Don’t Mono-crop the Movement: Toward a Cultural Ecology of Local Food | B.R. Cohen

from Gastronomica 14:1

What matters for the future of healthy food is not just farmers’ markets, CSAs, urban farms, food hubs, and the like—the particular individual innovations of the foodsheds—but the ways they interact and overlap. 

The former director of the Community Food Security Coalition, Andy Fisher, recently pondered what, if anything, holds the local food movement together. The CFSC is a coalition of several hundred food security organizations across North America; Fisher’s prior experience at its helm offered a vantage point to ask about cohesion and common purpose. It was an echo of the point Michael Pollan made about the 2012 election, when President Obama had asked if there really was a movement to be tapped—for him, a voting bloc—or just a collection of disparate pieces. And it is an important question for advocates and activists to ask, but not because there actually is one thing holding the movement together, like a label, or an aphorism, or a fad diet, or an appeal to public health. Rather than an individual feature that can center various attempts to improve food and farming, what matters is the way the many activities of local food advocates overlap with one another in an interdependent, ecological whole.

This is a point about organizational identity and the political possibilities such an identity makes possible. It is grounded, though, in the ways advocates for food health, security, and sovereignty envision the spatial arrangements of food production, distribution, and consumption. In North America—and across the United States in particular—good food advocates over the past generation have defined that spatial arrangement almost entirely through the farm-to-fork trope. That trope provides a common framework to think about the various stages involved in food and farming. Consider its many examples. Farmers’ markets, food hubs, community supported agriculture (CSA), virtual marketplaces, organic grocery stores, rooftop, community, and schoolyard gardens, 100-Mile Diets, urban farms: the architecture of reform is endless, but every part seeks to reduce the distance between food producers (farms) and consumers (forks).

Some innovations, for example, pull consumers closer to producers by bringing them to the farm (CSAs); some redefine consumers as producers too (gardens and urban farms); some eliminate links in the long farm-to-fork chain by appealing to urban living patterns (virtual marketplaces, organic grocery stores, food trucks). These would seem to provide points for a food movement to rally around.

For all the intuitive appeal of these local initiatives, however, there are other ways to think about the movement’s spatial configurations, ways that could be more inclusive, multidimensional, and politically potent. Instead of a distance versus proximity orientation, for instance, advocates might envision a crosswise view—this would be, say, the x-axis instead of the y-axis from farm to fork. This perspective shows the various organizational efforts of a region interacting like species in a healthy ecosystem.

This crosswise arrangement is less about the distance from here to there and more about the space in between. It is a view underpinned by the productive interplay among different members. Instead of insects and mammals, trees and brush, waterways and other biotic elements, a local food movement modeled on the metaphor of cultural ecology is defined by the interplay among various foodshed-building efforts. What matters in this view is not just the particular individual innovations of the foodsheds—farmers’ markets, CSAs, food hubs, etc.—but the ways in which they interact and build an interdependent whole. After all, ecologists strive for biodiversity over mono-cropping in the fields; why not seek a diverse ecology throughout the food system?

A cultural ecology of local food. Here, the various approaches to building a healthier food and farm network overlap, rather than stand alone. In this configuration, the distances that matter are less about those between farms and forks and more about how closely the different approaches complement one another.

What does this look like in reality? Start with the Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign that has blossomed across the United States, though sometimes criticized for lacking an effective plan of action. A nice idea, but how could someone actually do it? Trying a 100-Mile Diet, as Canadian writers Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon outlined in their 2007 book, could help by supporting local commerce and tax dollars, promoting rural land health, and perhaps reducing transportation-related energy demands. Maybe. But what if, as is sometimes reported, somebody lives in Phoenix? (Many do, in fact.) What if they live in Manitoba? Whither variety? (Not to mention the cottage industry of “food miles” critiques that questions the energy advantages.)

For variety, one could try an organic grocery store, where the shelves are stocked, the products are compelling, and the foods are brimming with health claims. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s did not crop up for nothing. Yet the elitism rap on such stores and their role in the localism superiority complex is well honed by now. And if that is the case, one could opt for a farmers’ market, which eliminates the middlemen who would mark up cost. Researchers at SCALE (Sequestering Carbon, Accelerating Local Economies) found that produce at farmers markets was indeed cost-competitive with conventional grocery stores, corroborating similar conclusions from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Though of course farmers’ markets come in for their own critique. While their numbers have increased more than four-fold since the mid-1990s, researchers find that they are increasingly “white” spaces leaning to the elite and exclusive.

When charges of gentrification raise questions about access and justice at the town square, community gardens and urban farms, even schoolyard gardens, can intervene to help the food reform cause. These are often in neighborhoods of limited means and useful for building community strength as much as the quantity of produce. They strive to make gardens part of the everyday life of urban communities. This would be nice. Yet, as it happens, their demands on time and labor are often significant hurdles for the exact people who might benefit from the food.

That being the case, the proliferation of food hubs could pick up the slack. Food hubs often have community empowerment as well as rural development missions. They support local farmers, meet the demand of institutional buyers (like schools, hospitals, and business parks), and offer new economic and distribution models.

Too slow? Virtual marketplaces can help in their appeal to that insatiable American demand for convenience and ease. Relay Foods, Good Eggs, and Farmigo, to name three, are carving out space for consumers looking for local food within established traffic patterns. Relay, for example, sets up shop in various high-trafficked parking lots at pre-specified times, where consumers pick up orders on their way home. Or communities could invest in various franchise goals to source provisions locally—Chipotle comes to mind—a project that alone will not make local food more sustainable but as part of an ecology of efforts could be beneficial.

Because it is true: none of the individual features of a local food system are ideal. CSAs are not a solution for everyone, nor are urban farms or Whole Foods or farmers’ markets. But the disadvantages of some could be covered by the advantages of others, and in the multitudes come strength. The future of healthy food is not a series of discrete innovations arrayed along a distance-to-proximity axis, that is, but a collective of overlapping cultural and organizational ones.

It is neither feasible nor sensible to write about the entirety of a food movement, especially without addressing the political infrastructure of various locales and countries that can shape its meaning. Most of the advocates for healthier foods and farms that I know understand this. Yet critics delight in local food flaws, often going on to discount the entire movement based on a singular failure, as I have written elsewhere. This makes it tough to figure out what holds the pieces together, basically because nobody is trying to hold pieces together. But weaving the organizational parts into an interdependent whole is more durable because it is, indeed, a system of mutual dependencies, not scattered individual projects. The downsides of one part are carried by the advantages of another; the limitations of the first are helped by the strengths of the next. No longer one-dimensional, this cultural ecology adds political and organizational integrity to the physical integrity of food.

This multidimensional approach—the x-axis and the y-axis—is not just a more elegant conception to aid in understanding the variety of work underway, but one that adds political and organizational integrity to the physical robustness of our food. There is much more work to do for the sake of social, ecological, and economic goals. This is especially so, as food studies scholars Teresa Mares and Alison Alkon have summarized it, with community food security, food justice, and food sovereignty gaining stronger footholds as more effective ways to consider a local food movement at all. The vision of productive overlap can be a tool to build alliances and gain political viability. And it is a concept that can get advocates back to the work of seeking the social and ecological goals of a healthier agri-food landscape.

Suggested Reading

Alkon, Alison, and Christie Grace McCullen. 2011. “Whiteness and Farmers Markets: Performances, Perpetuations…Contestations?” Antipode 43(4): 937–59.

Campbell, D. C., Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, and Gail Feenstra. 2013. “Community food systems: Strengthening the research-to-practice continuum.” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 3(3): 121–38.

Cobb, Tanya Denckla. 2011. Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement Is Changing the Way We Eat. North Adams, MA: Storey.

Fisher, Andy. 2013. “Who’s Minding the Movement?” Civil Eats. March 14. (accessed 1 November 2013).

Mares, Teresa, and Alison Alkon. 2011. “Mapping the Food Movement: Addressing Inequality and Neoliberalism.” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 2(1): 68–86.

Martinez, Stephen, et al. 2010. “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues.” USDA Economic Research Report No. (ERR-97). (accessed 1 December 2013).