Localwashing

The original location (and still operating) of Huntsville's local food distribution company
The original location (and still operating) of Huntsville’s local food distribution company

Local food is all the rage.  74% of consumers say they prioritize local food when shopping, and fully 89% say they consider a food’s source.  The numbers are even higher among adult Millenials (18-24) and women, who do the majority of food shopping.

You would think with these kinds of statistics, farming would be the hot new career, that consumers would be gladly paying a premium for local produce, that produce sections at mass retailers would be unused and grocery stores would be scrambling to reinvent their food distribution system.  Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.  Consumers say they care, but when push comes to shove, their buying habits haven’t shifted much.

Farmer’s markets and farm direct sales to consumers are rising.  However, traditional retailers are responding rapidly in their marketing departments and slowly on the logistics.

EarthFare, a regional “healthy” grocery, advertises and labels “local” produce, but defines local food as local to their corporate office, not the store location.

Kroger, one of the largest grocery retailers in the world, has recently taken to splashing “local” banners in their advertisements.  When I queried the corporate office, I received a prompt reply that they defined local as “Products must be sourced within 400 miles of the Distribution Centers and/or State Orientation {such as California or Texas grown}.”  Translation: sourced in a state that has a border within 400 miles of your distribution center, which itself may be a few states away.

Both of these definitions are a big improvement over produce coming from a different continent, but they are not “local” by any definition a consumer would expect.  They are responding to the desire of consumers for local food, but they are doing it with advertising and marketing, not reality.  Localwashing.

To be fair, the logistics are very difficult when companies have spent decades creating distribution systems based on a global marketplace.  Large companies cannot revise their supply chain logistics overnight.  It takes time and planning and money.  And frankly, if stretching the definition of “local” to meaningless marketing-speak works and nets them the result of capturing sales, they never will.

Enter, stage left, logistics and retail giant WalMart.  WalMart defines local as sourced from the same state.  It’s not a perfect definition — here in Huntsville we are closer to much of Tennessee than we are to southern Alabama — but it’s a definition that meets reasonable expectations.  Furthermore, WalMart is developing a system that sends produce directly to stores instead of through a central distribution facility.  In 2011, WalMart says, 10% of produce sold in stores was local.  But there is a fly in the ointment here as well: WalMart expects small farmers to be price competitive with domestic and international mega farms bolstered by oil subsidies, agricultural subsidies, tax breaks and cheap labor.  (In the case of many international farms, VERY cheap labor.)  It doesn’t help the local economy or the farming community if farmer’s can’t earn a living wage.  Given that 91% of American farms operate at a loss already, how is a small farmer going to be able to cut their prices further to meet the expectations of an extremely profitable discount retailer?

If consumers continue to demand accountability for where and how their produce is grown, retailers will change their sourcing habits.  But “local” only has meaning if it genuinely supports the community where the products are grown, and that means holding the retailers themselves to a higher standard as well.

For today, the concerned customer who wants truly local food needs to shop at farmer’s markets, farm stands and at small local retailers who can respond to their customers’ desires faster.  Or grow and preserve your own and barter with other gardeners.  And while you are at those big retailers anyway for your other needs, ASK for local produce and require the definition they are using.  A customer who decides not to buy has a bigger impact than the potential customer who never shows up.

If you get information from other retailers, please share them with me in the comments.