-known and well-researched by the likes of Julie Guthman and Alison Hope Alkon. In defense of the expense and exclusivity associated with alternative food, we argue that costs of production in small-scale, ecologically sound systems are much higher than in conventional agricultures. But the anecdotes I uncovered point to another reason: celebration of the local and alternative builds a system premised upon high prices for certain products, which encourages farmers to capitalize on the willing and wealthy customer.

Another participant helped draw out this theme, describing the rise of micro-scale agriculture meaning urban gardens or on one or two acres. At this scale, farmers need to cultivate high-value, quick-turnover crops such as salad greens, and "in order to make that kind of farming work, you have to sell everything at a premium," she points out. Making urban, small-scale agriculture trendy unbalances the AFS, creating an emphasis on high-priced exclusive products.

Some of these themes mirror Dan Barber's arguments, recently popularized through his book The Third Plate. In it, he describes the irrationality of our food choices: our consumption—even in the AFS—does not support natural or logical agriculture. He shares the way that he came to recognize this, visiting a grain farm to learn about the famed, ancient wheat grown there. While his purpose for the visit was to focus on the wheat, he realized that the farmer cultivated a variety of other leguminous crops so as to replenish the soil with nitrogen. Yet, because the "foodie" culture didn't value them, these crops were worth nothing on the market, except as cattle fodder.

What Barber describes is a capitalist-driven agricultural system where consumer dollar, not ecological sensibility, dictates production. In this system, farmers who practice ecological agriculture might do so at their own expense. In order to grow one crop in an environmentally sensitive manner, the farmer in the story has to grow other crops, but sell them as cheap feed. His anecdotes reflect the injustices afflicted to farmers as result of this skewed production system.

Some of my participants' anecdotes suggest that if rarification of local food continues, a skewed alternative food system will similarly inflict injustices upon consumers, namely, those who cannot afford to partake.

A farmers' market manager told me a dilemma she faces that results from this unbalanced AFS. She wants the market to provide more affordable staple food options for lower-income consumers. However, she can't inspire her vendors to grow things like potatoes, onions, and squashes, explaining that their response is "well you can't make any money off that. It takes too long, takes up too much space." She recognizes that the AFS has stimulated a shift in the local food production in her region, saying "there's just a different kind of farming going on," because the trends within the AFS has created a group of "people trying to make a living off of five or two acres versus someone planting fields of stuff and has been for 20 years." While we want the AFS to orient toward more holistic, ecologically sensitive practices, an unanticipated offshoot arises: this demand sometimes cultivates increasingly inaccessible food products: expensive salad greens, and no affordable staples like potatoes.

Barber says: "What I realized as a chef is I was the emperor with no clothes. I was here, celebrating this one crop, without looking at the whole farm."

I say that as consumers, we are here, celebrating salad greens, without looking at the food budgets of all consumers. For as long as that happens, the local food movement is only going to cultivate exclusivity.

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