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James McWilliams, food movement skeptic and author of the new book, Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, recently took his argument to the New York Times, where he blogged about his feeling that local eating might be elitist. In the post, the crux of his argument comes down to a single statement: “Think about it,” he writes, “if there’s one thing you do not see at the farmers’ market, it’s socio-economic diversity.” It’s a tired argument that we’ve heard before, and one that is based on a narrow look at the issue.
“But try as I did to find the market-research to support that image, I could not. In fact, the largest and most authoritative study on that issue found that the median income of an organic shopper was right around the national median. The Hartman Group, which studies such things and sells their data in pricey reports to the food industry, has said that income is the least important factor in determining whether someone is an organic shopper or not.”
“Here’s another factlet: one of the largest factors in determining organic food purchases was availability. What looks like a white, upper-middle class trend might simply be a function of availability. Or to flip the notion on its head, do low-income people prefer buying fast food and chips from corner stores, or are those purchases disproportionate because of the lack of alternatives?”
Fromartz raises an important point, and one that is all the more valid because it stops to consider the broader systemic pressures and norms that establish access to healthy, local foods.
Just this week, the Oregonian reported that Multnomah County has convened a food initiative task force that draws together local food movement heavyweights including Ecotrust, Community Food Security Coalition, Growing Gardens, Oregon Food Bank, and New Seasons. Programs under the committee’s consideration would include expansion of the community garden programs, more school-based garden education, and local food labeling. And, according to County Sustainability Coordinator Kat West, “a key to the initiative would be driving development to ensure every neighborhood has access to a full-service grocery store and possibly the creation of the ‘healthy corner store,’ which stocks fresh food instead of junk food.”
This right here is the answer to McWilliams’ claim that local eating is elitist. Rather than throw up our hands and say there is nothing to be done, we need to examine the foundations of the system and implement ways of increasing access to local foods for every demographic. To take McWilliams’ argument is to accept that a locally-based system would gentrify neighborhoods and eliminate jobs from our current, over-reaching food system. But what about the many (more) jobs and businesses created by supporting a diversified, local economy? As Fromartz replies:
“Following McWilliams’ logic, a superstore would offer more cohesion. They have the lowest prices. Low-income people can afford it. Oh yeah, only one problem. You don’t need a lot of other businesses or even a Main Street when a superstore comes to town. You don’t even need a lot of farmers. Just a few big ones. So how would a superstore create community cohesion? By spinning it from a fantasy determined solely by price.”
As the county moves forward, this will not just be an issue of food, but one of community. Any county-based food plans will need to ask the important question: what do we want our neighborhoods to be like? Improved local food systems will not only create communities in which everyone has access to good food, but will also create communities in which people want to live and where they are connected to the other people who live and work in their region. This certainly won’t be accomplished by encouraging big box grocery chain development that feeds off of far-flung supply chains.