If your idea of a locavore is a slow-foodie-body-inscribed-lefty type who's disdainful of big corporations and ready to Occupy, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. The locavore zeitgeist began in earnest by throwing do-it-yourself Molotov cocktails at "Big Ag" in the form of heirloom peaches and backyard eggs. Today it endures as a movement of principled seed savers and homesteaders who prefer unpasteurized milk and loathe the globalization of "food-like" substances that are overly homogenized, transported, and hyper-processed into diabetes-inducing junk. But if the roots of the locavore phenomenon reside in counter-cultural angst, its subsequent mainstreaming has come with an ideological twist: it's turning to the right.
This shouldn't be surprising. The quest to localize fresh food is as much an anti–Big Ag endeavor as it is an anti-regulatory one. The Jeffersonian ideal underscoring local exchange is that food safety comes through neighborly integrity rather than the United States Department of Agriculture/Food & Drug Administration leviathan. The underlying notion is equally simple and seductive, and it's one that taps into America's deep myth of self-sufficiency: We can feed ourselves on our own, thank you very much. But for all its appeal, this proud posture of self-reliance comes with consequences that could, depending on how it's managed, lead to internal conflict for this hugely successful movement.
Problems begin with the fact that, to a very large extent, local is code for libertarian. How else to explain the iconic status of Joel Salatin? Salatin is a vocal Virginia farmer and Christian fundamentalist who produces and processes on-site cuts of grass-fed meat from his gorgeous Virginia farm. To avoid what he considers intrusive governmental regulations, he demands that his consumers come to him. In shiny BMWs and rattling pick-ups, they comply, arriving in droves.
Salatin typically delivers a mouthful with a side of earful. In rhetoric that would have instigated a 19th-century populist hootenanny, he explained in a recent Reason magazine piece, "We would be a much healthier culture if the government never told us how to eat." He went on: "These elitists [in the government] thought the country was too stupid to know how to eat." And he concluded: "The answer to the urban poverty and hunger situation is not government programs and food banks, the answer is all those vacant lots in all the parts of the city … [where ingredients can be grown and] then be taken by the neighbors into their own kitchens" — where, do note, less privileged cooks can hunker down and make "quiche." Yes, quiche.
This libertarian version of the local — as opposed to the more familiar Berkeley-area-limousine-liberal-$4 peach-version — has gained traction in the redder parts of the country. Take perhaps the least conducive place for the locavore movement to blossom — Utah. A recent poll by Envision Utah shows that, in the past few years alone, Utah residents have become especially thrilled with the idea of eating local. "People trust local farmers to do a better job," according to Robert Grow, Envision Utah's founder. Between 2007 and 2012, Utah residents increased spending on local food by 60 percent. Putting aside the logistical snafu that, if Utah residents ate Utah food, they'd eat primarily factory-farmed pork and turkey, and that "there are some challenges to what can be grown in Utah," the fact remains that, as Utah's agricultural commissioner puts it, "we are encouraged by this trend."
What's critical to note about the red state embrace of local food is that it's decidedly not inspired by anti-corporate invective. Instead, it feeds off a Rush Limbaugh-, Fox News-like distrust of federal involvement and, its time-honored flip side, a celebration of self-reliance. Commenting on the Utah trend, the state's agricultural commissioner explains, "People want to be self-sustaining." To wit, the precipitating events pushing consumers to localize food in Utah isn't hatred of Monsanto. It's fear of the droughts plaguing California and the Midwest. As Grow affirms, people want to feel "resilient" in the face of perceived impending scarcity.
This survivalist mentality — however overblown — deeply informs not only the traditional conservative mentality, but the conservative embrace of local agriculture as well. In rural Alabama, where locally sourced food has also become de riguer, the motivating factor isn't Walmart, of which the state has 119 stores and employs over 35,000 Alabamians, but, again, a sense of rugged individualism. As an Alabama extension agentnotes about the state's trend toward self-sufficient gardening, "they were called ‘victory gardens' during the world wars because they helped ease shortages; we call them ‘survival gardens' now because they help families cut spending." Jefferson would have been proud.
Whatever tension these conflicting motivations — anti-government versus anti-corporatism — might generate, it has thus far remained submerged. Many in the movement see no reason why it should ever interfere with the diversified effort to localize the North American food system. Forrest Pritchard, a neighbor of Salatin's who runs Smith Meadow farm, and the author of the engrossingly thoughtful book Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, insists in an email that the desire for local food "rises above political and cultural factions." He elaborates:
Show me a policy group that doesn't want more nutritious, sustainably-sourced food in schools. In my opinion, these issues not only resonate with our cultural heritage, but are fundamental to our future success. Locally sourced food hints at the promise of a more sustainable, healthy, and nourishing future — for young and old alike. Who doesn't want that? As such, it's no surprise that every group would love to score political points by somehow co-opting this message. But this is as futile — and absurd — as claiming to be the Party of Sunshine, or Bluebirds, or Hugs.
Pritchard may be right — I hope he is. But a couple of recent developments forecast not so much hugs, but open conflict.
The first involves Walmart. In what the local-food champion Civil Eats calls a "disturbing trend," several farming non-profits dedicated to supporting local food systems — including the National Good Food Network — have recently accepted substantial funding from the Walmart Foundation. An Occidental College professor condemns Walmart's move to support local farms as "honest graft," but Will Allen, an on-the-ground fixture of the local food movement, disagrees, noting, "We can no longer be so idealistic that we hurt the very people we are trying to help." In any case, one thing here is beyond certain: As long as producers and consumers rely on the market to take food trends mainstream, Walmart's support of local food is going nowhere soon. Too many private interests have too much at stake.
But for the anti-corporate wing of the movement, that's exactly the problem. Local food's founding brain trust, despite benefiting immensely from the corporatization of its own knowledge, remains ideologically wary of market-driven solutions. Instead, it creates ample space for systemic governmental support. Of late, this support has been more than token in nature. In Michigan alone,recent USDA subsidies for local farming efforts have gone to Local First Education Foundation ($94,000), Sprout Urban Farm ($89,000), the Michigan Land Use Institute ($73,000), the Allen Neighborhood Group ($90,378), and several others.
But the real locavore swing for the federal fence — and its boldest move yet into politics — came last month, when the movement's leaders (without the voice of an actual farmer represented) published a manifesto-type call for a National Food Policy. Appealing directly to President Obama, whom they reminded need not bother with Congress ("this is an area where he can act of his own"), they demanded that the commander-in-chief become the commander-in-chef, throwing down decrees that would, according to one headline "save millions of lives" by, in large part, weakening the corporate grip on the national food supply and allowing smaller farmers serving local markets a fair shot. Integral to this mission is, they note, the pursuit of "agreed upon principles."
Which brings us back to the original problem: disagreement over principles. The movement to localize the food supply has been enormously successful. We all benefit from its mainstream popularity. But the attempt to do something as radically ambitious as restructuring a century-old food system will inevitably require negotiating ideological conflict in a political context. How things will pan out remains to be seen. But what we can say with some certitude is that somewhere between corporate laissez-faire and top-down federal fiat awaits a food system that has the potential to make us feel as good as a warm hug.