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.
What makes food “local”? And why does “the local” matter when we speak of food? These are questions that vex scholars, farmers, activists, commercial food producers, and ordinary people alike. Desires to protect “local” cultures and unique traditions against globalization, to call attention to the particular landscapes and communities in which food production and consumption occur, or to recognize and experience a unique flavor palate believed to emanate from a specific locale are all embedded within concerns that “the local” is a place that exists and that informs the values and qualities attached to food.
Yet questions about “the local” extend beyond merely identifying what and where it might exist, and engage larger issues about the senses, identity, ethics and morality, power, and even performance, as well as fundamental questions about the very nature of food itself. As a result, whether food qualifies as “local” becomes an inquiry into what the project of making food “local” can tell us about how communities organize and define themselves, the ideals they promote, the challenges they face, how they define what counts as “food” or not, and their relationships to the larger geopolitical spheres they inhabit. In many respects, “the local” is not so much a location as it is a lens that reflects and refracts many other topics.
In different ways, the pieces in this issue of Gastronomica coalesce around themes of “localness,” how “the local” is made visible, real, and even tangible in multiple ways and at multiple scales. These conversations illuminate the many different communities and cultures that can achieve status as “local” and come to represent “local” interests. In the opening article, Toni Risson examines the movement of Greek food cultures to Australia and the important contributions of Greek food purveyors and food rituals not just to the Greek diaspora but also to Australian cultural institutions themselves. Tracey Heatherington takes up this theme of foodscapes through a cultural ecology approach that attends to the sensory dimensions of the landscapes that produce particular cultures, foods, and food traditions.
In her article, Joanne Finkelstein continues this critical examination of the role of the senses through a philosophical musing on theories of taste within a cultural context of excess. Taking a slightly different angle, Alison Hope Alkon moves from the philosophical to the explicitly political by exploring how American food justice movements, especially those that are focused on local issues and arise from community-led efforts, shed light on larger political and economic forces such as neoliberal capitalism. Underlying these efforts to transform food practices are modes of performance and enactment, a theme that Kevin Landis discusses in his article on the place of food in theater.
Corollary themes of heritage, community, and politics emerge in the other articles in this issue, which all raise thoughtful questions about the origin myths that are associated with foods and food practices. Collectively, these articles demonstrate that “local” is a relative location, as “local” foods may originate from nature, particular regional landscapes, historical artisanal practices, small-scale family and community networks, or even highly scientific and technological laboratories and inventions. In her essay about the recent turn to home butchery in the United States, Jessica Martell considers the intersection of performance, ethics, and the desire to return to a natural state of human-animal existence. Isobel Grad also probes the relationship between culinary heritage, regional landscapes, and animals in her essay on the significance of sheep in Icelandic foodways. Picking up on the underlying themes of nostalgia in these pieces, Stacy Adimando provocatively considers what, precisely, gets lost as food traditions change over time.
In contrast, both Cara Eisenpress and Andrew Simmons explore how new traditions are made and how they contribute to idealized forms of local community. For Simmons, the issue is how teenagers at a California high school created an alternative informal food system and capitalist economy that subverted and bypassed the formal food economy of their school. At a much larger scale, Eisenpress’s essay on the military food industry that feeds American soldiers, and eventually American citizens, presents a detailed inside glimpse into the scientific laboratories and government meeting rooms that produce and nourish an idealized citizen. Finally, Omar Lopez presents a provocative thought-piece on how new technologies challenge not just how we understand the origins of food but also the very nature of what counts as “food.”
In the end, questions about the nature of “the local” challenge us to rethink the spaces, scales, and temporalities associated with food and food traditions. From its origins through its uses and on to its disposal, food is always on the move, both as an object and an ideal. And perhaps it is that dynamic, mobile, malleable quality of food – its ability to move across and transcend boundaries and expectations – that makes it so valuable for understanding the nature of the “local” itself.