Alternative food networks, including eat local campaigns, have become increasingly popular within recent years, with an estimated 10% of people actively pursuing local food purchases as part of their diet (i). One of the most prominent discourses surrounding the rise is the local vs global debate; people may eat local in resistance to the increasingly globalized food system. There are numerous other driving factors that have been discussed behind this increase, with perhaps the most prominent being the increasing concern with food miles, keeping money in local businesses, and animal welfare. In addition, many scholars, such as Winter, have noted the ‘turn to quality’ due to food scares, resulting in consumers demanding food that is a higher quality, and consequently people have turned to local and organic foods. However, although local food seems to be the perfect solution to producing a more sustainable and just food system, is this lifestyle and diet accessible to all?
Convenience and Cost
Jesse et al have argued that ‘buying local’ is elitist, and excludes low income consumers; their needs, they state, are not catered for. Cost and convenience is a key part of this argument, as discussed by Meah and Watson. Arguably, low income consumers, perhaps constrained by time and money, do not have the resources necessary to access food from farmers markets, the local greengrocers and farms. Of course, if you were to eat completely locally, it would take time, and perhaps numerous transport links if you were without a car to visit all these different places. This is also supported by DuPuis and Goodman’s paper ‘Should we go home to eat?’, that argues that localism can include and exclude certain groups, and entails ‘unreflexive politics’, where only certain people are privileged enough to reap the benefits of the local movement. As you can see in the graph below from a survey taken in 2015, cost was one of the main reasons why people did not buy local food, and a high percentage of people said that it was not available at their favourite retailer. Although this number has decreased within the past few years, it suggests that convenience is a factor that drives consumer consumption patterns; people want to get their weekly food shop in the same place to save time, as discussed by Blake et al.
However, as the graph shows, the issue of convenience is perhaps decreasing. Coupled with increasing supermarket availability, this could also be due to growing businesses such as New Roots in Sheffield, where fresh local fruit and vegetables can be delivered to your door via their veg-box scheme. Different size boxes of fruit and vegetables can be delivered by bicycle on a regular basis. On the contrary, this does not deal with the issue of cost, using the example of the veg-box scheme, the cheapest box is £10, and regular deliveries are arranged. For low income consumers, food budgets are often the most flexible component of their outgoings, so committing to spending £10 a week on just fruit and vegetables may be unattainable.
‘The Local Trap’ and Defensive Localism
Born and Purcell, in their 2006 paper discuss the idea of the ‘local trap’, where it is assumed by academics, planners and community members that buying local is always the best for sustainable food futures. They argue that because ‘local’ is seen as inherently good, people are often blinded to potential other solutions, and the inequalities these schemes may create. Defensive localism is also one of the key consequences of a more local food system, which counters the argument regarding the ‘turn to quality’; consumers may simply choose local because they want to support local business, and not because it is organic, fresher or holds more health benefits. This is obviously problematic for both the consumer, and other farms and businesses trying to produce these products for markets in those areas.
Although in the majority of cases, local food does indeed reduce food miles and carbon emissions, this may not be suitable for all areas of the world. Born and Purcell argue that in places such as California and Arizona in the United States, the amount of water needed to be supplied in order to grow all locally produced food would outweigh the fuel needed for transport. This problem, is also demonstrated by a study by Coley et al, who compare the carbon emission generated from mass food distribution systems to a local farm shop. The conclusions of their study found that less carbon emissions were used through mass distribution of organic vegetables per box than if a consumer were to undertake a 7.4km trip to purchase organic vegetables from a local farm shop. Although they do not disregard the idea of food miles entirely, they suggest that perhaps the idea needs to be looked at, and other factors must be considered before local is always assumed best.
Although local food obviously has immense benefits, it needs to be looked at from a holistic viewpoint, and not always be assumed to be the best way forward for a sustainable future. In some cases, such as for those who are unable to access it and where it is less environmentally friendly than other methods, it is not always a force for good.
(i) IGD, 2002. Consumer Attitudes to Food and Grocery Issues—Local and Regional Foods. IGD Business Publications, March 2002. Letchmore Heath, Watford.
(ii) New Roots. (2015). Veg-Box Scheme. Available: http://www.newroots.org.uk/veg-box/. Last accessed 29th January 2016.