Throughout the course of my research, I’ve seen how there is no one way to eat locally or to farm sustainably. These concepts and practices are quite fluid and change based on context, but also with the flash of a dollar sign. The “Loca-vore” movement is but one incarnation of many efforts to (re)connect to land and food, to foster food autonomy, to check out of the ConAgra-Monsanto complex, or to profit off of well-intentioned consumers’ desires to be more responsible or ecological with their purchases.
My field site—a series of agricultural valleys along California’s Central Coast—is simultaneously one of the claimed birthplaces of the U.S. organic movement and a key commercial fruit- and vegetable-growing region. In this region of contrasts, efforts to eat and produce locally and sustainably find inspiration in very different logics and ideas. The many motives of local eating and food growing reflect social status, race, class, gender, immigration status, as well as the marketing strategies of corporations that mobilize their sales pitch glossaries in order to sell more food.
In my work with farmers, farmworkers, consumers, and activists, I encounter very different approaches to local consumption. Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma influences the eating practices of a very specific class of people living in the United States: those who have the liberty to shop their way to health. The advice he presents, while well intentioned, isn’t necessarily useful or relatable if one is poor or working class, of color, and/or located in areas with limited fresh-food options. Pollan also neglects the gendered roles entailed in food production and consumption. While his vision of loca-vorism is mainstream, it is by no means the norm.
The word “loca-vore” takes on a rather derogatory meaning amongst activists and scholars who are angered when the folks they work with are unintentionally excluded from Pollan’s core audiences. Rooted in long-standing race and class inequalities, this marginalization has prompted a national surge in community and school gardens, farmers’ markets accepting food stamps, and community coalitions working to attract grocery stores to food deserts. Are community gardeners “loca-vores?” What about EBT or WIC aid recipients who shop at farmers’ markets? State agriculture officials also invoke the local in their “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” campaigns, even as other policies on the books regionally, nationally, and internationally make the slogan difficult to achieve for farmers and consumers. For instance, it’s really hard to get a loan if you are a new farmer (even harder if you are growing organic food). Access to land is especially challenging for aspiring small-scale farmers in California because it’s owned by so few people who don’t want to take risks with folks who may or may not make any money. Free-trade agreements and the subsidization of commodity crops like corn, soy, and cotton that are used to make the key ingredients in heavily processed, cheap, junk foods also limit the Buy Fresh Buy Local programs. What are the state’s objectives in invoking the local? How could they make their programs more effective for producer and consumer participants?
I don’t think my gardening partner (an indigenous farmworker woman from Oaxaca, Mexico) would identify as a loca-vore: even if I could find a way to describe it in our shared second language. I speak English and Spanish, and she speaks Triqui (one of many languages spoken in Oaxaca) and Spanish. But here we are in the year 2012, growing a garden together “locally” in a town we both immigrated to. We have both had to become locals in this community. As we grow an array of foods for our households, we are at the same time transgressing many borders. I do it as a form of solidarity with her. She does it because it makes her happy. Whenever we work together in the garden, I notice she is always smiling, even sometimes laughing with delight. We learn from one another. The space is a support for her in her efforts to feed her family and stay connected to her food and rural heritage. It is a distraction from many levels of suffering: violence in the homeland, a husband and son gone back to Mexico, a daughter pregnant, a crappy paycheck, two wild but bright teenaged sons, loneliness, language barriers. She eats my Euro-heritage beets (hardcore, like radishes), and I eat her starchy native dent corn (on the cob with butter and salt, not ground into masa flour). Are we loca-vores in the same way that other people are?
At another site, not far from our garden plot, I chatted with some men in recovery—from alcohol and drug abuse—who live and rehabilitate in a group house with a nice chunk of vacant land attached. The space, on an incline, reminds me of the terraced lands used to grow milpa (small acreages of corn, beans, and squash) in Mexico, and of all the yards in town occupied by Mexican families growing their own food. The men, relaxing over cigarettes and taking in the dusk, got really excited about the idea of making a garden. The ideas poured forth: it could be a “hustle” to support their program (always at risk of losing funds) so the garden could be source of extra income and also a sort of occupational therapy. Their vision included intentions to (re)connect with neighbors and visiting family members. Are they loca-vores?
In a nearby Trader Joe’s store, the nation’s largest fresh strawberry companies market their products as “local”. Meanwhile, they ship strawberries from the same fields thousands of miles away for non-local consumption. Glossy sales materials pair with corporate websites featuring links to “Sustainability” and “Philanthropy” and pledging commitments to the environment and the local community. My farmworker friends tell me about how some of these companies ship produce in plastic cartons with Japanese characters or otherwise unfamiliar lettering. I read this use of the “local” label as a kind of greenwashing—a means of capitalizing on popular desires to eat local. In California, commercial growers of strawberries and other crops often say they “feed the world“; however, strawberries and salad are luxury items. Who are they really feeding? How are they accomplishing this oft-quoted mantra of agriculture? And where do those “locally grown” berries go?
Local–as I have discovered through two years of engaged anthropological fieldwork–can mean many things, can evoke many emotions, and can reshape the economy of food production in many different directions. It is a term whose meaning extends well beyond the roots of a plant or our human roots in heritage or geographic places. We need to consider carefully this diversity of meanings, identities, and experiences before gravitating to a seemingly universal solution. Being local is complicated when it comes to people, places, and food.
Dvera I. Saxton is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the American University in Washington, DC. She lives, gardens, writes, and community organizes in Watsonville, California. Her dissertation examines how corporate agricultural power on and off the farm shapes the lives, health, and welfare of immigrant farm workers and how farm workers respond to these challenges by mobilizing networks of care and support on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.