The local food movement has come a long way from what started out as a fringe fraction of the population to grabbing the attention of big box grocery retailers and industrial food giants. The original goals of proponents of the "locavore diet" focused on supporting smaller local farms (and thus the local economy), protecting the environment by decreasing food-miles traveled and using less synthetic chemicals.
Big food companies and major grocery store chains alike have caught on, realizing they can make big bucks making customers feel good about their impact on the planet, their economy and themselves. Thus, they are shifting produce purchasing decisions toward local. Most chains cite consumer demand, reduction of spoilage, and savings made on fuel and freight costs as their main incentives.
Whether their intentions are to do good, make profits, or both, the issue at hand is that each company has come up with different definitions of just what the term local means. As the Wall Street Journal’s Miguel Bustillo and David Kesmodel so aptly point out in a recent article, “The lack of a federal standard or any consensus on what qualifies as ‘local’ food leaves grocers a lot of leeway in their marketing. At most large retailers, fruits and vegetables harvested hundreds of miles away can be touted as locally grown. Such loose definitions have sparked criticism from small farmers and organic-food advocates that the chains are merely adjusting their marketing to capitalize on the latest food trend, rather than making real changes in their procurement practices.”
The most common definition of local you (used to) hear from local food system advocates is produce grown between 100-150 miles of the consumer or place of sale. But grocery chains have stretched that distance, creating skepticism and confusion among consumers. Chains like Walmart, America’s largest grocer, defines local as food grown and sold in the same state, while also nudging managers to try and order fruits and vegetables that are produced within 450 miles of the company’s distribution centers. Walmart publicized that they would up their local produce purchasing to 9% -- twice the current amount – by 2015.
Safeway, whose brands include Dominick's, Genuardi's, Von's and Randall’s, classifies local as food produced within an eight hour drive of the store, but aims to first buy from the most nearby growers. Krogers whose subsidiaries are Ralph's, Fred Meyer and Fry's is more vague and local can mean the fruits and vegetables were produced either in that state or that region of the US. Supervalu, operating Albertsons, Jewel-Osco and Lucky says local can be food grown in regions that are as broad as four or five states. Even Whole Foods states on their locally grown page that local can mean produce grown within one day’s drive (or less than seven hours drive).
Will local just end up being another passing marketing phase? This is the question being asked by some food systems and agricultural specialists who speculate on whether major grocers will actually make the larger shift to seasonal produce – as local by its very definition is seasonal because not every crop can grow in every region due to varying ecosystems and climates. The problem, they say, is that contemporary consumers expect tomatoes in winter and other non-seasonal produce all year round. As UC-Davis agricultural economics professor Daniel Sumner explains to WSJ, “I really don’t think Walmart is going to tell customers, ‘This is not in season, you have to eat cabbage and turnips for the next three months.’ ”
While the terms of what it means to be local continue to evolve, consumers must navigate this ever-changing landscape when they are confronted in the grocery store produce aisle and decide for themselves how far – no pun intended – they are willing to go for their food. So, how do you define local?
Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.