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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.