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The word has a sort of creepy undertone to it — an affectation reminiscent of "foodie" with a frisson of self-righteousness tossed in for bad measure. And like a cell-phone video of Britney showing off her anatomy, it's taken on a life of its own.

— Merrill Shindler, Zagat Guide

Creepy is right! When an email arrived in my inbox from the venerable Zagat restaurant guide which contained the word, I thought immediately that a "locavore" was perhaps a new critter found in the wilds of some exotic paradise that was currently gracing tables at haute cuisine dining destinations frequented by the wealthy and powerful. Could baked, poached or otherwise prepared locavore be the new equivalent to rare delicacies such as Kobe beef, the risky but delectable Japanese fugu, or the rattlesnake meat served up in the Southwest for diners determined to devour food that's distinctively different?

A brainstorm brought to mind all sorts of thoughts. This can't be something that's eaten. Perhaps it's a prehistoric-style addition to the creatures displayed within the decor of the very Disneyland-esque but oh-so-politically correct "Rain Forest Cafe" chain. The same parent company, Landry's Restaurants, Inc. also owns a chain (T-Rex) which allows diners to take their meals in an environment that strives to emulate Jurassic Park.

I am ashamed to admit that I'd not been aware of the buzz that the newly-coined (2005) word has been creating in the culinary media and the progressive media as well.

A quick search of six online dictionaries resulted in zero definitions of the word. Two dictionary sites directed me to consult Wikipedia, a source I defiantly refuse to utilize because of the dubious accuracy of information I'd found there in the past. Finally a website dedicated to up-to-the-minute usage and word creation issued forth a definition and a few examples of its usage.

locavore n. A person who eats only locally grown food. {Blend of local and -vore.}

Locavores are dedicated to eating food grown near home. Some set a limit of 100 miles, some a modest 50. This eating program makes it all but impossible to drink coffee or eat chocolate chip cookies. Often, bread is taboo because the wheat is grown far away.

— WordSpy.com

Beginnings and Rationale

The Locavore movement began in San Francisco, California (where else?) Its founding members, Jen Maiser, Jessica Prentice, Sage Van Wing, and DeDe Sampson are a self-described group of "Concerned Culinary Adventurers." To be fair, the Locavores began by suggesting that San Franciscans eat only foods that were sourced from a 100-mile radius of the city for the month of August, 2005. By 2007, the month of September had become the month for all "responsible" Bay Area residents to follow this simple principle; the harvest time being a good idea because more goods could be canned, dried or otherwise preserved for use year-round. The website contains a list of names of people who are committed, year-round locavores and is a wealth of information about how to locate foods that are not only locally produced, but in general humanely raised, in the case of living creatures, and organically raised in the case of everything.

The essay which describes the raison d'etre of the movement, if taken out of context and delivered deadpan, perhaps on Saturday Night Live by a neo-hippie character, would be a hysterically funny take-off on the arguments all movements who are "progressive" or "globally responsible" use to further their goals. Within their paragraph after paragraph of double-speak, one will find more words as delightfully chic and nouveau as the name of the group itself.

"Foodshed." Don't bother, not even Word Spy had an entry for that one. "Bioregion" appears to have been captured from the world of agribusiness that they so hotly decry, and spun to meet their own needs. Suffice it to say, I use Microsoft Word with which to write. The software places little squiggly red lines underneath a misspelling. I checked my work on this piece and still it's riddled with the little squiggly red spell-check warnings. Should I update the dictionary that my copy of Word uses to include these words? I guess I must, as much as it galls me to do so.

As is the case with most of today's progressive movements, the Locavores suggest that by following their plan of action for food sourcing (there, they've got me doing it now - I should've said "grocery shopping") we will help to eliminate pollution, fight global warming, utilize only sustainable resources, and more. They discharge both barrels at the evil "corporations" but disappointed me by failing to mention the military-industrial complex.

Their research concludes that the average supermarket purchase travels 1,500 miles to one's table. Therefore we fatten the coffers of the monolithic corporations which now dominate world food production. We destroy the environment by having our foods shipped back and forth during the processing chain. Worst of all, they submit that we're painfully unaware of the price we pay that's not realized at the supermarket checkout counter, as well: "uncounted costs of this long distance journey ... the ecological costs of large scale monoculture, the loss of family farms and local community dollars." That last part had me scratching my head for a moment; it's redundant: "local community dollars." Does this mean that by letting dollars out of the community they won't somehow make their way back in? What's a community dollar anyhow? One that everyone in the community gets to use? Has that familiar ring of commun-ism to me. Okay, so I've gone a bit overboard. Let's continue:

I offer up a particularly peculiar paragraph that would make any politician's lead spin-writer proud would that it came from his/her pen:

Recognition of one's residence within a foodshed can confer a sense of connection and responsibility to a particular locality. The foodshed can provide a place for us to ground ourselves in the biological and social realities of living on the land and from the land in a place that we can call home, a place to which we are or can become native.

All I ask is apply that statement to, let's say, downtown Detroit, Michigan, or the place of my birth, Brooklyn, New York and it becomes a little far-fetched. Well, hey, we could knock down the South Bronx and plant wheat fields. Let cows graze in Central Park. Tomatoes, corn, beans and lettuce will thrive in the shadow of the Great Arch in Washington Square Park. We'll leave the poultry raising to the folks in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Misguided Assumptions and Well-Intended Goals

I took offense to their assumption (they said this) that everyone's "children do not know what a chicken eats nor how an onion grows." Perhaps the kids in downtown San Francisco aren't thus intelligenced, but I can tell you that I and many of my peers in New York City learned that onions grow by planting seeds or bulbs in the ground, and that chickens eat corn. Why, "Auntie Em" from the movie The Wizard of Oz could be seen throwing corn to the chickens in her barnyard. And anyone who's been in close proximity to chickens also knows they eat each other's feces. Finally, years ago the late Frank Perdue told us that if you buy one of his birds, it's been fed not only the finest diet money can buy, but Marigold petals to boot. Indeed, I'm all for a chicken whose diet includes flower petals. Good ole Frank; there's a big difference between the smell of chicken shit and flower petals.

Let's face it; the person who becomes a committed locavore is gonna have to give up some pretty good stuff to eat. It's difficult to find an analogy. Vegetarians don't care where the stuff on their plate comes from, so long as it didn't have eyes before it was cooked. Folks who keep Kosher don't eat all kinds of stuff (but show me a family that keeps Kosher that doesn't occasionally visit a Chinese restaurant and dine on Shrimp with Snow Peas or House Special Fried Rice and I'll show you a family that's Orthodox).

I commend the Locavores for their core belief, however. They aim to create a demand for the products of small, local farmers. Now, small local farms have been dying by the thousands all over the country, says a recent article in the Seattle Times. Who's supplying America's dinner tables? Agribusiness. The biggest buyers of produce, namely Supermarkets, wholesalers, fast-food and other restaurant chains, demand the crops that are grown by "factory farms" which offer reliable yields, standardized pricing, and also pre-packaging services that tiny family farms just can't match. Its easier to supply tomatoes to one's warehouse, and the end user, when they're brought in by the truckload and each and every one is similar in size. To think of the dozens of small-truck farmers delivering their goods to supermarkets and the invoicing involved makes one's head spin merely from a logistical point. The cost is exemplified by such natural food purveyors as the nation-wide Whole Food Markets chain, which do, in fact, localize some of their sourcing. But at a dear price to the consumer.

Neal Pierce's article in the Seattle Times goes on to make some interesting points. In the last decade, hundreds of thousands of small- to medium-sized farms have failed. Currently, locally grown food comprises less than one per cent of the $900 billion food industry. Where Pierce falls short is when he lists the "cost" of the loss of these farmers. His logic is convoluted. In one sentence, he decries the loss of local farm families, saying (it) "rips at the social fabric of communities, emptying church and school ranks, removing customers from local cafes, farm-supply and hardware stores." The next sentence declares that the most fertile farmland is around major cities, "imperiled by suburbanization. Lost farms feed just one machine: sprawl." Hmm. Let's look at what he's saying. The farm families go, and the churches, schools, cafes, hardware stores, etc. are emptied out. Then homes are built on the farmland. Is he saying that those who occupy the McMansions that come hand-in hand with suburban sprawl are heathens and don't go to church? Have they no children to attend the schools? Do they not buy hardware, nor venture out to cafes?

Pierce posits that the nationalized food system is energy-gluttonous. He points out that fossil fuel is required for fertilizers, to power farming machinery, and to refrigerate foods during shipping. Okay, when looking at small local farms, one can take away the cost and ecological consequences of the trucks shipping food thousands of miles. Yet small family farms are going to somehow have to fertilize their crops, harvest them mechanically, (does he think small family farms employ legions of pickers?) and refrigerate the harvested crops appropriately during shipping.

Helping Make Choices

One of the most logical ideas comes from a man named Richard Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. (He was the guy that calculated that our food travels 1,500 miles from farm to table). He found that in a local food system of farmers selling to restaurants, conference centers and institutions, food traveled a mere 45 miles. He also determined that the national system of distribution in place now uses 17 times the fuel and emits 5 to 17 times the carbon dioxide of a local system.

Pirog has suggested that foods be marked with labels; "ecolabels" that indicate the energy impact of the product upon which they're affixed. Local produce would show low impact, while products such as Hawaiian pineapples would show a very high rating due to the amount of fuel needed to fly them in. I guess I'll have to kiss my "pineapple upside-down cake" recipe goodbye if I become a locavore. In all seriousness, Pirog's ideas are realistic. While supermarkets may not be interested in local sourcing, he suggests that the growth ticket for local agriculture will be institutions: schools, hospitals and the nation's growing prison system.

A Fad or A Trend?

Time will tell if local sourcing and localized buying impels our food suppliers to change their ways. Back to the Zagat folks, who introduced me to the concept - well, they had a scathing attitude towards the locavores. They insist that the movement's 15 minutes of fame are over. The public relations business has had their field day with the locavores. Zagat compares the locavores to the unisex bathroom, a quaint politically-correct notion which faded fast, and recommends that the term "locavore" be "put out to pasture."

Time Magazine writer John Cloud was faced with a dilemma in a New York City supermarket recently. He found that the apples labeled "organic" had come all the way from California, and the apples labeled "conventional" ("sounds better than 'sprayed with pesticides that might kill you'") were grown nearby in upstate New York. The apple-shopping writer was torn between supporting the organic farmer in California (at the cost of how many gallons of Middle Eastern oil?) or the farmer who was, essentially a neighbor. He also brings up the question of the taste of an apple that had been crated, handled, refrigerated and trucked all the way from California.

"Local" foods are the new "organic," it turns out. Where "organic" foods, when the movement was in its infancy, came from small, local farms, they now are grown in the same industrial-sized farms and shipped long-distance because of the growth in demand for organic products. Research has shown that in 2000, only 17% of American shoppers bought organic products once a week. Today, it's closer to 25% of shoppers. The changing face of organic farming from "quaint" to something that's not much different from conventional agribusiness-as-usual has outraged chefs, food writers and politically minded eaters, says Cloud.

Local: the "New Organic"

Even the CEO of Whole Foods Markets, Inc. which recently acquired the Wild Oats chain, adding 112 stores to their nationwide chain, waffles when asked about whether to buy organic from far away or local and sprayed with pesticide. John Mackey, a vegan whose politics are "libertarian," said in an interview this year that given the choice between an organic tomato from California that had "oil miles on it" and one locally grown with the aid of pesticides, he'd opt for local merely because it "tastes better."

Mackey went on to say that even Whole Foods can't find a reliable, consistent source of organic products year-round, which is why they sell both organic and non-organic products in their stores, sourced locally whenever possible. The reason why is that while organic farming is easy in middle-California, where the climate is dry and sunny; farmers in more humid states like New York and New Jersey are constantly fighting fungi and other blights that are best handled with a once-a-season spray of preventative chemicals. And medical science has yet to conclude that the pesticides and other farming chemicals used currently have any long-term ill effects upon consumers' health.


While it is my opinion that abstaining from non-local foods for a mere month is as logically equivalent to the "don't buy gas on (date)s" of email lore, there's something good to be said for the locavore movement. My opinion is that by keeping local farms thriving, I'll have more access to delectable fresh produce, eggs and non-pasteurized milk. (I know some of you are sighing "but he doesn't give a whit about the environment.") My exposure to the locavore movement is going to make me re-examine my purchases. Additionally, when I see a sign in my supermarket declaring that the tomatoes are "local," I'm going to ask the produce manager what "local" constitutes? County, State, region, or just "East Coast."

Are Americans in general intelligent and politically astute enough to commit to an all-out war on nationalized farming? Can our buying habits change enough to bring a whole new generation of small local farmers back to the fields which are precariously close to becoming suburban housing developments? How many of our poor have the luxury of deciding to opt for organic or local produce? The answers to these questions hold the answer to the question "will the locavores survive, or starve to death?"

FOOD FOR THOUGHT ADDED 9/20/07: Junkill says re locavore: This is fascinating...I'd read something (less jargon-y) about this movement (which I think is probably more like a stunt than any kind of actual movement). You know, if they had spun this with a whole "We hate globalization! Don't trust food from China! Don't put your money in foreigner's pockets!" this movement woulda attracted the oppsite following!


Dictionaries On-Line:

  • http://dictionary.reference.com/ (Accessed 9/16/07)
  • http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ (Accessed 9/16/07)
  • http://www.onelook.com/ (Accessed 9/16/07) (sent me to Wiki)
  • http://www.yourdictionary.com/ (Accessed 9/16/07)
  • http://www.thefreedictionary.com/ (Accessed 9/16/07) (sent me to Wiki)
  • http://encarta.msn.com/encnet/features/dictionary/dictionaryhome.aspx (Accessed 9/16/07)

WordSpy.com http://www.wordspy.com/words/locavore.asp (Accessed 9/16/07)

"News: Could You Go Locavore?" Uncredited post at SustainableTable.org's blog pages: http://www.sustainabletable.org/blog/archives/2005/06/news_could_you.html (Accessed 9/16/07)

"Time to Become a 'Locavore'" by Neil Pierce, The Seattle Times, October 9, 2006 published on CommonDreams http://www.commondreams.org/cgi-bin/print.cgi?file=/views06/1009-24.htm (Accessed 9/16/07)

Locavores.com http://www.locavores.com/ (Accessed 9/16/07)

"Eating Better Than Organic" by John Cloud, Time Magazine, March 2, 2007 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1595245,00.html (Accessed 9/17/07)

"Is ‘Locavore’ the Most Annoying Culinary Term of the Year?" by Merrill Shindler, Zagat Guide "Best of the Buzz" September 10, 2007 http://www.zagat.com/buzz/Detail.aspx?SCID=42&BLGID=5956&zagatbuzzid=sept07week2 (Accessed 9/16/07)

Website of Rainforest Cafe, Inc. http://www.rainforestcafe.com/ (Accessed 9/16/07)

In 1937, anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl and his wife travelled to the small South Pacific island of Fatu-Hiva in the Marquesas. In his memoir Green Was the Earth on the Seventh Day, he relates this story:

"On one of his rare visits Tioti brought us a big chunk of freshly caught swordfish, and news of new problems in the village. Willy's store had run out of rice and flour. Unless some schooner called soon with a new supply, people would starve. They were now accustomed to eating imported grains. They depended on the schooner as much as the schooner depended on them. Coconuts were not bread to them any more, but money. It filled sacks, waiting for a schooner. Stinking sacks of sun-dried copra were piling up outside Willy's house, filling the damp breeze with a nauseatingly sweet smell, penetrating far into the valley."

Copra is dried coconut meat, obtained by the simple method of hacking open a ripe coconut, draining the milk and leaving it out in the sun to dry. Humans can't eat copra-- it's too hard-- but it can be machine-pressed into valuable (and easy-to-transport) coconut oil or used to fatten livestock. The Fatu-Hivans, with the help of European traders, had discovered that copra was a prized commodity outside the islands and could be harvested as a "cash crop"-- just grow more coconuts than anyone on the island could eat, dry it into copra, and export it in trade for delicious exotic foods like rice and wheat flour.

This-- in a (literal) nutshell-- is how an industrial food system works. And it works marvelously... right up until there's a transportation glitch, and you're stuck on an island (actual or figurative) with no viable food supply.

In 1937, the boat never came, and the Fatu-Hivan villagers had foolishly harvested all of the nearby coconut trees for copra, which rotted on the docks while the people starved. Monsoon rains prevented them from going farther afield to gather more. Eventually, 11 islanders-- along with the Heyerdahls-- were forced to make a dangerous deep-ocean crossing in a patched-together lifeboat in order to secure food.1

Think Western culture is more advanced? Try biting into an ear of field corn sometime.

I should know; I grew up outside a small town in Michigan, across the road from a corn field. My friends and I would use ripe, golden kernels of No. 2 dent corn as ammunition for our slingshots, due to its rock-like texture. I assure you that it is quite inedible. Field corn is the #1 agricultural product of the USA, and humans cannot eat it, unless it is milled (into low-grade flour) or chemically treated with lye (creating hominy). Like copra, it is mainly grown to feed cattle or to be pressed into oil-- or high fructose corn syrup or dextrose or polylactic acid or ethanol or...

A "locavore" is a person who eats only food grown within 100 miles of their home. It's a funny-sounding word and an interesting commentary on our modern diet. Westerners have had to invent and define a term which, a couple hundreds years ago, would've been unnecessary. In 1808, everyone on Earth was a "locavore".2

I don't consider myself a locavore-- I enjoy Hawaiian pineapples and Brazilian chocolate as much as the next guy-- but I do buy local first. As a second-generation hippie, I see the merits of a "100-mile diet" to be pretty self-evident. But I'll spell them out nonetheless:

  • Local farmers are accountable.
  • Local food is usually fresh and yummy.
  • Buying local keeps your money in the local economy.
  • Eating local keeps you more deeply connected to the community.
  • Supporting a polyculture of local crops improves the health of your entire ecosystem.

Nor do I particularly agree with the notion that a 100% local diet is somehow "far-fetched" or "misguided". Remember that small town in Michigan where I grew up (Metamora)-- the one with the cows and cornfields and whatnot? It's only 50 miles due north of downtown Detroit. Detroit has an enormous local food supply. Ditto Chicago, Columbus, Minneapolis and Madison. Every city in the Midwest is surrounded by vast areas of supporting farm land. (The same is true for cities out here on the West Coast.) Remember too that every city that's older than a few hundred years was built by necessity on a landbase that could support its population. Beijing, Rome, Tokyo, Athens, Paris, even New York: they were all built by locavores.

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, some cities now have populations much larger than the local farmland can support, and rely to some extent on imported food to survive. Places like Phoenix, Arizona-- a booming city where millions now live in an arid, unfarmable desert eating a 99% imported diet-- are a particularly egregious example of this. If that's the case where you are right now, then-- well, let me lay it on you plainly. Your hometown is not a place where I would want to live. Thanks to peak oil, your imported food is about to get a lot more expensive.

In the final analysis let's not forget that Manhattan, like Fatu-Hiva, is an island. If you tie your food supply to your transport system, you'd just better be damned sure that your ships keep coming in.

1 This experience later became one of Heyerdahl's inspirations for his famous Kon-Tiki expedition.

2This is not entirely true. People have been trading food and spices throughout history. Hunter-gatherers were doing it even before the rise of agriculture. But only since the mid-20th century have ordinary peasants (like you and me) started eating a diet made up primarily of imported foods.

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