Is Locavorism for Rich People Only?

James McWilliams is an historian at Texas State University and author of the new book Just Food. He has blogged here before, critiquing locavorism and is back with a series of posts on farmers’ markets. This is the last of his three guest posts.

Do Farmers’ Markets Really Strengthen Local Communities? Part Three
by James McWilliams
A Guest Post

In my last post on this topic, I suggested that local food systems are not necessarily environmentally sound food systems.

“The burden exclusively hits the ‘traditionally marginalized’ people whose primary concerns in life do not involve securing heirloom tomatoes cultivated within a 100-mile radius of their domains.”

I also suggested that, if this were true, then we’d have to entertain the possibility that the community cohesion that develops around shared pride in sustainable food production is similarly suspect.

Of course, this is only a possibility. I have no numbers to draw on. Oftentimes, we have strong evidence that a farm is well deserving of a sustainable gold star. Many small farmers who practice an impressive level of transparency alleviate any lurking concerns about unsavory practices. In so doing, they ostensibly lay the basis for community development around shared pride in local ecological sustainability. It’s not always this way, but it’s likely quite common.

Such success, however, only raises another problem for the proposition that local food fosters a tighter community. Sustainably produced local food is not accessible by all. In general, only the elite few with the time and material resources to capitalize on such environmental munificence have the time and money to benefit from transparently sustainable farms. As a result, the preconditions are inadvertently established for something that generally tends not to bind diverse communities into a cozy whole, but to fragment them: exclusivity.

Patricia Allen, of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California-Santa Cruz, has pondered this problem extensively. She shows that when efforts to attain community food security (for the poor) are entrusted to local food suppliers, the results are not always the strengthening of community bonds, but rather their fraying. Allen bravely questions the entire premise that communities “will make better decisions about food systems,” noting how it all depends on the shaky premise that there’s “fluid cooperation among groups with quite different interests.”

Think about it: if there’s one thing you do not see at the farmers’ market, it’s socio-economic diversity (although there is evidence that markets are becoming more ethnically diverse). Localizing the food supply, in other words, automatically means that a small group of people will have exclusive influence over what the rest of the community has access to. Such power can alienate and even anger “the community.” “[T]he presumption that everyone can participate is a magician’s illusion,” writes Allen.

What often follows, as a result, are local food systems in which a self-elected cohort of decision makers promotes a subjective vision of what a healthy, virtuous, and environmentally sound diet should look like. The rest just get what they’re given, stay away, or resist in ways that undermine the process of community development. Again, Allen says, “The evidence is that localism is anything but liberatory for those traditionally marginalized.” Culinary localism can thus backfire on the full community it’s supposed to improve.

A couple of other considerations underscore this argument. When the infrastructure of food production and distribution shrinks to accommodate members of a local population, when middlemen are axed from the supply chain, certain kinds of jobs disappear. Perhaps it goes without saying that these jobs are not employment opportunities that the privileged clientèle of the farmers’ markets are going to miss. Instead, the burden exclusively hits the “traditionally marginalized” people whose primary concerns in life do not involve securing heirloom tomatoes cultivated within a 100-mile radius of their domains.

Again, Allen has something insightful to say on this:

I participated in a conference session in which the leaders of a food security project were proud of its success in reducing imports of food from outside the locality. They were uninterested, however, in the negative effect this localization might have on those who had depended on the previous arrangements.

A final paradox: in a sense, any community with an activist base seeking to localize the food supply is also a community that’s undermining diversity. Although we rarely consider the market influences that make community diversification possible, a moment’s reflection reveals a strong tie between cultural diversity and market access. Critics of globalization argue (often with ample evidence) that global forces undermine the world’s range of indigenous cultures — wiping out vernacular habits, wisdom, and languages. They overlook, however, how the material manifestations of diversity are brought to us by globalization.

Localization, by contrast, specifies what is and is not acceptable within an arbitrary boundary. In this sense, it delimits diversity. Anyone who doubts this claim should imagine what the culinary map of New York City would look like without open access to globally far-flung producers. It’s only because globally sourced distributors are able to provide specialized ingredients that Harlem, Chinatown, and Little Italy are such vibrant emblems of urban, culinary, and cultural diversity.

The cultural elitism that tinges culinary localism is by no means inherent. Still, it’s hard to say that it’s not there. And however ingrained it may be, such exclusivity is hardly a precondition for community cohesion. Theoretically, this persistent exclusivity could change, but for now it seems as if the locavore movement might very well be alienating many American consumers who might otherwise be willing to think about, and act upon, the agricultural problems that weigh so heavily upon us.

In any case, it’s just a thought.

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  1. paulwesterberg says:

    Sounds like you came to a conclusion and then created an argument to support it.

    I have no doubt that local organic farmers market produce in new york city is expensive, that doesn’t mean that farmers markets in general don’t provide affordable food.

    Arguing that buying locally puts middlemen out of jobs leads is like arguing that we should go back to riding in carriages to support the poor buggy whip makers.

    At the farmers market I attend(one of many in Madison WI) there are many small farmers from diverse backgrounds that sell high quality produce for reasonable prices(as cheap or cheaper than the large grocery store). The farmers get a living wage price for their product and I get fresh food within walking distance from my house.

    Without the market these farmers would not have an outlet to sell their products and would not be able to compete against the agribusiness supply chain.

    Farmers markets may not work well for a place like New York City, but they work well for a lot of farmers and regular folks regardless of what economists might assume.

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  2. Kelley says:

    I’m no expert on this, but I’ve observed anecdotally here in RI that there is increasing socioeconomic diversity at our farmers’ markets – helped in no small part, I’m sure, by the fact that most of the vendors have a mechanism in place to accept funds from SNAP/EBT.

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  3. Sarah H. says:

    I dunno about this. I go to the Hollywood Farmer’s Market in LA on Sunset and Vine every Sunday. I see everyone shopping there, from A-list celebrities to rich organic-food-loving moms to hippie folks to homeless people. And they accept WIC and EBT: if that’s not locavorism for the poor, I don’t know what is. Plus the South Central Farmer’s Cooperative (who grows very delicious produce!) is run by/supports/trains/provides easy access to fresh organic local produce for people in lower-income inner-city communities.

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  4. MikeM says:

    First, if economies of scale dictate that locavorism is more labor-intensive than industrial food supply-lines, how could it hurt a “traditionally marginalized” labor force in a community in the long run? You can’t argue both sides of this coin.

    Second, if I’m a rich guy and I want to spend $0.50 on a vegetable, and another $0.50 for that vegetable to be sustainable, healthy, local and anything else I want it to be, rather than spending it on a second vegetable, what’s wrong with that? Yes, a lot of “previous arrangements” are going to be disrupted, but that’s the nature of progress. You can’t possibly argue that traffic lights are a bad thing because they put traffic cops in unemployment lines. I think it’s a good sign whenever “rich” people in the country want to pay for better goods instead of more goods. Critics of locavorism should stick to the arguments that it isn’t really better in the way we want it to be. Not that it’s somehow morally wrong to disrupt the status quo.

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  5. Deanne says:

    I’ve heard this argument a lot, that locavorism is expensive and its unfair to expect that most people will have the time and/or money to partake. But I think that ignores a large part of the push towards eating local and sustainable foods. As a country, we subsidize large farm conglomerates, a lot of which don’t produce what we would consider “food” and as a result, processed and non-local food is cheaper and easier to get. But those of us that can afford to eat local can push up the demand for those products, and based on the ideas of supply and demand (I’ll admit, I’m a little fuzzy on this since I only had one college econ class) that will drive the price down which will make those items more affordable and help to flip our model of which farms to subsidize. For myself at least, the idea is not to demean people who are not able to afford sustainable and local products, but to increase the demand for those products over highly processed and packaged ones so that eventually, the cheaper products will also be the more sustainable ones.

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  6. science minded says:

    A good question. Having gone to a `local market” for the first time in a long while. I do see a change in perspective. I asked the price of one item- way beyond what I would have expected at a flee market and that I would be willing to pay. So- seems like the sellers may be a bit more savy– that said– bargains will be hard to find. And sellers may have to learn the lesson of greed–it’s not only a rich man’s disease..

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  7. jose says:

    “Such success, however, only raises another problem for the proposition that local food fosters a tighter community. Sustainably produced local food is not accessible by all. In general, only the elite few with the time and material resources to capitalize on such environmental munificence have the time and money to benefit from transparently sustainable farms.”

    Would not this indicate that we should have economic policies that allows lower classes to participate in local markets; that is, in decent food? For example, a more compressed wage inequality. I guess that is the reason why in Europe lower classes eat healthier that the American equivalent.

    Your argument seems to be: “only some people can profit from superb (local market) food; let’s bring them down”. It seems the right policy should be to expand them!

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  8. Mike says:

    You really need to visit Barcelona, which has an amazing network of over 30 municipal markets, old-style, that offer everything and at affordable prices. People of all ilks shop there.

    Moreover, we must examine what it means to be “local food.” Spain is only the size of Texas, so many people consider any food grown in Spain to be “local.” It’s a relative term.

    The idea is to cut down transportation costs so fewer trucks spew fewer fumes while getting me some delicious heirloom tomatoes.

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